Ahmadova L.
Ahmadova L. BOKONONISM IN KURT VONNEGUT'S "CAT’S CRADLE" NOVEL // Universum: филология и искусствоведение : электрон. научн. журн. 2022. 9(99). URL: (дата обращения: 04.12.2022).
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The novel Cat's Cradle (1963) occupies an important place in the work of Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), a prominent representative of the Black Humor literary movement that emerged in American literature in the 1950s. The novel is important as a kind of symbolic expression of various problems of social and political life. The title of the novel was taken from the title of the game Cat's Cradle. The intertexts established in the novel Cat's Cradle evoke the events that took place in the process of writing the novel “The Last Day of the World” within the framework of the work of a hero named John. The novel is a parody of the assessment of the atomic bomb as an indicator of development that caused the tragedy of mankind, and a number of Christian leaders who kept silent about it. Criticism of those who, with bitter laughter, turns science and religion into the cause of disasters, is carried out through the theory of K. Vonnegut, called Bokononism. The Republic of San Lorenzo, which arose as a product of the writer's artistic imagination, is symbolized as a place where this theory is realized, where people who believe in it are brought to the general level. K. Vonnegut used in the novel a number of “terms” that make up Bokononism.


Роман «Колыбель для кошки» (1963) занимает важное место в творчестве Курта Воннегута (1922–2007), яркого представителя литературного течения «Чёрный юмор», сформировавшегося в американской литературе в 50-е годы ХХ века. Роман важен своеобразным символическим выражением различных проблем общественно-политической жизни. Название романа было взято из названия игры Колыбель для кошки. Интертексты, установленные в романе “Колыбель для кошки”, вызывают в памяти события, происходившие в процессе написания романа «Последний день мира» в рамках творчества героя по имени Джон. Роман представляет собой пародию на оценку атомной бомбы как показателя развития, вызвавшего трагедию человечества, и ряда христианских лидеров, хранивших о ней молчание. Критика тех, кто с горьким смехом превращает науку и религию в причину бедствий, осуществляется через теорию К.Воннегута, именуемую бокононизмом. Республика Сан-Лоренцо, возникшая как продукт художественного воображения писателя, символизируется как место, где реализуется указанная теория, где люди, верящие в нее, выводятся на общий уровень. К. Воннегут использовал в романе ряд «терминов», составляющих бокононизм.


Keywords: Kurt Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle”, Boconon, San Lorenzo.

Ключевые слова: Курт Воннегут, “Колыбель для кошки”, Боконон, Сан-Лоренцо.


The novel "Cat's Cradle" (1963) occupies an important place in the work of Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), a prominent representative of the "Black Humor" literary movement that formed in American literature in the 50s of the 20th century. “The 60s was a new era in K. Vonnegut's creativity, and "The Cat's Cradle" also indicates important changes in his art. The satire of this novel focuses directly on the moral irresponsibility and inhumanity of science. Vonnegut's pen targets specific manifestations of evil and folly, that are sometimes unique to America, sometimes universal” [4, p.126].

The novel became one of the three best books after its publication and was chosen as the best book of the year [7]. At the same time, "in 1963, the University of Chicago awarded Vonnegut a master's degree in anthropology after he submitted "Cat’s Cradle" as a dissertation" [8].

The novel is important in terms of its unique symbolic expression of various problems of socio-political life. "K. Vonnegut's novels raise the most important and pressing issues of modern life, which he touches on in his journalism as well. A clear understanding of the social role of the artist and the social mission of the writer determines his appeal to various current topics that interest everyone. This can be traced from the first steps of the writer's literary activity" [1, p.54].

The title of the novel was taken from the name of the game "Cat's Cradle". This game is played by making meaningless movements with two ends of the ropes knotted together. Children who play this game want to see the shape of cat and cradle in the movement of the ropes, but they get angry as they cannot see.

