Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz
SPOILER ALERT: I WILL BE TALKING ABOUT PLOT
At points in the past I have had a personal and professional interest in the problems of archiving, and simply how best to properly remember things. When a friend who knew about my interests said they’d read this book and that I may be interested, off I popped to speak to Ian Amazon. Soon a copy was in my grubby little mitts, and here we are.
The book is divided into three volumes, Fiat Homo (Let there be man), Fiat Lux (Let there be light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy will be done). Each covers a period of human history in the aftermath of nuclear holocaust, following the previous volume by around 600 years. In each case the centre of the story is the Abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, which appears to be somewhere in the southwestern United States.
The first volume, set sometime in the 26th century, deals with the life of Brother Francis, a novice in the Order of Leibowitz, who as a part of a hermitage is directed to an underground void by an unidentified wanderer, clad only in burlap, and a wide-brimmed hat. This mysterious wanderer never reaches the monastery to claim the refuge he says he is seeking. In the void Francis finds human remains, the entrance to a fallout shelter, and written materials that look to have been written by his order’s founder, Isaac Edward Leibowitz(1). It appears (to the reader) that Leibowitz was an electrical engineer working for the US military. Francis’s account of the events he has experienced is treated with scepticism by his superiors because they are in the process of applying for their founder’s sainthood to the mother church in New Rome. It is also aggrandised by his colleagues, even though his story never wavers, or claims anything which was not factually accurate. After being questioned by the church, the materials he retrieved, and his testimony, are accepted as genuine, and Francis is sent to New Rome for the ceremony to confirm Lebowitz’s sainthood. On the way, he is robbed by mutant bandits, and an illuminated parchment he has spent years creating, containing a copy of a blueprint written by Leibowitz, is taken from him for ransom, though he manages to keep possession of the rather dowdier looking original. Following the ceremony in New Rome, Francis is given the ransom to retrieve his document, but on the way back home he is shot through the head with an arrow and murdered. A wanderer, clad only in burlap, buries the remains to protect them from the carrion birds, and possibly returns the skull to the abbey.
The second volume begins in the year AD3174 (around 1200 years after the diluvium ignis), and its foci are principally the abbot Dom Paolo, and Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, a visiting scholar investigating some of the relics held at the abbey. The relationship between them is a tense one, for many reasons. The Thon is part of the family of a powerful warlord, and is able to investigate because he carries some of this family’s influence. It turns out that Thon Taddeo is one of the new age’s most acute minds, having already done work in the areas of optics(2). As Taddeo continues his work it becomes clear that the abbey’s position is strategically interesting to some parties, and Taddeo’s motives are treated with suspicion, especially during a fraught dinner where the visitors get into an argument with a wanderer, clothed in burlap, with a wide-brimmed hat, whose name appears to be Benjamin (but also seems to be known simply as the Old Jew). Taddeo forms a bond of sorts with Brother Kornhoer, who turns out to be a talented experimentalist, especially when he sees the monk has managed to reconstruct a dynamo, and an arc light, as an example of the rediscovery of electrical power. As war seems imminent, Taddeo is forced to leave, but as he does so covertly returns reconnaissance documents the soldiers accompanying him were drawing up back to the abbot, as he was not fully aware that they were evaluating the abbey for use in military purposes. War inevitably comes again.
