Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

14 Sept 2011

(Novel) Canticle for Leibowitz by: Walter Miller, Jr.

(Reaction) From the Apocalypse and Back Again by: Antonio Conejos

John Keats, in reflecting on an artifact from the dawn of Western civilization, teases out a verity which has bedeviled students and readers since, Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know (Ode on a Grecian Urn). Miller, in looking at a possible future extrapolated from a history that predates history (the fall of man and original sin), draws out a corollary observation: that beauty protects truth.

Canticle for Leibowitz begins after the climax. This is not the bleakness of the end of the world. Rather, it is the despair of survivors who failed to die when the world ended. It is centuries after nuclear war, and the bleakness of the situation is conveyed in the setting, which is not only unremittingly barren but even actively malicious, A sky-herd of cumulus clouds, on their way to bestow moist blessings on the mountains after cruelly deceiving the parched desert, began blotting out the sun....

In rage and shame the remains of man complete the destruction by turning against all knowledge and the men who possess it, Let us destroy them all, and teach our children that the world is new... Let us make a great simplification... when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers. In the Simplification the reader finds a willful ignorance, a deliberate turning away from knowing.

Particularly, part 1 of Canticle for Leibowitz, Fiat Homo, describes the post-fallout world as a brutish place, where men who sought to preserve knowledge were rewarded with death. On the surface there is little beauty or truth in this age.

While moribund though, truth may yet come to light, Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection. Brother Francis, a sometimes bumbling but obedient monk, aids this resurrection by first unearthing (with the help of the wanderer Benjamin) an old technical diagram and then later rescuing this diagram from thieves. The value of this diagram, in a world shorn of science, is beyond measure.

Francis though effects this rescue not with arms (he is untrained in combat) nor with riches (poor as he is). Rather he saves the diagrams through beauty and faith. The robbers are attracted not to the diagram itself but a copy of the diagram (described as a blaze of beauty) which Francis has been painstakingly creating for the past 15 years. The beauty of the copy leads the robbers to scorn the plainness of the original. As the pope tells Francis, If the robber had not been misled by the beauty of your commemoration, he might have taken this... The twenty-first Leo took the ancient blueprint in his withered hands and carefully unrolled it.

Thus does beauty (Francis's reproduction) protect truth (Leibowitz's original blueprint), just as a copy protects the original. Nor is it an accident that the novel portrays the religious, specifically the Brotherhood of St. Leibowitz and even the church in general, as enlightened souls trying to keep knowledge alive. For what religion, at its best, preserves is the truth - all forms of truth whether it be scientific or theological, human or divine.

Ultimately this assertion that beauty is the protector of truth, and the corollary that it is faith which safeguards truth, suffuses the novel. It is a beautiful resonance of these twin themes that a man (Leibowitz) who refused to surrender to ignorance and hate is canonized a saint as the order he founded dedicates itself to keeping knowledge alive.

This dedication, the faith that man would one day seek his inheritance of ancestral glory, virtue, triumph, and dignity remains unflagging in the Brother of the Order of St. Leibowitz. The monks wait many centuries, endure countless hardships and uncertainties; but never surrender their faith or their vocation. Even when Lucifer falls for the second time.

The phrase used in Canticle for Leibowitz to describe the use of nuclear weapons, Lucifer has fallen, is apt on many levels. On the physical level nothing shines brighter than a nuclear blast, so incandescent that even blind people can see the explosion. Bridging the physical and theological is the name itself, Lucifer is literally translated as the light bringer. Lastly, Lucifer is Satan, God's fallen angel, come to tempt man with worldliness, desire and greed. And man all too willingly obliges him.

Yet there is no recrimination of God from the faithful monks of St. Leibowitz, even when nuclear holocaust embraces the world in fire for a second time. This resilience is embodied in Abbot Zerchi who, pinned down under debris and at death's door, can only think of grace, One glimpse had been a bounty, and he wept in gratitude. Afterwards he lay with his face in the wet dirt and waited.

The monks though are not deranged fanatics or zealots with unthinking fidelity. Doubt, in man and in God, does naturally bedevil them. Each part of the novel features a young man uncertain of his calling, of his devotion to the faith (Fiat Homo - Brother Francis, Fiat Lux - Brother Koernhoer, Fiat Voluntas Tua - Brother Joshua). But when the hour arises, each commit themselves to their calling, even unto death.

This reluctance to think themselves worthy to be called by the Lord has echoes of the Old Testament call narrative. (I discuss the call narrative in my reaction on Lagerlof's The Outlaws.) It is also a sign of each character's humility that they do not presume to be deserving of being asked to do the Lord's work. This meekness of soul is especially pronounced in Brother Francis who wonders (in a beautiful passage), if that other Immensurable Loneliness which was God stretched forth Its hand to touch his own tiny human loneliness and mark his vocation there.

Canticle for Leibowitz is a story of man's damnation not once but twice. Yet underneath the rubble of destruction is an inherently hopeful faith that we will persevere somehow. As Abbot Zerchi bids those who are about to escape Earth, For some may forget... Pass on to them the continuity. Be for man the memory of earth and origin.... Scrub all progress away, let us club/blast/maim ourselves back to the Stone Age; but what remains is our dogged determination to continue.


I came to Canticle for Leibowitz skeptical of how relevant it would be. While the premise seemed original for its time, post-apocalyptic nuclear winter has been explored by more recent works in film (The Book of Eli), books (The Road, which was also turned into a film) and gaming (the excellent Fallout series, notably Fallout 3). I thought that these later works would be more topical and Canticle for Leibowitz might come of as merely quaint, your grandfather's apocalypse.

I was wrong. As wrong as Enrico Fermi was in 1934 when he observed, for the first time in human history, fallout from tiny nuclear explosions (nuclear fission - the basis of the first atomic weapons), which he then mistakenly announced were the evidence of new elements.

Canticle for Leibowitz manages to combine the form of a novel with a song of praise and a hymn of faith. Beautiful, beautiful book. It doesn't pave over man's many faults but instead shows us a world full of grace in spite of these many flaws. This grace stems from a group of people, spread out over hundreds of years, who refuse to surrender their faith in man and in an inscrutable God.

Fiat voluntas tua.

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