“Cat’s Cradle” (Post 2/2)

Cats Cradle 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/2


He held a glass of champagne, which was included in the price of his ticket. That glass was to him what a fishbowl would have been to a normal man, but he drank from it with elegant ease – as though he and the glass could not have been better matched.

The little son of a bitch had a crystal of ice-nine in a thermos bottle in his luggage, and so did his miserable sister.


[38] Reference:

[The island] was named in honor of Simon Bolivar, the great Latin-American idealist and hero.



Simon Bolivar (1783 – 1830), known as El Libertador, was a Venezuelan military and political leader who played a leading role in the establishment of Venezuela, Bolivia, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama as sovereign states, independent of Spanish rule.

[39] Fact check:

At the same time, it had as dense a population as could be found anywhere, India and China not excluded. There were four hundred and fifty inhabitants for each uninhabitable square mile.


According to Wikipeda’s list of countries and territories by population density:

Macau (ranked 1st) = 55,001 per square mile

Hong Kong (ranked 4th) = 17,208 per square mile

India (ranked 8th) = 1,037 per square mile

China (ranked 84) = 372 per square mile

Fictional San Lorenzo would come in 74th on the list with its 450.

[40] Reference:

The xylophone was rolled to the front of the stand. And Mona played it. She played “When Day is Done.”



Trumpeter Henry Busse (1894 – 1955), while touring Europe in the 1920s, discovered a song written by German doctor Robert Katscher. Back in the states, Buddy DeSylva penned new words and the song’s name was changed to “When Day is Done.” It was a hit and made Busse famous.

It has been covered by many, including Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Bobby Darin.

[41] Fact check:

“Have you ever seen anyone die of bubonic plague? (…) The lymph glands in the groin and the armpits swell to the size of grapefruit (…) After death, the body turns black.”



The best-known symptom of bubonic plague is one or more infected, enlarged, and painful lymph nodes, known as buboes. Buboes associated with the bubonic plague are commonly found in the armpits, upper femoral, groin and neck region. Acral gangrene (i.e., of the fingers, toes, lips and nose) is another common symptom.

The body often begins turning black before death.


“This is the most important thing ever.” He hung up.

“What was that all about?” asked Castle.

“I haven’t got the slightest idea. Frank Hoenikker wants to see me right away.”

“Take your time. Relax. He’s a moron.”



The effect of the house was not so much to enclose as to announce that a man had been whimsically busy there.


[44] Reference:

[I] found little Newt asleep in a yellow butterfly chair.



A butterfly chair, also known as a BKF chair, is a style of chair featuring a folding frame and a large cloth sling hung from the frame’s highest points. The first design of the Butterfly chair was designed in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1938 by the architects Antonio Bonet, Juan Kurchan and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy (which is why it’s sometimes known as BKF).

[45] Vocabulary:

Newt’s painting (…) consisted of scratches made in a black, gummy impasto.



noun – (art) – the process or technique of laying on paint or pigment thickly so that it stands out from a surface.

[46] Fact check:

“One of the oldest games there is, cat’s cradle.”



Versions of cat’s cradle have been found in indigenous cultures throughout the world – from the polar regions to the Equatorial zones. In Japan, the game can be played solo. The origin of the name “cat’s cradle” may have come from a corruption of cratch-cradle, or manger cradle. In a 1858 Punch cartoon it is referred to as “scratch cradle.”

[47] References:

The record was called Cat House Piano. It was of unaccompanied piano by Meade Lux Lewis.



“A year later young Lewis chanced to hear Jimmy Yancey play the piano.”



Anderson Meade Lewis (1905 – 1964), known as Meade Lux Lewis, was an American pianist and composer, noted for his work in the boogie-woogie style. His best-known work, “Honky Tonk Train Blues”, has been recorded by many artists. His album Cat House Piano was released in 1955. In his youth he was influenced by the pianist Jimmy Yancey.

Jimmy Yancey (~1894 – 1951) was an African-American boogie-woogie pianist, composer, and lyricist.

[48] Vocabulary:

I learned of the Bokonist cosmogony.



noun – the branch of science that deals with the origin of the universe, especially the solar system.

a theory regarding this.


“How – how do you do?” I asked. My heart was pounding. Blood boiled in my ears.

“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.


