Phil Kaveny

The Works of Philip Kaveny

Syncretics in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

Philip E. Kaveny

Religious Studies 348

Dr. Lori Rowlett

April 21, 2004, May,2017



In this paper I will examine the manner American novelist Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) represents non- (exclusively) European religious, with syncretic elements in his novel Cat’s Cradle, (1963). On a personal note, I have read the novel at least seven times since my first naïve reading in 1969. However, my latest critical reading of it, from the perspective of a student in religious studies and though the lens of modern critical theory, has forced to re- think my understanding of one my lifetime’s favorite novels


As I summarized and correlated the background information supplied about American author Kurt Vonnegut by the Contemporary Authors data base with my own critical work on him, including my brief interview with him in 1995 at The American Booksellers Convention in Chicago, at least two sorts of things stood out.   First, his height, 6′ 5″, and his great personal charm, and seemingly vibrant physical health, (in spite of smoking Camels Cigarettes for over sixty years).  But second, and most important, throughout his long life and sixty-three year writing career, in which he has completed fourteen novels, over one hundred short stories, and a dozen media adaptations, Kurt Vonnegut appears to be “a poster child” for White Northern European male privilege. This privilege its very nature is invisible to those who hold it.



Vonnegut was born into an upper-middle-class Midwestern family, attended some of the best Universities in the United States, and served with distinction during the Second World War, before he was captured by the Germans during the Battle of The Bulge in mid- December 1944.  As a prisoner of war in the German city of Dresden, Vonnegut survived the allied fire bombing of Dresden (which took 100,000 civilian lives) on Feb 18th.  After the war, he returned to briefly to graduate school in Anthropology at the University of Chicago. However, as he was unable to get a Master’s thesis topic approved, (good & evil in religion and fairy tales), he returned to work.


First, he worked as newspaper police- reporter in Chicago, then as a public relations person for General Electric, finally he pursued a full time literary career.  In the process, he raised six children had two wives and has become an American popular Icon.  He was a hit on the college lecture tour for the last thirty-five years since his 1969, career-making Slaughterhouse Five and came to grips with his World War II experience.  But things are not entirely as they appear.  Nearly all four hundred and twenty-seven books and articles on Kurt Vonnegut indexed in the MLA database give significant weight to the degree that the details and the extent Vonnegut’s World War Two experiences affected his narrative choices and, most important, the depth of characterization in the body of his works. This is also true of the American and European characters in Cat’s Cradle.



It however blatantly not true of the indigenous characters, all of whom are grossly defined and underdeveloped characterizations, nor is it true non- European religious, with sycrentic elements in his novel Cat’s Cradle. Only in contorted an oppositional since might one argue that Vonnegut’s World War Two experiences affected his narrative choices, he trivialized by lack of narrative energy and attention anything that was not European. Further Vonnegut did this to the point only two or three non-European characters have names



Though, at least sixty percent of Cat’s Cradle 287 starting on page 123 takes place in the fictionalized Caribbean Republic of San Lorenzo.  San Lorenzo is really nothing more than a fictionalized representation of Haiti. Haiti as it appeared to Kurt Vonnegut in the early 1960’s, complete with climate, history, dictatorship, economics, and even poverty.  Given that so many of the of the characteristics of The Republic of San Lorenzo seem to line up with the American popular construction and representation of Haiti, I came to this conclusion.  I think it is safe to say that Bokononism, the religion that Vonnegut constructs for the fictionalized Caribbean Republic of San Lorenzo is really Kurt Vonnegut’s take on Haitian Voodoo. (Note) In the final version of this paper I will of course integrate my textual evidence with to support this critical point with the historical interpretations, and theory which I offer in the body of this paper. However, for now I suggest that my reader turn to Appendix A and simply read though the selection I have chosen and let them speak.


I would also add that in, Cat’s Cradle, the world ends as a result of the invention of a substance called Ice 9 by an American scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikkers. The purpose of the substance was to make water into crystal at room temperature so that the United States Marine Corps could break its two hundred-year tradition of fighting its way through swamps and mud. Of course, the problem was it froze all the water on the planet, and of course the human body is seventy- percent water.


