A Canticle for Leibowitz is a novel about Albertian monks living in a post-nuclear-apocalypse world. It is by turns funny and dark – there’s a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in the dialogue, but the setting, plot, and narrative passages between sections can get pretty brutal. This novel has a lot of Latin phrases and Catholic references in it, so it’s better to read it with a study guide open if you’re not familiar with those. Paul Brians’ study guide (http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/science_fiction/canticle.html) is a good one.
Canticle is composed of three smaller stories, each set in a different age in the monastery of Saint Leibowitz. The first, “Fiat Homo” (let there be man), follows Brother Francis as he finds a fallout shelter and tries to get the Church to canonize Leibowitz as a saint. The second, “Fiat Lux” (let there be light), focuses on science and Enlightenment’s gradual return to the post-nuclear age. The third, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (thy will be done) chronicles Abbot Zerchi’s struggle to remain hopeful against the rising threat of nuclear war.
Brother Francis’s first meeting with the Wandering Jew character is funny, but mysterious. The Wandering Jew appears on the horizon like a flickering black iota. He comes after Brother Francis has been fasting for a few days. The Wandering Jew starts eating in front of him and Brother Francis has this wonderful reaction: “The universe contracted; at its exact geometric center floated that sandy tidbit of dark bread and pale cheese”. This isn’t the only time Brother Francis gets metaphysical on us about something relatively simple. When the Abbot is interviewing him about whether the man he saw in the desert was the prospective Saint Leibowitz or just a regular old man, he thinks:
This line of questioning was puzzling to Brother Francis. In his own mind, there was no neat straight line separating the Natural from the Supernatural order, but rather, an intermediate twilight zone. There were things that were clearly natural, and there were Things that were clearly supernatural, but between these extremes was a region of confusion (his own) – the preternatural – where things made of mere earth, air, fire, or water tended to behave disturbingly like Things. For Brother Francis, this region included whatever he could see but not understand. And Brother Francis was never “sure beyond a doubt,” as the abbot was asking him to be that he properly understood much of anything.
This is one of the most relatable pieces of interior dialogue I have ever read. I’m sure a lot of people have the same kind of doubt about reality, but I’ve never seen it written out so plainly. I guess that Brother Francis not being 100% sure of how the world around him works could contribute to his faith that there might be supernatural powers at work. Science likes to portray religion as a palliative for weak minds who need the certainty that everything will be okay because God exists and is looking out for them, but Miller seems to be suggesting that if there is doubt about reality, supernatural things could exist, and saying that they definitely don’t exist is actually more dogmatic and restrictive (not historically, obviously, but in this context). It’s an interesting way to flip the skepticism = science, faith = fake certainty paradigm.
The second part can get a little boring if you’re like me and not wild about politics or military strategy, but it’s pretty hilarious when the Thon (a post-nuclear age scientist) gets frustrated at the monks for managing to create the lightbulb before him. The Thon is a really nerdy character. His cousin Hannegan, the ruler of Texarkana, wants to conquer the surrounding lands and build an empire. The Thon doesn’t approve of his actions, but is too weak and cowardly to oppose him, so the Thon gets the ire of the abbot, who doesn’t want war to happen because then the abbey would be used as a fortress and another Flame Deluge (nuclear war) might happen.
There are a lot of jokes based on social hierarchy in this book, so I think it would appeal to fans of Catch-22. The difference is that here it’s the hierarchy of the Church and in Catch-22 it’s hierarchy in the military, but there’s the same kind of silly insubordination stuff going on (like novices eating lizards or taking baths in inappropriate places, and the third abbot beating the crap out of a dictation machine). The Wandering Jew is outside this hierarchy, so Dom Paolo, the second abbot, feels he and the Wandering Jew can have an honest rapport:
“And sometimes you forget that Benjamin is only Benjamin and not all of Israel… Why do you take the burden of a people and its past upon yourself alone?”
Benjamin says, “You fish in dark waters.”
