A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (New York: Harper Collins, 1986. 334 pp)
Walter M. Miller, Jr. grew up in the American South and enlisted in the Army Air Corps a month after Pearl Harbor. He spent most of World War II as a radio operator and tail gunner, participating in more than fifty-five combat sorties, among them the controversial destruction of the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino, the oldest monastery in the Western world. Fifteen years later he wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz. The sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, followed after nearly forty years.
Love Song at A Funeral
To quote The King, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz has got me all shook up.
On one hand, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic novels. On that score, Liebowitz delivers flawlessly: nuclear devastation, landscapes seared and scoured of civilization and culture, ruthless mutant/barbarian hordes, vague prophecies from wild-eyed vagrants, the works. It also has the requisite intellectual oasis, a small and struggling Catholic monastery devoted to the preserving the writings and artifacts of the (nearly) sainted Isaac Liebowitz.
The monks are convinced that Liebowitz merits immediate canonization; he was martyred for memorizing books, a weighty crime in the rabidly anti-intellectual days following the global holocaust. The Church leaders in New Rome aren’t sure, and Liebowitz is, in part, a chronicle of political dysfunction, with warlords and pontiffs alike battling for control of their post-civilized worlds.
But, at its heart, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a funeral song, a plaintiff cry mourning the inevitable destruction of humanity. And this is what disturbs me.
As a scholar, I share Miller’s obvious love for intellectual and academic pursuit. The monks’ ecstasy upon (re)discovering electric light stems not only from its obvious utility but also from the simple joy of understanding the world around them. In this sense, the pursuit of knowledge is a religious vocation, a holy and sacred endeavor. A realist, Miller acknowledges that pride and superstition sometimes impede the pursuit of knowledge (he writes of a visiting scholar who, upon seeing the electric light, is aghast that the monks have managed to make incarnate what he was only able to theorize, noting that “there was no balm to soothe an affront to professional pride–then or in any other age”). Nevertheless, Miller’s monks are, on the whole, steadfast and sincere in their belief that the preservation and application of knowledge is God’s work.
But God’s work ends in despair, and this is where Miller and I part ways. Centuries and centuries pass, the knowledge so carefully preserved and nourished by the monks eventually finds acceptance and application in the world at large, and civilization is reborn, only to destroy itself all over again. The “blinding light” of the monks’ electric bulb gives way to the blinding light of the mushroom cloud, and the cycle begins anew. It’s this cyclical story—fall from grace, long redemption, fall from grace—that bothers me so much. The deterministic quality of Miller’s narrative—the eventuality of a second holocaust is never in doubt—stands in direct contradiction to the monks’ sometimes simplistic, but nevertheless genuine, hope.
Maybe this is his point. As humanity grows in knowledge and ability, the Church struggles in vain to direct those abilities towards the good. The Academy, likewise, is impotent to steer human intellectual endeavor away from implosion. To put it simply, an ignorant humanity is barbaric, and an informed humanity is savage. Thus, the ultimate end of human activity is fire and loss, pain and destruction.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Miller himself committed suicide; in a moment of despair, the same hands that had once held pen to paper now held gun to temple. For the only salvation Miller offers in Canticle involves running away. As nuclear war once again looms on the horizon, a small band of priests and pilgrims flee to the stars, leaving the Earth, and humanity, behind. The only way to move forward is to set up shop somewhere else. And so Miller, much like the characters in his book, looked the future full in the face and fled the scene.
But I don’t want to be unfair. I don’t know Miller’s personal demons, and, at any rate, it’s generally a mistake to conflate an author’s life with his work. So let’s take A Canticle for Leibowitz on its own: as a beautiful, haunting, sometimes funny, always mournful, elegiac love song to the human race. Find yourself a clean, well-lighted place, grab a Latin dictionary, and read. But don’t confuse the characters’ fates with our own; because unlike the author of this book, we can always write a new ending.