Twenty years before, played a pivotal  role  in the development  of the American  atomic  bomb that ended World war II . The late Dr. Felix Hoenikker as evidenced though the text by extensive interviews with those close to him had the moral development of a five year old. The story unfolds as the narrator a down on his luck free lance author named Jonah tries to do a feature on this recently deceased American, and long time windowed, scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikkers. He does so by interviewing the surviving children of his highly dysfunctional family.  The story takes ends with an interesting twist when the world ends because substance the scientist, almost accidentally invents, falls in to the hand of dying dictator of a “Banana Republic”, which in Vonnegut’s, narrators estimation is too poor to even grow any bananas.


So, I think it is fair to say that Vonnegut’s work does give a fictionalized substance to some of transformations that Michel Foucault documents in History of Sexuality (V. 1), part five (The Right of Death and the Power over it, pp. (135- 160).  This is particularly true of the two Super Power’s (The United States , and The  Soviet  Union’s biological  potential to control the continuation of nearly all  life on a planetary level, though super weapons during  the Cold War. Would also note that this work was created just a year or two after the, J.F.K’s aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba on April 17, 1961, the  erection of the Berlin Wall by the Soviet Union in August 1961, and most significant the Cuban Missile over ten days in late Oct 1962




I would add that the fact the that the University of Chicago granted Kurt Vonnegut a Master of Arts degree in 1972 gives his fictionalized characterization of Haitian Voodoo a certain cultural authority.  However, when one actually looks at what Vonnegut did with Haitian Voodoo in Cat’s Cradle; by comparing his representation to reputable accounts the University of Chicago seems to have lost some of its cachet.  In fact, Vonnegut constructs his representations from a naïve American colonialist perspective right after President John F.  Kennedy’s aborted Bay of Pigs invasion of Castro’s Cuba in 1961 and right before President Johnson’s Vietnam build up in late 1964. For my operational definition of American colonialist perspective see   (Culler pp. 117-132) for an excellent summary of theory up and including Post-Colonial Theory, Minority Discourse, and Queer theory, as they relate to various constructions of historical, religious, ethnic, and even national identity American colonialist perspective.



Usually when writes about representation from a perspective one is face with the problem of the representations of certain individuals, groups, from a perspective of what how the shake out as exemplars of good and evil. However, in the fictionalized universe that is the entire body of Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional works, things work quite differently, the terms good and evil exist in such a radical conditional sense since everything is predestined that the terms good and evil lose nearly their entire efficacy. This is particularly true of Cat’s Cradle. However, this does not mean that there are no examples of value Cat’s Cradle in far from it. The value exists in the process of authors’ construction of the elements of narrative. By this I simply mean the amount of literary and artistic energy that Vonnegut expends in his construction of his narrative.


For example, earlier in this paper I mention in the fictionalized Caribbean Republic of San Lorenzo, San Lorenzo is really nothing more than a fictionalized representation of Haiti. San Lorenzo is Haiti as it appeared to Kurt Vonnegut in the early 1960’s, after doing absolutely no research.  Vonnegut chose to devalue every aspect of Haiti past and refer to it as a worthless place handed off between contending colonial powers as if it we at a hot potato. However, if one goes to a reliable historical account of the emergence of an independent Haiti from its successful revolutionary war against the Empire of Napoleons France.  It turns out that Haiti was in fact France’s imperial jewel in the new world, worth in trade more than the Frances entire Louisiana territory. (Metraux 1-57), and I would add the entirety of New France (French Canada prior to its loss to England in 1763. I would note her I am not trying to do a tour de force of my knowledge of diplomatic history, which is extensive, but only to establish a counter historical pattern in Vonnegut’s process of historical representation when he constructs his narrative from a counter factaul, anti historical perspective. I don’t think it was his intent to mislead, but it is a strange tact for an American author to make whose has made a major part of his reputation as an anti- establishment hero. From my standpoint, I am approaching this all from a value neutral position mostly interested how narrative attention to elements, may intentionally or not construct value. However, I think Vonnegut might be interested in how in the process of criticizing mid-20th Century American culture and Imperialism, he ends up ridiculing anti-hegemonic religious elements and in a perverse way valorizing that which he has set himself against. However, Michel Foucault might smile, where he alive, and say, most intelligent people would expect that.



