Monday, October 17, 2011

A Canticle for Liebowitz: Plus ça change, plus ça même chose

I've had A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (New York: Bantam Books, 1959), in my book collection for some time. In fact, judging from the state of the cover, it must be one of the last books I bought from a second-hand book store I lived near in Omaha over five years ago. But while I started it a couple of times, in both cases something else called me away from finishing it.

So I read Dr. Peter Kreeft's laud of Liebowitz in Dappled Things, and realized with some guilt that I still had it but had never read it completely through. So taking the command "Tolle, lege" literally (while still appreciating the reference to St. Augustine's Confessions 8:12:29), yesterday I took up and read the sucker straight through. And I will say something that will strike the sci-fi purist as sheer blasphemy: Miller did in one book what Isaac Asimov could not do in all his Foundation series. 

Liebowitz reminds me very much of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (especially in the last section, where Miller's overview of the second technological age is reminiscent of Chief Bromden's mental fugue after he and Murphy go through electro-shock therapy). But where Heller's novel is an absurdist shot at war, and Kesey's is full of the post-Sixties distrust for "the system", Miller's work indicts the modern hermeneutic of "the eternal conflict between faith and reason", which treats the two principles as if they were divorced and not inextricably entwined. 

Both Heller and Kesey look at the institutions they examine, the military and the mental asylum, with distrust and alienation. Liebowitz, on the other hand, is an ironic yet affectionate paean to the Catholic Church and its role in preserving and fostering the knowledge of the classical world, and a scathing critique of human pride, especially as it manifests in secular humanism and technological development: 

Children, too, of Eve, forever building Edens — and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn't the same. (AGH! AGH! AGH! — an idiot screams his mindless anguish amid the rubble. But quickly! lest it be inundated by the choir, chanting Alleluias at ninety decibels.)

Liebowitz is constructed in three parts which roughly correspond to the low medieval ("Dark Age") period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Reformation (with heavy references to King Henry VIII and St. Thomas More), and to the "space race" that many people of the Eisenhower years believed would eventually result in Man exloring and colonizing other planets. However, all this takes place after nuclear war effectively wipes out most of the world, leaving isolated bands of humans to reconstruct civilization as best they can. 

The novel begins when, for the second time in Western history, the Church is left to collect scattered remnants of pre-war knowledge, much of which was deliberately destroyed ("the Simplification") when the bands of humans turned on the scientists and academics whom they'd blamed for creating the weapons that had visited so much destruction and suffering ("the Flame Deluge"). A young, not-too-bright postulant in the Albertian Order of Liebowitz (Brother Francis of Utah), trying to survive a Lenten fast in the deserts of Utah, stumbles on a buried fallout shelter to which he has been indirectly led by an old pilgrim. 

Inside the shelter are some remnants of pre-Deluge knowledge, as well as some items which turn out to be second- and third-class relics of the Order's patron, Bl. Isaac Edward Liebowitz. Liebowitz himself never steps onstage; rather, we get his story indirectly: a pre-Deluge scientist, he became a Cistercian monk after the war, then founded an order with St. Albert Magnus as its patron, dedicated to gathering such scraps of pre-war knowledge as is still left, in which activity he was caught and suffered martyrdom by a band of "simpletons". 

The discovery of the relics, as well as the fanciful rumors that spring up when Brother Francis tells his story, have a direct (and darkly amusing) impact on Bl. Liebowitz's cause for canonization, which has been languishing in New Rome for several years. This portion of the story stretches out over several years, and involves several comic twists, including an advocatus diaboli who has real, retractable horns and fangs.

The second part of the novel begins several centuries later, as one of the great intellectuals of the age, Thon Taddeo, makes plans to visit the Abbey of St. Liebowitz to examine such artifacts as the monks have gathered and copied through the long years. Thon Taddeo turns out to be something of a pawn in his cousin Hannegan's schemes to centralize power and absorb other kingdoms into the Mayorality of Texarkana (yes, Texarkana). His political pragmatism and religious skepticism bring him into conflict with Dom Paulo, the aging, dyspeptic abbot who must juggle Thon Taddeo's presence along with an ongoing struggle between two monks over an experimental dynamo, an irreverent, bizarrre artist named Poet who combines some of the aspects of the court jester and the bard, and the ulcer that spells his personal doom.

