The Aesthetic Backround of Cat's Cradle

Essay by plantationUniversity, Master's April 2004

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After experiencing two world wars, with its destructions to the environment and mankind, modern man began to question the meaning of wars. This resulted with many conflicts in people, due to the fact that the term war were also created by themselves. In the mean time there was also another threathening reality; "science", which reached an increadable measures that man was no more able to control, and catch its improvement. At this point, they felt themselves lost in their own creation of modern world which was based on science, technology and industry. With in this mood of weakness towards the huge powers of the system around them, some people chose to escape from these harsh realities and began to live in an illusionary world, in which they searched peace and safety. On the other hand, some others, (except the minority who celebrated, and welcomed all the development in science), like Kurt Vonnegut, as a writer, tried to find solution to this complicated situation through his novels, in order to help people to get out this kind of chaos.

However, even for him it was very hard to reach these troubled people through traditional techniques in wiriting, because, the time, setting and truth concepts had already disappeared for them. In this atmosphere of carelessness, everything was felt fragmented, meaningless and broken. So, there emerged a new era called "Post-modernism", in order to identify this complicated situation. In this respect, with these complications' reflections to literature, writers, like Kurt Vonnegut, had to constitude different methods to portrait new world in terms of formation and context. As Cat's Cradle was published in 1963, it presents a contemporary world through postmodernist approach, which dates back to the modernity, in which Kurt Vonnegut expresses his thoughts in an absolute freedom to create.

Eventhough the word " modernity" had been used since fifth century, its application to American social life and literature reached its peak in the late nineteenth century, after the industrial revolution, with the new movement called "modernism". The immediate growth in industry caused many complexities in the society. Due to the "laissez-faire" economy, which was based on Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest", masses of people began to struggle under this hard fact of capitalist system. Meanwhile, the other side of the mirror was different, since, parallel to the rapid growth of industry, science and technology, the prosperity of the middle class also increased, that a rise of great modernist movement came to cultural scene and became rulling convention from the 1930s under the name of "High Modernism". Because of the fact that middle class became the dominant power and formed the values, trends, interests, standarts of the society, modernist reacted against it, and they dedicated themselves to the taste of a sophisticated minority, according to avant-garde standarts, with disapproving conventional norms in artistic works. So, they created deliberately difficult works to the common readers, in which they used mythical themes and formal linguistic patterns.

In literature, as it was mentioned above, due to the fact that they refused conventional artistic norms, they rejected the realism in artistic pieces. For them, they created only an art works, so it didn't have to reflect to the reality. Accordingly, parallell to this questioning of the dogmas of realism, they began to search new structures of plot and characters. In this regard, they began to focus on inner world of characters in their works, and developed "stream of conciousness" and "inner monologue" techniques, especially under the impact of the Sigmant Freud's psychoanalitic approach, which enlightened the hidden part of humanbeing, "psychology". So, the general tones of works were pessimistic, due to alienated and isolated characters.

However, after the end of the II. W.W. the dissenters of modernism appeared with their different philosophical and aesthetic programs, since, the II.W.W. brought an entirely different structure to the many aspects of Western life. Mass society was seemed to be the last product of modernism, and during the sixties the major concern over "modernism" was "it has already come to end". Then the new literary movement of the twentieth century appeared. It was called post-modernism, but, in the mean time it also got several disagreements that claimed three assumptions of postmodernism as a continuation of modernism, or a complete break from modernism, and an intensified stage of modernism. However, besides all of these disagreements, the application of post-modernism to literature and others can simply be defined as "freedom to create", in which, in literature, writers could create their works in an absolute freedom without considering about any authority, rule or shape.

Moreover, both postmodernism and modernism were related with "Enligthenment", the age of reason, which was based on man-centered philosophy, that put man at the center of the universe as the strongest and most important living thing of all. However, this man-centered and rationalist philosophy of Enlightenment could only highlight its period, that after the sciencitific improvements and industrilization, the concept of man in the world changed from the dissenters like Freud and Nietzche, who wittnessed with the other realities like man's weaknesses towards the other habitats of the world. So, due to the destructions, despite the thesis of Enlightenment, which promised man an eternal happiness, first modernism questioned this man-centered and rationalist philosophy, and later post-modernism came to a conclusion that the thesis of Enlightenment collapsed. This resulted with chaos not only in man with losing his faith in the progressivist discourses of modernity, but also, in general concepts, like universal reason, justice, equality and truth with several problems.

Accordingly, the most distinctive feature of these two approaches, modernism and postmodernism, in which they are seperated, is their cosiderations about the meaning and order, past and tradition, that the subjectivity of modernism, which distances mass culture, is rejected by postmodernism. Even though postmodernism keeps interest in "past" dealing with "present", it rejects the previous rules of meaning making and interpretation in literature; that its major devices are contradiction and paradox, dislocation and subversion, intertextuality, parody and collage.

Unlike traditional plot structure, causes a certain expectations in readers, postmodernist novels does not present the reality by purpose and meaning, since according to postmodernist writers there is no reality to comment on. The plot structure of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle can be good example for this type, because of the fact that it is far from conventional ones, there is no time concept, eventhough it begins with the former experiences of John, during he collected materials for his book, indeed, it reflects to time that he had already become Bokononist. Moreover, throughout the novel the story is fragmented by illusions and flashbacks to past and future memories, again due to the lack of time concept and plot structure, or in other words, due to the absolute freedom to create.