In my previous critical treatment of this novel I treated it as an “open text” of great literary merit, further I argued this point professionally in a number of reviews and Conferences presentations . In doing this I argued from the position that because of I grouped Kurt Vonnegut with some of the great WWI English Language poets and prose writers like Wilfred Owen, and J.R.R Tolkien, who survived the 1916 Battle of The Somme. And of course, German prose writers like Alfred Maria Remarque author of All Quiet on The Western Front (1928), or even Hemingway in For Whom The Bell Tolls (1938). I would have viewed him as an individual suffering deeply from posttraumatic stress trying to express the scope of his experience in his search for artistic language, which gave voice to universal suffering.


Pre World War I Dresden


The ruins of Dresden


Dresden ruins, continued


But sadly he is not doing that. I believe now that Cat’s Cradle is a closed text which I never meant to but inevitable found myself overturning and reading oppositionally, once I had a methodology to examine it using Umberto Eco. I would also add that in the act of taking RELS 348 I was exposed to writers who I could use as a standard to compare Kurt Vonnegut to on  an artistic level, who in fact did  stand up to a critical reading.  I won’t mention every writer in the course but I am thinking Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons, Sandra Cisnero’s “little Miracles Kept Promises”  John Edgar Wideman’s  “ All Stories are True” , as examples. I would even add that Wideman and Vonnegut approach characterization in a similar manner, but Wideman, so far, does not refer to his characters with such phases as dull normal, in relation to their intelligence. Nor does he trivial the poor for their human suffering, and struggle for hope and meaning.

Kurt Vonnegut


I found myself attacking Vonnegut’s representation of Haitian Voodoo, and non-western religion, but I also sense I perhaps more problematic aspects to this work than a simple de-valorization and trivalization of Haitian Voodoo and its historical counter Hegemonic role in Haitian life. I now am more about the effect Cat’s Cradle to miss-direct the American reader away from the fact that the world did in fact nearly end during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the last ten days of Oct 1962.


It must be made clear here that I am not using this methodology to Condemn Kurt Vonnegut for writing from a colonial standpoint, given the era I think he embodied the spirt of that age. Actually, my changes are a great deal more serious than that. In a sense in making the world end as it did in Cat’s Cradle.  He is guilty of blaming the victims, for their stupidity which seems to be for him embedded in their humanity. In a sense even than though it is American science and energy nearly do bring the world to an end in the period of Cat’s Cradle’s creation.  It may have been in a sense Vonnegut wrote in an act of what may be best be described as displacement, and devaluation. That is to say he descends into a process of representations in creating a world to hopeless, stupid, and pointless for anyone to care if it is destroyed.  In a way he miss directs the readers away from the responsibility of United States as a major colonial power. In a sense in the novel religion in Cat’s Cradle’s mechanism for a terminal hopeless and stupid world in his construction at least to commit literary assisted suicide. I realize that though this paper started with a focus on religion there is in fact a very strong element of geo-politics as a component in Vonnegut’s world construction. I would add that Vonnegut was not the first individual with a German name who wished to artistically destroy the world when it did not live up to his standards.. Indeed that individual did come very close to doing politically sixty years ago almost today’s date, but his canvas was map of Europe, rather than the literary text, and his name of course was Adolph Hitler. As Kurt Vonnegut says at least a hundred times throughout his novels so it goes. I would also add interestingly enough I could remember only one satisfactory representation of any type of sexual experience in his entire fictionalized universe, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut for his entire life has loved life far too little.



I am going to close by presenting to quotations one from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1979 novel Jailbird. Only a very small part of it this novel is really relevant to my study.   Walter Starbucks the main character is remembering his late wife Ruth, a Nazi death camp survivor, who he met while working at the Nuremberg war crimes trails, as she describes how the Nazis made her god fail her



“Was she religious? No she was from a family that was skeptical of all forms of formal worship, which was classified as Jewish by the Nazis. Its members would not have so classified themselves.