The intertexts established in the novel "Cat’s Cradle" evoke the events that occurred in the process of writing the novel "The Last Day of the World" within the work of the hero named Jonah-John. That book describes "what the advancing Americans did on the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima in Japan" [5, p.17]. "K. Vonnegut took a humanistic and anti-militaristic line in all his works. While he described the Second World War, in which he volunteered, as a just war, he considered the burning of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a crime. He opposed the US war in Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq. Vonnegut was a rare and precious flower of the American people and culture" [9].

The novel is a parody of the assessment of the atomic bomb as an indicator of development, which caused the tragedy of humanity, and a number of Christian leaders who remained silent about it. Criticism with bitter laughter of those who became the cause of scientific and religious disasters is carried out through a new religion called Bocononism by K. Vonnegut. "The writer also wanted to say that he wrote this work to address the existing religions and prophets, not to remind of the future, but of what has come from the past to the present" [7].

He tries to promote the paradoxical doctrine of creative lies in order to elevate the poverty of the Bokonist island of San Lorenzo to an imaginary playground. The game of Bokononism sharpens interest in life and even gives temporary meaning to human activity.

Bocononism emerged as one of the important issues in the novel. "The problem of responsibility is worked out in the novel "Cat’s Cradle" and in the third principally important story line representing Bokonon's life and the religion he created - Bokononism. In fact, we are talking about another social force responsible for what happens in the world - systems of views and postulates designed to explain the world and guide people's behavior” [1, p.73].

K. Vonnegut introduces Bokononism from the first pages of the novel. The hero goes backwards in terms of time in the development of the events, narrates the events that happened earlier, "it would be a Christian book. I was a Christian then. I'm a Bokononist now" [5, p.18], he begins to present his original concept by starting with these sentences, and already from the first presentation, the writer's parody of Christianity can be observed: “I could have been a Bokononist in those days if someone had told me the sweet lies of Bokonon. But on the edge of the pebbled shores and sharp coral reefs that surround this small island in the Caribbean Sea - the Republic of San Lorenzo, no one knew about Bokononism. [5, p.18].

In fact, the Republic of San Lorenzo, which emerged as a product of the writer's artistic imagination, was symbolized as a place where the mentioned theory was realized, where people who believed in it were brought to a common level. According to K. Vonnegut, Bokononists believe that people are divided into teams, which independently carry out God's wishes. The writer calls those groups karass, and the book "The Last Day of the World" written by John, the hero and developer of the novel, which he has not yet finished, is a mediator to find his own karass.

K. Vonnegut, first, answers the question of the identity of the people who enter a karass. According to the author, this is possible not by reason and logic, but by the ties of the soul, that is, "for no reason that comes to mind", "if you see that your life is mixed with someone else's life, this person may be one of your karass" [5, p.18].

K. Vonnegut's teaching of Bokononism is based on universal ideas. According to the writer, the karass created by God does not recognize separation of nation, organization, profession, family and class [5, p.19].

Bokonon sneers at people who think they see God's actions, suggesting that humanity's research into God will always fail. The writer's goal is to show what people in a group in this book can do in the real world as a mass. K. Vonnegut intended Bokononism, in a broad sense, as a joke, irony, a parody aimed at religion and philosophy, which tries to interpret what God does. The writer showed this in a clear and original way from the first pages of the novel: "I don't want this book to be a statement praising Bokononism. But, I still have a Bokononist warning about my book. The first sentence of Bokonon's Books is: "All the truths I will tell you a little later are unspeakable lies." Here is my Bokononist warning: "Those who do not understand how a useful religion can be built on lies will not understand this book." [5, p.22].

Apparently, the issue of falsified "religion" is the main laughing stock of the writer. In this way, K. Vonnegut expressed a unique attitude to religious people and scientists who supported the killed values, falsified ideas and human tragedy. The writer who parodies the "achievements" of science on the one hand, and religion on the other hand, with the words of a Nobel prize-winning scientist who says "what is sin" to the scientist who thinks that "science has sunk into sin" [5, p.33], which created the atomic bomb and caused the death of thousands of people, bitterly criticizes the false society built on lies turned into an object of laughter: "In any case, sinning was not useful in those days, as it is now” [5, p.44].