[50] Vocabulary:

It was in the sunrise that the cetacean majesty of the highest mountain on the island (…) made itself known to me.



Cetacea are a widely distributed and diverse clade of aquatic mammals that today consists of the whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

It’s an interesting descriptive to give to a mountain.


We came at last to the castle.

It was low and black and evil.


[52] Vocabulary:

Vines and bird nests clogged the crenels, the machicolations, and the balustrade.

Its parapets to the north were continuous with the scarp of a monstrous precipice.




noun – an indentation in the battlements of a fort or castle, used for shooting or firing missiles through.


noun – (in medieval fortifications) an opening between the supporting corbels (projections that support a structure above a wall) of a projecting parapet or the vault of a gate, through which stones or burning objects could be dropped on attackers.


noun – a very steep bank or slope; an escarpment.

[53] Vocabulary:

His belly shivered like a luffing sail.




verb – steer (a sailing vessel) nearer the wind to the point at which the sails just begin to flap.

obstruct (an opponent in yacht racing) by sailing closer to the wind.

[54] From the Bokonist Last Rites:

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 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!

(p.149 – 150)

For all his cynicism and sarcasm, Vonnegut’s greatest strength is in his unexpected poignancy. The best Vonnegut books make me cry; this is the bit in Cat’s Cradle that gets me.


As Bokonon tells us, “It is never a mistake to say goodbye.”


[56] Reference:

The albatross, I was told, had been shot from the very bartizan in which the buffet stood.



noun – (architecture) – an overhanging corner turret at the top of a castle or church tower.

[57] Vocabulary:

He was having a good time (…) sitting on a cannon, blocking the touchhole with his big behind.



noun – a small hole in early firearms through which the charge is ignited.

[58] Reference:

“There’s old Kaiser Bill, spiked hat and all.”



Nickname for Willhelm II, German Emperor (1859 – 1941). The last German Emperor (Kaiser) and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 1888 to 1918. He was the eldest grandchild of the British Queen Victoria. An ineffective war-time leader, he lost the support of the army, abdicated in November 1918, and fled to exile in the Netherlands.

[59] Vocabulary:

“How does a man die when he’s deprived of the consolations of literature?”

“In one of two ways,” he said, “petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.”



noun – the process of changing into stone; petrification.

[60] Reference:

“Honey, what was the name of that stuff that saved your life that time?”




An organosulfur compound used as a short-acting sulfa drug.

Cat’s Cradle is extraordinarily anti-science and technology. He uses these “typical,” annoying Americans to defend science by its ability to save people through medicine. Vonnegut plays it as a dismissive joke; to him, science’s use (and ability) to destroy cities, countries, worlds, isn’t worth saving a few idiots here and there.

Man… I can’t go with him on this one.

[61] Vocabulary:

Dr. von Koenigswald slipped the tholepin of an oarlock from its socket.



noun – a holder attached to the gunwale of a boat that holds the oar in place and acts as a fulcrum for rowing.


“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.



“ ‘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.”



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:



You can live with that outlook if you want. But don’t do it if you don’t have to.

[65] Vocabulary:

“It reminded me right away of Mother’s reticule, of how the reticule felt.”



noun – (historical) – a woman’s small handbag, originally netted and typically having a drawstring and decorated with embroidery or beading.


“I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays.

“But they are murdered children all the same.”


Vonnegut’s wheels are turning: he’s on his way to writing Slaughterhouse-Five (fittingly subtitled The Children’s Crusade).

[67] References:

Minton now recited a poem from Edgar Lee Masters’ the Spoon River Anthology (…)

I was the first fruits of the battle of Missionary Ridge.



Edgar Lee Masters (1868 – 1950) was an American attorney, poet, biographer, and dramatist. He is the author of Spoon River Anthology (1915), a collection of short, free verse poems that collectively narrates the epitaphs of the residents of Spoon River, a fictional small town.

The poem used in Cat’s Cradle is number 26, “Knowlt Hoheimer.”


Panic was not their style. I doubt that suicide was their style either. But their good manners killed them.


[69] Another Slaugherhouse tie (with note [66]):

I was recalled from this dream by the cry of a darting bird above me. It seemed to be asking me what had happened. “Pootee-phweet?” it asked.


In Slaughterhouse-Five, there is a recurring motif of a bird singing “Poo-tee-weet?