I asked her once if she had ever sought the consolation of religion in the concentration camps. No “she said” I knew that god would not go near such a place. So did the Nazis. That’s what made them so hilarious and unafraid.  That was the strength of the Nazis”, she said. They understood God better than anyone. They knew how to make him stay away.”



This is very interesting to compare the reaction of Cuban scholar and novelist Antonio Benitez- Rojo his representation of the very strong possibility that the world might   in actual fact ends in nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in Oct 1962. In his 1992 Novel The Repeating Island. Here I must note how much these events were in the air air at the Cats Cradle was written. For example, within  less than two years after The Cuban Missile Crisis, we were discussing in a Major Problem of American Foreign Policy  seminar at University of Wisconsin Madison from David Tarr ,a student of Henry Kissinger how close the  United  States and  The Soviet Union came to thermonuclear war in 1962. I must add that at the time people like Herman Kann out of the Hudson Institute ( a conservative think tank) where projecting US and Soviet Civilian deaths in the Range of  twenty to thirty  million deaths as being acceptable losses in such and exchange, calling it “limited war”

It is self evident the aboutness of the Vonnegut’s Jailbird  is resignation and death. And of course we can never say for sure for certain what was Vonnegut’s authorial intent, however we can project the trajectory of his effect on his readers With  the work Antonio Benitez- Rojo it transparently clear that he has put his finger on a live affirming aspect of a non-phaleo-centeric syncretic religons. And to say it yet another way Vonnegut is intoxicated with death and resignation and seems almost to hates life, Antonio Benitez- Rojo embodies life death defying force


I cannot describe ”that certain kind of way”, I will say that there was  akind of ancient and golden power between their gnarled legs, as scent of basil and mint in their dress a, symbolic, gesture in their gay chatter. I knew that there would be no apocalypse. The swords and the archangels and the beasts and the trumpets and the breaking of the last seal were not going to come, for the simple reason that the Caribbean was not an apocalyptic world; it is not a phallic world in pursuit of the vertical  desires of ejaculation and castration




Appendix A:


It is his fifty third Calypso Bokonon invites us to sing along with him.


Oh a sleeping drunkard

Up in Central Park ,

And  a lion- hunter

In the  jungle dark

And  Chinese Dentist,

And a British Queer

All  fit Together

In the same machine

Nice, nice, very nice,

Nice, nice, very nice,-

So many different people

In the same Device


  1. 3


Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God


  1. 63


Hernando Cortez was the first man to make his sterile conquest of San Lorenzo recorded on paper. Cortez and his men came ashore for water named the island for Emperor Charles V and never returned. Subsequent Expeditions came for gold, rubies spices and diamonds, and found none, and for entertainment burned a few natives for heresy, and sailed on.  “When France claimed of San Lorenzo in 1682”, wrote castle no Spaniard complained.  When Denmark claimed of San Lorenzo in 1699, no  Frenchman Complained.  When the Dutch claimed of San Lorenzo in 1704  no Dane Complained. When England claimed of San Lorenzo in 1706, no Dutchman complained. When Spain reclaimed of San Lorenzo in 1720 no Englishman complained. When in 1786 an African Negroes to charge of a British slave ship and ran it ashore on of San Lorenzo and proclaimed of San Lorenzo an independent nation, an empire with an emperor in fact, no Spaniard complained.


The emperor was Tum-Bumwa, the only person who ever regarded that the island was worth defending.  A maniac, Tum-Bumwa caused to be erected the of San Lorenzo cathedral, and the fantastic fortifications on the north end of the island, fortification within which the residence of so-called President of the republic now stands, nor has any sane man ever proposed any reason why the should be attacked,. They have never defended anything.Fourteen hundred died where said to have died while erecting them. Of that fourteen hundred half where have said to have been publicly executed for lack of zeal.


p.p. 125-126.


I wanted all things

to make some sense

so we all could be happy ,yes

Instead of tense

And I make up lies

So all fit very nice

To make this sad world

A paradise.


P 127


Everybody was bound to fail, for San Lorenzo was as unproductive as an equal area of the Sahara Desert or the Polar Icecap.


