Authorship, Truth, and Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

Jonah, the narrator of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle informs the reader in the fourth chapter that the first line in the holy book of his religion, Bokononism, reads: “ ‘All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.’ ”[1] The Books of Bokonon, a clear parody of the wisdom books of The Bible and other religious texts, is presented to the reader throughout the plot of the novel, which is centered on the destruction of the world via a chemical weapon known as Ice-Nine, as a means of satirizing religion and attempting to point to its futility and the ways in which it fails to create relevant meaning in the face of Armageddon because of the apathy it creates in its members through fatalism. This, however, is not to suggest that the novel’s thesis is that faith itself or the text of a religious practice are inherently destined to fail in this respect; rather, the novel points to an existential conception of faith and the texts of religious practice, that those who practice decide how to fill those artifacts with meaning. Although The Books of Bokonon is meant as a parody of the wisdom books, an examination of the parallels and differences between it and the book of Proverbs will shed some light on the nature of Biblical wisdom, its “true” implications for how we as Christians live, and also some helpful ways Proverbs allows the reader to reconceive the critique of religion found in Cat’s Cradle. In this paper, I will examine what it means for wisdom to be “true” which will include a discussion of authorship and natural theology within the context of each text and comparing the two texts to see how the concept of “truth” in wisdom developed affects our reading of them. I propose that “truth” in these texts is a completely subjective term, though not relative, and exists outside of authorship, explicit or implied, and that this conception of truth in Proverbs will lead us to the conclusion that wisdom literature in general is reflective of natural theology.

The authorship of the book of Proverbs is certainly questionable for a number of reasons. It was long thought that Solomon, who in 1 Kings 3 requests the gift of wisdom from God and is granted it, was the author of Proverbs. This is a point of contention between scholars who primarily seem to hold that Solomon, while he may have written some of Proverbs, did not write all of it, and may have merely been a collector of wisdom even, not the creator of it. But how important is literal authorship to a text? Michel Foucalt argues in his essay entitled “What Is an Author?” that the presence of the author’s name on any text “is functional in that it serves as a means of classification [. . .] [T]he name of the author remains at the contours of texts—separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterizing their mode of existence.”[2] We may be able to read a particular author without looking at the cover to see the author’s name or the title of the text and still be able to discern merely from the style who the author is. The boundaries that give shape to a text and act as markers of difference to distinguish one particular text from another are varied. Style and even character names can act as markers. The title of a text is a more obvious mark of difference distinguishing different texts written by the same author as well as other texts. It is sometimes difficult, however, to conceive of the author as being a marker, that is as not being an active agent of meaning creation in a text. However, once a text is penned, the meaning of it is out of the control of the author completely. The label of Solomon, then, as author is nothing more than a function of the context of the book itself. It acts as the title does, helping to classify the text as a book of wisdom, but separating it from the other books of wisdom not penned by Solomon. It too is only a marker of difference. Having this understanding helps us in discussing the question of “truth” with regard to Proverbs because the book seems to share common origin with books of wisdom from other cultures, which will in turn further clarify the absence of the author in the creation of meaning for the text.

The book is not the only of its kind from the ancient world. The Egyptian scribe Amenemope supposedly wrote his Instruction of Amenemope sometime between the 14th and 11th centuries, BCE, well before Solomon supposedly wrote Proverbs. If we compare the two texts, we can see some distinct similarities and even moments where the two share almost the same language. Proverbs 22:22 reads, “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate”[3] while Chapter 2 of the Instructions begins, “Beware of stealing from a miserable man / and raging against the cripple.”[4] The similarity between these and multiple other verses and lines further suggests that the proverbs from both texts are perhaps “without” author and origin, that is their authorship is unknown; the proverbs themselves become mythemes in that sense because they are repeated across cultures. They are ubiquitous. If we were to argue for any origin for the Proverbs, it seems it would make the most sense to say that they find their origin in human experience itself. Though they may not be ubiquitous across all cultures, the fact that they cross the line between Hebraic and Egyptian cultures is enough to see that there are certainly some shared experiences across differing cultures.

In contrast, the proverbs of The Book of Bokonon do have clear authorship. The founder of the religion is still alive, though no one is able to find him until the last page of the novel. The writings found in this text differ from Proverbs in one way worth noting. They tell their own story of how they were written. In other words, they contain elements of meta-writing that describe the reason for why they were written. For example, “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 / A par-a-dise.”[5] This suggests two important details about wisdom literature. First, it questions the nature of “truth” in wisdom. Bokonon admits that his wisdom is “fabricated”; he even gives a name to it, foma, which is defined as “harmless untruths” on the title page of the novel.[6] This then raises the question: In what way is Bokononian wisdom not the truth? Toward the end of the novel, the narrator recites this passage: “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.”[7] The reader can certainly see the “truth” in such a statement. But within the context of a text that begins by telling its reader everything that follows is a lie, the presence of “true” wisdom seems paradoxical. If the wisdom is still applicable, is useful, then the meaning that we can pull from the author’s claim that everything in the book is false is two-fold. First, this further establishes the fact that authorship is only a function of the text—the author has no real power over the establishment of meaning in a text—his or her name only adds dimension and shape to the contours of the text, as Foucalt suggests. Bokonon’s statement regarding the falsity of the text becomes overridden by the fact that the statements found within the book are actually useful and contain “truth” to the extent that the reader can understand how they apply and are drawn from real life experience, much like Proverbs. The statement of falsity is rendered false, and the power of the text over the author is upheld. However, that is not to say necessarily that the “truth” of Bokononism is the same as the “truth” found in Proverbs. There are important differences.