Furthermore, paradox and contradictions are among the basic features of postmodernism, because it can establish and collapse any concept. Postmodernist writers take middle class values as a representative of democratic system and in this regard they reject all the established values of it. Also, although they rebel against the authority of Establishments and traditions, they turn to the past with ironic flashbacks, parody and pastiche. So, as it was mentioned above they differ from modernist writers who ignore and regret the past. In postmodernist novels, paradox and contradiction are formed by ignoring the story like situation, and by fictional signs or expectations of reader. Thus, the phenomenons of time, location, character and action in narration become abstracted from the rational and mimetic characteristics.

In Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, Bokononism is full of contradictions, that no matter it is an illusionary world of the narrator, it is affacted from the current system's contradictions and it creates its paradoxes in it; and declares them through the words of the inventer of the religion, Bokonon. Inspite of the fact, by creating this kind of man-centered philosophy Bokonon aimed to reach brave, kind and healthy happy man, he also said, "All of the things I am about to tell you are shameless lies." (13). Moreover, Bokonon's another statement, which defines the situation they live in is significant in terms of parodox, that Vonnegut wants to create in his novel, in order to the reflect the misery of mankind in the absurdity of the life. He said that; " the heartbreaking neccessity of lying about reality, and the heartbreaking impossibility of lying about it." (155). This lines clearly display the thoughts of Vonnegut about the no-exit situation of man and the absurdity of life.

Furthermore, as it was mentioned above, due to the fact that the postmodernism reject the established values, certainity and absolute thought system, it mocks any absolute judgement of history and thought system. According to postmodernism, under the authority of any certain institution and belief, an individual can success nothing, so that, postmodernist writers prefer to use untraditional forms and techniques in writing.

Parody is among the techniques, that postmodernist writers generally use in their novels. While visiting the past related to the present, the tool parody is used in terms of both historical and ideological critism, in a humorous way. In Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut parodizes the story of John, in a comic narration, at the opening sentence of the novel, by referring to Melville's novel Moby Dick.

Similarly, pastiche is among the techniques of postmodernism, and it is the latter form of parody, and lack of sense of humor. In a modern society, in which everything is relative and fragmented, political and ethnic traditions replaced by avant-gard art tendency with characteristics of pastiche. Due to the fact that parody and pastiche provided new view points in studying the beliefs and myths, they have great contributions to the postmodernist novels. Accordingly, collage, a similar device with parody and pastiche, gives a chance to writer to add phrases, quatations, headlines or news from other works to his own plot. In this regard, such kind of intertextuality is proof of absolute discourses are the results of related discourses.

In addition to parody, post modernist writers used allegory and blackhumor, in order to show painful realism of man condition in the present system of the world. For instance, Vonnegut, in Cat's Cradle, presents all his blames through humor, due to the fact he couldn't find any body to blame directly, in a situation that man can only survive with the help of illusions. He used black humor, such as, at the very beginning of the novel, with saying, all the true things in the book are lies.

Moreover, due to the destructions of the II. W.W., the disillusioned writers of the late fourties and fifties, lost their interest with outside world and turned to their inside, in which, by uniting their imagination with language they discover and display subjectivity of their subconscious. These postmodernist writers rejected the authority of narrator and set him back to the stage, just to intervene in case of neccessity. These works were called "metafiction", and these aim of writers came from their tendency to make readers believe that their works are empricial and fictional without aiming to deal with reality. In this respect, Cat's Cradle is also a metafictional piece, in which Vonnegut successfully creates a new language, since, it was impossible for him to express the complication of modern world in a traditional ways. So, Vonnegut turned to his own imagination and formed his own system of language, while he was presenting Bokononism. For instance he uses the words like "boko-maru", which defines the action of Bokononists, in which they rub soles of feet, in order to get to souls of eachother; or he creates the word "foma" which means harmless untruths.

Besides these, during the sixties, some writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, produced science-fictions with different techniques which is called metafictional science-fiction or postmodern science-fiction. By this way, they created not only the new realities, but also new point of views to the current realities. Because, they worked the past myths in the fictional structure of unknown future. Also, they had a chance to create new words and language in the world of science-fiction. Therefore, these writers emphasized not only the phenomenon itself, but also, myths and civilizations as a result of language. Kurt Vonnegut novel, The Sirens of Titan which is fictionalized space travel, can be good example for metafictional works of Vonnegut, with its fantastic dimension.

In sum, published in 1963, Cat's Cradle, is a portrait of post second World War American society, in which individuals not only felt themselves alienated, but also were purposeless and hopeless in the conflicts and complications of modern world. Under these circumstances, writers of the post-era tried to understand the modern world and tried to find solution for the betterment of man, who had lost his control over the system, because of the enormouse power of science. At this point, with its background from the modernity, postmodernism appeared in American literature, which criticizes the current situation of America, in terms of its social, political, and technological dimensions; and which has an absolute freedom to create in its works, due to the absurdity and contradictions of life. In that sense, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the most significant examples of postmodernism, in terms of both context and formation, due to its critical response to the period.