Cat’s Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut Jr
As per usual with Vonnegut, this is a story told in a deceptively incidental way of events that reflect the human condition, illuminating connections and irrationalities and the random events that bind all of us.
Vonnegut often positions humans as disappointed or disaffected gods, and toys with the effect of gaining power of agency over the normal things that stand in our way. In Slaughterhouse 5, Billy Pilgrim is allowed distance from the normal tragedy of human linearity by skipping through his life at random, allowing him and the reader to see permanence and a joyous lack of meaning in life which is robbed from all the rest of us by uncrossable time. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut himself as a central protagonist is forced to confront the truth that he alone has power over all his characters, a power he is obviously uncomfortable with as he does not seem to be confident in the choices he makes for his own life: ‘“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.’
In Cat’s Cradle, he is faced with the power over a backwater country, for which he has grand and beneficent designs, only to be thwarted by the power that put him there in the first place.
As with his other satires, this bites hard at the veneers we call the human condition. It holds a mirror up to us all to tell us we see ourselves in reverse every single day. He never shies away from the reality that so many decisions on so many scales are not rationalised, or even rational. They simply get pulled out of some underlying, inexorable, and often unexplainable motivation and leave the universe of mankind something impossible to reverse-engineer.
Vonnegut’s message is that as long as mankind is made of humans, it will make as little and as much sense as its components. This may sound blindingly obvious, but so few are able to scrutinise the concept with such force and complexity to present such a collected truth in so cognizant a fashion.
His ruminations on the death of soldier children as men, the religion that damns itself, the power that comes from a vacuum and the weapon that can only destroy all sides ask of us: Are we all pretending to understand, fronting at the cost of all else? Or does general ignorance prevent this pretension, genuinely limiting human comprehension in any one moment? Which would be worse?
Vonnegut lived on the razor’s edge of human understanding, both seeing us as hopelessly flawed and woefully hopeful. He is one of very few with an outsiders view and an insider’s insight.
I don’t think I’d ever be as pessimistic as Kurt Vonnegut, but without the insight his work has given me, I don’t think I could ever have achieved my optimism.