In K. Vonnegut's religion of Bokononism, travel occupies an important place, because different trips are the main means of meetings of people who enter the same karass, which seem to be coincidence, but in fact, meet God on a certain path of life. "Strange travel suggestions are God's dance lessons," says the hero, who meets various people during his interesting journeys. In order to bring various images to a common level, the writer considers the provisions of the Bokononism religion.

In Bokononism, work plays an important role in human life: "We Bokononists hum "work, work, work" when we think about how complicated and incomprehensible the working format of life is." According to the American writer's teaching of Bokononism, the wholeness of all times and all people - women, men and children, every second of everyone - is taken as a basis.

K. Vonnegut used several "terms" that make up Bokononism in the novel. Along with karass, one of the interesting concepts is "rang-rang". The word "Rang" means "play". This concept seems to represent the person who plays the role of one of the keys to enter Bokononism thought. The issue here is not what kind of character that person is, but the impression he or she creates on the other side, the thought he changes. As the writer explained all Bokononism "terms" in the background of an incident from his hero's life, he presented a different story frame in the context of "rang-rang".

After the novel's protagonist and developer Jonah-John hosted a bard named Sherman Krebs in his New York home for two weeks without any expectation, the guest's behavior at home was chosen to clarify the concept of "rang-rang". The pratoganist and the narrator, who says “My second wife divorced me on the grounds that I was too pessimistic for an optimist to live with” [5, p.90] describes the scene after Krebs, who presents himself as a supporter of Rapid Nuclear War, a minstrel, and the head of the Artists' Guild, leaves his house: “... When I returned to my house, I saw that the environment was destroyed in an extremely nihilistic way. Krebs left, but before he left he made a three-hundred-dollar long-distance phone call, burned the chair I was sitting on, killed my cat and my potted tree, and ripped the lid off my medicine cabinet.” [5, p.91]. According to John, Krebs was his “rang-rang”. Because that person caused him to move away from the idea that he was a nihilist, that had been instilled in him in advance and which he believed in to a certain extent. "According to Bokonon, a rang-rang is a person who distances people from a certain line of thought - reducing that line to stupidity" [5, p.91], the writer says in the language of the hero: “I could go deep into the meaninglessness of the stone angel and everything from there, but after seeing what Krebs did, especially what he did to my sweet cat, I knew nihilism wasn't for me.

Someone or something didn't want me to be a nihilist. Whether consciously or not, Krebs' task was to distance me from this form of thought" [5, p.92]. With this, the writer tried to say that every event that happens is not without reason, as mentioned, every person and event fulfills God's wishes. That is why, when talking about the events, the writer specially emphasized that instead of the expression "events developed in such a way" in Bokononism, the words "events should have developed in such a way" [5, p.97], "it should have been so" [5, p.99] are used.

One of the interesting and meaningful expressions used by K. Vonnegut in the novel is "duprass". According to the writer, "two-person karass is called duprass" [5, p.99]. As mentioned, the novel “Cat's Cradle” tells the stories of people from the same karass. In the novel, Bokononism and its various principles are explained as a form, in which God wants to meet and people meet on a certain path of life, regardless of their consciousness, and turn them into figures of a predetermined reality. The most typical examples of "duprass" are Horlick Minton, the newly appointed American ambassador to San Lorenzo, and his wife Claire, whom John met on the plane to San Lorenzo via Miami: “A regular duprass of only two people was that of the Mintons... According to Bokonon, people from the same duprass die within the same week. When the Mintons’ time came, they died in the same second” [1, p.100; p.101].

Bokonon suggests that the Duprasses are very important in the strengthening of strange but true intuitions in the solitude of a long, never-ending love. Minton's meticulous research on indexes is considered one of the best examples of this: "A duprass, says Bokonon, is a structure that likes itself sweetly" [5, p.134].

