Bokononism, A Practical Guide: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.- Quote Collection

I should like to offer a Bokononist warning about it however. The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: “All the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 13-14

One of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s classic novels, Cat’s Cradle is a rich narrative full of offshoots and side stories. Just a fraction of the book’s lore is concerned with Bokononism, a religion created by Vonnegut’s character Lionel ‘Bokonon’ Johnson. Although he would correctly point out all religion must be created:

My Bokononist warning is this: “Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.” So be it.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 14

Basics and Definitions

“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reason,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass,

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 12

We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized unto teams, teams that do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 11

At another point the The Books of Bokonon he tells us, “Man created the checkerboard; God created the karass.” By that he means that a karass ignores national, institutional, occupational, familial, and class boundaries. It is as free-form as an amoeba.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 12

Nowhere does Bokonon warn against a person trying to discover the limits of his karass and the nature of the work God Almighty has had to do. Bokonon simply observes that such investigations are bound to be incomplete.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 12-13

Which brings me to the Bokononist concept of wampeter. A wampeter is the pivot of a karass. No karass is without a wampeter, Bokonon tells us, just as no wheel is without a hub. Anything can be a wampeter: a tree, a rock, an animal, an idea, a book, a melody, the Holy Grail. Whatever it is, the members of its karass revolve about it in the majestic chaos of a spiral nebula. The orbits of the members of a karass about their common wampeter are spiritual orbits, naturally. It is souls and not bodies that revolve. As Bokonon invites us to sing:

Around and around and around we spin,
With feet of lead and wings of tin…

And wampeters come and wampeters go, Bokonon tells us. At any given time a karass actually has two wampeters– one waxing in importance, one waning.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 42-43

I have not seen Krebbs since. Nonetheless, I sense that he was my karass. If he was, he served it as a wrang-wrang. A wrang-wrang, according to Bokonon, is a person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang’s own life, to an absurdity.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 59

Hazel’s obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example or what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other example of granfalloons are the communist part, daughters of the American revolution, the generic electric company, the international order of odd fellows- and any nation, anytime, anywhere. As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him:

if you wish to study a granfalloon,
Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 67-68

They were lovebirds. They entertained each other endlessly with little gifts: sights worth seeing out the plane window, amusing or instructive bits from things they read, random recollections of times gone by. They were, I think, a flawless example of what Bokonon called a duprass, which is a karass composed of only two persons.

“A true duprass,” Bokonon tell us, “can’t be invaded, not even by children born of such a union.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 64

A duprass, Bokonon tells us, is a valuable instrument for gaining and developing, in the privacy of an interminable love affair, insights that are queer but true. The Mintons’ cunning exploration of indexes was surely a case in point. A duprass, Bokonon tells us, is also a sweetly conceited establishment. The Mintons’ establishment was no exception.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 87

All things conspired to form one cosmic vin-dit, one mighty shove into Bokononism, into the belief that God was running my life and that He had work for me to do. And, inwardly, I sarooned, which is to say that I acquiesced to the seeming domains of my vin-dit.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 137

So I asked Julian Castle what zah-mah-ki-bo meant. “You want a simple answer or a whole answer?”

“Let’s start with a simple one.”

“Fate- inevitable destiny.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 125-126

“Do you know anyone who might want the job?” Frank was giving a classic illustration of what Bokonon calls duffle. Duffle, in the Bokononist sense, is the destiny of thousands upon thousands of persons when placed in the hands of a stuppa. A stuppa is a fogbound child.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 135

“Sometimes the pool-pah,” Bokonon tells us, “exceeds the power of humans to comment.” Bokonon translates pool-pah at one point in The Books of Bokonon as “shit storm” and at another point as “wrath of God.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 163

Cosmology

I turned to The Books of Bokonon, still sufficiently unfamiliar with them to believe that they contained spiritual comfort somewhere. I passed over the warning on the title page of The First Book:

“Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!” Foma, of course, are lies. And then I read this:

In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in his cosmic loneliness. And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around and spoke. Man blinked.

“What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

“Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

“Certainly,” said Man.

“Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

And He went away.