[70] References:

He spoke of the rack and the peddiwinkus and the iron maiden and the veglia and the oubliette.



Peddiwinkus is an alternate name for the thumbscrew.

Veglia is Italian for “vigil.” According to medieval-life-and-times:

For the extraordinary torture, which was then much in use in Italy under the name of veglia, the body was stretched horizontally by means of ropes passing through rings riveted into the wall, and attached to the four limbs, the only support given to the culprit being the point of a stake cut into a diamond shape, which just touched the end of the back-bone.

Good God.


Each one of us has to be what he or she is.


[72] Reference:

I recalled an advertisement for a set of children’s books called The Book of Knowledge.



The Children’s Encyclopedia was an encyclopedia originated by Arthur Mee, published from 1908 to 1964. Walter M. Jackson’s company Grolier acquired the rights to publish it in the U.S. under the name The Book of Knowledge (1910). 

[73] Reference:

“As the poet said, Mom, ‘Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.” ’ ”


Vonnegut is playing on two poems.

From Robert Burns’ (1759 – 1796) “To a Mouse, on Turning Up in Her Nest With the Plough” (1785) (in modern English):

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go often askew

From John Greenleaf Whittier’s (see also Salem’s Lot, note [62]) “Maud Muller” (1856):

For of all sad words of tongue and pen,

The saddest are these, ‘It might have been!’

[74] Reference:

Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”


1 Corinthians 15:32:

What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”


“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.”


[76] Fact check:

I recalled a thing I had read about the aboriginal Tasmanians (…) They were so contemptible in the eyes of white men, by reason of their ignorance, that they were hunted for sport by the first settlers, who were convicts from England. And the aborigines found life so unattractive that they gave up reproducing.



Before British colonization in 1803, there were an estimated 3,000 – 15,000 Palawa (indigenous Tasmanians). The Palawa population was severely depleted in the 19th century. A number of historians point to introduced disease as the major cause of the depletion of the 19th century mainland Aboriginal population. Geoffrey Blainey wrote that by 1830 in Tasmania: “Disease had killed most of them but warfare and private violence had also been devastating.” Other historians regard the Black War as one of the earliest recorded modern genocides.

Venereal disease introduced by the Europeans left many of the women unable to reproduce. From a report by a Doctor Story, a Quaker: “After 1823 the women along with the tribe seemed to have had no children; but why I do not know.”

Disease and infertility seem to be the most pointed-at culprits, not the “giving up” of reproduction that Vonnegut’s narrator claims.


The cruel paradox of Bokonist thought, the heartbreaking necessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it.


[78] Reference:

Soft pipes, play on.”



John Keats (1795 – 1821) was an English Romantic poet. He was one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantic poets, along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, despite his work having been in publication for only four years before his death.

Soft pipes, play on” is a line in his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, written in 1819 (full text here). The stanza:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.

Cat’s Cradle has the marks of good Vonnegut: winking satire, clever wordplay, heartbreak. It also has the marks of bad Vonnegut: hatred of humanity, cynicism, distrust of science and technology, failure to follow through on interesting side-plots (the stone angel in Illium; Dr. Breed possibly being the father of some/all of the Hoenikker children).

Cat’s Cradle is the final time Vonnegut weighs hope and hatred for humanity equally. After this, the assumption of the worst in others dominates. His later speeches and essays break my heart. He had no problem looking young people in the eye and telling them: “Humans are trash. We’re all terrible.” The more we believe that, the truer it becomes. If you believe humanity is trash, you treat it like trash.

He claimed to have hope for humanity but leaned so hard into his anger and cynicism that listening to him was almost worse than listening to the people he was being critical of. (“We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard… and too damned cheap” – Fates Worse Than Death ; “Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.” – I Love You, Madame Librarian)

It is not beautiful, poignant, intelligent, or noble to be cynical. For some it is a necessary defense, but I won’t celebrate it or join in unless I have to. I’m sorry that Vonnegut’s experiences brought him to such a state of bitterness but I can’t give him a pass for trying to bring others to the same level.

Cat’s Cradle has moments where the good shines through. For that, I love it. I wish Vonnegut could have held onto these moments.

This Friday, the inevitable return to Stephen King with Christine.


4 thoughts on ““Cat’s Cradle” (Post 2/2)

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