As it is known, in the novel, K. Vonnegut put forward Bokononism to parody various events happening in the American society as well as in the world, certain stereotypes of human society, and standard thoughts. Here, the "granfalloon", which the writer values ​​as one of the unique "terms" of Bokononism, is also of interest. "Granfalon" is an object covered in fake identity. This can be a specific person, society, party, institution, etc. The writer elucidates the meaning of "granfalon" through the thoughts of a woman named Hazal about the people of Indiana, whom John meets in the airplane bar. Hazal's thinking is a clear example of " granfalloon" who says that "wherever you go, you meet a successful person from Indiana, the hotel owner in Istanbul, the Attaché in Tokyo, the new ambassador to Yugoslavia, the Hollywood representative of "Life" magazine”. What Bokonon calls a granfalloon is the best example of a community that looks like a group but does not conform to God's way of doing things... Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist Party, the Association of the daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Society of the Poor... And always, everywhere, every nation. As the song Bokonon invites us to sing with him says:

If you want to see a granfalloon,

Remove the skin of a balloon” [5, p.104].

One of the notable points presented by K. Vonnegut in the novel is to parody traditional ideas with a new attitude. From this point of view, the section of the work "The Bokononian solution to the problem of Caesar's right" is interesting.

While talking with passengers on the plane to San Lorenzo, John met the book "San Lorenzo: Ideal, History, People" by Philip Castile, whom he wanted to meet on that island, and read the first information about Bokonon from there: "I accidentally opened the book. The opening was associated with Bokonon, the forbidden holy man of the island. On the page in front of me was a quote from "Bokonon's books": The words flew off the page and entered my head, they were well received there. Bokonon changed one of the words of Jesus: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." Bokonon used to say: "Let go of Caesar. Caesar has no knowledge of the world" [5, p.113]. In one of the narrations about the Prophet Jesus, it is said that in order to involve him in the conflict, those around him ask, "Will we pay tribute to the Roman emperor, the king of the earth, while our father is in heaven?" Prophet Jesus answers them like this: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". K. Vonnegut also used this narrative and parodied events and tyrants covered with lies in a unique way.

The American writer also paid special attention to the theory of Bokononism's "Tension of Powers". This thought is Bokonon's form of perception of the balance between good and evil. "In the practice of life, Bokonism replaced real action in the defense of human with fiction, and the theory of dynamic tension with the principle of "perfect balance" between good and evil" [6, p.239].

According to Bokononism, the only way to create a good society is to oppose good and evil, to keep the tension between the two constantly high [5, p.115]. In the novel, K. Vonnegut also expressed his thoughts through Bokononist poems. While explaining the principle of "tension of forces", Philip Castile's book "San Lorenzo: Ideal, history, people" presents the poem "I read my first Bokononist poem or "Calypso" [5, p.115]:

"Father" Monzano, what a bad guy he is,

But if there is no bad "Father",

Bokonon will be upset. Because if there is no evil "Father"

Tell me, how Ugly, old Bokonon can be good?” [5, p.115].

The writer also provides information about Bokonon's personality in the chapter titled "Like Saint Augustine" of the novel: "According to what I learned from Castile's book, Bokonon was born in 1891. He was a Negro, a Protestant Episcopalian, born an English citizen on the island of Tobago. His baptismal name is Lionel Boyd Johnson" [5, p.116]. The hero, who traveled a lot in his youth, began studying at the School of Economics and Political Sciences in London in 1911. The writer emphasized the different aspects of Lionel Boyd Johnson, who studied in Episcopal schools from a young age, in his attitude to religious ceremonies: "He was more interested in religious ceremonies than his friends. But despite his fascination with the glamourous exterior of organized religion, he is understood to have been quite frivolous in his youth, as in "The Fourteenth Calypso" he invites us to sing this song with him:

When I was young

I was happy, I was crazy,

I would drink and run after the girls

Like the youth of Saint Augustine.

Saint Augustine,

Became a saint one day.

Therefore, if I will be the same

Please mother, don’t be surprised" [5, p.116-117].

