Consideration of Works Past: A Canticle for Leibowitz


(Picture from here.)

We can’t effectively criticize Shakespeare or the Bible because they have so profoundly interpenetrated our culture and our language. People who have never read a word of the Bible know the meaning of the phrase “the patience of Job.” People who would barely know the Bard’s name know the meaning of the phrase “the green eyed monster.” Such works have become the water in which we as fish swim. We read the Bible. We watch the plays. But we’re seeing our own culture write large portrayed back to us.

These are big examples of how culture and literature reflect one another. It’s the reason we should always have a literary canon. Not because these are the best we have to offer but because they are what inform our cultural milieu.

The process is dynamic and recursive. Some works are magnificent and immediately forgotten. Some distill a moment and continue to evoke that moment for decades after the moment is past. To Kill a Mockingbird shows a particular moment in the mid-20th century south and has become metaphorical in is depiction of American racism.

Racism is timeless. The mid-20th century also experienced something particularly unique: the actual possibility of universal destruction of humanity by war. The prospect of such a holocaust has been around since the Revelation of Saint John but only until the 1950s did it become technically feasible. Humans were forced to confront not only their individual mortality but the mortality of their species. They confronted this prospect best (I think) in literature.

Nuclear holocaust and post nuclear holocaust novels were born.

We know of them as a staple these days. In film. In books. But modern post apocalyptic stories now are explorations of a trope. They don’t arise out of impending doom. Those of us who learned to duck and cover are a dying breed and our children and grandchildren are products of a society that (I hope) outgrew such an immediate death. Instead, we’ll have a slow chronic sickness of global warming and resource scarcity. Fertile literary ground to be sure but not the same as the quick flash and obliterating thunder.

Two books are still known today close to fifty years later: On the Beach and A Canticle for Leibowitz.

They’re good bookends of one another On the Beach deals exclusively with death: there are no human beings alive anywhere on the planet by the end of the book. The work’s complete focus is how people deal with the true and actual end of the world.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is almost exclusively about how humans (or human belief) survives the end of the world.

The plot is thoroughly discussed elsewhere and only needs a quick synopsis. Nuclear exchange happens. Most of humanity is killed either quickly or slowly by radiation. The living remainder turn first on those who they think did this, then the scientists and then anyone who can read. Isaac Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer, converts to Catholicism and founds an order that attempts to preserve knowledge in the face of this destruction. Six hundred years later, the order is still alive and has transformed from going out and getting knowledge to preserving what knowledge it has while being unable to understand it. They don’t know if the works they are copying and recopying to preserve it is a laundry list or a prescription for paradise. It is at this six hundred year mark that Canticle begins.

The book is written in three parts: Fiat Homo (“Let there be man), Fiat Lux (“Let there be light”), Fiat Voluntus Tua (“Let thy will be done”.) Part one begins with the discovery of an ancient (and important) cache of documents and ends with the canonization of Leibowitz into sainthood. It takes place during a dark ages where there are no states of any consequence. Part two involves the rediscovery of the importance and knowledge held within the documents and shows the rise of political states and conflicts. In part three the order is again gathering and preserving knowledge, this time in full understanding of the knowledge they have. The world is crumbling again between two mighty power blocs and on the verge of self destruction. The vast majority of the story takes place in the order’s abbey.

Canticle asks some really big questions. What is the role of faith and religion over time? Miller suggests that the Church (and perhaps religion itself) is a means of stabilization over time. It serves as a repository for valuable things that are not currently treasured until that time they are once again revalued. The object in the story is the knowledge of the previous time. But Miller also points out the implications of faith are also held within the church and may never be properly valued in the secular world. This conflict between spiritual morality and secular practice occurs over and over again in the book both in the larger political macrocosm and the microcosm of the human interactions of the abbey.

The characters in the novel grapple with these issues over and over again. At one point in the novel, when there is a nuclear strike near the abbey in part three, the government sets up medical triage tents where euthanasia drugs are handed out to those who have had a fatal radiation dose. The abbot fights this and protests it, not allowing the tent to be set up in the abbey.