Seriously, how snappy is that dialogue? Damn. Benjamin’s line makes me think of Leviathan, emphasizing the enormity of Jewish history and strife. I’m not sure if he was going for that or if it’s just a metaphor, but either way, it’s a good line which seems heavy with meaning. It’s interesting that a novel so concerned with Catholicism would even include a Jewish character, but then again the Wandering Jew is a Christian myth. Dom Paolo (the abbot in the second part) says that Benjamin’s burden was pressed upon him by others, so I don’t think he means the command from Christ to wander all his days until the messiah comes back to Earth. He suggests that Benjamin is carrying the responsibility for all the actions of Jews everywhere because he believes he’s the last one. I’m not sure if Miller is saying that the Wandering Jew is carrying the sin of all Jews in terms of killing Christ, but if that were the case it would be odd that he and the second abbot are so close. But maybe the apocalypse and the resurgence of science are bringing religions together.
The third part has a young, strong, and reckless abbot, appropriate for end-times. He clashes with a doctor who wants to advise radiation patients who won’t survive to go to camps to be euthanized. He gets the doctor to cede on some parts, but there’s a woman who comes with her child, both with horrible burns, and the child is crying, and the doctor suggests they go, but the abbot does everything he can to keep her and the child alive. He gets into the car with her and tries to drive her back while giving her guilt about her decision. She replies, “the baby doesn’t understand your sermon… She can hurt, but she can’t understand.” The abbot doesn’t really have a good response to this, except to tell a story about the time his cat got hit by a truck and he went out to kill him but the cat wouldn’t be killed and crawled out the hole because it was determined to die in the bushes, with “dignity”. The problem is that dignity is subjective…
In an unforeseen twist, the Messiah does come at the end of the third part, in the guise of a mutant tomato woman’s second head, named Rachel. Her name means “to journey as a ewe that is a good traveler”, which makes sense because the Messiah is often referred to as the lamb. At the start of the second half, Rachel is under the hood, asleep and youthful-faced, while the old head is interacting with the world. After the bomb is dropped and Abbot Zerchi is trapped under the wreckage of the sanctuary, Rachel’s voice is the first thing he hears. She repeats what Zerchi says, because she doesn’t know language, having just awoken. Zerchi tries to offer her baptism, but she refuses because she has no original sin to wash away.
Even in Jewish scholarship the messiah is usually spoken of with male pronouns, so it’s pretty surprising that in this book the messiah is a woman. There isn’t anything else feminist about the book, so I’m not quite sure what Miller is trying to say by it. Zerchi had been taking the old woman’s confession and she said that she wanted to forgive God for making her as she is before she asks God to forgive her for her sins. This gives Zerchi pause, but he allows it. I wonder if the act of forgiving God is what makes her the messiah. There’s kind of a death-and-renewal, cyclical process happening when Rachel comes to life – the old head, which drops to the side, begins to look younger. Something about that really creeps me out… it’s like a biological perpetual-motion machine.
The scope of the novel is huge: it spans a millennium and a half. The action within each section is only a couple years of that; the rest is filled in by a narrator who gives us the gist of humanity’s collective actions. Some of these passages come off as preachy, and it builds until the last section, when the narrator reveals that the cyclical nature of civilization and decay is based on the psychological principle that when times are bad, we have hope, and when times are good, we have boredom:
The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.
This is pretty cynical, but it’s consistent with the Catholic worldview that humans are born with original sin because Adam and Eve couldn’t be content with Paradise. There is some psychological basis for this: our brains strive for balance, not to be too happy or too unhappy, so when we finds ourselves too far towards either pole the releases chemicals to bring you back to a more neutral emotional state. Back when the second abbot was talking to the Wandering Jew, the narrator says, “And yet, Dom Paulo’s own Faith told him that the burden was there, had been there since Adam’s time – and the burden imposed by a fiend crying in mockery, ‘Man!’ at man.” Maybe what the book is saying is that we should forgive God for making us what we are, which is imperfect and insatiable, because only then can we be open to God’s forgiveness?
I feel like I did miss quite a few things reading this book since I grew up Jewish and I’m not too familiar with Catholicism, but this was an interesting read. I really liked the writing style and the characters, but I’m not quite sure I got the message. I would definitely recommend that people read this book, not so much for the science fiction (because there’s very little technology) but for religion, humor, and a couple awesome scenes. However, I don’t feel like I encountered anything mind-blowing and it really dragged in some parts, so I’m rating it three stars instead of the four I would give it if I were just rating the best parts.