“Miraculous” seems like the most fitting word to describe the publication, 60 years ago, of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1959 post-apocalyptic science fiction classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz. Stitched together from three novellas originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Canticle traces the history of a Catholic monastery located in the American desert Southwest over three time periods beginning 600 years after a mid-20th-century nuclear war. The book’s three sections describe a span of about 1,200 years, roughly mirroring our own Dark Ages, Renaissance, and present day.
The novel’s miraculous nature comes to us despite what we might call its maculate conception. For starters, it sprang forth, if not quite ex nihilo, then from what literary highbrows thought of as the backwater of pulp science fiction magazines. From there it went on to garner praise not only from genre fans, winning the 1961 Hugo Award, but also, slowly but steadily, mainstream praise and popularity, remaining in print continuously and selling millions of copies over the years. Catholics, too, have sung its praises for its thoughtful meditation on Original Sin and the fallenness of man—this despite the fact that its author, a self-professed “on-again, off-again” Catholic who in his later years drifted toward Eastern religion and philosophy, had probably left the Church behind for good by the time he wrote it.
The most miraculous thing about this book, however, is that it offers a profound critique of the extremists at either end of our so-called crisis of liberalism and serves as a stark reminder that these debates are nowhere near as new as some think. But to see how this is so, it helps to understand a few things about the book and how Miller came to write it.
Over the years a kind of hagiographic myth has grown up about the genesis of the book. As a tail gunner and radio operator on a B-25 Mitchell bomber, Miller participated in the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, one of the oldest monasteries in Western Europe and birthplace of the Benedictine Order, whose monks preserved many great works of Western civilization through the Dark Ages. As it happens, there were no German troops in the monastery proper when the allies targeted it for destruction in February 1944—only a handful of monks and more than a hundred civilians from the nearby town. The standard story is that reflecting on the tragic civilian deaths and pointless destruction of one of the cultural treasures of Western civilization inspired Miller to convert to Catholicism and then to write the novellas that gave rise to Canticle, as a way of expiating his guilt and proposing religion as the antidote to the civilizational malaise of which the threat of nuclear Armageddon was a symptom.
The truth, as usual, is much more complicated, when it comes to his war guilt, his conversion to Catholicism, and his diagnosis of the maladies of the Western world.
As for his war guilt, Miller claimed not to have had any moral compunction about the destruction of the abbey at the time, and even reported carrying into war a number of romantic notions about combat, describing the general experience of shooting and getting shot at as “grim, ungodly fun . . . like driving hot-rods or playing Russian roulette or gang-brawling.” At some point afterward, to be sure, the stress of those experiences began to take their toll, and the moral weight of his actions began to burden his conscience. These thoughts frequently emerged in several of the short stories he wrote for pulp science fiction magazines. Miller’s 1953 story “Wolf Pack,” for instance, tells of a B-25 pilot who begins to have eerily realistic dreams and visions of “La Femme,” an Italian woman with whom he talks and eventually falls in love, but who calls him a murderer and accuses him of indifference toward the innocent lives his bombs have destroyed. But as for Canticle itself, Miller claimed he didn’t consciously connect the Abbey of St. Leibowitz with the Abbey at Monte Cassino until the very end:
It never occurred to me that Canticle was my own personal response to the war until I was writing the first version of the scene where Zerchi lies half buried in the rubble. Then a lightbulb came on over my head: ‘Good God, is this the abbey at Monte Cassino? This rubble looks like south Italy, not [the] Southwest desert. What have I been writing?’
As for his conversion to Catholicism, Miller acknowledged that it was “probably true” that empathy with the Italian civilians who lost their lives as a result of his bomber sorties played a role, but he rejected any straight-line causation as “a silly superstition.” While it’s tough to construct a satisfying narrative of Miller’s conversion, given the relative paucity of biographical material available, it’s safe to say that his relationship to the Church was rocky not long after his baptism in 1947. In 1951, his wife underwent a tubal ligation, and “that was it as far as the Church was concerned,” he said. In 1953, he and his wife separated and then divorced, and he lived for several months with fellow science fiction writer Judith Merrill. Later, after reuniting with his wife and while writing Canticle, he reported that he:
. . . inevitably maneuvered my head back into the Church. It was an on-again, off-again thing. Finally, I suppose, I tried to define myself in that area by writing Leibowitz. So then I went back into the Church for a while, but it never really took, I guess.
Miller’s issues with Catholicism weren’t merely—and maybe not even mostly—about adherence to Catholic teachings about marriage and family life. In later decades he expressed, on at least one occasion, some distaste for the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. More importantly, he also developed fundamental doubts about aspects of Catholic theology and indeed Western Christian civilization in general. These doubts appeared unmistakably in the decades after he wrote Canticle, but if you read that novel closely, you can see them beginning to bubble up to the surface.
The monastery at the focal point of Canticle’s three sections belongs to the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, a religious community founded in the aftermath of the “Flame Deluge,” as survivors of the nuclear war call it. Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a Jewish electrical engineer who converted to Catholicism after the war, founded the order and dedicated it to preserving and protecting books, and especially works of science and technology, in hopes of an eventual revival of civilization. The order’s conservationist mission is especially vital because of the “Simplification,” a millenarian movement in which rampaging mobs of “Simpletons” blamed the nuclear war on the arrogance of, first, scientists and, then, the merely literate.