If we compare the wisdom of Proverbs and Bokonon, these issues regarding truth will be further illuminated. The “wisdom” of Bokonon is highly subjective in that it takes “objective” facts regarding human and gives them “theological” content. The narrator tells the reader:

‘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.[8]

Later, the narrator goes on to explain the importance of the karass and cites wisdom from Bokonon regarding how one is to handle his or her karass when he or she encounters it. All Bokonon has done is taken a very mundane detail about life—the fact that sometimes people end up in our lives for no particular reason—and turned it into the corner stone of his religion by placing it in the context of and along side other wisdom statements and by claiming that God created these groupings of people for a special reason. It becomes wise to the narrator by association, and the reader’s focus is then drawn to the people with whom the narrator becomes involved.

While Proverbs perhaps is not quite this extreme, the proverbs of Bokonon defamiliarize us with proverbs in general, pointing out to us their construction, and making us aware of what they are at the most base level. The book of Proverbs, in many ways, is also making observations about certain details, though they are not as mundane and inherently devoid of meaning as the ones Bokonon picks out. Proverbs 22:17-19 provides the theological content for the “Sayings of the Wise” spread over chapters 22-24:

The words of the wise: Incline your ear and hear my words, and apply your mind to my teaching; / for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you, if all of them are ready on your lips. / So that your trust may be in the Lord, I have made them known to you today—yes, to you.[9]

Here, the theological content is delivered before any observation is made, but the overall effect is essentially the same: Obey these things because they are of God.  We can look at the wisdom that follows this instruction to see how this works: Proverbs 23 begins with the following advice:

When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, / and put a knife to your throat if you have a big appetite. / Do not desire the ruler’s delicacies, fore they are deceptive food. / Do not wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist. / When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.[10]

In light of the Bokononian proverbs, we can see how the wisdom of Proverbs is similarly constructed. In the Bokononian proverb, we have first an observation about human relationships, particularly ones that are seemingly devoid of meaning, followed by a declaration that God has fashioned such relationships with a purpose, thus delivering not just some kind of existential meaning, but theological implications as well. However, there is a key difference with Proverbs. In these passages from Proverbs, the reader is first given the theological content—your trust is in the Lord if you follow these—and then we have the observation and advice, which, unlike the Bokononian proverb, would still be true outside of any explicit theological context. While the implications of the Bokononian proverb do have importance for the narrator and others in the novel, anyone who rejects Bokononism would immediately be rejecting the notion of karass and the idea that the random people we become tangled up with carry some kind of meaning for us. In that sense, Bokonon’s claim that his book is actually false is true because one must submit to the constructed theological reality created by Bokonon in order for many of his Proverbs to have any meaning.

The perhaps “higher truth” of Proverbs coupled with author functionality in a text further illuminates the ubiquitous nature of the book and leads us further to some interesting theological conclusions. Returning to Bokonon’s statement at the beginning of his religious text: If even a statement regarding falsity given by the author of a text is unable to render the text false, then the reader of Proverbs only need concern him or herself with what is actually being said in the text. Some may worry that if the book of Proverbs is not connected explicitly to Yahweh, to the exclusive history of Israel, then that my raise certain questions about the God-breathed nature of the book. How can this be the word of the God of Israel if the people under the gods of Egypt or elsewhere are writing such similar things? However, since we cannot discern the authorship of the text, since it does indeed seem mythological in nature, is mythemic, then the “truth” of the text or rather its Truth as God’s Word should not be an issue.

Furthermore, this perhaps points to wisdom literature as part of a natural theology. We have already seen that the wisdom in Proverbs transcends its theological content; that is, it does not need theological implications in order to be true. This suggests that the one true God is present in all things good and is able to inspire general revelation within varying groups in order to achieve his purposes. The common human experience I alluded to earlier could be further defined in terms of natural theology: God is present in wisdom that proves to be useful, edifying, and good. This must be the case for a number of reasons. First, there is no other way to theologically explain the origin of a book like Proverbs as God-breathed if by that we mean that the explicit and ultimate origin of a text is God not that God appropriated and transformed something else. It seems as though even if Solomon did “write” part of the book, the proverbs he wrote down were most likely picked up from somewhere else. It is quite possible he was more of a collector of proverbs rather than the creator of them. If this is the case, then the origin of the Proverbs is most likely not exclusively tied to the Hebraic tradition, but was transferred from another culture. The conclusion must be that God was at work in that other culture in order to eventually bring its wisdom to his chosen people. If everything is God’s creation, it should not be surprising that he can be at work in it in a variety of places.

by Joel Harrison

Works Cited

The Instructions of Amenemope. <; 4 May 2010.

Foucalt, Michel. “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter Memory, Practice. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

New Revised Standard Bible. Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA. New York: Harper Collins, 1989.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell Publishing, 1963.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, (New York: Dell Publishing, 1963), p. 5.

[2] Michel Foucalt, “What Is an Author?” Language, Counter Memory, Practice, Ed. Donald F. Bouchard, (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977), p. 123.

[3] NRSV.

[4] The Instructions of Amenemope. <; 4 May 2010.

[5] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, 127.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 281.

[8] Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, p. 2-3.

[9] NRSV.

[10] NRSV.


One thought on “Authorship, Truth, and Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

  1. […] Authorship, Truth, and Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle […]

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