We come across autobiographical facts about the life of K. Vonnegut from the words of the hero, who briefly evokes the life path of Lionel Boyd Johnson until he becomes Bokonon. The young man, whose education was interrupted by the start of the First World War, enlists in the army, rises as a successful soldier, spends two years in the hospital because his lungs are filled with gas in one of the battles, is captured by a German ship while returning home to Toboga, then falls into a trap with the Germans by an English ship, with that ship also being in danger, Johnson waits eight months on the island for a ship that can take him to the Western Hemisphere. Then he gets a job on a ship carrying illegal immigrants to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when a storm drives the ship to Newport.

It is known that various themes and ideas of K. Vonnegut are reflected in the same novel text in more subtexts, in the system of thought passing through the work as a central line. "In Vonnegut's artistic world, the connecting threads are not obvious, but often hidden in the subtext, they become clear only in the light of the author's unity of thought in the context of the whole work" [1, p.52]. We observe the same aspects in the novel "Cat’s Cradle".

The events he experienced are the main impetus for Johnson's Bokononist views: "At that time, Johnson believed that an unknown force was determined to take him to an unknown place for an unknown reason. Therefore, he stayed at Newport for a while to see what would happen to him" [5, p.118].  In this city, he worked as a gardener for the famous Rumfoord family, went on a world voyage on “Shahrizad” ship of their son Remington IV, turned out to be the only survivor of a ship that crashed in Bombay harbor, got arrested by the British authorities when he appeared as one of Gandhi's supporters in India, and after his imprisonment was sent home to Tobogo.

In the novel, Bokonon is a mysterious figure with a powerful influence in San Lorenzo. Although the religion of Bokononism, which he created, is officially banned in the said area, the number of those who follow it is excessive. Bokononism is presented as a religion based on lies, which are aimed only at bringing comfort to people.

As mentioned, San Lorenzo is chosen as an unrealistic, utopian place in the novel. Lionel Boyd Johnson, aka Bokonon, along with Edward McCabe, a deserter from the US army, begin to build a utopian society to improve the condition of people, but for a while it is understood that this is not possible. The creation of the Bokonon training was related to specific goals: to bring meaning, excitement, and comfort to the lives of the islanders. After some time, Edward McCabe outlawed Bokonon on the basis of agreements, which served to create a sense of danger among the islanders.

In a novel full of satires and parodies on various topics, the "conquest" of San Lorenzo Island by Johnson-Bokonon and Edward McCabe was chosen as a parody of US foreign policy: "San Lorenzo was taken by many people, and none of them met with difficulty. The reason is very simple: God, who knows the truth of everything, created a worthless island [5, p.137]. But Johnson-Bokonon's arrival on the island is different from the others, and the island, which is the result of the writer's imagination, appears as a parody of the political and religious system: a society, a political and belief system based on lies: "McCabe and Johnson wanted to make San Lorenzo a utopia. To this end, McCabe changed the economic order and laws. Johnson also created a new religion. Castile returned to Calypso:

I wanted everything

To have a meaning

Instead of being angry, I wanted us to be happy.

I told lies

And they all believed

And this world

Turned into heaven" [5, p.139].

This island is valued in the novel as "a country that has been America's best friend ever" [5, p.153]. The fact that the country is unreal also expresses the sarcastic shades of America's "friend" idea. When characterizing the island, the writer's use of the words "communists are not here, they are afraid of the hook" [5, p.154] also shows the writer's tendency towards American and world politics.

K. Vonnegut, sarcastically stating that no economic and administrative system reforms have saved the people, says that "religion" is the only "door of hope" for people. The writer says that "the real is an enemy of the people, because the real is very scary. From this point of view, Bokonon has made a habit of telling more and more beautiful lies" [5, p.182-183], as the new religion opposes the system that directs traditional religions to political goals.