I thought this was trash. “Of course it’s trash!” says Bokonon.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 177

Stanley pretended not to know what I was talking about. And then he grumbled that The Books of Bokonon were filth. And then he insisted that anyone who read them should die on the hook. And then he brought me a copy from Frank’s bedside table. It was a heavy thing, about the size of an unabridged dictionary. It was written by hand. I trundled it off to my bedroom, to my slab of rubber on living rock. There was no index, so my search for the implications of zah-mah-ki-bo was difficult; was, in fact, fruitless that night. I learned some things, but they were scarcely helpful. I learned of the Bokononist cosmology, for instance, wherein Borasisi, the sun, held Pabu, the moon, in his arms and hoped that Pabu would bear him a fiery child. But poor Pabu gave birth to children that were cold, that did not burn; and Borasisi threw them away in disgust. These were the plants, who circled their terrible father at a safe distance. Then poor Pabu herself was cast away, and she went to live with her favorite child, which was Earth. Earth was Pabu’s favorite because it had people on it; and the people looked up to her and loved her and sympathized. And what opinion did Bokonon hold of his own cosmology?

Foma! Lies!” he wrote. “A pack of foma!”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 129-130

Calypsos- poetry

“Johnson designed a new religion.” Castle quoted the “Calypsos” again:

I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they fit all nice,
And I made this sad world
A par-a-dise.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 90

So I said good-bye to government,
And I gave my reason:
That a really good religion
Is a form of treason.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 118

In 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 a Chinese dentist,
And a British queen-
All fit together
In the same machine.
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice;
Nice, nice, very nice-
So many people
In the same device.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 12

…I was serious and excited about Bokonon’s theory of what he called “Dynamic Tension,” his sense of a priceless equilibrium between good and evil. When I first saw the term “Dynamic Tension” in Phillip Castle’s book, I laughed what I imagined to be a superior laugh. The term was a favorite of Bokonon’s, according to young Castle’s book, and I supposed that I knew something that Bokonon didn’t know: that the term was one vulgarized by Charles Atlas, a mail-order muscle-builder. As I learned when I read on, briefly, Bokonon knew exactly who Charles Atlas was. Bokonon was, in fact, an alumnus of his muscle-building school. It was the belief of Charles Atlas that muscles could be built without bar bells or spring exercisers, could be built by simply pitting one set of muscles against another. It was the belief of Bokonon that good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and by keeping the tension between the two high at all times. And, in Castle’s book, I read my first Bokononist poem, or “Calypso.” It went like this:

“Papa” Monzano, he’s so bad,
But without bad “Papa” I would be so sad;
Because without “Papa’s” badness,
Tell me, if you would,
How could wicked old Bokonon
Ever, ever look good?

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 74-75

…for he invites us to sing along with him in his “Fourteenth Calypso”:

When I was young,
I was so gay and mean,
And I drank and chased the girls
Just like young St. Augustine
Saint Augustine,
He got to be a saint.
So, if I get to be one, also,
Please, Mama, don’t you faint.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 75

What I had seen, of course, was the Bokononist ritual of boko-maru, or the mingling of awarenesses. We Bokononists believe that it is impossible to be sole-to-sole with another person without loving the person, provided the feet of both persons are clean and nicely tended. The basis for the foot ceremony is this “Calypso”:

We will touch our feet, yes,
Yes, for all we’re worth,
And we will love each other, yes,
Yes, like we love our Mother Earth.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 109

Castle quoted another poem:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land:
Man got to tell himself he understand.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 124

“”Today I will be the Bulgarian Minister of Education,” Bokonon tells us. “Tomorrow I will be Helen of Troy.” his meaning is crystal clear: Each one of us had to be what he or she is… Bokonon invited me to sing along with him:

We do, doodley do, doodley do, doodley do,
What we must, muddily must, muddily must, muddily must;
Muddily do, muddily do, muddily do, muddily do,
Until we bust, bodily bust, bodily bust, bodily bust.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 178

“Maybe that’s the way you’re supposed to feel.”

“You talk like Bokononists, Newt.”

“Why shouldn’t I? As far as I know, Bokononism is the only religion that has any commentary on midgets.” When I hadn’t been writing, I’d been poring over The Books of Bokonon, but the reference to midgets had escaped me. I was grateful to Newt for calling it to my attention, for the quotation captured in a couplet the cruel paradox of Bokononist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.

Midget, midget, midget, how he struts and winks,
For he knows a man’s as big as what he hopes and thinks!

