Kurt Vonnegut, who writes with one of the most unique voices I have ever encountered, was just introduced to me two weeks ago. Somehow, I escaped reading Slaughterhouse 5 in high school but now that a friend recommended him, I decided to dive into the borderline nihilism that disguises many of his works. I read 3 of his books in the last two weeks and have decided that I might as well be a bokononist.
Cat’s Cradle though originally published in 1963, seems to still contain some very relevant advice for our current situation. The book introduces a religion called Bokononism, which Bokonon, the creator of the religion, acknowledges as being completely fabricated. He made it up so that the people of an impoverished island would feel better about themselves. Close friends with the ruler, Bokonon convinces the ruler to outlaw the religion which in turn makes the religion even more powerful from martyrdom. The religion serves as a humanistic way of establishing connections with each other despite the turmoil unfolding in the surrounding world. Everyone knows that the religion is just a game to keep themselves occupied but that doesn’t stop any of it from having deep meaning to the practitioners.
The cosmogony of Bokononism can be summed up like this. Man was made from mud and then asked God, “What is the purpose of all of this?” And God asked man if everything need a purpose which man replied “Certainly.” And God replied “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all of this” (Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, Chapter 118). As we look around at the collapsing world and start to turn to nihilism at an alarming rate, I can’t help but notice that the absurdity of Bokononism actually works. Disguised behind the ridiculous humor and the nihilistic notions is actually a glimpse of hope, or rather how we can live happily by fooling ourselves into hope. Vonnegut seems to be making the point that whether the belief is rational or not, if it serves the end of making us all feel more human, more connected, more hopeful, then the belief is worth our attention.
When a bokononist is about to die they issue the Bokononist last rites. Another bokononist has the dying person repeat the few lines before their death, namely that God made mud, we are some of that mud that got to sit up and look around at all that God had made, and we are the lucky mud because of it (Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, Chapter 99). Cat’s Cradle, though ultimately about the end of the world, does a brilliant job of reaching through the pages to remind us in our darkness that we are still the mud that can read, we are the mud that can think, we are the mud that can hope.
by Anton Jones