Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review -- A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller Jr.

This December has been extremely sparse for me when it comes to posting and for this, I guess, apologies are in order. Nevertheless, I'd finished this particular novel for almost the entire month, so there's little excuse for the tardiness of this review.

Having flown as a tailgunner during the Second World War and participated in the destruction of the ancient Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, Walter M. Miller Jr.'s novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, is a product of his subsequent meditations on war, knowledge, and faith in the wake of his wartime experiences. The only novel Miller ever published which garnered any significant literary attention, A Canticle for Leibowitz wrestles with several conflicts which are far more poignant today than even were during the early 1960s when the novel was first published.

Before setting pen to paper, Miller had explored a number of themes in short stories published in science-fiction magazines. Among these, he especially focused on the ideas of technological regression and orders of priests that would preserve knowledge against the ravages of time and human ignorance. His experience writing this sort of struggle, combined with post-apocalyptic literature (born from the growing awareness in the 1960s of MAD), his faith and Catholic background, and his own reservoir of memories from World War II, would coalesce into a short story that would become the first segment of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz was originally three novelettes that were originally published in F&SF in the mid-1950s. This is evidenced by the subtle shifts in writing style between the three segments. After heavy editing, the three sections were sewn together into one single narrative of an abbey constructed 600 years after a "Flame Deluge" (read: nuclear holocaust) and continuing for a millennium thereafter. This abbey, the eponymous Abbey of St. Leibowitz, is the actual protagonist of the tale, and the people around it are all supporting cast. The first segment, "Fiat Homo" (i.e. "Let There Be Man") , chronicles the "miraculous events" which lead to the canonization of the former Beatus Leibowitz into the roll of saints. The second, "Fiat Lux" ("Let There Be Light") describes simultaneous struggles that could shape the destiny of the abbey and determine the way knowledge is preserved and disseminated in the future. The final section, "Fiat Voluntas Tua" ("Thy Will Be Done"), describes the distant future, where man is once again reaching beyond the boundaries of the Earth, but is also poised to destroy himself in another Flame Deluge.

One of the most obvious conflicts that Miller wrestles with is that of faith and knowledge. The reader is well aware that Leibowitz was originally a Jew and an engineer in the employ of the U.S. military. However, a series of seemingly "miraculous" coincidences (a chance discovery of articles in a sealed bunker having once belonged to Leibowitz, for example) result in his canonization as a saint in the Catholic Church. This is an extreme irony that should, by no means, go unnoticed. The presence of the mysterious, eternal old Jew that wanders throughout the three sections should rivet the audience's attention on this irony. There's almost a childish ignorance with which the monks handle the newly discovered articles which some might see as mocking. However, I do not (see below). Francis' character is purposely simple and unintelligent, but Miller is certainly not expressing the entirety of the abbey as being as childishly dull. Their knowledge is limited, which is why they work so diligently to preserve what little has survived.

Miller isn't simply presenting a simplistic dichotomy of knowledge vs. faith. The conflict is one of method and attitude, as well as control. This is very much personified through the character of Thon Taddeo, a brilliant young scholar who is nephew of the Mayor of Texarkana (an incredibly powerful kingdom). He achieves the privilege of examining the library of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, where the only copies of many materials from the world before the Flame Deluge are preserved.

The conflict between preservation and application of knowledge emerges as the highlight of the second segment, and is, indeed, the pivot point upon which the entire novel turns. Thon Taddeo seems to predict the more modern and vocal atheist scientific thinkers of our own era, such as Richard Dawkins. Although Thon Taddeo does not claim atheism outright, he directly challenges the faith of the monks by attacking the very core of their mission--the preservation of knowledge. He embodies the hubris of secular scholarship and scientific achievement.
"Tomorrow, a new prince shall rule. Men of understanding, men of science shall stand behind his throne, and the universe will come to know his might. His name is Truth. His empire shall encompass the Earth. And the mastery of Man over the Earth shall be renewed. A century from now, men will fly through the air in mechanical birds. Metal carriages will race along roads of man-made stone. There will be buildings of thirty stories, ships that go under the sea, machines to perform all works.

"And how will this come to pass?" He paused and lowered his voice. "In the same way all change comes to pass, I fear. And I am sorry it is so. It will come to pass by violence and upheaval, by flame and by fury, for no change comes calmly over the world." --pp. 214
Thon Taddeo's choice of "prince" is not coincidental. That Thon Taddeo also repeatedly refers to Mayor Hannegan of Texarkana as "prince" should not go unnoticed by the reader. Miller was steeped in Catholic lore. By invoking the word "prince," Miller is calling our attention to Ephesians 6:12, which states that a Christian's war is against principalities, powers, and the forces of darkness, not against flesh and blood. The choice of the word "prince" also has a Machiavellian resonance, which will be further expressed in "Fiat Voluntas Tua."

