Monday, July 09, 2007

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, JR (1959)

A review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road somewhat sniffily said that it was covering old ground, ground that had been covered much better by A Canticle for Leibowitz. That is a book that had been circling about my consciousness for quite some time, so I thought I'd give it a go. I have to say that there isn't much of a connection between the two, except, of course, for the post-apocolyptic thing: they deal with their subject matter in very different ways. Canticle is less hopeful, yet funnier (although I'm not sure how much of the humour was intentional, and how much was just me). It is in three parts, roughly six hundred years apart. Four elements are common to each part: the Catholic Church, its Memorabilia, buzzards and the figure of the Wandering Jew, who is doomed to stay alive until the end of the world.

The title presented me with the same sort of problem Brother Francis Gerard was faced with in reading the Memorabilia. He is copying a blueprint of a "Transistorised Control System for Unit Six-B" but when he is asked what that might be, can only say "Clearly, it is the title of the document" or "the name of the diagram" which represents a
"Transistorised Control System for Unit Six-B" and so on. My understanding of what a canticle is about as detailed as his is of this Transistorised Control System (although looking it up, I see it is a small religious song, often quoted directly from the Bible).

Religion, particularly Catholicism is a dominant force in this book. In the 1960's there was a "Fire Deluge" - basically an atomic storm. The "princes of the Earth" had hardened their hearts against the Law of the Lord, decided it was better that all be destroyed than to have another prince prevail and the Lord God had suffered "the wise men of those times to learn the means by which the world itself might be destroyed". One particular prince was counselled by Satan into believing that using the sword of the Archangel wherewith Lucifer had been struck down would not destroy the world, and thus this prince "smote the cities of the cities of his enemies with the new fire". Over each city, "a sun appeared and was brighter than the sun of heaven and immediately that city withered and melted as wax under the torch, and the people thereof did stop in the streets and their skins smoked and they became as fagots thrown on the coals".

The text isn't all like this: I'm paraphrasing from an official church history of these events. The novel came out in 1960, when nuclear warfare was a very real possibility: it is even more so today, if only because there are more "princes" with their fingers poised. Out of this chaos came a man, Leibowitz who had previously loved the wisdom of the world more than that of God. With the failure of worldly knowledge, he turned to the Lord. The history of Leibowitz's subsequent life is less than clear, although he is known to have set up a community devoted to the preservation of human history, through its Memorabilia.

The novel starts 600 years later, an the abbey of the Order of Leibowitz, somewhere between the Great Salt Lake and Old El Paso. The Memorabilia is still intact, but the new 'culture' is still an inheritance of darkness, not ready to take over its heritage. The memorabilia is inscrutable, even to the monks. Civilisation has not been restored: what was the USA is now just a few isolated communities (including New Rome) with the central plains occupied by bandits. Because men of learning were responsible for the Fire Deluge, the remnants of mankind turned upon them in the Simplification, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers and the like. Those who survived these simpleton packs took refuge with the church.

Brother Francis is spending Lent out in the desert, but has a revelation. An old pilgrim shows the way to a Fallout Survival Shelter. This confuses the hell out of the good Brother, as he thinks a Fallout is some sort of monster: "half-salamander, because, according to tradition, the thing was born in the Flame Deluge, and as half-incubus who despoiled virgins in their sleep, for, were not the monsters of the world still called 'children of the Fallout'?" There is an odd sort of logic to this, and now he is worried that he has broken into the abode of fifteen of the dreadful beings! The Shelter turns out to be where Leibowitz (some sort of draftsman for the US military) had stored his documents, including various blueprints. Such has been the loss of knowledge that no-one knows what they are, and they are accorded religious significance. I couldn't work out whether this was some form of mockery of the Church of today, but on balance think it simply represented the loss of knowledge.

In the second section, light is starting to show, literally and metaphorically.
One hundred years earlier, the printing press was re-invented. The brothers in the abbey are still hard at work with the Memorabilia, and are able to work out sufficient of its meaning to construct a generator and rudimentary electric light. The Church itself is of course an important light - maybe the spark it has been keeping alive for twelve hundred years is about to gain traction? Elsewhere in the land, a collegium has been established, dedicated to research and learning. The main movement in this part is when one of its representatives goes to the abbey and studies the Memorabilia - finally, someone who can grasp most of its meaning, who can appreciate that it will be the source of a new revolution, one of Truth.

While there are still political problems, clearly his prophesy comes into being. In the final section, there are even space ships. Technology is not without its troubles - there are the minor ones, hilariously rendered, when the abbot is trying to use his so-called Abominable Autoscribe. More significantly, the nature of warfare has changed - nuclear weaponry is again available. The very existence of the Church has never been so threatened - although one possibility is to send a small part of the Order, with the Memorabilia, still faithfully preserved, off the planet. This last section is a little odd: there is a sustained debate between the abbot and a doctor over the merits of euthenasing those badly affected by Fallout.

And thus, I say The Road is a more hopeful work, in that at least we see the son go off with his new friends, who might be good guys. In Canticle we instead seem to have this inevitable circularity, a closed system in which the will to power of the princes will ultimately lead to a complete destruction of the earth. Maybe the space journey will see the Order re-established elsewhere, but they have been sent off with instructions never to return. The closing image of the book, is hardly a positive one. There has been mention of shrimps, whiting feeding on the shrimp, and a shark on the whiting:
A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine whaite ash. the ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the cold clean currents. He was very hungry that season.



Blogger AmigoBryan said...


I am a regular re-reader of Canticle for Leibowitz.

Your quote from the Memorabilia regarding the earliest history of the Flame Deluge ought to be sent to Commander Guy Name in the current White House, don't you think? ;-)

I liked your review a lot. I only wish someone would create the movie. And a great locale for the shoot would be New Zealand! :D


--Brother Reader

4:10 AM  

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