The book continually shows intellect at war with itself, at war with morality, at war with passion. It is comprised with adults wrestling with some very big demons. This not the children’s coming of age story that most post apocalyptic stories have become. These are adults who have made sacrifices for their beliefs. Who are trying to live to an impossible ideal (Christ) and failing and trying again while knowing all the while that such an ideal is, in fact, impossible.

I do not subscribe to much in the way of faith but Miller shows its nobility. Its intellectual and emotional rigor. The sorts of questions that a person of faith must ask and the integrity that person of faith must have to answer those questions honestly.

Usually, when SF deals with faith the religion is a construction to a purpose. (There’s a good article on the subject here in wikipedia.) Often, the purpose is political. Sometimes it is a criticism of the concept of religion itself. Sometimes the religion is an allegory or a sacred mystery. Sometimes the issue is how to reconcile dogma with the physical world. I think, however, the consequences of faith are rarely dealt with head on. The Christian faith contains some hard nuts to crack: caring for your fellow man, the role of the secular leader, the issue of accountability and responsibility. These are not usually the stuff of SF.

There’s a point in the book where the abbot of the monastery goes out to visit an old friend, a Jewish hermit named Ben. The implication is that Ben believes that he is Lazarus though it is not explicitly stated. In talking with Ben the abbot realizes that in Ben’s madness he believes he is the last Jew and so bears the responsibility and accountability for the acts of every Jew that has ever been. The abbot thinks about this and considers his own role as abbot. What would it feel like to be accountable for the evil acts for every other abbot? This, by extension, is the role of Jesus: to be responsible and accountable before God for every evil act that has ever been committed by man, thereby accepting the punishment for those evil acts and absolving human beings from that crushing burden.

Heady stuff and not for the squeamish.

Canticle has not been out of print since its publication in 1959. It has a kinship with To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee never published another work and has said it’s because the popularity of her first novel was so great that any later work would inevitably be compared with it and found wanting. Walter M. Miller didn’t publish anything else in his life time. He did work on a sort of sequel and got it a good way along but committed suicide after the death of his wife. I’ve read some conjecture that the difficulties of the book contributed to his death. Terry Bisson was in the process of completing the work when he died. (Here is Bisson’s story of how that came to happen.) Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was published in 1997. I have not read it.

The book stands its ground now pretty much as well as it did when it was first published. We of the duck-and-cover generation still remember the deep, tidal fear of those times and it comes across in the book. But I think later readers will still appreciate it. Anyone born in the last hundred years will understand the apocalypse is always at hand, waiting for the moment when we might embrace it.




Consideration of Works Past: A Canticle for Leibowitz — 5 Comments

  1. This is an excellent summation and discussion of “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and it gave me much to ponder, besides.

  2. My story about CANTICLE takes place when I was a teenager. My father worked for the Foreign Service and they posted us to Munich, Germany. We arrived on a Thursday, the 24th of December, and instantly dashed to the PX to buy food before the holiday closed everything for days. I had traveled with NO books, something that I have never ever done again, and I had to buy something to read! Unfortunately the PX was patronized mainly by military men, and all the paperbacks on the rack catered to their tastes: westerns, soft porn, military shoot-’em-ups, gun manuals, and so on. The only work of fiction there was CANTICLE FOR LIEBOWITZ. I have no idea why. I bought it, and read it through from beginning to end once a day until the stores opened again the following Monday. There are few works that can tolerate a daily read for many days; this is one of them.
    I have read the sequel. It is totally not equal to CANTICLE, and I do not recommend it.

    • I remember being out of books because my parents insisted that all the books had to go to the library before a trip. Not even one left.


      That was when I started to write, out of written word deprivation

  3. I read vast numbers of books as a teen, but remember few. This one I remember–in part because I read it over so many times. I still think about it, and I’ve long intended to find a copy and re-read it as an adult…hmm, and apparently there is no ebook version.