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A Canticle for Leibowitz

There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection. —A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959; New York: Bantam/Spectra, 1997), pp. 145-146.

A Canticle for Leibowitz has been one of my favorite books for most of my adult life. I have read it and reread it many times. In fact, I have read it and perused it too many times to count. I find the work as compelling as the best of T. S. Eliot. But, while Eliot always leavens, Miller always sobers. In Canticle, one discovers some of Eliot’s thought, but also Christopher Dawson’s and Jacques Maritain’s thought and especially St. Augustine’s thought. Much like his fifth-century forebear, Miller places a variety of anthropologies and humanisms before the reader, as well as competing visions of history. Unlike his North African counterpart, though, Miller never answers his own questions and puzzles definitively. The reader remains restless, for he never rests in Thee.

I also have taught the book several times in various classroom settings. With only a few exceptions, bright college students find it intriguing and thought provoking, even if the theology confuses them, Catholic as well as Protestant. The characters of Mrs. Grales and Rachel tend to cause much concern as well as wonder among students.

Walter Miller served as a tail gunner on a bomber during the Italian campaign in World War II. His bombing group, in part, aided in the destruction of Monte Cassino, the oldest monastery in the Western world. The destruction of this Benedictine institution haunted Miller, and after the war he found himself drawn not only to the study of Western Civilization and its preservation, but, more importantly, to the endurance and significance of the Roman Catholic Church as a protective institution. Probably to the chagrin of many of those around him, Miller converted in 1947, shortly after his marriage. He explored many of the ideas of Roman Catholic theology in his many short stories written during the 1950s. As it turned out, this decade proved to be Miller’s Golden Age, an age that he spent much of his remaining adult life trying to recapture but unsuccessfully so. In the mid-to-late 1990s, frustrated with God knows what and taunted by who knows what, Miller took his own life. Another author completed Miller’s unfinished sequel, St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. This second book takes place during the second of the three eras featured in Canticle, roughly 1,200 years after the atomic war of 1960.

Numerous readings of Canticle for Leibowitz have left me with this: it is a complicated, nuanced, and perplexing novel, a mystery to be enjoyed, time and again, never to be solved. Set in the Intermountain Desert West in the futureless United States of America, A Canticle for Leibowitz offers a vibrant image of a desiccated human culture and a desiccated human politics, an irradiated landscape, and an inevitably dark and shameful future. As with some of its contemporaneous fiction—such as Ayn Rand’s much less earnest Atlas ShruggedCanticle for Leibowitz offers great insight into the nature and power of ideas, set in a dystopian world. While Rand, by far better known in popular culture and in book sales, possesses a stunning power to plot an intricate plot, she cannot match Miller in character development or writing style. As an example of one beautiful sentence:

The water was clouded and live with creeping uncertainties as was the Old Jew’s stream of memory. (p. 167)

Certainly, I am not alone in my appreciation of this novel. Edmund Fuller, one of the best literary critics of the 20th century, called Canticle a “memorable fantasia” (New York Times(January 12, 1964, pg. BR2)), and Martin Levin called it “ingenious” (New York Times (March 27, 1960), pg. BR42)).

Many, though, have thought it a waste of paper. An anonymous reviewer in Time magazine, for example, wrote of Miller: “His faith in religious faith is commendable but not compelling,” claiming the book intellectually vacuous (n.a., Time (February 22, 1960)).

In the beginning of Canticle, set roughly five-and-a-half centuries from now, a wandering Jew throws pebbles at a confused and seemingly not-so-bright monk, Brother Francis. When the confused Catholic, led by the hand of the perturbed Jew, discovers an underground tavern, office, and bunker, he finds what he considers holy relics: a shopping list, some blueprints, and the body of a dead woman. This encounter, shaped from its beginning by the will and observation of the Jew, starts the cycle of civilization, corruption, decay, and death all over again.

Throughout the novel, the cycles of civilization revolve around two points: 1) the wandering Jew; and 2) the monastery.

The question Miller asks the reader and himself: can man escape Original Sin? Or, will man, doomed, carry it wherever he goes, whether it be into the American West or into the new frontier of space? And, if so, can man do anything by his own will to attenuate the great evils of which he is not only so capable, but seemingly so desirous?

Throughout the novel, Miller asks us and himself some of the most important questions to be asked by any person at any time. What is the human person? How does one man recognize the dignity of another man?

Few theologians whose belief in Hell had never failed them would deprive their God of recourse to any form of temporal punishment, but for men to take it upon themselves to judge any creature born of woman to be lacking in the divine image was to usurp the privilege of Heaven. Even the idiot which seems less gifted than a dog, or a pig, or a goat, shall, if born of woman, be called an immortal soul, thundered the magisterium, and thundered it again and again. (p. 98)

In the long run, can man use his technological prowess for the good of society and the good of his fellows?

They belonged to a race quite capable of admiring their own image in a mirror, and equally capable of cutting its own throat before the altar of some tribal god, such as the deity of Daily Shaving. It was a species which often considered itself to be, basically a race of divinely inspired toolmakers. (p. 245)

Homo faber, indeed.

By what means and by what authority do political bodies govern? In what ways can and does the power of political bodies ignore, mock, or usurp cultural and religious bodies and authorities?

