Shawn Morris

Freud and the Literary Imagination

R. Gray

The Lens of Freud: A Look at the Dichotomy of Bokononism and Reality

In the early sixties, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. released his candidly fantastical novel, Cat's Cradle. Within the text an entire religious sect, called Bokononism is born; a religion built on lies, absurdity, and irony. The narrator of Cat's Cradle is Jonah, a freelance writer who characterizes Bokononism as being, "free form as an amoeba" (Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 3). It is boundless and unpredictable as the unconscious itself. Bokonon lives on the impoverished island of San Lorenzo where he spends his days scribing poetic calypsos in the books of Bokonon. Jonah arrives on the same island in his pursuit of Frank Hoenniker, the military commander and son of the eccentric Dr. Hoenniker, who invents a substance capable of freezing the world over in seconds called ice-nine. When San Lorenzo's totalitarian ruler, Papa Monzano, passes away—infecting the oceans with ice-nine in the process—Frank transfers his inherited power to Jonah. Even within this skeletal sketch of the novel, one can see that the absurdity and humor within the religion of Bokonon is imposed on the plot itself, creating a world of comedic fantasy in which the reading audience can partake. In light of this, Cat's Cradle exemplifies imagination and play, thus correlating with the theory Freud illustrates in the essay "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming," which emphasizes the importance of fantasy to the creative writer and its therapeutic value for the audience.

At the most fundamental level, even the title of the novel provides a strong example of the importance of play to Vonnegut. Cat's cradle is a childrenÕs game of weaving yarn between the fingers whereby the player forms various patterns. To see beyond what exists (or in Vonnegut's words: to lie) so as to create substance out of the drooping string—such as the form of the Eiffel tower, a rocket ship, or a cradle—imagination and playfulness are used. The cat's cradle game can be allegorically employed to model Freud's interpretation of childhood play and, most importantly, creative writers. In the essay, "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming," Freud writes, "every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, re-arranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him" (437). Here Freud brings his theory to light by likening the creative writer to the playful process of the child. The child draws some connection from reality to build a playful construct that branches off from what is real and becomes his or her own world. Freud views the process of writing and the fantasy involved as he views the child's development of his or her imaginary structures.

If one uses the cat's cradle as a microcosm of this concept, then the world created is symbolized by the substance derived from the string, and the pleasure one gets from creation can be symbolized by the playful recognition of form in the skeletal embodiment of it. The rearrangement of things is signified by the rearrangement of string. Freud goes on to write, "[the child/creative writer] takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it" (437). What Freud defines here is that for the child or the creative writer to mentally involve him or herself completely in a playful activity he or she makes use of a substantial amount of energy, thus taking the final creation seriously. The expenditure of this emotion can be related to the concept of the cat's cradle as well; within the necessary process of learning and, later, work, which gives rise to the imaginative aspect.

The concept of play as an important and emotionally charged activity continues in the text in Vonnegut's portrayal of his fantasized Bokonon religion. The foreword to the book states: "live by the foma [harmless untruths] that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy" (Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 2). Before the narrative even begins, Vonnegut alludes to the core of his novel: to use play and absurdity to construct a shelter from reality within which his audience can find therapeutic solace. Towards the conclusion of "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming," Freud writes, "our actual enjoyment of an imaginative work proceeds from a liberation of tensions in our minds" (Freud, Freud Reader, 443). This excerpt mirrors the foreword of Cat's Cradle to a degree because Freud recognizes the therapeutic value that Vonnegut offers the reader. A parallel can be drawn between Vonnegut's foma, or harmless untruths, and the liberating nature of literature that Freud distinguishes. The foreword is a concrete portrayal of the cathartic ability creative writing holds.

Vonnegut gives the reader permission to accept the fantasies—or foma—that liberate the mind from the tensions of pre-conscious repression and realistic inhibition that in themselves maintain a perpetual failing of the characteristics of bravery, kindness, healthiness, and happiness. Moreover, Vonnegut demands identification, writing, "Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either" (Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 6). It is important to note that Bokononism can be understood to mean the process that seeks to illuminate and enrich the string of life, or, in a word, imagination itself. In the reading of Cat's Cradle one is bound into a therapeutic contract that promises a fantasy that will be useful as a coping mechanism, provided one's conscious can accept it.

