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Book review: “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr.

Science fiction seems to be about the future, and, a lot of times, it is.

Writers will grapple with the nuts and bolts of how a spacecraft might be constructed and noodle ideas about how the various laws and theories of science will hold up for people who are traversing the Universe. They’ll imagine how life on a planet with a different sort of gravity and a different sort of atmosphere might evolve and how human beings might react to these differently evolved beings.

Because it is not just science but also fiction, sci-fi will also involve some sort of tension — a tension, for instance, as simple as that of the stereotypical Western with good guys and bad guys fighting a battle for dominance, or maybe a tension that’s based on the daunting challenge of staying alive in a brutally dangerous cosmos. In other words, an adventure of some sort. A story.


A deeper purpose

Most science fiction has a deeper purpose as well, and that’s to use the mirror of an imagined future world to look at life in the present day.

This occurs in two ways.

First, a science fiction book will wrestle with the issues of the day. This can play out in a description of a world-to-be that is the projected result of what happens to be going on in the present one. Or it can be presented in a more veiled way in which the characters of some far distant year are coming face to face with the same sort of political or sociological challenge that people in the present day are dealing with.

Second — and this is where the best of the genre rises to the level of literature — science fiction will look at the deepest of human questions: the nature of humanity, the meaning of existence, the eternal conflict of good and evil, the collision of tradition and new learning, the yearning for transcendence and the pain of living a life that will end in death.

These are the questions that are confronted in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s great 1959 science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.


The Flame Deluge

A Canticle for Leibowitz is what’s called a post-apocalyptic novel, i.e., one that is set at a time after some great cataclysm when the sureties of civilization that we take for granted have been blown to hell. There were a goodly number of these in the two or three decades after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II, sparking an arms race that became based on mutually assured destruction.

That was a polite way of saying that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. each had enough nuclear weapons aimed at and ready to fire at each other that, even if one of the two super-powers tried a pre-emptive strike, the other, no matter how damaged, would still be able to respond in kind. The result would not only kill hundreds of millions of people, but would so radically damage the Earth’s environment that the sort of life we now live would no longer be possible.

In Miller’s novel, published 14 years after Hiroshima, this cataclysm is called the Flame Deluge, and the trauma of the death and destruction that it brings causes a paranoia among the survivors, a fear of all things technological and of all people who are seen to be responsible — the scientists, the experts, and ultimately anyone with any sort of learning.

The result is a worldwide effort to burn and destroy all books and other materials containing the knowledge that led to the creation of the bombs that destroyed the world. or that might be used to resurrect that knowledge and re-create those bombs.

Also sparked is a crusade by people who call themselves simpletons and who round up and kill any of those scientists, experts and intellectuals they can find. It’s called the Simplification, and it creates a new Dark Ages.


“Hooded in burlap…”

canticle...combo --- 2A Canticle for Leibowitz is told in three parts:

• “Fiat Homo” (“Let there be man”), set around the year 2550 A.D., about 600 years after the Flame Deluge;
• “Fiat Lux” (“Let there be light”), set another 600 or so years further into the future (3174); and
• “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Thy will be done”), yet another 600 years later (3781).

All three center on a Catholic monastery of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz in the desert of what had been the southwestern United States. The order was established by Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a scientist who, before the war, had had a role in designing the nuclear weapons.

In the aftermath of the mass devastation, Leibowitz searched in vain for his wife Emily. When he came to accept that she had died in the catastrophe, he joined the Catholic order of monks called Cistercians and eventually was ordained a priest.

Then, he and some like-minded monks asked church authorities and received permission to establish a new religious community with the dangerous task of finding and saving as many bits of learning from before the Flame Deluge as possible for use by future generations. (In its way, this effort parallels what Catholic monastic orders did in the first Dark Ages, saving great books in a Europe overrun by vandals and visigoths.)

Some of the members were bookleggers who smuggled books from wherever they could be found back to the southwestern desert to be buried in kegs. Others were memorizers who committed entire books to memory so that they could be later transcribed.

All of this material became known as the Memorabilia, and the monastery in the desert became the nexus point and storage depot for the effort.

