Book Recommendation: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.

September 18, 2009

canticle bookcoverA Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American Walter M. Miller Jr., first published in 1960. Miller passed away in the 1990’s and together with its sequel published posthumously in 1997 (Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman ) it is the only novel published by the author during his lifetime. Considered one of the classics of science fiction, it has never been out of print and has seen over 25 reprints and editions. Appealing to mainstream and genre critics and readers alike, it won the 1961 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.

An Amazon reviewer has written: “Walter Miller’s only major novel is not simply a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel but also a multi-layered meditation on the conflict between knowledge and morality. Six hundred years after a nuclear holocaust, an abbey of Catholic monks survives during a new Dark Ages and preserves the little that remains of the world’s scientific knowledge. The monks also seek evidence concerning the existence of Leibowitz, their alleged founder (who, the reader soon realizes, is a Jewish scientist who appears to have been part of the nuclear industrial complex of the 1960s). The second part fast-forwards another six hundred years, to the onset of a new Renaissance; a final section again skips yet another six hundred years, to the dawn of a second Space Age–complete, once again, with nuclear weapons.

The only character who appears in all three sections is the Wandering Jew–borrowed from the anti-Semitic legend of a man who mocked Jesus on the way to the crucifixion and who was condemned to a vagrant life on earth until Judgment Day. Miller resurrects this European slander and sanitizes him as a curmudgeonly hermit, a voice of reason in a desert wilderness, an observer to humankind’s repeated stupidities, a friend to the monks and abbots, the ghost of Leibowitz (perhaps)–and even the voice of Miller himself.

Throughout “Canticle,” Miller’s search for religious faith clashes with his respect for scientific rationalism. For Miller, Lucifer is not a fallen angel but technological discovery unencumbered by a moral compass; “Lucifer is fallen” becomes the code phrase the future Church uses to indicate the imminent threat of a second nuclear holocaust. The ability of humankind to abuse learning for evil purposes, to continually expel itself from the Garden of Eden, perplexes and haunts the author: “The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well.”

Some readers might be turned off by the book’s religious undercurrent, but that would be to mistake fiction for a sermon. The work is certainly infused with the author’s Catholicism, but its philosophy is far too ambiguous to be read like a homily. This is no “Battlefield Earth.” Instead, it is Miller’s highly personal act of atonement; he acknowledged later in life that his fictional monastery was first subconsciously, then purposefully modeled on the ancient Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino, which, as a World War II pilot, he bombed to smithereens. (An historical aside: most of the major Greco-Roman scientific and mathematical texts were preserved for posterity by Arabic scholars–not by medieval Catholic monks. But this is fiction, and it’s not clear whether Miller is trying to replicate Church history as it was or as he felt it should have been.)

In many ways, Miller’s Catholicism is as conflicted in the book as it was in his own life. He changed religious beliefs several times; in the 1980s, he immersed himself in Buddhist texts. Throughout “Canticle,” you can see Miller wrestling with his spiritual beliefs and with his own demons, and in the final chapters, Miller includes an extended debate over whether suicide and euthanasia (and, tangentially, abortion) are ever viable options, even to avoid the worst forms of pain and certain death. Although he seems to side with Catholic views on these issues. View the last reading selection for a powerful reflection on abortion: The Authority Of A Simple Direct Command. Miller committed suicide in 1996.”

Unlike some modern offerings (think Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol) that distract readers with religious and philosophical musings cast as attacks against the Church, “A Canticle for Leibowitz” is infused and enriched by them. It’s not only a compelling, well-written story, it’s an allegorical tale that might encourage readers to explore and struggle with their own beliefs.”

Reading selections follow:

Save Wisdom Until The World Is Wise
“What you really suggest,” said the scholar, “is that we wait a little while. That we dissolve the collegium, or move it out to the desert, and somehow – with no gold or silver of our own – revive an experimental and theoretical science in some slow hard way, and tell nobody. That we save it all up for the day when Man is good and pure and holy and wise.”

“That is not what I meant –“

“That is not what you meant to say, but it is what your saying means. Keep science cloistered, don’t try to apply it, don’t try to do anything about it until men are holy. Well, it won’t work. You’ve been doing it here in this abbey for generations.”

“We haven’t withheld anything.”

“You haven’t withheld it; but you sat on it so quietly, nobody knew it was here, and you did nothing with it.”

Brief anger flared in the old priest’s eyes. “It’s time you met our founder, I think,” he growled, pointing to the woodcarving in the corner. “He was a scientist like yourself before the world went mad and he ran for sanctuary. He founded this Order to save what could be saved of the records of the last civilization. ‘Saved’ from what and for what? Look where he is standing – see the kindling? The books? That’s how little the world wanted your science then and for centuries afterward. So he died for our sake. When they drenched him with fuel oil, legend says he asked them for a cup of it, They thought he mistook it for water, so they laughed and gave him a cup. He blessed it and – some say the oil changed to wine when he blessed it – and then: ‘Hic est enim calix Sanguinis Mei.’ And he drank it before they hung him and set him on fire. Shall I read you a list of our martyrs? Shall I name all the battles we have fought to keep these records intact? All the monks blinded in the copyroom? For your sake?  Yet you say we did nothing with it, withheld it by silence.”

“Not intentionally,” the scholar said, “but in effect you did – and for the very motives you imply should be mine. If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”

“I can see the misunderstanding is basic!” the abbot said gruffly, “To serve God first, or to serve Hannegan first – that’s your choice.”

