A canticle for Leibowitz

My high school band director, Paul Parets, suggested that I should read A canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. Since Mr. P (I still can’t bring myself to call him “Paul”) was one of the few teachers I had who was Not An Idiot, I decided to take him up on it. And here is the obligatory book report.

Canticle was written at the high point of American Catholicism, the mid-50s, before The Spirit of Vatican II (not the letter!) tore everything apart. Miller was a Catholic convert who had before his conversion taken part in the bombing of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, which was traumatic for him, and which was a definite influence on Canticle. It’s a bit of a shock in 2013 to read a novel, not specifically aimed at a religious audience, which treats the Church accurately and respectfully, and which deals with theological issues with 99% fidelity. It’s a realistic portrayal: there are sadistic abbots, bad popes, and a priest who punches somebody in the face (like St. Nicholas!). But there is no pederasty and no conspiracies (aside from a little politicking by an abbot). Rather, there is (among other matters) a battle over euthanasia which is shocking in its timeliness.

The theme of the novel is the relationship between religion and science, and the practical necessity for religion to guide the use and development of science. The first part of the novel (originally, three separate novellas) is set 600 years after a nuclear war. In the aftermath, the survivors had attempted to wipe out all knowledge and learning. A scientist named Isaac Edward Leibowitz joined the Church for protection, and founded an order of monks, The Albertine Order of Leibowitz (coincidentally and amusingly abbreviated AOL), to preserve what knowledge had escaped the howling mobs. The monks hand-copy books, as they did during the Dark Ages. A postulant encounters a Jewish pilgrim who points him to the final resting place of the Beatus Leibowitz’s wife, and to some relics, which eventually leads to the canonization of Leibowitz. This mysterious pilgrim appears in all three sections of the book (the only character to do so, given that the time span is 1200 years). In the first part, he is taken by some to be an apparition of Leibowitz himself. In the second section, he scoffs at this and declares himself to be Lazarus. As a type, he fits the legend of the Wandering Jew; he is always looking for the Messiah (who Lazarus would presumably recognize). And it should be noted that standard Catholic belief is that Lazarus eventually died again.

In the second section, set 600 years later, a Renaissance is beginning., along with secular science, which finds itself being co-opted by political power. The Church (in the form of the AOL Abbey) is open-handed with scientific knowledge, while challenging the moral choices of scientists. In the 3rd section (600 years yet farther on) civilization has returned to its former state, including nuclear weapons, and they are starting to be used. A group from the Church, including bishops, sets off in a spaceship to the colony on a planet of Alpha Centauri, to perpetuate the Church, before Mankind destroys itself again (and possibly finally).

The writing style is engaging (indeed, at points so virtuosic as to call attention to itself), the plot energetic, and the ideas of consequence. It’s well worth the read. One wonders what effect the post-Vatican II disruptions would have had on Miller’s writing. Miller suffered from PTSD and depression all his life, and after he wrote Canticle, he became a recluse. He had finished most of a companion novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, before shooting himself in 1996. It’s been finished and published, I haven’t read it, but the Wikipedia summary suggests that either the Church’s demons or Miller’s own had gotten to it, set as it is in a time of a Babylonian Capitivity of the Church. I might look for it; in the meantime, Canticle gets this layman’s official Nihil obstat and recommendation.


2 Responses to A canticle for Leibowitz

  1. kishnevi says:

    I remember reading that book for high school English. Mostly I remember it as a very pessimistic book, because it seemed to think of human history as inevitably repeating the mistakes of the past.

  2. one of my favorite teachers of all time

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