A Canticle for Leibowitz
© 1960 Water M. Miller
A thousand years ago, nuclear war swept the Earth, rendering to ashes the civilizations which inaugurated it. In the southwestern desert, however, there lies an outpost of another civilization – one far older. Just as an epoch earlier, when the monasteries of the Catholic Church preserved classical learning amid Gothic chaos, here the clerical orders dutifully safeguard what fragments of knowledge they can find. Humanity is populated with genetic monsters and the landscape deadened by radiation, but in the monastery of the blessed Leibowitz there is hope. As the secular world begins to climb back to its feet, however, with new Charlemagne at the head, hope for a renaissance is mingled with anxious anticipation of what mankind will do to itself once it has recovered from the shock. Can we learn from our mistakes?
The Cold War era saw a variety of works written in obvious fear of what might happen if the bellicosity of the United States and the Soviet Union resulted in actual war: On the Beach, for instance, and Alas, Babylon. Canticle is less concerned with immediate destruction, however, and more with how the human spirit may cope with it, what truths the disaster might bring to life. There’s an obvious exploration here of the tension between the culture-preserving aspects of religion, and the change-inducing inquiry of science, but I was impressed by how the monks sought to maintain dignity in everything they did, even in the face of despair. One copies blueprints of a device from before the Flame, but pours hours – years, even – into adding lavish illustrative borders to it. The brothers fight against death; death of the old culture and its knowledge and the physical death of the survivors amid war and radiation poisoning. This makes them unpopular, because death sometimes seems like the easiest course of action. After the deluge, mobs killed scientists and other intellectuals for bringing down ruin on them; the monks survived this persecution only barely. When civilization rebuilds and begins flirting with nuclear arms once more, leading to new outbreaks of radiation poisoning, some attempt to flee the pain by submitting themselves and their children to euthanasia camps. But the monks inveigh against this, urging the afflicted not to take their lives into their hands so cavalierly. Refuse to surrender to fear – live with dignity, trusting in God. It’s a diffcult message, of course, but ensures that the novel remains relevant and even thorny in our own era, even though the terrors of the Cold War are over.
The novel’s end is bittersweet, as mankind by and large repeats its mistakes. This is especially tragic given how long the humans of Canticle had lived with their ancestors’ mistakes: they were the ones living with greatly heightened levels of serious genetic disorders, and a landscape ruined in part by the ravages. They were the ones forced to claw their way back from the stone age after reaction against technology inflicted a ‘cultural revolution’ of sorts. Yet they persisted in straying near the edge yet again. There are reasons to be optimistic, however; at novel’s end, the church at least has realized a plan to prevent this from happening again, by sending out a colony mission. In our own lives, we survived decades of brinkmanship and incidents that could have turned deadly.. We’ll never truly learn from our mistakes, but when the consequences are as forboding as immediate and wholesale destruction, there at least we may hesitate enough to save our lives.