Blasphemy for the Day: Playing the Game

A response to the BBC’s Thought for the DayYou don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players…

I invented a religion this week, based on the primary tenet of Bokononism, that one should “live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.” A foma is a harmless untruth. To this end I have plundered religions of the river, popular culture, and Doctor Who for inspiration.


Every religion needs a founding myth. It is the Ground of Being on which  foma are built.

Once upon a time there was a universe, filling all of space and time. There was nothing outside it, since it had no boundaries, and any point within it was the centre of everything.

The inhabitants of this universe were happy and wise beyond all human measure, attuned to each other’s thoughts from planet to planet, galaxy to galaxy. Everyone could shift from the concentration needed to read a book to merge with the Mind of the Universe and all points in between. They knew themselves, and each other, inside out.

And therein lay the problem. They were bored. It was the one insurmountable problem left, after all the seemingly insurmountable problems of corporeal existence had been solved.

A Grand Colloquium of all the minds in the universe assembled. Unimaginable illions of synapses flashed and thundered through the group mind. The result was inevitable – they could not go on like this, their universe must end, must be reborn in ignorance. In that instant of resolution, every particle in the universe came together in one infinitely dense, cataclysmic clump that occupied no space and time at all.

The singularity exploded in what we now call the Big Bang, creating a new universe with its own space, time, and physical laws. The Great Mind fragmented itself into mindless particles, which would take billions of years to evolve into sentient individuals capable of wondering, “Who am I?”

We are the universe learning to know itself, and the quest is called the Play of Being or the Great Game, depending whether your tastes lie in theatre or sport.


There have been a few. The late, great Carl Sagan was one.


There are no teachings, priests, and no ecclesiastical hierarchy. The Play of Being is a gnosis, or knowledge of oneself and other people, combined with an understanding of how the world works. This follows naturally from the foundation myth – emotional intelligence and scientific understanding are essential tools in the universe coming to know itself. Furthermore, we are allowed to be wrong, as long as we acknowledge a better idea when it comes along. Players or Gamers read the word ignorance as ignore-ance, and see people who stick their heads in the sand as bad actors, those who know their lines by heart and nothing else.

Everything springs from the foundation myth. This is a world of illusion, masks, roles, some of them unwitting, some put on through fear, and some worn knowingly. It follows that for less than significant others, we do not suddenly doff our disguises and come together for a group hug, because that would be insincere and spoil the play. A sly apprehension that others are more than they seem is enough, a glimpse out of the corner of the eye as something flits by, too fast to register.

Even so, humanity trumps everything, and if some people cannot bear to see others enjoy what should be universal rights and privileges, then they are paradoxically both bad and good actors. They are objective enemies, method actors so invested in their roles that they think there is nothing outside them. To these we say, Well played!, followed by, You’re a dangerous idiot and I will try to thwart you.

So what is this, a religion, a philosophy, or just me trying to fill up a word quota as prophesied in Diary of an Art Fiend? You must be the judge. In the meantime, enjoy the play.

The Seven Ages of Man

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

– As You Like It

And here’s a truncated version in Polari.

Blasphemy for the Day: Bokononism

A response to the BBC’s Thought for the DayYou don’t have to be a believer to enjoy a day of rest.

I can’t do any better than this concise and elegantly written introduction from Wikipedia, the bloggers’ friend:

Bokononism is a fictional religion invented by Kurt Vonnegut and practiced by many of the characters in his novel Cat’s Cradle. Many of the sacred texts of Bokononism were written in the form of calypsos.

Bokononism is based on the concept of foma, which are defined as harmless untruths. 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. The primary tenet of Bokononism is to “Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”

It’s been many years since I last read Cat’s Cradle. Bokononism has always appealed to me as the most benign and interesting of invented religions. Perhaps it has something to do with its creator being a novelist, though that’s no guarantee. L. Ron Hubbard unleashed Scientology on the gullible, with the sole intention of making money out of them. Most such religions aren’t quite so blatant.

Every religion needs a founder, and Bokonon’s life story can best be expressed with the simplest of materials, fully in keeping with the ethos of his beliefs. Russell Milton created this biopic with the aid only of Ken, lego figures, toy boats, and his own bathtub.

One of the things I find attractive about Bokononism is the explicit teaching that it’s a lie. Which of course sets up a logical feedback loop. If it’s a lie, then saying everything is a lie is also a lie. But if it’s the truth then Bokononism really is a lie. And if it’s a lie…you get the point. Bleeding from the ears yet?

Another thing is the concept of foma, a harmless untruth, which may lead you to live a better, happier life. Bokononism is a foma specifically created to achieve those ends. It encourages belief in a God, a sense of personal and group destiny, and a healthy dose of skepticism. The concept of stuppa, for example – a fogbound child or idiot – combined with duffle: the destiny of thousands, possibly millions, of people placed on one stuppa. Remember, the US elections are only 4 months away.