Miller strips Thon Taddeo of his hubris and pride throughout "Fiat Lux." In a later chapter, Thon Taddeo attempts to argue that the species of Man that caused the Flame Deluge was not the species of human that inhabits the post-apocalyptic world. The Abbot rightly dresses him down, accusing him of attempting to distance himself and his colleagues and their scientific achievements from the achievements that caused the Deluge. Dom Paolo, the Abbot, argues with Thon Taddeo that such knowledge must be kept from mankind "until he is wise," and that once science and technology have tied themselves to the terrestrial and the political, then another Flame Deluge is inevitable.
Brief anger flared in the old priest's eyes. "It's time you met our founder, I think," he growled, pointing to the carving in the corner. "He was a scientist like yourself before the world went mad and he ran for sanctuary. He founded this Order to save what could be saved of the records of the last civilization. 'Saved' from what, and for what? Look where he's standing--see the kindling? That's how little the world wanted your science then, and for centuries afterward. So he died for our sake. When they drenched him with fuel oil, legend says he asked them for a cup of it. They thought he mistook it for water, so they laughed and gave him a cup. He blessed it and--some say the oil changed to wine when he blessed it--and then: 'Hic est enim calix Sanguinis Mei,' and he drank it before they hung him and set him on fire. Shall I read you a list of our martyrs? Shall I name all the battles we have fought to keep these records intact? All the minks blinded in the copyroom? for your sake? Yet you say we did nothing with it, withheld it by silence."

"Not intentionally, "the scholar said, "but in effect you did--and for the very motives you imply should be mine. If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it."

"I can see the misunderstanding is basic!" the abbot said gruffly. "To serve God first, or to serve Hannegan first--that's your choice."

"I have little choice, then," answered the thon. "Would you have me work for the Church?" The scorn in his voice was unmistakable. --pp. 224-5
How similar to the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens does Thon Taddeo sound! He nakedly prefers science to serve a selfish, venal master who cannot even sign his own name. His scorn for religion is incredible. He identifies religion with ignorance and darkness--an identification that is quite prevalent in American "common knowledge" today. Thon Taddeo puts his faith in science and technological advancement and erroneously believes that humans will not repeat the Flame Deluge again.

This results in the advanced setting of 3781, in which the Mayorate of Texarkana rules much of North America and is on the brink of nuclear war with a fierce rival power in Asia. Meanwhile, the abbot and monks of St. Leibowitz prepare to send a ship with their entire archive and the next Pope to a distant colony and continue on. It is in this chapter that the struggle between science and religion unites with a broader overall struggle between ethics and morality--especially regarding the euthanasia of fallout survivors who suffer from a lethal dose of radiation. The callous disregard with which the Mayorate of Texarkana authorizes doctors to prescribe euthanasia for "hopeless cases" disgusts Abbot Zerchi, and he forbids the clinic that sets up in his abbey to hand out euthanasia slips.

The names of the Abbots are as interesting as their personalities. Miller is astute and carefully sets up a scenario of beginning-to-end for the earth. "Fiat Homo" is the rebirth of the world, as the title ("Let There Be Man") suggests. Abbot Arkos' name hearkens back to the Book of Genesis, since his name is drawn from the ancient Greek work ἀρχή meaning "origin," "beginning," "first cause." Abbot Arkos is plagued by doubts regarding the enrollment of Leibowitz among the canonized saints. Dom Paolo, who dominates "Fiat Lux," is a much different character, who stands at a crossroads between ages. He battles his physical ailments valiantly in order to secure a future for the Abbey of St. Leibowitz and the Church as well. Abbot Zerchi closes the book by dominating "Fiat Volantus Tua" with his unwavering moral courage and determination to do what he believes is right, no matter the cost. The alphabetic play from A to Z in the names reflects Miller's speculative future as having a definite beginning, as well as a most certain end.

Throughout the novel, there also appears a certain old, weatherbeaten Jewish man who surfaces in each segment of the novel. He is still searching for the Jewish Messiah, and is apparently deathless (perhaps due to a mutation from radiation). Through him, Miller invokes the legends of the Wandering Jew of legend. However, he puts a very different spin on the character than is found in medieval folklore. The Jew (who is called Benjamin by Dom Paolo) assists Brother Francis' discovery of the hidden fallout shelter and its contents by scrawling "צל" (Hebrew letters tsade and lamedh) on the entrance--events which lead directly to Leibowitz's canonization.