The third part of the novel begins as the world hovers on the brink of another nuclear war. Here is where Miller pulls out all the rhetorical stops, contending that, in the absence of religious Faith, Man cannot even create his own lower-case Garden of Eden without eventually reproducing the Fall. In Miller's profoundly Catholic view, the children of Eve are forever listening to the serpent, reaching for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: "For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:5 Douay). Wir marschieren weiter wenn alles in Scherben fällt, indeed.[*] Nevertheless, even Miller's antagonists are basically decent people; he saves his evil cardboard cutouts for minor, random developments that don't require much of a backstory.


 Given everything that precedes it, the general shape of the ending is no real surprise, although (contra Eliot) the world manages to end with both a bang and a whimper. In a way, though, part of the denouement is a dig at post-millennialist Evangelicals, as the last starship to leave carries monks and priests (along with children and nuns) to re-establish the Chair of Peter somewhere else in the galaxy, a parody of the Rapture as mushroom clouds fill the horizons. The true hope of the ending isn't in the young Brother Joshua on his way to Alpha Centauri to become the thousand-and-umpty-umpth successor to the Fisherman, but rather in the strange metamorphosis of the bicephalous "tumater woman" who gives Father Zerchi his viaticum in the rubble of the abbey.

Published prior to Bl. John XXIII's calling of Vatican II, the novel shows its age in much the same way as does C. S. Lewis' space trilogy Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength: The Church maintains Latin as its primary language throughout the eighteen centuries of the post-World War III future, forming only some minor contractions ("Chris'tecum" and its reply "Spiri'tuo"); the third section references computer tapes, radiograms and microfilm instead of flash drives, email and digital imaging. The anachronisms, however, are so few that they could be changed for a screen adaptation without rendering the movie confusing, as was the case with Paul Johannson's Atlas Shrugged: Part I or Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet.

The bulk of Miller's characters are good-but-not-too-good men honestly trying to live their vocations as best they can, even though plagued with the small doubts, petty jealousies and bitter experiences of other men. The ancient pilgrim who directs Brother Francis to the buried survival shelter shows up in the other two sections as well, as if it were he that inspired Mel Brooks' Two Thousand Year Old Man; yet Benjamin Eleazar bar Joshua is also reminiscent of the medieval tales of the Wandering Jew, and his exact identity as revealed in the second book (though in a context that makes the person to whom he reveals it skeptical) is surprising. But even better than that is Miller's use of the buzzards as portents and as symbols of the natural world, which Man presumes to dominate and which in truth goes on with or without him ... the natural world Man cannot destroy no matter how hard he tries.

The skeptic who approaches the book may take comfort in the fact that miracles stay decently offstage, where they can't offend his sensibilities, and that the Church of the post-apocalyptic future is almost as skeptical as he about such events. (The Church in the pre-apocalyptic present is properly wary of their report as well, though perhaps not wary enough for the skeptic.) He may also appreciate such ironic twists as the "pope's children" (humans born with genetic abnormalities that are deemed monstrous); in the third section, there's a darkly humorous turn involving a book reputed to have been written by St. Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball ... the madcap Poet of the second section become the focus of a popular cult not given formal approval by the Vatican. If our skeptic has bought into the meta-narrative currently fostered about the birth of Science and the Church's obstructionist role in it, he may find himself as much bothered by Brother Kornhoer's reconstruction of the dynamo as Thon Taddeo. And he may or may not find Miller's reflections on the folly of Man's hubris annoying interruptions to the dramatic flow.

According to Kreeft, the rest of Miller's work, considered judiciously, is crap: "He is, frankly, a confused science fiction hack writer in his short stories and especially in the ugly sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, written almost forty years later." [UPDATE: According to Wikipedia, Liebowitz was the only novel and the last story Miller published in his life; after his 1996 suicide, Saint Liebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman was completed by fellow sci-fi writer Terry Bisson.—TL] It happens; Harlan Ellison once said that "Gene Roddenberry ... couldn't write for sour owl poop", yet his brainchild Star Trek continues to move the imagination of millions of people.

A million monkeys on a million typewriters could never reproduce even one of Shakespeare's sonnets in a million years, let alone his entire works. But a hack writer pecking away at an Underwood for fifty years can turn out at least one jewel of a novel. A Canticle for Liebowitz is Miller's diamond.

[*] "We continue to march even if everything falls to pieces." A line from the official song of the Hitler Youth, "Es zittern die morschen Knochen" (The rotten bones are trembling).