The meaning of the word Bokonon is also interesting. While traveling on his boat in the Caribbean Sea, he meets Edward McCabe and promises to take him to Miami for five hundred dollars, but as the boat sank, they end up on an unknown island. Naked and destitute, they go to the island of San Lorenzo. The pronunciation of the word Johnson in the San Lorenzo language is Bokonon: "Shortly after Johnson became Bokonon, the lifeboat of his wrecking boat ran aground. This boat was later painted with gold stars and became the bed of the island's head of state. "There is a legend written by Bokonon," said Philip Castile in his book. Therefore, when the end of the world approaches, the golden boat will sail again. Bokonon's goal was "to live" and his mission was "to die" [5, p.147].

Bokonon only appears for real once in the novel. This is what John, the main character and developer of the work, saw on the side of the road when he was trying to find the end of his religious text at the end of the work. "This ending says that if he had his time again, he would write a 'history of human folly. [10].

At the same time, in the novel, after Bokononism was banned on the island, Johnson's picture is given on the posters: “Another poster had a picture of Bokonon. He was an old black man with a wrinkled face, who smoked cigarettes. He was intelligent, kind-hearted, and had an attitude as if he was making fun of the happenings. Below the picture was written: Wanted dead or alive, a reward of 10,000 corporals would be given to the one who brings him. [5, p.146]. Those who spread Bokononism on the island were sentenced to be hanged, but a large number were secretly Bokononists. The main ritual of Bokononism was to create closeness between their souls by rubbing the soles of their feet together. The writer chose this as a parody of Christian rituals: "This is a Christian country! The penalty for all footwork is the hook" [5, p.147]. In this novel, the ritual is called boko-maru. According to Bokononism, people don't rub their feet with people they don't like. The foundation of footwork is this calypso:

“We will touch our feet,

Giving of ourselves

We will love each other

As we love our Mother Earth” [5, p.169].

Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Cat’s Cradle” is a product of thoughts surrounding the question of how the world will end in the future. The writer proposed the new religion of Bokononism, which he created, as a bitter irony to the people who brought disaster to the world with their foolishness and selfishness against God's will: "If I were a younger man, I would write the history of human stupidity. Then I would go to the top of Mount McCabe and lie on my back, and I would make the history that I wrote a pillow for myself. Then I would pick up the blue-white poison that sculpts people from the ground. And I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back with a terrible smile on my face, sticking out my tongue to the One Above” [5, p.299].

According to the writer, God will simply smile at all this:

One day this crazy world will end

God will demand back what it has lent.

If you want to scold God on that sad day,

Scold, God will smile and nod [5, p.282].

According to Kurt Vonnegut, human history is full of shameful disasters due to its mistakes, and in this respect, "history!" says Bokonon. Read and cry! [5, p.263]. Therefore, "Books of Bokonon" in the novel emphasize "the hopelessness of human effort, the futility of human existence." [3, p.3].

Thus, the American writer's novel "Nanny for the Cat" is a work rich in feelings of excitement for the world, whether it is an attitude to the socio-political issues of the time, or thoughts directed to the future. This is not accidental. "K. Vonnegut's novels created in the 60s is characterized by a significant deepening of social content and an increase in critical orientation. The 60s are a turbulent decade in the history of the United States" [1, p.70]. Despite all this, Vonnegut had to criticize "Bokonism—for failing to really defend the very principles that inspired Bokononism" [2, p.13].



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  7. (Kedi Beşiği Romanı Kurt Vonnegut (İroni Bilim Kurğu). 02.08.2022).
  8. (Kurt Vonnegut Amerikalı romancı. 02.08.2022).
  9. ( (Yirminci Yuzyilin Voltairei Kurt Vonnegut. 02.08.2022).
  10. (Lionel Boyd Johnson. Bokonon. 02.07.2022).
Информация об авторах

Dissertator, Ganja State University, Republic of Azerbaijan, Ganja

диссертант, Гянджинский Государственный Университет, Республика Азербайджан, Гянджа

Журнал зарегистрирован Федеральной службой по надзору в сфере связи, информационных технологий и массовых коммуникаций (Роскомнадзор), регистрационный номер ЭЛ №ФС77-54436 от 17.06.2013
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