Further along in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" Freud delineates between those who have the capability of internalizing fantasy and those who do not. He writes, "We may lay it down that a happy person never fantasizes, only an unsatisfied one" (Freud, Freud Reader, 439). Vonnegut both verifies and negates this statement with Bokononist philosophy. Bokononism, in essence, argues that life is inherently displeasing, and the only way one can find happiness is through foma, or strength in imagination and playfulness. Vonnegut thus verifies Freud's statement through his explication of the way in which dissatisfaction leads to fantasy. However, Vonnegut negates Freud's contention by intimating that everyone is displeased in some way, and the sole path to happiness is fantasy. Whereas Freud seeks to divide people into happy and unhappy categories, as he seeks to divide creative writers from laymen, Vonnegut universalizes the concept.

The division between creative writers and laymen that Freud outlines in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" is addressed by Cat's Cradle as well. In a sense, Vonnegut offers a different literary assertion of Freud's to contend with the division principle. Freud implies that the story's hero is an alter ego of the author's self (Freud, Freud Reader, 440-443). In order to establish this concept, Freud develops a specific, three-pronged formula as follows: "Mental work is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject's major wishes. From there it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience; it now creates a situation relating to the future which represents a fulfillment of the wish" (439). Freud claims that the motivation behind a writer's creative process is linked to an external stimulus that drives out a wish fulfillment scenario from a previous experience. This formula seems to stem from FreudÕs dream theory, as portrayed in his essay "On Dreams" (Freud, Freud Reader, 154-157). Although this method is rigid and overly simplistic, it can loosely be applied to what may be Vonnegut's literary motivation.

First, the mental work behind Cat's Cradle may have been aroused by the Cold War hostilities of the time. In 1962, the year before the novel was published, America experienced the Cuban missile crisis. This time period was also punctuated by the impending conflict in Vietnam; the Vietcong were established and ready to fight. These two historical stress points may have triggered Vonnegut's mental work. Interestingly, the two examples given are both located in tropical settings; Cuba in particular is similar to San Lorenzo in Vonnegut's Caribbean description. Moreover, Freud's idea of "harking back to an earlier experience" may be Vonnegut recalling his WWII experience and the horror he underwent in a meat-packing cellar during the bombing of Dresden (Freud, Freud Reader, 439). Perhaps this mental work led to the construction of Bokononism. It is a philosophy of psychological freedom, that lets its disciples lie in the face of the horridness of reality, of which both Dresden and Vietnam stand as paramount examples.

Before continuing, it is important to note the discrepancies involved in this account. Freud writes, "harks back to a memory of an earlier experience (usually an infantile one)" (Freud, Freud Reader, 439). Vonnegut's Dresden memory does not at first appear infantile, however, this discrepancy is lessened by examining one of his later literary works. The sub-title of Vonnegut's novel about his Dresden experience, Slaughterhouse Five, is The Children's Crusade. Furthermore, within the text he writes, "We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood" (Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 14). Here there is testament to a type of infantile memory that may have become the mental work behind Bokononism. Vonnegut defines his WWII experience, and thus his recollection of it, as infantile in recognition of the vacuum of profound life-experience he and his fellow soldiers had had the chance to undergo.

To augment and test imagination and fulfill this mental work more completely, Vonnegut subjects Jonah to the filters of four distinctive paradigmatic modes of thought. Freud derives particular importance from this oberver brand of hero, writing, "[the hero] sees the actions and sufferings of other people pass before him like a spectator; the ego contents itself with [this] role" (Freud, Freud Reader, 442). Freud's spectator hero gives the reader the ability to compare the forms of thought presented—Christianity, nihilism, science, and Bokononism—and ultimately decree Bokononism as the supremely freeing entity. Here, Vonnegut defines himself as an alter ego of Jonah, who is himself a writer, because it is the path through these paradigms into foma and humor that Vonnegut deems each individual must take. In other words, the participation on the part of the reader is the metamorphosis from Freud's description of the layman to his description of the writer. Because Vonnegut paves this path in his plotline, and travels it through his narrator, he eradicates the distinction between those having pre-conscious limitation and those who lack it, thus denying Freud's concept of a division between creative writers and the mass of humanity.