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 189

…I think of Bokonon’s “hundred-and-nineteenth Calypso,” wherin he invites us to sing along with him:

“Where’s my good old gang done gone?”
I heard a sad man say.
I whispered in that sad man’s ear,
“Your gang’s done gone away.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 153

Bokonon tells us:

A lover’s a liar,
To himself he lies.
The truthful are loveless,
Like oysters their eyes!

So my instructions are clear, I suppose. I am to remember my Mona as having been sublime.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 157

It was new. It was proof that someone else had survived the winds. The “Calypso” was this:

Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,
And our God will take back that He to us did lend.
And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,
Why go right ahead and scold Him.
He’ll just smile and nod.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 180

Life Commentary

“Likes and dislikes have nothing to do with it,” says Bokonon- an easy warning to forget.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 23

“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 27

I wasn’t a Bokononist then, so I agreed with some peevishness. As a Bokononist, of course, I would have agreed gaily to go anywhere anyone suggested. As Bokonon says:

“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 50

I let the book fall open where it would. As it happened it fell open to the chapter about the island’s outlawed holy man, Bokonon. There was a quotation from The Books of Bokonon on the page before me. Those words leapt from the page and into my mind, and they were welcome there. The words were a paraphrase of the suggestion by Jesus:

“Render therefore unto Caeser the things which are Caesar’s.”

Bokonon’s paraphrase was this:

” Pay no attention to Caesar. Caesar doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s really going on.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 73

“Maturity, the way I understand it,” he told me, “is knowing what your limitations are.” He wasn’t far from Bokonon in defining maturity.

“Maturity,” Bokonon tells us, “is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exist, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 134

On History

I record that fact for whatever it may be worth.

“Write it all down,” Bokonon tells us. He is really telling us, of course, how futile it is to write or read histories. “Without accurate records of the past, how can men and women be expected to avoid making serious mistakes in the future?” he asks ironically.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 159

Well, as Bokonon tells us:

“God never wrote a good play in His life.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 161

“History!” writes Bokonon. “Read it and weep!”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 168

And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it:

“Nothing.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 164

But, as Bokonon tells us, “Any man can call time out, but no man can say how long the time out will be.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 166

Social Interactions

“It is not possible to make a mistake,” She assured me. I did not know that this was a customary greeting given by all Bokononists when meeting a shy person.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 138

“As your husband, I’ll want all your love for myself.” She stared at me with widening eyes.

“A sin-wat!”

“What was that?”

“A sin-wat!” She cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 141

“Bokonon tells us it is very wrong not to love everybody exactly the same. What does your religion say?”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 141

I walked away from Frank, just as The Books of Bokonon advised me to do.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 187

But Bokonon had been there, too, had written a whole book about Utopias, The Seventh Book, which he called “Bokonon’s Republic.” In that book are these ghastly aphorisms:

The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world.

Let us start our Republic with a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers, and a national game. After that, we can write our Constitution.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 190

Death

So I was privileged to see the last rites of the Bokononist faith…He put the soles of his feet against “Papa’s” bare feet, assuming the classical position for boko-maru...

“God made the mud,” was what they’d said, each in his own dialect…

“God got lonesome,” said Von Koenigswald.

“God got lonesome.”

“So God said to some of the mud, ‘Sit up!'”…

“‘See all I’ve made,’ said God, ‘the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.'”…

“And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.”…

“Lucky me, lucky mud.”…

“I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.”…

“Nice going, God!”…

“Nobody but You could have done it, God! I certainly couldn’t have.”… 

“I feel very unimportant compared to You.”…

“The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.”…

“I got so much, and most mud got so little.”…

“Thank you for the honor!”

“Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.”…

“What memories for mud to have!”…

“What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!”…

“I loved everything I saw!”…

“Good night.”…

“I’ll go to heaven now.”…

“I can hardly wait…”…

“To find out what my wampeter was…”

“And who was in my karass…”…

“And all the good things our karass did for you.”…

“Amen.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 148-150

Dead- almost all dead now. As Bokonon tells us, “It is never a mistake to say goodbye.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 153

Bokonon tells us, incidentally, that members of a duprass always die within a week of each other. When it came time for the Milton’s to die, they did it within the same second.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 65

“Well, maybe you can find some neat way to die, too,” said Newt. It was a Bokononist thing to say.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 190

“…And then ‘Papa’ said, ‘Now I will destroy the whole world.'”