At the same time it had as dense a population as could be found anywhere, China or India not excluded. There were four hundred and fifty inhabitants for every uninhabitable square mile. During the idealistic phase of the Johnson, McCabes and Johnson’s reorganization of the total income of the country would be divided equally between among all adult persons in equal shares, “wrote Philip Castle”, the first and only time this was tried the shares came between six and seven dollars.


  1. 133


There were seven of us who got off at of San Lorenzo:  Newt, Angela, Ambassador Minton, and his wife. H. lowe  Crosby and his wife, and I. When we cleared customs we were herded outdoors  and onto a reviewing stand.


There we faced a quiet crowd. Five thousand or more of San Lorenzans stared at us.  The Islanders were oatmeal colored. The people were thin. There wasn’t a fat person in the crowd.  Every person had teeth missing. Many legs were bowed and swollen. Not one pair of eyes was clear. The women’s breasts were bare and paltry. The men wore lose loin cloths to conceal there pennes (not why does speak say penis), like pendulums on grandfather clocks.


P 136.

Oh ours is a land

Where the living is grand

And the men are fearless as sharks

The women are pure

And we are always sure

That our children will toe their  marks

San  San –Lo-renzo

What a rich and lucky island are we

Our enemies quail

For the know the will fail

For our people are reverent and free



Well finish the story anyway


“The Boubonic Plague. The Bulldozers we stalled by the corpses” Oh yes on night I stayed up with my father. It was all we could do to find a live patient to treat. In bed after bed we found dead people.


“And father started giggling.” He couldn’t stop. He walked into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling, he was making the flashlight beam dance all over the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head and do you know what that marvelous man said to me” Asked Castle. “son my father said some day this will all be yours.”

P 162.


“When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country many years ago   “ said Jullian Castle. They threw out the priests. Bokonon  cynically  and playfully invented a new religon..


“I know “ I said


Well when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth became the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, of San Lorenzo  made it  his business to provide the people with better and better lies.


“McCabe of Bokonon did not succeed in raising what was generally thought of as the standard of living”, said Castle .“The truth is life was just as nasty mean brutish and short as ever.


But the people didn’t have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the brutal tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the country grew so to do the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as characters in a play, that that they understood, that any human could understand and applaud.


“So life became a work of art” I marveled.



If I were a younger man I would write a history of human stupidity, and I would climb to the top f Mount McCabe, and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow, and I would take from the ground some of the blue white poison which makes statues of  men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at you know who.


P 287




Celestial Omnibus.  Short Fiction.  Ed. By Maney, U.P. and Tom Hazuka.  Boston. Beacon Press.  1997.


Culler, Johathan.  Literary Theory.  A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford, UI. Oxford U. Press.  1997


Eco, Umberto.  The Role of the Reader.  Bloomington. India Univ. Press.  1979


._____.  “The Myth of Superman,” In. Eco, Umberto.  The Role of the Reader.  Bloomington.  Indiana Univ. Press. 1979.  p. 107-124.


Foucault, Michel.  The History of Sexuality: An Introduction.  Vol. 1.  Trans. By


Robert Hurley.  NY. Vintage. 1990. (1978, translation).


Haskins, Jim.  Voodoo & Hoodoo.  Lantham.  Scaraborough House.  1978, 1990


.Leeds, Marc.  The Vonnegut Encyclopedia: A Authorized Compendium.  Westport, CT.  Greenwood Press.  1995.


Metraux,  Alfred.  Voodoo in Haiti.  NY. Schocken,  1972 (1959).


Olmos, Margarite Fernandex and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, ed.  Sacred Possessions.  New Brunswick, N.J. Rutgers.  1999.


Rigaud, Milo.  Secrets of Voodoo.  San Francisco.  City Lights.  1985 (fr. 1953).


Vonnegut, Kurt.  Cat’s Cradle.  NY.  Delta/Dell.  1998 (1963)


._____.  Jailbird. NY.  Delacorte. 1979


._____.  Player Piano.  NY. Delacorte.  1952


._____.   The Sirens of Titan.  NY.  Dell. 1973 (1959).

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