That’s where all of us are standing now, he thought. On the fat kindling of past sins. And some of them are mine. Mine, Adam’s, Herod’s, Judas’s, Hannegan’s, mine. Everybody’s. Always culminates in the colossus of the State, somehow, drawing about itself the mantle of godhood, being struck down by wrath of Heaven. (p. 282)

For better or worse, I must admit that Miller’s own suicide in 1996 makes me call into question much of what he wrote and much of what he asked. Of course, one can take his suicide in two ways when approaching his masterful novel. First, one could assume that Miller meant all of the ideas presented by the various members of the Catholic Church in his novel sincerely, that he truly did care about the dignity of man, and the ability of the Church to defend the preciousness of human life across time. Or, taking the suicide into account, the reader could assume that Miller is a cynic and a nihilist from the beginning, allowing members of the Church to give complicated and somewhat rote answers to complex problems, never fully understanding them but parroting them as efficacious propaganda. Taken this way, Canticle would prove nothing but a brilliant if devastating satire on the history of the Church.

Throughout all three parts of the novel, Miller presents rather complicated characters, witty dialogue, and never-ending questions about the most important things. It is not without reason, then, that some aficionados of the novel consider it not only a classic of the science fiction genre but also a classic of American and Western civilizations.

I would put myself in this latter category. While I write only from opinion and certainly not from expertise, I do believe Miller to be one of the great authors—let alone science-fiction authors and Catholic authors—of the twentieth century. Horribly, Miller ended his own life in tragedy. I do not know, nor do I ever expect to know, what demons haunted this brilliant artist. Clearly, he failed to resist them in the end. But, of course, each one of us is deeply flawed. Perhaps we are deeply flawed in ways different from the ways in which Miller was flawed, but we remain flawed nonetheless.

I, along with many others, will continue to teach this novel as a great work of imagination. I do hope, however, that Miller was wrong not only about his own personal understanding of hope, but also about the bleak, decaying, future of Western civilization and its citizens.

Depending on what day and, sometimes, on what hour, I agree and/or disagree with Miller. The novel means different things to me at different times, but I always recognize its profundity. As the last line of the novel reads, “the shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents. He was very hungry that season” (p. 338). The reader also broods and hungers at the end of the novel. Miller never lets us rest.

But, I do pray—may the author finally rest in He.

(Author’s note: All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are taken from Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959; New York: Bantam/Spectra, 1997).

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis essay originally appeared on Ignatius Insight and is published here by permission.

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10 replies to this post
  1. As one of the students with whom you've read Canticle, I heartily agree that one can't help but have his imagination captured by the tale. I find the words of the Poet (who trades one eye for wisdom) especially compelling in our present technophilic culture. Friedrich Durrenmatt writes on a similar theme in his play, The Physicists, where several scientists pretend insanity to prevent their ground-breaking discoveries from being used.

  2. Bradley,

    I was in the middle of this novel when I saw your post, so I put off reading your post until I finished the book. I can't say enough good things about this book: it's a science fiction masterpiece, a theological and philosophical tonic for the soul, and contains some of the most fascinating, well-developed, and realistic characters that I have ever encountered in literature. In particular, Brother Francis, Pope Leo XXI, Dom Paulo, and Dom Jethras, all honourable men, will be with me for a long time. It's as if Charles Williams wrote a book with Ray Bradbury and T.S. Eliot.

    Thank you for your helpful and interesting post.

  3. Jeffrey, thanks much for the comment. I've read and taught this book many times, and I've never found it less interesting. Glad you enjoyed it. And, completely agreed–it's a masterpiece. Yours, Brad

  4. I am delighted to say that, per my initial suggestion developed by the director of our Freshmen Year Symposium, all incoming Belmont Abbey College freshmen last fall read the Canticle for their FYS class, and will be doing so again next year.

    What a great book. It's one of two books you first introduced me to, Brad—along with Death Comes for the Archbishop—that have remained two of my favorites and only get better with each read.

  5. I had fortunately not read Birzer’s resplendent review until now. It is full of spoilers that would have ruined the surprises in this novel of ruins that I found so shockingly delightful. I nabbed a copy a couple years back when a well-read friend said it was one of the best books he’s ever read. Did he say, perhaps, that it is the “best” book he’s ever read? I think so. I can see why. I finally read it between Christmas and New Years last year after being introduced on Christmas Day to old Leibowitz himself in Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos.

    I was blown away by the book like the tumbleweeds that haunted the arid lands of his lush story. Unsettling, dreadful, disturbing, I was shaken and stiffened on every page. (spoiler alert) Learning about the author’s ending finally here in Birzer’s piece is as disturbing as the novel’s ending. I am sure I’d not have read it with the same eyes had I known how he died. Normally I would google reviews to gain insight and clarity about parts I didn’t understand. I didn’t after this novel’s ending because I was relatively sure that was the point. Wow. I just don’t know what to make of this now. Sad and mysterious is Miller’s relationship with faith and suffering. Faith may be a gift. As perhaps only some lucky bastards can see the spirits that walk around invisible to others. The rest may be lost in the meat grinder of reality.

    (I’d love to catch Professor Birzer’s lectures on it. Has he released any videos of his lectures?)

  6. Recently finished the sequel to this book. Canticle is my favorite book now, topping a few by Dostoevsky among others. After reading this It seems to me that his attempt in writing was largely to finish his own questions, and perhaps his suicide was nothing more than the question mark instead of a period or even an answer. Certainly his struggles serve to signify the importance of accepting mystery; and his writing exemplifies the uneasy acceptance that remains difficult, potentially tragic, but all the more calming if completed. I cannot recall the page, but the one quote that has stayed with me from the book is “Pain is.” That is an acceptance, perhaps he left off, asking: “pain is?”

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