Cat’s CradleKurt VonnegutContents

47. Dynamic Tension

I became so absorbed in Philip Castle’s book that I didn’t even look up from it when we put down for ten minutes in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I didn’t even look up when somebody behind me whispered, thrilled, that a midget had come aboard.

A little while later I looked around for the midget, but could not see him. I did see, right in front of Hazel and H. Lowe Crosby, a horse-faced woman with platinum blonde hair, a woman new to the passenger list. Next to hers was a seat that appeared to be empty, a seat that might well have sheltered a midget without my seeing even the top of his head.

But it was San Lorenzo—the land, the history, the people—that intrigued me then, so I looked no harder for the midget. Midgets are, after all, diversions for silly or quiet times, and I was serious and excited about Bokonon’s theory of what he called “Dynamic Tension,” his sense of a priceless equilibrium between good and evil.

When I first saw the term “Dynamic Tension” in Philip Castle’s book, I laughed what I imagined to be a superior laugh. The term was a favorite of Bokonon’s, according to young Castle’s book, and I supposed that I knew something that Bokonon didn’t know: that the term was one vulgarized by Charles Atlas, a mail-order muscle-builder.

As I learned when I read on, briefly, Bokonon knew exactly who Charles Atlas was. Bokonon was, in fact, an alumnus of his muscle-building school.

It was the belief of Charles Atlas that muscles could be built without bar bells or spring exercisers, could be built by simply pitting one set of muscles against another.

It was the belief of Bokonon that good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and by keeping the tension between the two high at all times.

And, in Castle’s book, I read my first Bokononist poem, or “Calypso.” It went like this:

"Papa” Monzano, he’s so very bad,
But without bad “Papa” I would be so sad;
Because without “Papa’s” badness,
Tell me, if you would,
How could wicked old Bokonon
Ever, ever look good?

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