From Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, all quotes attributed to Bokonon and all lines referencing Bokonon’s thought (fragments and testimonia, for classicists). These are given in order of appearance.
“Live by the foma* that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” The Books of Bokonon. I: 5 * Harmless untruths
We Bokononists believe that humanity is organized into 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.
“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reasons,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.” At another point in 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. 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 different people In the same device.
In the autobiographical section of The Books of Bokonon he writes a parable on the folly of pretending to discover, to understand:
I once knew an Episcopalian lady in Newport, Rhode Island, who asked me to design and build a doghouse for her Great Dane. The lady claimed to understand God and His Ways of Working perfectly. She could not understand why anyone should be puzzled about what had been or about what was going to be. And yet, when I showed her a blueprint of the doghouse I proposed to build, she said to me, “I’m sorry, but I never could read one of those things.” “Give it to your husband or your minister to pass on to God,” I said, “and, when God finds a minute, I’m sure he’ll explain this doghouse of mine in a way that even you can understand.” She fired me. I shall never forget her. She believed that God liked people in sailboats much better than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm. When she saw a worm, she screamed. She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is Doing, [writes Bokonon].
I should like to offer a Bokononist warning about it, however. The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this: “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” My Bokononist warning is this: Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.
I suppose Dr. Breed was a member of my karass, too, though he took a dislike to me almost immediately. “Likes and dislikes have nothing to do with it,” says Bokonon—an easy warning to forget.
As it happened—“as it was meant to happen,” Bokonon would say
“Ah, God,” says Bokonon, “what an ugly city every city is!”
“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.
Which brings me to the Bokononist concept of a 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.
“Dr. Breed keeps telling me the main thing with Dr. Hoenikker was truth.” “You don’t seem to agree.” “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.
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.”
Had I been a Bokononist then, pondering the miraculously intricate chain of events that had brought dynamite money to that particular 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.
… vin-dit, a Bokononist word meaning a sudden, very personal shove in the direction of Bokononism, in the direction of believing that God Almighty knew all about me, after all, that God Almighty had some pretty elaborate plans for me.
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.
As it happened —“As it was supposed to happen,” Bokonon would say—I
a flawless example of what Bokonon calls a duprass, which is a karass composed of only two persons. “A true duprass,” Bokonon tells us, “can’t be invaded, not even by children born of such a union.” Bokonon tells us, incidentally, that members of a duprass always die within a week of each other.
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 of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General 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.
The words were a paraphrase of the suggestion by Jesus: “Render therefore unto Caesar 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.”
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 very 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?
As a youth, for all his interest in the outward trappings of organized religion, he seems to have been a carouser, 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.
He got to be a saint.
So, if I get to be one, also,
Please, Mama, don’t you faint.
But a gale hounded the schooner onto the rocks of San Lorenzo. The boat went down. Johnson and McCabe, absolutely naked, managed to swim ashore. As Bokonon himself reports the adventure:
A fish pitched up
By the angry sea,
I gasped on land,
And I became me.
He was enchanted by the mystery of coming ashore naked on an unfamiliar island. He resolved to let the adventure run its full course, resolved to see just how far a man might go, emerging naked from salt water.
It was a rebirth for him:
Be like a baby,
The Bible say,
So I stay like a baby
To this very day.
How he came by the name of Bokonon was very simple. “Bokonon” was the pronunciation given the name Johnson in the island’s English dialect.
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.
From the “Calypsos” again:
Oh, a very sorry people, yes,
Did I find here.
Oh, they had no music,
And they had no beer.
And, oh, everywhere
Where they tried to perch
Belonged to Castle Sugar, Incorporated,
Or the Catholic church.
“There was at least one quality of the new conquerors of San Lorenzo that was really new,” wrote young Castle. “McCabe and Johnson dreamed of making San Lorenzo a Utopia.
“To this end, McCabe overhauled the economy and the laws.
“Johnson designed a new religion.”
Castle quoted the “Calypsos” again:
I wanted all things
To seem to make some sense,
So we all could be happy, yes,
Instead of tense.
And I made up lies
So that they all fit nice,
And I made this sad world
At a limp, imperious signal from “Papa,” the crowd sang the San Lorenzan National Anthem. Its melody was “Home on the Range.” The words had been written in 1922 by Lionel Boyd Johnson, by Bokonon. The words were these:
Oh, ours is a land
Where the living is grand,
And the men are as fearless as sharks;
The women are pure,
And we always are sure
That our children will all toe their marks.
San, San Lo-ren-zo!
What a rich, lucky island are we!
Our enemies quail,
For they know they will fail
Against people so reverent and free.
In The Books of Bokonon she is mentioned by name. One thing Bokonon says of her is this: “Mona has the simplicity of the all.”
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.
“When Bokonon and McCabe took over this miserable country years ago,” said Julian Castle, “they threw out the priests.And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion.” “I know.” I said. “Well, when it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.” “How did he come to be an outlaw?” “It was his own idea. He asked McCabe to outlaw him and his religion, too, in order to give the religious life of the people more zest, more tang. He wrote a little poem about it, incidentally.” Castle quoted this poem, which does not appear in The Books of Bokonon:
So I said good-bye to government,
And I gave my reason:
That a really good religion
Is a form of treason.
“Bokonon suggested the hook, too, as the proper punishment for Bokononists,” he said. “It was something he’d seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s.” He winked ghoulishly. “That was for zest, too.”
“Don’t try,” he said. “Just pretend you understand.”
“That’s—that’s very good advice,” I went limp.
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.
“What’s that from?” I asked. “What could it possibly be from but The Books of Bokonon?”
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.”
I learned of the Bokononist cosmogony, 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 planets, 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 at her and loved her and sympathized. And what opinion did Bokonon hold of his own cosmogony? “Foma! Lies!” he wrote. “A pack of foma!”
“Maturity,” Bokonon tells us, “is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything.”
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.
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 demands of my vin-dit.
“A sin-wat!” she cried. “A man who wants all of somebody’s love. That’s very bad.”
“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.”
Bokonon’s “hundred-and-nineteenth Calypso,” wherein 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.”
As Bokonon tells us, “It is never a mistake to say good-bye.”
Bokonon tells us:
A lover’s a liar,
To himself he lies.
The truthful are loveless,
Like oysters their eyes!
“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.
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.”
Well, as Bokonon tells us: “God never wrote a good play in His Life.”
“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.”
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.”
But, as Bokonon tells us, “Any man can call time out, but no man can say how long the time out will be.”
“History!” writes Bokonon. “Read it and weep!”
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 maiden and the veglia and the oubliette.
In any case, there’s bound to be much crying.
But the oubliette alone will let you think while dying.
I turned to The Books of Bokonon, still sufficiently unfamiliar with them to believe that they contained spiritual comfort somewhere. I passed quickly 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.
“Today I will be a Bulgarian Minister of Education,” Bokonon tells us. “Tomorrow I will be Helen of Troy.” His meaning is crystal clear: Each one of us has to be what he or she is.
We found a boulder in it. 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 on 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, possibly 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 by Bokonon.
“What a cynic!” I gasped. I looked up from the note and gazed around the death-filled bowl. “Is he here somewhere?”
“I do not see him,” said Mona mildly. She wasn’t depressed or angry. In fact, she seemed to verge on laughter. “He always said he would never take his own advice, because he knew it was worthless.”
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.”
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!
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.
“Bokonon?” “Yes?” “May I ask what you’re thinking?” “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.