The final volume concentrates on the the Abbot Zerchi, and his travails, as the world again teeters on the edge of a nuclear conflict between the Oriental and Occidental worlds. We join the volume in the year AD 3781(3), again around 600 years after the end of the second. Humanity has advanced to the point where space travel is now possible, though tightly controlled. But things haven’t changed much. Despite the world being more technologically advanced, the more atavistic elements of human nature persist, and there are petty territorial skirmishes, military retaliations, and posturing. In initial exchanges, the abbey takes in refugees, many of whom are crippled or wounded by radiation sickness and horrible injuries. Here, sitting at the beggars’ table there is an old bearded man, clad only in burlap, who calls himself Latzar shemi — Lazarus. Things are so bad, in fact, that the state endorses mori vult, a sanctioned voluntary euthansia to prevent victims from suicide, or those who’d otherwise help them from murder. Zerchi is appalled by this, and attempts to stop one woman and her child from going through with this at a so-called Mercy Camp. But Zerchi has other problems. The church is all too aware of growing tensions and is secretly planning a mission known as quo peregrinatur(4), to escape the earth with a selection of humanity. Zerchi has to ensure someone from the order will travel on the ships because the arguments of the church seem to be less about trying to stop the catalcysm from happening, and more about admin, ensuring the continuity of the ministry as they leave the planet.
One of Zerchi’s last acts before his death, crushed in the rubble of a nuclear explosion, is to hold in his hand a skull, punctured by an arrow. It is presumably the skull of Francis, from 1200 years before, closing a loop of sorts in the narrative. It is perhaps the final fitting demonstration of the novel’s main theme: history is doomed to repeat itself, because humanity will always sow the seeds of its own destruction; it simply cannot help itself. “Sic transit mundus”, as Brother Joshua, the last to board the escape ships observes, before clearing the dust of the earth from his feet as he closes the hatch of the ship he leaves in, before he starts his journey to the stars.
So the earth dies. Again.
It appears at the start of the novel that a nuclear war has destroyed our current civilisation. The author doesn’t date it exactly, but the event likely occurs sometime before the end of the twentieth century. Though Leibowitz survives, his attempts to find his wife, Emma, are fruitless. Francis deduces that Emma died outside the sealed entrance to the fallout shelter in spite of her husband’s efforts to secure her entry. In accepting her death Leibowitz becomes a monk and sets out to preserve what memory and knowledge there is of the old world, protecting it from those who would destroy it, in the hope it might be used again at a time when it is useful or necessary. His action eventually leads to the creation of the order that bears his name, and defines its purpose. In the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse any kind of intellectual activity is a dangerous thing indeed. Though the church has somehow survived, social order has broken down and intellectuals and scientists, those accused by the masses remaining (who take the name Simpletons), of being the cause of what became known as the Diluvium Ignis (the Flood of Fire), were pursued and murdered. This mistrust and slaughter is then extended to anyone suspected of even basic literacy, and a new Dark Age descends. In spite of this, the order Leibowitz founded survives, and manages to preserve the scraps of the old world they find as “Memorabilia”. Francis joins the story around 600 years after this event. There are uncomfortable parallels with the rise of anti-intellectualism generally, and particularly right now, as conspiracy theories abound over COVID vaccination programmes. Ignorance and delusion can have lethal, and lasting consequences.
The novel, which was Miller’s only published full-length work during his lifetime, first appeared in 1959. We have to remember that this was the beginning of the atomic age, and the novel preceded the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis by around three years. Indeed, Castro’s government only took control of Cuba in January of the year of publication. Even then the Cold War had started in earnest, and the fear of superpower conflicts, and a nuclear war and its after effects were looming high in the public consciousness.
Each volume of this future history mirrors what has gone before in our own time. Volume 1 seems to correspond roughly to the Dark Ages, and the early Christian communities of somewhere like Northumbria after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Volume 2 looks to describe a world like that of the Renaissance, perhaps even up to the beginning of the Enlightenment. The final volume mirrors our own world more closely, with more mechanisation(5), as well as the presence of supra-national organisations such as the World Court to try and maintain the peace. Miller maybe wasn’t to know it in the then-recent aftermath of WWII and Korea, but his imagining of the relative impotence of the World Court seems to have been remarkably prescient.
