Monday, October 19, 2009

A Canticle For Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller


A Canticle For Leibowitz is an apocalyptic cautionary tale from 1960 which describes the – apparently inescapably – cyclical nature of time. It begins six centuries after nuclear devastation has destroyed our current civilization, following which there has been an age of Simplification, in which learning or understanding or progress were savagely repressed:

after the Deluge, after the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification, when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever persons the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death for having helpd to make the Earth what it had become. Nothing had been so hateful in the sight of these mobs as the man of learning.

Scientists and scholars, then, were blamed for what had happened and were killed; all evidence of their work – books, machines, any object of progress – was destroyed. Only a few dedicated priests carried the flame of knowledge through these dark centuries, men who acted as ‘bookleggers’ burying the sacred texts in kegs in the southwest desert and ‘memorizers’ committing ‘to rote memory entire volumes of history, sacred writings, literature, and science.’ They lack the knowledge to interpret these writings, but ‘it mattered not at all to them that the knowledge they saved was useless, that much of it was not really knowledge now.’ Thus, they puzzle over a fragment of text left by their Saint, Leibowitz: ‘pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels – bring home for Emma,’ and spend their lives ‘handcopying ... algebra texts and illuminating their pages with olive leaves and cheerful cherubim surounding tables of logarithms.'

Slowly, there is a rebirth of knowledge as the arcane keys to the knowledge of the ancients is uncovered and remembered. The second section of the novel moves forward a further six hundred years and new, secular searchers for knowledge are leading civilisation towards re-discovery. And then, in the final section, the novel slips forward another six hundred years and we find ourselves, once more, on the verge of nuclear devastation. ‘Are we helpless?’ the Abbot asks. ‘Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?’ The answer, unequivocally, appears to be yes.

A Canticle For Leibowitz is an extremely funny book which wrestles with important questions. It is a study of the exchange of power in both the secular and religious arenas; it examines, as Douglas Texter points out, ‘the relationship between power and knowledge; and it asks questions about human responsibility – both personal and societal – and notions of original sin.

Edward Ducharme suggests that the novel deals with the conflict between the scientist’s search for truth and the state’s power. Michael Alan Bennett extends this to include the clash between scientific speculation and religious doctrine. It is significant that the keepers of the flame of knowledge are monks. In this way, as Jeanne Murray Walker explains, ‘Miller portrays religion as the caretaker of human society’, and its struggles to maintain for civilisation the knowledge of the ancients is a noble act. In the first section of the novel, the state has turned to barbarism, and knowledge and learning have been outlawed. This condition lasts for centuries, but finally, gradually, the renaissance begins. Men of science begin to unlock the secrets of the past. Thon Taddeo, a brilliant scientist, leads the way. And yet, he is beholden to his patron, the evil Hannegan, who is intent on an imperialistic war. Taddeo is well aware of this, but chooses to ignore the fact, because his scientific discoveries, he believes, take precedence. He cannot fight Hannegan, so he gives the appearance of supporting him, and in this way gains his patron’s support, which he justifies by claiming that it permits his scientific research, from which ‘mankind will profit’. As Bennett explains: ‘It is this compromise that Miller condemns.’ In the third section, the outcome is starkly presented: the state, unchecked, exercises power and manipulates its authority through deliberate shaping of individuals’ thoughts and beliefs, creating a highly volatile condition which, ultimately, it cannot control. It slides towards disaster. Power and knowledge have conspired to ruin civilisation once more.

The second section of the novel also describes the tension between science and religion, rationalism and faith. They have the same object – the renaissance of learning – but in the language and postures they adopt they appear incompatible. Abbott Dom Paulo and Thom Taddeo both want the same thing, they both want a route out of darkness, a renaissance. But although they have the same goal, they cannot agree. Thon Taddeo, outlining his theories, offers:

“a brief outline of what the world can expect, in my opinion, from the intellectual revolution that’s just beginning... Ignorance has been our king. Since the death of empire, he sits unchallenged on the throne of Man... Tomorrow, a new prince shall rule. Men of understanding, men of science shall stand behind the throne, and the universe will come to know his might. His name is Truth.”

Dom Paulo, however, points to the compromise Taddeo must make to serve his patron. This is dangerous, he explains: “you promise to begin restoring Man’s control over Nature. But who will govern the use of the power to control natural forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you hold him in check?” He goes on: “To serve God first, or to serve Hannegan first – that’s your choice.” Taddeo is unrepentant: knowledge must come first. ‘ “I have little choice then,” he says. “Would you have me work for the Church?” The scorn in his voice was unmistakable.’ The Church, he feels is an impediment. It is hoarding knowledge, not applying it. “What you really suggest,” he says, “[is] that we save it all up for the day when Man is good and pure and holy and wise.”