“What did he mean by that?”

“It’s what Bokononists always say when they are about to commit suicide.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 160

The Sixth Book of The Books of Bokonon is devoted to pain, in particular to tortures inflicted by men on men.

“If I am ever put to death on the hook,” Bokonon warns us, “expect a very human performance.” Then he speaks of the rack and the peddiwinkus and the iron made and the veglia and the oubliette.

In any case, there’s bound to be much crying.
But the oubliette alone will you think while dying.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 176

Life Example

As it happened-“as it was meant to happen,” Bokonon would say- the whore next to me at the bar and the bartender serving me had both gone to high school with Franklim Hoenikker, the bug tormentor, the middle child, the missing son.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 24

“I don’t know whether I agree or not. I just have trouble understanding how truth, all by itself, could be enough for a person. ” Miss Faust was ripe for Bokononism.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 44

Had I been a Bokononist then, pondering the miraculously intricate chain of events that brought dynamite money to that partiulcular tombstone company, I might have whispered, “Busy, busy, busy.” Busy, busy, busy is what we Bokononists whisper whenever we think of how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.

But all I could say as a Christian then was, “Life is sure funny sometimes.”

“And sometimes is isn’t,” said Marvin Breed.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 51

“He executes one every two years- just to keep the pot boiling, so to speak.” He sighed, looking up at the evening sky. “Busy, busy, busy.”

“Sir?”

“It’s what we Bokononists say,” he said, “when we feel that a lot of mysterious things are going on.”

“You?” I was amazed. “A Bokononist, too?” He gazed at me levelly.

“You, too. You’ll find out.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 120

“They’re probably Jones or Black or Thomson now.”

“There you’re wrong,” I murmured. The room seemed to tip, and it’s walls and ceiling and floor were transformed momentarily into the mouths of many tunnels- tunnels leading in all directions through time. I had a Bokononist vision of the unity in every second of all time and all wandering mankind, all wondering womankind, all wandering children. “There you’re wrong,” I said, when the vision was gone.

“You know some people by that name?”

“Yes.” The name was my last name, too.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 55-56

“He’s insecure.”

“What mortal isn’t? ” I demanded. I didn’t know it then, but that was a very Bokononist things to demand.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 86

“Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.” Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 36

“But what had interested me were some of the words Bokonon had chosen to put into the blanks in 1929. Wherever possible, he had taken the cosmic view, had taken into consideration, for instance, such things as the shortness of life and the longest of eternity.

He reported his avocation as: “Being alive.”

He reported his principle occupation as: “Being dead.”

THIS IS A CHRISTIAN NATION! ALL FOOT PLAY WILL BE PUNISHED BY THE HOOK, said another sign. The sign was meaningless to me, since I had not yet learned that Bokononists mingled their souls by pressing the bottoms of their feet together.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 95

It was in the tombstone sales room that I had my fist vin-dit, a Bokononist word meaning a sudden, very personal shove in the direction of Bokononism, in the direction of believing the God Almighty knew all about me, after all, that God Almighty had some pretty elaborate plans for me.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 53

“What is sacred to Bokononists?” I asked after a while.

“Not even God, as near as I can tell.”

“Nothing?”

“Just one thing.” I made some guesses.

“The ocean? The sun?”

“Man,” said Frank. “That’s all. Just man.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 143

And under the boulder was a penciled note which said:

To whom it may concern: These people around you are almost all of the survivors of San Lorenzo of the winds that followed the freezing of the sea. These people made a captive of the spurious holy man named Bokonon. They brought him here, placed him at their center, and commanded him to tell them exactly what God Almighty was up to and what they should now do. The mountebank told them that God was surely trying to kill them, possible because He was through with them, and that they should have the good manners to die. This, as you can see, they did. The note was signed Bokonon…

“He always said he would never take his own advice, because he knew it was worthless.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 182

“I am thinking, young man, about the final sentence for The Books of Bokonon. The time for the final sentence has come.”

“Any luck?” He shrugged and handed me a piece of paper. This is what I read:

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of 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 that 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.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cat’s Cradle, pg. 191

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