But apart from the immediate concerns of nuclear holocaust there are other things that draw me in, the major one being the “Memorobilia”. One of the major problems for historians, archeologists and archivists is that of not ever being able to know the full picture, and being reduced to reconstructing the past through scraps that don’t make any sense. Some of them might never make sense again, because they are too distant from the people who created them, and dissociated from the context of the culture in which they lived. Conversely, wondering what exactly is worth archiving and preserving now (and how to do it) is equally thorny. Just ask anyone searching out any of those lost episodes of Doctor Who, when some long-forgotten broadcast engineer a generation ago could have just not wiped a tape. There are several examples of these ideas: many are early in the story, with Francis and his brother monks attempting to make sense of the shards of paper and blueprints they find in the shelter. One of them is to our eyes, clearly “just” a shopping list, though they will never know this seemingly trivial fact. But there is another example that stands out for me. In the final volume Zerchi ruminates on an item of royal insignia, which contains a legendary glass eye. Not unreasonably, he inwardly pours scorn on the stories of how the eye came to be a part of the object with what we might recognise as a kind of justified academic scepticism. The thing is, we know that the stories are true, because we have already seen the events happen in the second volume, when the glass-eyed Poet provokes Thon Taddeo during his visit, and eventually Taddeo retains possession of the eye. Events and history are often more random and ludicrous than we frequently imagine. In an attempt to impose order on either the present or the past conditioned by our own norms, we may in fact completely misunderstand what actually happened, or even how those societies worked at all; we build our castles of presumption on very shaky foundations sometimes. For this reason, there are things we can never hope to know about the past, simply because we were not there to experience them as they happened.
The book is heavy with religious allusions, as one might expect when talking about some kind of future Catholic Church, and of course uses quite a lot of Latin in the course of things. You don’t need an extensive knowledge of Latin to enjoy it (mine is only cursory), but it helps if you have a nodding acquaintance with a few things to help smooth plot points over. It is useful to note, however, that the book was published three years before Vatican II, so the role of Latin in the liturgy was still to be liberalised. It probably helps to explain why it is heavily deployed in ecclesiastical contexts during the stories, when even five years later it may have seemed a touch anachronistic(6).
There’s one other question that is left dangling in the air. Just who is the Wanderer? It’s a question that isn’t even directly addressed, really: he’s just there. He is given differing ages, and even differing names(7) but he’s always present. The gossiping monks in the first volume suspect him of being the “Blessed Leibowitz” when Francis describes him. Later he is simply thought of as mad. It’s faintly jarring that such a supernatural presence should appear in such a rationalist story at first glance, but there he is, like a spectre at the feast, a walking personification of the Jewish people, constantly looking for a messiah, and constantly disappointed.
In the end, however, this is not a cheerful read. Far from it. It is hugely pessimistic about our future as a species, and as it turns out, Miller hadn’t even begun to think of the non-nuclear possibilities or disease and climate change that we know loom large on the horizon. The fact that so many are willing to not only do nothing, but even to deny what they see before them does little to make me think the analysis is sadly not far from the truth. I only hope he’s wrong. It is a bloody good book though.
(1) There is something faintly ironic about Isaac Leibowitz, presumably Jewish, (especially considering his shopping list with pastrami, bagels, and sauerkraut), ending up as a Catholic monk.
(2) Thon Taddeo is I think meant to have echoes of Galileo, and Newton with this work, especially as during the volume there is a discussion of refraction, amongst other things.
(3) Quite apart from the survival of the Catholic Church, it is quite useful that somehow the church’s calendar has survived, or at least in some form appears to have done, though that may not be entirely reliable.
(4) Quo peregrinatur grex pastor secum — “Wherever the flock wanders , the shepherd is with them”.
(5) And even nascent computerisation. The automated dictation machines made me think more than once of Alexa, or Siri
(6) Or maybe not, given that just this month there has been discussion of the use of Latin in Catholic masses again.
(7) In the first volume he is never named; in the second he is referred to as Benjamin, or The Old Jew; in the third he calls himself Lazarus. His age is variously given as 3209 in the second volume (in AD3174), placing his date of birth as 35BCE, and 5408, just a couple of pages later, giving him a date of birth of 2234BCE. His age in the third volume, set in AD3781, is not disclosed.