And, of course, in the third section, the hubris of Taddeo is exposed and civilisation suffers the fatal consequences. The corollary would appear to be that men of science, in their unchecked search for the truth, lose something, some spark, some element of spirituality, which is essential to the nature of man. This is a popular notion among reactionary thinkers, the idea that the Enlightenment has brought with it an impoverishment of humanity and that an unbending emphasis on the rational operates at the cost of our spiritual wellbeing. Quoting Lewis Mumford, Douglas Texter explains:

While Mumford argues that the scientific method liberated the Western mind from the religious tyranny under which it had labored for a millennium, a type of intellectual catch-22 accompanied this liberation. Scientific observation threatened subjectivity itself: “For the better part of three centuries, scientists followed Galileo’s lead. Under the naïve belief that they were free from metaphysical preconceptions, the orthodox exponents of science suppressed every evidence of human and organic behaviour that could not be neatly fitted into their mechanical world picture.” Mumford concludes that scientists like Galileo had “in all innocence surrendered man’s historic birthright: man’s memorable and remembered experience, in short, his accumulated culture. In dismissing subjectivity, he had excommunicated history’s central subject, multi-dimensional man.”


This links to those questions about mythos and logos, to the spiritual world which we lose sight of when we focus on reason and logos and dismiss mythos as incredible and superstitious. And, Miller appears to be suggesting, the result of this will be annihilation. This is nonsense. It is a logical non-sequiteur to imagine that because scientists follow reason and eschew God, their efforts are bound to result in evil. There is simply no justification for assuming this, no proof whatsoever. The work of scientists has certainly resulted in evil acts – the shadow of Robert Oppenheimer looms large over this novel, for example – but to suggest this is inevitable is dogmatic scaremongering. Creating a binary opposition in the way that Miller does between science and religion is simplistic, and to suggest that critical examination, in the way of reasoned scientific discovery, is somehow innately dangerous, is blinkered.

It is clear that A Canticle operates on a religious level. Thus, the fascinating questions it poses about the nature of responsibility are ultimately lost to Christian guilt. Bennett suggests that the primary theme of the novel is one of individual responsibility. Miller’s message, he suggests, ‘is that if nuclear holocaust occurs, the fault will lie with each individual who did nothing to prevent it.’ This is powerful and provocative stuff. Humans will not take responsibility for their own actions, Miller is saying. Even at the end, as the nuclear holocaust approaches, the official government spokesman cannot reveal the truth of what has happened and is happening. Nothing is ever our fault. In a powerful speech as the novel draws to its end, the Abbot says to the doctor:

The trouble with the world is me. Try that on yourself, my dear Cors. Thee me Adam Man we. No “wordly evil” except that which is introduced into the world by Man – me thee Adam us – with a little help from the father of lies. Blame anything, blame God even, but oh don’t blame me. Doctor Cors? The only evil in the world now, Doctor, is that fact that the world no longer is...

There is much truth in this, of course, on both an individual and societal level. The blame game appears to be a natural human instinct. And yet some of the power of Miller’s message is lost because of his adoption of religious guilt. Note that the ‘worldly evil’ is introduced into the world by man. Literally, that may be so, as there is no deus ex machina to have concocted it and nature itself cannot be inherently evil. But here Miller is taking the position of original sin. In an earlier passage, he writes:

the burden was there, had been there since Adam’s time – and the burden imposed by a fiend crying in mockery, “Man!” at man. “Man!” – calling each to account for the deeds of all since the beginning.


This is an interesting passage. There is a strong degree of sophistry here. As presented, it is hard to argue: as we have seen, Miller’s message in this novel is that we must take responsibility, we must not look away, we must not privilege our own endeavours over the requirements of society or humanity, and it would be difficult to argue with that. But this is a step away from saying that each is accountable for all since the beginning. Accountable to all, I would certainly accept, and responsible for all, likewise, but to suggest that each is accountable for all is to infect truth with dogma. This is how religions begin: we fetishise truth.

Bennett misunderstands this very point when he describes the immortal Jewish hermit Benjamin’s realisation that ‘each individual man is responsible, not only for his own actions, but for the actions of all men.’ But this is not what Miller is saying. Responsibility is not the same as accountability, and Miller is trying to suggest that each is accountable for all. That is an unsustainable position occasioned by the Christian Church’s understanding of original sin. To have established a moral code, as Christianity has done, on the basis of universal guilt, is no basis for a fair and decent and progressive civilisation. And in suggesting that, because of original sin, men of science are in some way pre-ordained to oversee the annihilation of mankind, Miller is responsible for an untruth greater than any of those he abjures in the course of his novel. This is a fine work, and it presents an interesting thesis, but ultimately it is smothered by its own prejudices.

8 comments:

Court said...

