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bookclub_coverIn the summer of 1998, while on my ten-day honeymoon in Idaho, I found a tattered red paperback book in a used bookstore. Amazingly enough, Idaho had a lot of bookstores then, and I remember perusing many of them during our ten days of post-wedding bliss. Whether Idahoans still possess a bibliophilic outlook on life, I don’t know. Here’s hoping.

Regardless. . . . Someone had stacked this bruised treasure rather haphazardly in a pile of science fiction books. Published by Bantam, it certainly didn’t appear to be science fiction. In fact, it looked rather religious. Someone must have misplaced it, I reasoned. Intrigued, though, I picked it up. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. it stated, proclaiming at the bottom of the cover: “500,000 Copies in Print!” Giving the PR folks the benefit of the doubt, I translated this to well over a half-million sold and read. We can all dream. 

On the cover, the company presented a ghostly-looking monk with a destroyed urban landscape in the background. Canticle? Leibowitz? 500,000? Purely out of curiosity—and perhaps on a bit of a honeymoon high—I purchased it. After all, it cost only $.50, and I had been looking for some new fiction. If I remember correctly, I had just completed Tom Clancy’s latest, and I was looking for something completely different.

And, completely different it proved to be just in the first two pages. An exhausted novice and a world-weary pilgrim cross paths in the post-nuclear war wastes of southern Utah. With some hurt feelings and miscommunication, the pilgrim begins to throw stones at the monk. But, he also leads the monk to a great discovery: a fallout shelter once belonging to the great hero of the story—a hero who never fully emerges—the nuclear engineer, I.E. Leibowitz.

I have now read, taught, and written about this novel countless times. It is, for me, the worthy successor to Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. But, whereas Cather’s novel might very well serve as “the great American novel,” Miller’s serves as the great Augustinian novel. For Miller, a bombardier in World War II and a convert to Roman Catholicism (despite great opposition from his southern Protestant family), the world moved in cycles with grace relieving us of our own insanity from time to time.

In the somewhat puzzling way that fails to explain the rise and fall of reputations, Miller never gained the following that Cather did or his contemporaries, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, did. His one published novel—in actuality the melding together of three novellas—remains mostly stuck in the world of science fiction studies. Catholics have never fully embraced him because he mocks the church as much as he praises it. Some Catholics, I suspect, assumed him to be merely another Brian Moore (the author of Black Robe), a kind of anti-Catholic Catholic. That Miller ended his own life raises doubts about his piety as well, at least among many Catholics.

Some critical Christian Humanists, such as Walker Percy, though, saw something special in Miller. “The peculiar virtue of the novel,” Percy wrote in 1971, “lies in the successful marriage of a subliterary pop form with a subject matter of transliterary import.” Within the praise exists a slap as well: what was Miller doing writing science fiction?

From the standpoint of 2014 rather than 1971, we can ask critically, how would Miller have been expected to write his philosophical, theological, and metaphysical ideas without having writing within the genre of science fiction? It is worth remembering that until the 1960s, science fiction remained the great and almost unique refuge of the serious and imaginative intellectuals, both on the left and the right (and everywhere above, below, and near the supposed spectrum of beliefs). Most of the reading public—in and out of academia—had dismissed science fiction (as well as fantasy and comicbook super heroes) as not merely low-brow, but pulpish and quasi-pornographic. Those who wrote and read science fiction—Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, and Walter Miller—knew so much better. In science fiction, any world could be imagined, and various anthropologies could be explored. Indeed, endless worlds and anthropologies existed, limited only by the imagination. Hence, Ray Bradbury could smash racial discrimination openly in science fiction (1950’s “Way in the Middle of the Air”) in a way that mainstream publishers never would have allowed in the 1940s and 1950s. Equally important, Miller could examine the Augustinian truths of history, governments, technology, war, and religion. And, by doing so, he could critique the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Americans for their recent atrocities against the human person.

One of the most important things that Miller explores is the relationship of Judaism and Christianity. The Wandering Jew of A Canticle is at once wise, charitable, hilarious, and cranky. The myth runs that as Jesus carried the Cross to Golgotha, Veronica wiped his face, but another refused to help him. The latter man, the story runs, condemned himself to wander the earth until the end of all things. In other words, what Jesus accomplished through his death on one afternoon, the uncharitable man would seek throughout all of history. Through this story, Miller explains the relationship of the Jews and the Catholics. Whereas the Jews are the single oldest and most coherent of peoples, the Church provides the longest lived institution in the West. With Canticle—a song—Miller demonstrates the absolute necessity of both the Old and New Covenants, the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of Jews and Catholics. In so doing, Miller reaffirms traditional Catholic teaching about the mystery of the Old Covenant and the salvation of the Jews while also anticipating much of the language employed at Vatican II.

In chapter 16 of book two of Canticle—Fiat Lux—the following conversation takes place between the Jew and the Abbot.

Benjamin shrugged eloquently. ‘Different, secular scholars,’ he echoed, tossing out the words like discarded apple pits. ‘I have been called a ‘secular scholar’ at various times by certain people, and sometimes I’ve been staked, stoned, and burned for it.’

‘Why you never—‘ The priested stopped, frowning sharply. That madness again. Benjamin was peering at him suspiciously, and his smile had gone cold. Now, thought the abbot, he looking at me as I were one of Them—whatever formless ‘Them’ it was that drove him here to solitude. Staked, stoned, and burned? Or did his ‘I’ means ‘We’ as in ‘I, my people’?

‘Benjamin—I am Paulo. Torquemada is dead. I was born seventy-odd years ago, and pretty soon I’ll die. I have loved you, old man, and when you look at me, I wish you would see Paulo of Pecos and no other.’

Benjamin wavered for a moment. His eyes became moist. “I sometimes—forget—‘

‘And sometimes you forget that Benjamin is only Benjamin, and not all of Israel.’

But, of course, from a literary standpoint, Benjamin does represent the sacrifice and burden carried by all of Israel for all of history, the burden of being God’s chosen.

Throughout the novel, whether playful and silly or dark and serious, Miller understands clearly that Jew and Christian must travel together, not as rivals, but as brothers. The Old must walk the journey with the New, and the New must provide the institutional shelter for the Old.

Only through science fiction—at least in the 1950s—could such truths be told to large audiences not congregated before a pulpit.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Being a tad bit older — and a long-term sci-fi nut — I have enjoyed the story longer, but perhaps no less intensely.
    But how can you bring this up without mentioning the apotheosis at the end of the story, with Benjamin and the mutant?

  2. I read this as a teenager in the early seventies and, again, last spring. What a difference forty years and a conversion to Catholicism made. Thank you, Dr. Birzer.

  3. I will need to re-read this book! Thank you for the reminder. I did not understand the book at the time, not having any contact with Catholicism. But now I think of it, perhaps this book, in a strange way, helped open me to become a Catholic a few years later.

  4. I saw it at a Goodwill about thirty years after a priest recommended it to me, recalled the title and recommendation, and took a $1.99 chance. I have since given away two copies and will gladly pay full price when I find a third one (which I will likely pass on once again: I’m afraid that others will treat my recommendation as I did Father Lee’s, and miss a thoroughgoing pleasure). A fascinating novel. In passing, I agree with the respondent who said the passage of years makes a difference: I believe that I would have missed a great deal years before. But younger readers are welcome to prove that it can be appreciated at an earlier age.

  5. That one ends there own life should not be a factor in the judgment of piety. As one who suffers from mental illness, faith and be easily shoved aside by forces greater than most minds can handle.

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