Monday, May 26, 2008

Apocalypse -- what now? Cat's Cradle and The Road

I read Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel, Cat's Cradle, shortly after finishing another post-apocalyptic novel, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This post is mostly about Vonnegut's book, but I'll say a little about The Road near the end.

I agree with John Self that Cat's Cradle is 'a masterpiece of Vonnegut's seductive, clear-eyed whimsy.' In part, the book is a hilarious send-up of irresponsible scientists. Especially funny were the early descriptions of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, inventor of the A-bomb and ice-nine. Vonnegut there launches a masterful satire of the supposedly innocent and harmless scientist who, full of child-like curiosity, tries to evade the adult burden of moral responsibility by not inquiring into the potential applications of his inventions. In the case of Dr. Hoenikker, the evasion appears to have been complete -- the narrator finds Hoenikker's old lab to be full of childish, dime-store toys.

The figure of the irresponsible tinkerer is later skewered in the form of Dr. Hoenikker's older son, Franklin Hoenikker. Though not really a scientist, Frank is adept at technical work. He declines an offer of political power in San Lorenzo (an impoverished island republic) in order to oversee the island's technical operations. This prompts the narrator to muse about the ‘abrupt abdication of Frank from all human affairs’ (ch. 100). Later, a character says, ‘My agreeing to be boss had freed Frank to do what he wanted to do more than anything else, to do what his father had done: to receive honors and creature comforts while escaping human responsibilities.’ (ch. 100) Like his father before him (and like the island's ex-Nazi physician), Frank aspires to be an amoral tool at the disposal of the powers that be -- whatever those powers may be.

Vonnegut extends his critique beyond scientists to science itself. His message seems to be that while science is indeed the only road to knowledge, it cannot yield truths of a moral or spiritual nature. Indeed, one might add that it is in the very nature of science not even to address such matters, for its empirical methods require dispassionate, value-neutral inquiry, and it is hard to see how moral or spiritual questions can even be broached, let alone resolved, in this manner.

This interpretation of Vonnegut is borne out by at least a couple of passages in Cat's Cradle.

First, in a bar-room exchange early in the story, a prominent scientist is reported to have said that science can end our troubles and 'discover the basic secret of life.' (ch. 11) The bartender adds that according to the local newspaper, scientists have now discovered this secret. But the discovery is not the grand revelation that we were led to expect. After some effort in trying to recall the details of the news report, the bartender recalls that the secret is 'protein'.

Second, near the end of the book, Frank's entomological inquiries prompt the narrator's recollection of a passage from The Books of Bokonon (a religious text), which runs as follows:

‘Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. … He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.’ (ch. 124)

The suggestion is that while Frank may indeed 'learn something', his inquiries won't yield any real wisdom (or moral-spiritual knowledge).

Science is thus limited, Vonnegut implies, but remains the only road to knowledge. Nothing else fills the epistemic void that it leaves; for nothing, religion included, can answer truthfully the questions from which science shies away. Bokononism, the religion outlined in the novel, acknowledges this with its paradoxical claim that
Bokononism itself is 'shameless lies.' (ch. 4; cf. ch. 78 and ch. 98)

Nevertheless, Vonnegut apparently sees religion as performing a valuable function as long as it is humble enough to acknowledge the paradoxical and distorting nature of its own proclamations (which leads to some vexing questions about the status of the above Bokononist quotation). It's all well and good to say with Wittgenstein, 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,' but (Vonnegut seems to say) whereof one cannot but speak, thereof one may hold forth even if only in a self-consciously paradoxical fashion.

In support of this last interpretation of Vonnegut, he once pointed out that back when Marx dubbed religion the opiate of the masses, opium was generally the only available pain-killer; so Marx's idea might today be better expressed by calling religion the Aspirin of the masses. And what's wrong with Aspirin? Here’s another video, this one of Vonnegut talking specifically about Cat’s Cradle.

I admire Cormac McCarthy's The Road for the slow, cumulative power of its melancholy refrain, its litany of desolation. Its bleak and depressing tone is poles apart from the light-hearted humour of Cat's Cradle. What is odd about this is that Cat's Cradle is easily the more pessimistic work. Its message is that, stuck in its own depravity, the human race has no long-term prospects. By contrast, hope hangs on with astonishing tenacity right to the end of The Road. Its conclusion is ambiguous. Certainly there's no guarantee that things will go well, but at least that's a possibility.


Anonymous said...

An impressive assessment, Paul. I think the combination of pessimism and frank silliness is exactly what I like about Cat's Cradle. It's a shame that in later life - see for example A Man Without A Country - Vonnegut was so overwhelmed by humankind's depressing stupidity that he was unable to find humour in life any more. In that he compared himself with Mark Twain. Well, maybe.

Incidentally, I'm fascinated to see that your page citations go up as far as p363! My new copy just about passes 200 pages, and the older Penguin paperback I had clocked in at about 160 pages. You must have the illustrated, large print edition!

praymont said...

John, in one of the on-line videos, Vonnegut says that most writers produce their best work before they're 55. So he must have suspected that his work would fade later in life.

As to the page numbers: I read Cat's Cradle as an e-book on my new Sony e-reader, which I'm loving. I was skeptical about e-readers, but I'm hooked now.

praymont said...

Since the e-book pagination is so different from that of the hard copies, I've replaced page references with chapter references.