Literature is like pornography: You know it when you see it. This is the first book we’ve read this summer that is literature. Our A Canticle For Leibowitz discussion ran deep! Notes follow. With so much ground to cover, and a brief visitation by a mystery guest, we had a very satisfying hash of a very stimulating book. We even finished the salami. “It’s definitely a genre smasher.” -Gill
Some Background on Walter M. Miller, Jr.?
A tail gunner in WWII who signed up right after Pearl Harbor. Saw lots of action; 50 missions. Including destroying the Abbey of Monte Cassino, an experience which inspired A Canticle For Leibowitz. He became a Catholic after the war. Unable to shake depression for the rest of his life. He didn’t know how many people he’d killed. Committed suicide in 1996.
It was written at the beginning of the cold war.
So believable, the fear of nuclear war was constantly rising, rising.
Canticle was originally serialized in Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine before its hardcover publication in 1960 by Lippencott. Another important book was also recently released by this publisher. That book was Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959). Published by Lippencott in hardcover the year before.
Also in 1959: Russia’s Luna spacecraft is launched. Castro is approaching Havana. Batista is still in charge. Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash.
For those of you who believe in Hugo Awards:
Starship Troopers won the Hugo in 1960
A Canticle For Leibowitz won the Hugo in 1961
Stranger In A Strange Land won the Hugo in 1962
Dick won the Hugo in 1963, for Man In The High Castle
Hugo in 1964 goes to Here Gather The Stars by Clifford Semac
Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein 1967
Zelazny wins Lord of Light in 1968
Left Hand Of Darkness by LeGuin in 1970
Wow, quite a sequence.
“He’s actually underestimating the consequences of nuclear war. A nuclear holocaust would have been a lot worse.” – Gill
Miller’s premises while he explores the human condition:
- Human beings destroy other humans not because of something some other human did, or the actions of others, but because part of the nature of human beings is to destroy other human beings. The violence does not abate, no matter what technological level we get to.
- Our entire capacity for goodness and evil is encapsulated in humanity, in the actual living people. Miller often treats humanity as a single organism.
- These characters are alienated from their origins. They don’t know why they exist, just that they do. And it tricks the reader! “Oh thank goodness I’m not alienated from my origins as they are, oh wait, I am as alienated, but I’m just more familiar with my own context.” They’re witness to the future, but they’re disembodied from the body of knowledge that brought them there. Alienated from their origins. Everyone in the book. And us. This book is our condition as well.
- Human beings need tight control, or shit hits the fan. Discipline is key!
“When man gets loose, loose gets man.” – Gill
Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man)
Rediscovering and copying the esoteric knowledge. Building the case for Leibowitz’s sainthood, based on the findings of brave Brother Francis. The manuscripts! The copysits! The Discovery!
The Flame Deluge
Even knowledge was destroyed. Cities were reduced to rubble, the survivors became nomads and villagers. Illiteracy spiked. The mutations caused by the radioactive fallout create an entire outcast grotesque strata of humanity, called Monstrosities, who are avoided and sequestered.
That whole Simplification business, ignorance with pride. Mobs of proud illiterates furious at the smart people who burned the world and mutated their species. These monks know how to recognize knowledge, but not understand it. They preserve it, against the superstitious Simpletons. They make copies of it because they know it matters. He’s recasting the Dark Ages. Leibowitz died protecting knowledge from the Simpletons.
Nikita noted the patience of the ascetic life, the non-goal oriented lifestyle of these monks. Lives are counted in years, but their actions take lifetimes. Francis spends 7 years as a novice! 15 years on the illuminated blueprint replica!
Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light)
Thon Taddeo. Secular intellectual who joined the order to use his mind for work and avoid hard labor, not for God. The pride that comes with knowledge, and the fall that comes with pride.
Argument between Thon Taddeo the scientific scholar and Dom Paulo, the Abbot in charge of the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, where the memorabila reside. Thon Taddeo’s blasphemous idea, after reading a fragment (of Karl Capek’s R.U.R, perhaps? Suhail deduces) about a created race made inferior to their creators. And the Robot revolt, conjecturing that their present race of humans was created by a prior superior form of man, which died off in the Flame Deluge. This incenses the abbot, who points out that text was verified as merely a fragment of a play, then retorts,
“Why do you take delight in leaping to such a wild conjecture from so fragile a springboard? Why do you wish to discredit the past, even to dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer,’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?”
Good question! Why don’t some people want to believe that humans alone can do all of this? When I hear people attribute great engineering feats of antiquity to aliens, I also wonder something. The pyramids, Stonehenge – why don’t you want to believe that humans were able to do that? If we can do holocausts, we can do pyramids.
The backdrop of this powerful contention between the Abbot and the Thon is the rising power of a marauding empire reaching out to engulf the church itself, a political maneuvering meant to take over the church, insisting under pain of death that only the emperor was allowed to license the clergy, not the church, Pope, or Holy See. Progress is coming, so get your bandages, Taddeo warns.
Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let They Will Be Done)
Mrs. Grales forgiving God for his Justice, in the confessional, as the next nuclear holocaust begins. Remarkable imagery. The two headed Mrs. Grales/Rachel speaking of forgiving God, before He forgives her. It opens up a meditation on what forgiveness entails on the part of the forgiver. A relinquishing of anger. Embracing of your own imperfection. Giving before it is necessitated. Forgiving. A very sophisticated emotional condition.
Forgiving God to give up mankind’s bitterness at God for allowing pain and suffering. Because if God hadn’t allowed pain and suffering, then courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice would be meaningless.
The Order’s position: Leibowitz loved the wisdom of the world more than the wisdom of God, but when that did not make peace and happiness, he turned towards God, crying. The order is showing us what it values in their own endeavor. Their job is to bind knowledge and ethics, a great integrator. A structured hierarchical authority.
There’s something about Miller’s voice.
The humor is very important. The book would be almost impossibly heavy without it. The characters eclipse the plot, first and foremost, but the plot is so powerful it’s difficult to notice. Very character driven. Makes the info dumps are much more palatable.
For example, Chap 24, opening paragraph, culminating in “a race of impassioned after dinner speech makers.”
“If you’re gonna pretty much nail the human condition, that’s how you’re going to do it.” – Gill
Is this book pro-religion or not?
The ethical imperative of religion’s role in human experience. With as much incrimination of religion that he sneaks in, he gives it its due, responsible for ethics.
It felt authentic, his descriptions of the church hierarchy weren’t contrived. He did his homework. He pays dear deep respect to the church and religion’s ethical imperative.
Nowell felt “Knowledge-impoverished by not having more bible knowledge. They’re blowing right by me, but I don’t have enough Christian bible knowhow to be able to hold my own in this thing.”
What Does It Need?
“Female characters would be nice.”
“What a movie this would make!”
“You could go Lord Of The Rings and go three three-hour movies of this.” – Gill
“That would be incredible.” – Nikita
This book is just aching for a Foucault reading, and a Latin supplement.
An annotated critical edition, with maybe an introduction by Letham?
Tim powers, from OC, Dick’s friend, Hugo award winner, devout Catholic. What does he think about this book?
How are the Rachel head of Mrs. Grales and the disembodied eye of the Poet symbolic of the Church’s function in the narrative?
An observer of progress, a preserver of knowledge that it does not understand.
“And it has to be written in latin.” -Nikita
Regarding nukes, check out a documentary called Trinity and Beyond about how many nukes were test detonated overground in the days leading up to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and throughout the cold war. We’ve been nuking ourselves for decades.
Wrap up: It’s a masterpiece.