“I have little choice, then,” answered the Thon. “Would you have me work for the Church?” The scorn in his voice was unmistakable.

A Species Congenitally Insane?
The world’s been in a habitual state of crisis for fifty years. Fifty? What am I saying? It’s been in a habitual state of crisis since the beginning – but for half a century now, almost unbearable. And why, for the love of God? What is the fundamental irritant, the essence of the tension? Political philosophies? Economics? Population pressure? Disparity of culture and creed? Ask a dozen experts, get a dozen answers. Now Lucifer again. Is the species congenitally insane, Brother? If we’re born mad, where’s the hope of heaven? Through faith alone? Or isn’t there any? God forgive me, I don’t mean that.

A World No Longer Willing To Believe Or Yearn
He peered up again at the dusty stars of morning. Well, there would be no Edens found out there, they said. Yet there were men out there now, men who looked up to strange suns in stranger skies, gasped strange air, tilled strange earth. On worlds of equatorial tundra, worlds of steaming Arctic jungle, a little like Earth perhaps, enough like Earth so that Man might live somehow, by the same sweat of his brow. There were but a handful, these celestial colonists of Homo loquax nonnumquam sapiens (Homo talkative sometimes wise) , a few harassed colonies of humanity that had had small help from Earth thus far; and now they might expect no help at all, there in their new non-Edens, even less like paradise than Earth had been. Fortunately for them perhaps. The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they – this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that man might hope again in wretched darkness.

You Don’t Have A Soul,You Are A Soul
The visitor shrugged. “Like euthanasia? I’m sorry, Father, I feel that the laws of society are what makes something a crime or not a crime. I’m aware that you don’t agree. And there can be bad laws, ill-conceived, true. But in this case we have a good law. If I thought I had such a thing as a soul, and there was an angry God in Heaven, I might agree with you.”

Abbot Zerchi smiled thinly. “You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul. You have a body, temporarily.”

The visitor laughed politely. “A semantic confusion.”

“True. But which of us is confused? Are you sure?”

 The Authority Of A Simple Direct Command
“I had a cat once, when I was a boy,” the abbot murmured slowly. He was a big gray tomcat with shoulders like a small bulldog and a head and neck to match, and that sort of slouchy insolence that makes some of them look like the Devil’s own. He was pure cat. Do you know cats?”

“ A little.”

“Cat lovers don’t know cats. You can’t love all cats if you know cats, and the ones you can love if you know them are the ones that cat lovers don’t even like. Zeke was that kind of cat.

“This has a moral, of course?” She was watching him suspiciously.

“Only that I killed him.”

“Stop. Whatever you’re about to say, stop.”

“A truck hit him, crushed his back legs. He dragged himself under the house. Once in awhile he’d make a noise like a cat fight and thrash around a little, but mostly he just lay quietly and waited. ‘He ought to be destroyed,’ they kept telling me. After a few hours he dragged himself out from under the house crying for help. ‘He ought to be destroyed,’ they said. I wouldn’t let them do it. They said it was cruel to let him live. So finally I said I’d do it myself, if it had to be done. I got a gun and a shovel and took him to the edge of the woods, I stretched him out on the ground while I dug a hole, Then I shot him through the head. It was a small bore rifle. Zeke thrashed a couple of times, then got up and started dragging himself toward some bushes, I shot him again. It knocked him flat, so I thought he was dead, and put him in the hole. After a couple shovels of dirt, Zeke got up and pulled himself out of the hole and started for the bushes again. I was crying louder than the cat. I had to kill him with the shovel. I had to put him back in the hole and use the blade of the shovel like a cleaver, and while I was chopping with it, Zeke was still thrashing around. They told me later it was just a spinal reflex, but I didn’t believe it. I knew that cat. He wanted to get to those bushes and just lie there and wait. I wished to God that I had only let him get to those bushes and die the way a cat would if you just let it alone – with dignity. I never felt right about it. Zeke was only a cat, but —

“Shut up!” she whispered.

“ – but even the ancient pagans noticed that Nature imposes nothing on you that nature doesn’t prepare you to bear. If that is true of a cat, then is it not more perfectly true of a creature with rational intellect and will – whatever you may believe of Heaven?”

“Shut up. Damn you, shut up!” she hissed.

If I’m being a little brutal,” said the priest, “then it is to you, not the baby. The baby, as you say, can’t understand. And you, as you say, are not complaining. Therefore—”

“Therefore you are asking me to let her die slowly and –”

“No! I’m not asking you. As a priest of Christ I am commanding you by the authority of Almighty God not to lay hands on your child, not to offer her life in sacrifice to a false god of expedient mercy. I do not advise you. I adjure and command you in the name of Christ the King. Is that clear?”

Dom Zerchi had never spoken with such a voice before, and the ease with which the words came to his lips surprised even the priest. As he continued to look at her, her eyes fell. For an instant he had feared that the girl would laugh in his face. When Holy Church occasionally hinted that she still considered her authority to be supreme over all nations and superior to the authority of states, men in these times tended to snicker. And yet the authority of the command could still be sensed by a bitter girl with a dying child. It had been brutal to reason with her, and he regretted it. A simple direct command might accomplish what persuasion could not. She needed the voice of authority now, more than she needed persuasion. He could see it by the way she had wilted, although he had spoken the command as gently as his voice could manage.

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One comment

  1. [...] September 29, 2009 Not long ago, in a book review that featured reading selections from A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., I offered a reading selection that featured an exchange between the abbot of a monastery thousands [...]

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