I feel I should also mention how Miller handles mutation in this novel. Especially at the end, when mankind has fully realized and rediscovered the fruits of its technological manifest destiny, the children of the first Flame Deluge still walk among the unaffected, a poignant irony as the Mayorate of Texarkana stands on the brink of participating in a second Flame Deluge. Much of this is encapsulated in Rachel, the infant unconscious second head that grows from the shoulders of the elderly Mrs. Grales. Mrs. Grales begs for Rachel to be baptized, even though she has never been conscious. Abbot Zerchi is witness to Mrs. Grales'/Rachel's transformation at the end, in which Miller seems to suggest symbolically (through Rachel that is) that the mutants shall inherit the Earth.

Importantly, Miller reminds us of the role of the Catholic Church as a preserver of knowledge. The erroneous image of the Dark Ages after the collapse of Rome being a time of widespread ignorance is prevalent in the atheist forum. But that is simply so much propaganda. The reality is that the Church played a vital role in preserving knowledge through scriptoria. The statement that history is written by the victors is largely false--history is written by the literate who care. This is the reason we have lavish histories of the "barbarian" Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England, but no histories of the various Celtic nations of pre-Roman Gaul or the advanced kingdoms of medieval sub-Saharan Africa. The truth is that without the Catholic Church, Western European history would have been as blank and empty as other "barbarian" peoples'.

Ronald Numbers says in Myths and Truths of Science and Religion that there is no evidence that "the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages" nor "killed off ancient science" nor "suppressed the growth of natural philosophy." The Age of Enlightenment was made entirely possible by the preservation of knowledge provided by the Catholic Church during the whole of the medieval period.

Miller taps us on our shoulder and sets his Abbey of St. Leibowitz forth as an encapsulation of the entire Church during this so-called "Dark Age." Their struggle to preserve knowledge and the meticulous care they take in copying manuscripts and illuminating them is folded into their faith. From one angle, this reverence for the knowledge, even if poorly understood (such as Francis' illuminated copy of the circuit blueprint), may seem absurd, as if Miller were mocking his subjects. However, Miller understands the power of ritual and symbolism, especially in the Catholic faith. This deep reverence ensures care and preservation of the original materials. Miller doesn't shrink from the negative side-effects, such as the conflict in the abbey over the lighting machine borne from a sentiment that preservation of knowledge has nothing to do with application. Nevertheless, Miller boldly confronts our assumptions regarding darkness, stupidity, ignorance, and the Church. Indeed, the Abbey of St. Leibowitz had been singularly responsible for building and maintaining the school in the nearby town of Sanly Bowitts (which had "achieved a fantastic literacy rate of eight percent") in "Fiat Lux."

There is much more to write about this novel. It's a immense masterpiece--carefully written and revised by its author. Miller's work is rife with hidden meanings and carefully crafted writing. His characterization is phenomenal. Each person is fully defined and realized. Nevertheless, the most important character of the story is the Abbey itself, and its inhabitants create a picture of a bastion of faith, determination, curiosity, humility, and moral courage on its behalf. Miller's prose is adequate, although in "Fiat Lux" (and moreso in "Fiat Volantus Tua") he digresses into lengthy passages in which characters ruminate on the fate of mankind and the destiny of the Abbey a bit much. Regardless, this novel is a deep and multi-layered work of exquisite genius, and certainly demands a re-read sometime in the near future. It definitely deserves to be enrolled in the literary canon.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Style B+
Substance A+
Overall A

6 comments:

onelastsketch said...

I must say, this is a truly fine analysis of a truly fine book. I never did quite make the connection between Thon Taddeo and the secular historical narrative, however, probably because I had long since started ignoring "aggressive atheism" and the reductionist historical timeline that came along with it.

Dave Cesarano said...

Hey, thanks for the comment. It's been a desert for me thus far. And thanks, but I don't think my analysis is really all that good. I had a rough time writing it and deciding what to include and what to leave out and I'm not really satisfied with it. Maybe I should have split it into parts? Either way, thanks.

Miss Mouse said...

Hi Dave. I just finished reading this, loved it, and was wandering around the blogosphere to see what other people thought about it. And I found you! Wonderful, insightful review. Yeah, I agree - this one's definitely going to be reread. Probably more than once. ^-^

Dave Cesarano said...

Hey, thanks Miss Mouse. Glad to hear you found my review interesting and insightful!

Mouse said...

I'm finally getting around to posting my review about this novel. Would you mind if I include a link to your review in my post? No hard feelings if the answer is 'no'. =)

grumpy said...

It is interesting that you have found so much depth in this book about those horrible times. I must say, however I find the diagram of the dark ages to be more indicative of the impact of the witch burnings, the inquisitions, and the rigorous Aristoleanism than the apologist writer you quote. I suggest reading "How the Irish Saved Civilization". It offers something regarding how literate the dark ages truly were, while at the same time hailing the monks who maintained the vestiges of libraries.