The distinction of Bokononism as a direct representation of imagination, fantasy, and play becomes more evident in light of Vonnegut's portrayal of Christianity, science, and nihilism. In Cat's Cradle these doctrines may be substituted for the gates of the pre-conscious, or the reality of contemporary social norms and their restrictions. In his triangular selection of Christianity, science, and nihilism, Vonnegut provides the reader with the full spectrum of doctrines. Nihilism runs counter to science concerning the hard facts of reality, representing chaos and order respectively, and both can be considered Christianity's opposites. This concept of social norms as restriction that is embodied by Vonnegut's triangle is distinctly Freudian (Freud, Freud Reader, 438). In "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" Freud cites the importance of norms when he writes, "[the adult] knows that he is expected not to go on playing or phantasying any longerÉthus he is ashamed of his phantasies as being childish and as being unpermissible" (438). Bokononists erode these blockades that build a structure of shame.

First, Vonnegut identifies Christianity as an allegory of repression through one of Jonah's encounters. When Jonah comes across two construction workers secretly conducting Boko-Maru, the Bokononist tradition of pressing bare feet together, he notes that, "They were expecting to be killed" in response to their fear (Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 157). Their fear is due to the fact that the totalitarian Christian rulers of San Lorenzo outlaw Bokononism and threaten its followers with death. Metaphorically, this example epitomizes the duality of conscious and unconscious. The ruling authorities (conscious) brutally seek to punish and repress the playful, Bokononist San Lorenzans (unconscious) by means of execution (pre-conscious), because they are threatened by their fantasizing. This excerpt also sheds some further light on the seriousness Freud deems inherent in child's play and literary creation (Freud, Freud Reader, 437). Despite the grave consequence of playing, or conducting Boko-Maru, the Bokononists continue to practice their tradition. By risking their very lives they exemplify the importance of play and fantasy as a vital therapeutic engagement.

Jonah confronts nihilism, the second of the triangle's vertices, before his visit to San Lorenzo, and it is depicted as similarly restrictive. While Jonah is away, a nihilist by the name of Sherman Krebbs lives in his apartment. When Jonah returns he says, "I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch. Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred dollars' worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five place, killed my cat and my avocado tree, and torn the door off my medicine cabinetÉthere was a sign hung around my dead cat's neck. It said, 'Meow'" (Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 78). In Vonnegut's eyes, nihilism's attempt to renounce "artificial" meaning by directly confronting reality leads to the deterioration and psychosis of the individual who exploits this approach. This is concretely symbolized through the words of "nihilistic debauch," and the scene of comedic chaos Jonah goes on to describe. Jonah's reaction to this is simply, "after I saw what Krebbs had done, in particular what he had done to my sweet cat, nihilism was not for meÉ.Well done, Mr. Krebbs, well done" (79). The "well done" connotes Jonah's ironic appreciation for the way in which Krebbs deters him from a philosophy of meaninglessness where there is no room for foma. In Krebbs's psychosis there is a bridge to Freud's theory of repression. If nihilists repress their fantasy while constructing a concrete model of insignificance and disconnection, then the repression of their more meaningful fantasies, such as day-dreams of love, might lead to the demented eruptions characterized by Krebbs.