Leibowitz, while taking his own turn at booklegging, was caught by a simpleton mob; a turncoat technician, whom the priest swiftly forgave, identified him as not only a man of learning, but also a specialist in the weapons field.

Hooded in burlap, he was martyred forthwith, by strangulation with a hangman’s noose not tied for neck-breaking, at the same time being roasted alive — thus settling a dispute in the crowd concerning the method of execution.


Leibowitz, Benjamin, Lazarus

In the first part of Miller’s novel, Brother Francis — a teenage novice with the order who is out in the desert spending Lent in penitence and meditation in preparation for taking his religious vows at Easter — comes across what turns out to be Emily’s skeleton and various documents written in Leibowitz’s own hand (including a shopping list).

He also encounters a wandering old Jew who is spry and crotchety and playful.

This old Jew shows up in all three parts of A Canticle for Leibowitz, and, at various points, he claims to have been alive and wandering for thousands of years. No one believes him, except they can’t help wondering…

In this way, he seems to be the embodiment of the Jewish legend of the Wandering Jew, and, throughout the novel, he is searching for and never finding the Messiah.

Francis comes to think that the old man is Leibowitz. (Although Miller doesn’t pursue this directly, Isaac Leibowitz is a not un-Jewish name.) And it turns out that a wood sculpture of Saint Leibowitz carved by one of the other monks has a distinct resemblance to the wanderer, a resemblance that is noticed in each part of the novel.

In “Fiat Lux,” this old man is called Benjamin and lives as a hermit in the nearby hills. He is a friend and friendly debating foe of Dom Paulo, the monastery’s abbot. (In the Hebrew Bible, Benjamin is the youngest son of Jacob who himself is the son of Isaac.)

In “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” the final section, the present-day abbot Dom Zerchi sees the old man at a monastery dining room table set aside for beggars and asks his name:

“Call me Lazarus, then,” said the old one, and chuckled.

Dom Zerchi shook his head and moved on. Lazarus? There was, in the region, an old wives’ tale to the effect that — but what a shoddy sort of myth that was. Raised up by Christ but still not a Christian, they said.

The abbot may wonder, but he doesn’t accept the idea. The local children, though, do:

“Lookit, lookit! It’s old Lazar! Auntie say, he be old Lazar, same one ‘ut the Lor’ Hesus raise up! Lookit! Lazar! Lazar!…

“Auntie say, what the Lor’ Hesus raise up, it stay up! Lookit him! Still huntin’ for the Lor’ ‘ut raise him.”


Profound questions

In his novel, Miller has created a captivating story in which the future world echoes what happened in the past.

Just as Western civilization took hundreds of years to rebuild itself after the fall of Rome, Miller’s post-apocalyptic Earth goes through a Dark Ages (the first section), then a Renaissance (the second) and finally a return to the pre-Flame Deluge age when the nations of the earth are again armed with nuclear weapons.

It’s clever, too, for Miller to envision the Catholic Church playing a similar role in this future darkness that it played in the earlier one. As a writer, though, he doesn’t need to continue in the second and third parts to focus on the Leibowitzian monastery. He could explore the parallels to the past in other, perhaps more worldly ways.

His decision to continue to center his story on the monastery is a signal that his intent has less to do with providing a gee-whiz adventure story than with digging into the profound questions of human life.


“Plainly an idiot”

The monastery is prominent in all three parts of A Canticle for Leibowitz, and so is the wanderer who may be Leibowitz or Benjamin or Lazarus. So is Francis.

The callow novice of the opening pages of the novel is an Everyman. He is innocent and more than a bit stupid in his youth. He is nervous and afraid, particularly afraid of his abbot, Dom Arkos. Not without reason since, at one point, the abbot says to him,

“You are seventeen and plainly an idiot, are you not?”

Francis looks at the world with fresh eyes, without the blinkers of ambition or prejudice or pride. Or much knowledge.

He is the human race as a babe in the woods, just as the wandering Jew is a human race as a searcher for the unsearchable.

