It is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to "Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy." Many of the sacred texts of Bokononism were written in the form of calypsos. A foundation of Bokononism is that the religion, including its texts, is formed entirely of lies; however, one who believes and adheres to these lies will have peace of mind, and perhaps live a good life.
Bokonon, a character in the novel, is the founder of the religion. He was born Lionel Boyd Johnson in 1891 and attended the London School of Economics to study Political Science, only to have his education cut short by World War I. "Bokonon" was the way the natives of San Lorenzo, the fictional Caribbean island-nation where the shipwrecked Johnson started his religion, pronounced his family name in their unique dialect of English.
Bokonon established Bokononism with Earl McCabe, his partner in ruling the island, when all the duo's efforts to raise the standard of living on the island failed, as a means to help the poor islanders escape their miserable reality by practicing a simple religion. Arranging with McCabe that Bokononism be outlawed and eternally persecuted by the government, he went to live in the jungle, supposedly hiding, thus trying to lure the population into Bokononism as a kind of forbidden fruit.
The religion of the people of San Lorenzo, called Bokononism, encompasses concepts unique to the novel, with San Lorenzan names such as:
- karass - group of people who, often unknowingly, are working together to do God's will. The group can be thought of as the fingers that support a cat's cradle.
- duprass - a karass that consists of only two people. This is one of the few kinds of karass about which one can have any reliable knowledge. The two members of a duprass live lives that revolve around each other, and are therefore often married. "A true duprass can't be invaded, not even by children born of such a union." The novel cites the example of "Horlick Minton, the New American Ambassador to the Republic of San Lorenzo, and his wife, Claire." The two members of a duprass always die within a week of each other.
- granfalloon - a false karass; i.e., a group of people who imagine they have a connection that does not really exist. An example is "Hoosiers"; Hoosiers are people from Indiana, and Hoosiers have no true spiritual destiny in common, so they really share little more than a name. Another example is a Cornellian, a student or graduate of Cornell University.
- wampeter - the central theme or purpose of a karass. Each karass has two wampeters, one that it is moving away from, and one that it is moving towards.
- foma - harmless untruths; lies that, if used correctly, can be useful.
- wrang-wrang - someone who steers a Bokononist away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang's own life, to an absurdity.
- vin-dit - a sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism
- saroon - to acquiesce to a vin-dit
- stuppa - a fogbound child (i.e. an idiot)
- duffle - the destiny of thousands of people placed on one stuppa
- sin-wat - a person who wants all of somebody's love for him/herself
- pool-pah - wrath of God or "shit storm"
- kan-kan - the instrument which brings a person into his or her karass
- Busy, busy, busy - what a Bokononist whispers whenever he thinks about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.
- boko-maru - the supreme act of worship of the Bokononists, which is an intimate act consisting of prolonged physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two persons.
- Now I will destroy the whole world. - What a Bokononist says before committing suicide.
- sinookas - the tendrils of one's life
- Zah-mah-ki-bo - fate, inevitable destiny
- Calypso - song from The Books of Bokonon. Eight such songs are cited in Cat's Cradle, some of them are presented with a title (i.e. On Dynamic Tension or The Boko-maru Calypso) and others are presented with a number (i.e. The Hundred-and-nineteenth Calypso). The Calypsos illustrate various aspects of the teachings of Bokonon.
Works that reference Bokononism
- Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction: p236 "In Bokonon, it is written that 'peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.'"
- Bernard Hare's Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew: p238 "I think we should make Bokononism the official religion of Ashtrayland, don't you, Urban?"
- ABC's short-lived series The Unusuals mentioned Bokononism and Cat's Cradle in the fourth episode.
- Born Ruffians song "Kurt Vonnegut" quotes a Bokononist saying.
- "Foma" is a song and CD title from the rock band The Nixons.
- The song "Nice, Nice, Very Nice" by Ambrosia set the 53rd Calypso from Cat's Cradle to music.
- James Taylor skats "Bokonon, Bokonon" in his live version of "Steamroller Blues".
- Minimal Man uses the Calypsos as the lyrics to "jungle song".
- Episode 14, "On the Wagon", of ABC's My So-Called Life has a character declare "You know, I think we could be part of the same karass."
- Dave Soldier's CD Ice-9 Ballads, setting Vonnegut's lyrics to music. Includes "14th Calypso", "119th Calypso", and "Nice Very Nice". Narrator Kurt Vonnegut himself.
- Norman Spinrad's He Walked Among Us: p395 "I believe in the foma that make you strong and brave and happy..." and "...he had flipped her Vonnegut's line about foma, useful lies that made you strong and brave and happy..."
- Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions
- Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country has multiple new[dubious ] Bokonon quotes.
- Dan Mangan (A Canadian folk singer and Vonnegut enthusiast) released his second album Nice, Nice, Very Nice in August 2009, featuring a very Vonnegut tone within the lyrics.
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