I found the first part of Canticle to be fascinating, since I am admittedly fascinated by apocalyptic scenarioes. The last parts were weighed down by too many Big Ideas, heavy-handedly inserted. As I understand it, he originally wrote the first part, then came back and added the last two to make it long enough to be a novel, including a change to the last lines of the first part, to make it more of a cliffhanger.

To me it definitely reads that way.

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, you're probably right about that. The first section does feel different - lighter, more humorous - than the remaining two parts. I'm not surprised to learn that he added those later.

There's also another book apparently, which he wrote many years later.

Mark said...

I thought Leibowitz was published as three separate novellas and then later combined as Court notes. But I don't think the latter two were written just to fill space. Could be wrong.

While Miller is heavy-handed [I hear echoes of TS Eliot's: "If you will not have God (and he is a jealous God), you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin"] and maybe even a little ideological, the general criticism of empiricism is valid.

Have you read the short Walker Percy essay on Leibowitz? It's in Signposts. I think of it here because of what Percy implies is the key to the book: who is the woman (whose name escapes me) at the end of the third part? You call his view of history cyclical, but I don't think it is that. I think it is a Christian understanding of history (though only one form of it, and his is far too definite and determined for me): there is always a sense of familiarity in history because man does not fundamentally change, but it's not cyclical, and it is certainly going somewhere.

Tom Conoboy said...

No, I'm interested in that Percy essay. I came across a reference to it in another article, but haven't tracked the Percy down yet. What he says in it, I gather, is that you have to understand your Catholic theology to realise who Rachel is and what role she plays in the novel. Unless you know that, you cannot understand the novel. Now my Bible knowledge is very ropey, so all I know about Rachel is that she (unwillingly) ended up in a bigamous marriage to Jacob (along with her sister) and suffered tremendous jealousy. So I'd like to get hold of the Percy article to read what he thinks.

I think this novel is cyclical. It starts with nuclear holocaust and gradually we overcome it and rebuild a society only to completely learn from history and do the damned thing again. In that, it feels to me like nietzsche's eternal return, or at least the way I read his eternal return, which isn't that everything literally repeats itself over and over, but that, unless we overcome resentement (Rachel's jealousy, perhaps?) we are bound to end up repeating the same unhappinesses over and over.

Mark said...

Basically he says if you know who Rachel is, you understand the novel. But he doesn't say who Rachel is. I don't think he means, "Do you know the character Rachel in Scripture?" But I am fairly certain that he means (and Walter Miller meant) Rachel is the third Eve or the second Mary. The textual hints would be huge to a Roman Catholic. And so: Eve is the mother of the human race, Mary is the mother of the Savior of the human race, and, perhaps, Rachel is the mother of it's destruction in some sense. The close of human history, the final bell, trumpets and so forth.

I agree the novel has cyclical elements, but given who Rachel is (or who I am pretty sure she is), it becomes clear that it's not entirely cyclical.

Tom Conoboy said...

well, I don't know. In some respects what you say there makes it even more cyclical: Rachel representative of the mother of both man and Christ, but also the bringer of man's destruction. That's fairly cyclical.

Marc said...

I have not read the Canticle for years, but I disagree that it demonizes only science or scientists. It is well to remember that it was the monks and not scientists who brought lux back to the world. Miller makes it pretty clear that we are all complicit in Armageddon. It is a fatalistic vision, but apparently Mr. Miller never recovered from the trauma of bombing a 6th century abbey to the ground during the Second Great Misunderstanding. I think he is suggesting that the apple is poison irrespective of who takes a bite; inevitably it will morph into a serpent and bite us in the ass. Neither is it a "cyclical" novel. I believe that to the author the progression of events is inevitable; we WILL turn the apple into a hand grenade and kill something.

Tom Conoboy said...

I have not read the Canticle for years, but I disagree that it demonizes only science or scientists.

Yes, you may well be right in that, Marc. Certainly, the monks don't get an easy ride in the novel.

Miller makes it pretty clear that we are all complicit in Armageddon. It is a fatalistic vision, but apparently Mr. Miller never recovered from the trauma of bombing a 6th century abbey to the ground during the Second Great Misunderstanding. I think he is suggesting that the apple is poison irrespective of who takes a bite; inevitably it will morph into a serpent and bite us in the ass.

I can understand, and even sympathise with that point of view, but I do find it pessimistic to the point of hopelessness. It is this sort of thinking that makes Flannery O'Connor difficult for me, too. I suppose, if I cast aside my naive humanism for a moment, I have to acknowledge that there is evil in the world, or at least that man is capable of it. But inevitable?

Neither is it a "cyclical" novel. I believe that to the author the progression of events is inevitable; we WILL turn the apple into a hand grenade and kill something.

But you could say that that in itself is part of a cycle.