Even at the end of the first part, when he is a slight bit more worldly and mature, when he dies what is not exactly a martyr’s death with an arrow between his eyes, Francis remains innocent, clueless as far as all the usual distractions of the world. His body is buried by the wandering old Jew.



Six centuries later, Francis’ innocence and cluelessness are forgotten. Benjamin tells Dom Paulo about burying the body of a monk and alerting church authorities where to find it. The abbot muses that it would have been impossible, of course, because the body would have been that of the Venerable Francis and, well, the old Jew….

In this era, Francis is simply the idea of someone who was saintly in a way but not enough to be actually canonized.

Six centuries further on, it is the skull of Francis that Dom Zerchi finds in the rubble around him while pinned under the stones of the monastery church, destroyed by a nuclear attack. He knows that the skull must have belonged to a monk of the past although he has no way of knowing that it was Francis. In between blackouts, he addresses the skull:

“Brother…What did you do for them, Bone? Teach them to read and write? Help them rebuild, give them Christ, help restore a culture? Did you remember to warn them that it could never be Eden? Of course you did. Bless you, Bone…For all your pains, they paid you with an arrow between the eyes.”


canticle...combo...1...“Never Eden”

“Did you remember to warn them that it could never be Eden?”

This question gets to the heart of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

For Miller and his monks, the Eden of the Bible, the Eden of Adam and Eve, is gone. What’s left is a human life that includes — even requires — crucifixion. Jesus died and was resurrected. Day in and day out through life, a human being dies and is reborn. The only road to a new life is by dying to the old one.

This is hard-rock Christian theology, and, unlike most science fiction writers, Miller embraces the Christian belief system in a bear hug. While most other writers in the genre ignore religion or denigrate it, Miller sees the human story through this lens.

He imagines the future through this lens, and, in doing so, is examining the present.


The true state of affairs

Crucifixion is part of life. Death is part of life. There is no and never will be any Eden.

Putting such religious beliefs front and center in a science fiction novel is a courageous act for a writer. And it gives A Canticle for Leibowitz great power.

The reader doesn’t have to be a believer in Christianity. That’s not what Miller demands as a writer. Rather, he requires the reader to acknowledge that life is filled with pain, that humans are flawed sinners and that it’s important to look those realities in the face.

For the monks, and for Miller apparently, life gains meaning by an acceptance of God and an acceptance of the cycle of life, death and resurrection.

That leap to faith, however, is less important than a recognition of the true state of human affairs.


“Always now”

Dom Paulo is very sick, and, at his desk, his is overcome with pain and heat. Even as he puts his head down on the desk, he wonders:

Does the chalice have to be now right this very minute Lord or can I wait awhile? But crucifixion is always now…

Always for everybody anyhow is to get nailed on it and then to hang on it and if you drop off they beat you to death with a shovel so do it with dignity, old man.

Later, in the final pages of the novel, another abbot, Dom Zerchi, is thinking again of crucifixion as he hears the confession of Mrs. Grales, one of the multitude of misborn who, over the course of nearly two thousand years, have suffered mutation because of the nuclear fallout from the Flame Deluge.

Some of the misborn are monsters, but most, like Mrs. Grales, are simply trying to live the life they’ve been dealt. For Mrs. Grales, that means sharing her shoulder with a second, flaccid head that lives and breathes but shows no evidence of brain activity. She calls the extra head Rachel.

In the confessional, Mrs. Grales is telling a jagged, confusing, unfocused account about “murky and secret things,” murky and secret sins. Dom Zerchi opens himself as the sacramental minister to take in these words and the actions they represent.

The rhythm of the words came dull and muffled through the grille, like the rhythm of distant hammering. Spikes driven through palms, piercing timber. As alter Christus he sensed the weight of each burden for a moment before it passed on to the One who bore them all.

It is then that the bombs begin to fall. Once again.


“Primal innocence”

In the rubble, Dom Zerchi eventually dies. Mrs. Grales dies, too, but the trauma awakens Rachel.

She is preternaturally strong and healthy and alive. She is filled with “primal innocence.”

She is a pre-Eden human. She is a rebirth of the human race. A rebirth.

She is an immaculate conception.

Patrick T. Reardon

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