Walter M Miller Jr grew up in the in-between-the-wars American South, enlisting in the Army Air Corp in WWII and spending most of his time as a radio operator and gunner. One operation in which he participated was the infamous bombing of the ancient monastary of Monte Cassino in Italy; it was this experience, as well as his encounter with the horrors of war generally, that lead him to write “A Canticle for Leibowitz”
The novel covers a nearly 1800 year time span in which an order of monks adhering to the Rule of Benedict – called the Albertain Order of Leibowitz, named for the great medieval scholar Albertus Magnus, and a fictional scientist-martyr Leibowitz – struggle to preserve the relics of the “great civilisation” destroyed by nuclear war. Their task is rendered next to impossible by the fact that, after civilisation was destroyed, a further cataclysmic event called the Simplification resulted in the systematic annihilation of books, records, and technological implements of every kind. The Order was founded by a scientist named Leibowitz who was mob lynched during the Simplification; but not before he had managed to squirrel away a small collection of precious books and found the Order bearing his name.
The novel is constructed in three parts, the first ocurring approximately 600 years after the nuclear holocaust, the next about 500 years further on, and the final section another half milennium beyond that. In the first section, a rather absurd and hapless novice monk stumbles upon a fallout shelter which, among other things, contains a precious relic written by Leibowitz himself – a shopping list. In the second section, an abbot plagued by doubts and chronic ulcers debates whether to make available to the scientists of the newly emerging civilisations the technological secrets which the Order has preserved for so long. In the third section, a civilisation more advanced than the one destroyed by the nuclear holocaust advances inexoribably to its own horrible fate – but not without the Order managing to make sure a seed of hope for humanity survives.
This is a wonderfully told novel full of wit, sarcasm, humour, despair, compassion, and frustration. Having survived the horrors of WWII Miller was desperately concerned that human civilisation was advancing along a path of relentless self-annihilation, heedless of the warnings provided by the carnage of two global conflagrations. Haunting the novel is the unseen personage of Leibowitz: the scientist-martyr who struggled to preserve what was best about civilisation – its accumulated knowledge – all the while knowing this was the very thing that had brought civilisation to ruin. Also haunting the novel is the figure of “the Jew”, known as Benjamin bar Joshua, but quite conceivably Lazarus raised from the dead and unable to die again. Is he an allegory for anti-Semitic persecution and the appropriation by Christians of Jewish sacred history and heritage? A symbol of human folly? Of sheer, bloody-minded determination? Of the human experience itself, its journey from savagery to civilisation, only to inflict upon itself more savagery?
Miller’s placing of the struggle to preserve civilisation within the context of an enclosed monastic order reflects both the historical preservation of Western civilisation by Benedictine monastaries during the Dark Ages, as well as the perenniel tension between the truth of science and the truth of faith. This tension is emblematic of the tension between knowledge and wisdom; and Miller’s seemingly gloomy conclusion is nonetheless punctured by the possibility of hope. Perhaps we are doomed to destroy ourselves (although the likelihood of climactic annihilation rather than nuclear holocaust seems more probable these days); but even if we do, it just may be that something of ourselves – some of our greatness that transcends our shame – will survive beyond our annihilation, to be picked up and carried on by whoever comes after us.
A powerful, disturbing, thought-provoking novel, well worth reading and completely relevant in this day and age.
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.