            Thirdly, Vonnegut utilizes two of Jonah's experiences to portray the barriers science poses in its desire to organize reality into a regimented system. A first example occurs when Jonah asks about a previous conversation between a secretary and the late Dr. Hoenniker. Jonah is told, "I said to him, 'God is love.' He said, 'What is God? What is love?' 'Um.'" (Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 55) Here science deconstructs the secretary's foma, restricting her happiness through faith. While Christian faith is already demonstrated to be repressive, it involves some level of imagination above this depiction of science. Here the social shame Freud distinguishes is brought upon the secretary, which is exhibited by her awkward response. A second example takes place when a scientist by the name of Dr. Breed explains the value of pure research to Jonah. Dr. Breed says, "New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become" (41). To this, Jonah mentally replies, "Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl" (41). This segment of dialogue and internal monologue differentiates Bokononism and science more directly over the issue of truth. Science's supposed quest for truth to bring richness requires an inherent denial of untruths, such as the harmless untruths that are foma, fantasy, and play. Jonah's response marks Bokononism as an elevated doctrine, because of its realization that life is only livable through the fantasized utilization of the untrue.

In these three doctrines there is the undertone of repression. Their introduction to the plot is important to the therapeutic process because it outlines Jonah as a particular type of hero, as well as the path with which the reader can identify. Although Jonah is not a traditional hero—who fights great foes, or rescues damsels in distress—he is a hero in the sense that he conquers his own pre-conscious limitations entrenched within his mind by his previous life experiences. This is symbolically shown when he sheds his own Christian shell and converts to Bokononism. In the works of Vonnegut, this acceptance of absurdity is again and again deemed the most heroic feat anyone can accomplish. Because Vonnegut holds this type of action in such high regard, which is to say, holds the importance of play and imagination in high regard, one finds further justification in labeling Jonah an alter-ego of Vonnegut for ultimately recognizing this concept as the greatest good as well.

            It could be argued, however, that Vonnegut's form of play is merely a repression of reality on the part of the San Lorenzans and Jonah. However, the distinction is in the philosophy of the character Bokonon. Bokonon recognizes the truths and turmoil of the world and internalizes them, so as to make light of them. In this sense, he too is an alter ego of Vonnegut. Bokonon and his followers do not ignore reality; they jest and prod at it, fully acknowledging its ultimate control. For Bokononists, it is all about humor. In "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming" Freud writes, "[the adult] can throw off the too heavy burden imposed on him by life and win the high yield of pleasure afforded by humour" (437). Vonnegut himself has written of this concept more explicitly in his latest novel A Man without a Country, "God knows humor is the soul seeking some relief" (67). This dogma is employed thoroughly in Cat's Cradle. Vonnegut has written that every chapter in Cat's Cradle is designed to be a joke within itself, snapping in the last sentence or so (Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, 43). Vonnegut makes use of the therapy of playful humor not to dilute reality as the triangular doctrines do, but to further validate imagination, which is behind every joke.

            Vonnegut makes one last ironic jab at reality with his destruction of the earth by ice-nine, a chemical produced by the great, seemingly benevolent institution of science. The entire earth freezes over, killing nearly everyone. With this contextually comical ending, Vonnegut drives the claim that reality is drastic and ruthless; the best one can do is to make light of it. In the novel, by fully engaging in foma it is possible for the characters to accept the things with their own unconscious fantasy that their conscious mind would have them cope with through repression. This aligns itself distinctively with Freud's own musings on the ability of the creative writer from the essay "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming." Freud believes that creative writers both had the ability to dissolve their pre-conscious gates in order to create fantasy, and also to therapeutically engage their audience with creativity and imagination (Freud, Freud Reader, 436-443). This concept rests as a superstructure over the plot of Cat's Cradle.  In the end of the novel, when the earth is still and frozen and Jonah reigns as San Lorenzan king of diddly squat, Bokonon recites a final note of insolence to the stupidity of restriction, saying:

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. (Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle, 287)


Bokononism's refreshing defiance of restraint and reality with the creative power of playful imagination is a precise illumination of the therapeutic value Freud christens as inherent in literature.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming." Freud Reader, Edited by Peter Gay. New York, NY: Norton and Company Inc., 1989.

Freud, Sigmund. "On Dreams." Freud Reader, Edited by Peter Gay. New York, NY: Norton and Company Inc., 1989.

Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man without a Country. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2005.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat's Cradle. New York, NY: Delta Books, 1963.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York, NY: Random House, 1969.