Then there’s granfalloon, an idea I find extremely entertaining. If a karass is a group of people working together to do God’s will, then a granfalloon is a false karass, its members labouring under the illusion that they have something equally important in common. Notoriously, that would be nation-states, though Vonnegut cited Hoosiers, inhabitants of his home state of Indiana.

On the separation of church and state, Bokonon was refreshingly explicit. He arranged for his business partner and fellow ruler in San Lorenzo, Earl McCabe, to outlaw Bokononism, while he went off into the jungle. Thus people could believe or not in their own hearts, without the peer pressure of having to publicly bother God in order to get elected to political office, as is presently the case in the US.

Here is Wikipedia’s list of Bokononian terms:

  • 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.
  • “Busy, busy, busy” – what a Bokononist whispers whenever he thinks about how complicated and unpredictable the machinery of life really is.
  • “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.
  • duffle – the destiny of thousands of people placed on one stuppa.
  • 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.
  • foma – harmless untruths; lies that, if used correctly, can be useful.
  • 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.
  • kan-kan – the instrument which brings a person into his or her karass.
  • 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.
  • “Now I will destroy the whole world” – What a Bokononist says before committing suicide.
  • pool-pah – wrath of God or “shit storm.”
  • saroon – to acquiesce to a vin-dit.
  • sin-wat – a person who wants all of somebody’s love for him/herself.
  • sinookas – the tendrils of one’s life.
  • stuppa – a fogbound child (i.e. an idiot).
  • vin-dit – a sudden shove in the direction of Bokononism.
  • wampeter – the central theme or purpose of a karass. Each karass has two wampeters, one waxing and one waning.
  • 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.
  • Zah-mah-ki-bo – fate, inevitable destiny.

Lest you be concerned that I might be compromising my own atheism in so lauding Bokononism, please do not worry. Busy, busy, busy.

Finally, to see Bokononism in action, here’s a short how-to video.

If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly

Ceci, ce n'est pas le pis d'une vache

While researching yesterday’s Divagation, which talks about the invented religion of Bokononism, I came across a video that tells the story of its founder, as described in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle.  It didn’t fit in that particular post, but it’s too good to waste.

Cat’s Cradle: The Story of Bokonon is probably the worse video I’ve ever seen, so naff that it’s brilliant.  Not Plan 9 from Outer Space bad – one of Ed Wood’s finest – but bad as in the intentionally crude animation techniques used in South Park.

Russell Milton’s video animates Barbie Ken and a collection of Lego figures/constructions, using photos as locations and a bathtub with a toy boat to represent the sea voyages.  A brilliantly cheesy soundtrack completes the package.  It’s pure Dada.

You don’t have to know anything about Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, or Bokononism to enjoy this video.

As a bonus, here’s Plan 9 from Outer Space in full.

Divagation on anthems, flags, patriotism, and identity

Surfing the zeitgeist in pursuit of a cheap and easy blog post, I came across this Guardian article about Cyndi Lauper fluffing a line in the US national anthem, at a 9/11 memorial service yesterday.

It brought to mind the Rutland Isles’ national anthem, which must surely be the subtext for them all.  Here’s Eric Idle, leading a motley crew of performers on the Bill Maher show, just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the matter of national anthems, I’m all for giving it the Full Monty, so people know where you stand, as it were.  No other anthem surpasses the French in full-throated patriotic fervour.  I give you my personal favourite, La Marseillaise.

Now, while we’re in the mood, where are those bankers…?

Rather than end on a cheap political joke, I’m going to suggest that each of us inhabits a different country, although we might agree on certain broad ideas that seem to bind us together.  Any one flag is guaranteed to be partial or incomplete.  An ideal, individual flag would bear some resemblance to the Buddhist idea of a mandala, an object of individual focus and meditation.

Kurt Vonnegut, in his novel, Cat’s Cradle, invented the religion of Bokononism.  It suggests that we “live by the foma (harmless untruths) that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.”  All religion is a lie and so, by extension, are all notions of national identity.  Problem is, where do you find a foma that’s truly harmless?

There’s one term in Bokononism, a granfalloon, which I particularly like.  As much for the sound of the word as for its meaning.  It means “a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.”  I think a lot of us inhabit granfalloons of various kinds.  Rank-and-file Teabaggers spring readily to mind, claiming kinship with the very economic forces that rob them blind.  The mutual association is actually destructive in this case.

I suppose this is my response to the 9/11 anniversary.  I want to choose my own friends and enemies, not be bound together in a granfalloon dictated by patriotism.