The plot of the first part of Canticle, titled “Fiat Homo” (Latin for “Let there be man”), focuses on young Brother Francis Gerard and his chance discovery of an ante-diluvian fallout shelter containing a treasure trove of books, scraps of notes, technical diagrams, and artifacts that may or may not have belonged to Leibowitz himself.
The Leibowitzian monks have at best a dim understanding of these artifacts and the other technical documents they protect and duplicate. Yet they have a naive reverence for the “ancients” and a wistful longing for their mastery over the forces of nature, which Miller frequently mines for humor in the first part. Brother Francis is perplexed, for example, by a diagram of a squirrel cage rotor, wondering how on earth it could hold a squirrel, or how one could see it once it was inside. Ah well, he muses:
The ancients were often subtle; perhaps one needed a special set of mirrors to see the squirrel. He painstakingly redrew it anyhow.
The humor of the first part is light-hearted, not bitter, and for the monks of this time period and the Church more broadly, it is a time of renewal and hope. The world is in darkness and wretchedness, to be sure, filled with suffering. Malformed mutants and cannibals prowl the blighted landscape, preying upon the unwary traveler. But there is light and joy amidst the darkness, and purpose to the monks’ suffering and labors: to protect and preserve the technological wisdom of the “ancients”—to save humanity from itself.
The second section, “Fiat Lux,” or “Let There Be Light,” flips the calendar forward 600 years, against the backdrop of a revival of scientific learning and the rise of new and powerful city-states. The monks of this time still hew to their mission of safeguarding knowledge but are forced to defend its relevance in the face of a two-pronged secular assault—from the State, in the form of Hannegan II, the Henry VIII-like ruler of the rising power of Texarkana, and from Science, represented by the renowned Texarkanan scholar (or “Thon”), Taddeo Pfardentrott—a Galileo- or Isaac Newton-like figure. Hannegan II sits atop an expansionist state that sees security as an end in itself, sufficient justification for any action, and Thon Taddeo, though he calls himself a man of peace, sees service to his princely patron as an acceptable cost to achieve his goal: the relief of man’s estate by means of scientific and technological progress.
Absolute security and an end to suffering: Who could be against these things? And yet the Abbot of this time period, Dom Paulo, has grave, if vague, misgivings about where Thon Taddeo’s project is heading. He understands it’s too late to stop the train of progress now, but he struggles to put his finger on where it all went wrong. This is an implicit invitation to the reader, too, to ponder the question of where history went off the rails—and Miller gives us a range of possible answers to consider.
The third and final part of Canticle, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy Will Be Done”) moves the calendar forward several centuries more, opening on a space-faring civilization that seems to have achieved Thon Taddeo’s vision. But this world is also once again on the verge of a nuclear Armageddon between two new superpowers—the Atlantic Confederacy and the Asian Coalition. In hopes of preserving at least something of human civilization from a second, even more destructive war, New Rome has ordered Zerchi, the Abbot of this time, to carry out a plan to send the Memorabilia and a group of bishops, monks, and children to an off-world colony in hopes of ensuring the survival of the Church and as much of humanity’s stock of knowledge as possible.
A medical triage and Euthanasia specialist, Dr. Cors, stands in as the intellectual and moral heir of Thon Taddeo in the latter days of “Fiat Lux.” He represents the end product of the modern project: a human rationally devoted to achieving perfect security and an end to suffering. Dr. Cors (he’s all heart) asks Abbot Zerchi for permission to use the monastery to set up a mobile facility to treat refugees from Texarkana, which the Asian Coalition, in an escalating conflict, has just hit with a retaliatory nuclear strike. The abbot reluctantly allows him to do so, but only after getting him to promise not to encourage hopeless radiation cases to report to a nearby government-run euthanasia facility. Dr. Cors agrees but soon after breaks his promise, telling the Abbot he has done so because the only evil he believes in is suffering.
Abbot Zerchi later addresses the doctor’s arguments—and in essence Thon Taddeo’s—in an inner monologue:
Really, Doctor Cors, the evil to which even you should have referred was not suffering, but the unreasoning fear of suffering. . . . Take it together with its positive equivalent, the craving for worldly security, for Eden, and you might have your ‘root of evil’ . . .
Zerchi’s point is not that security and the relief of suffering are somehow misguided goals in and of themselves. Indeed, he goes on:
To minimize suffering and maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.
In other words, it’s the idolatry, the divinization of the mundane, that Zerchi rejects—the attempt to fill the God-shaped emptiness of fallen human nature with the things of the world, to the exclusion of all else. Miller later has Zerchi call to mind Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender sorge (“With burning urgency”).
‘Whoever exalts a race or a State or a particular form of State or the depositories of power . . . whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God. . . .’ (emphasis mine)
Papal encyclicals are almost always written in Latin; this one was written in German and read aloud from pulpits in Churches throughout Nazi Germany on Palm Sunday in 1937, so read in its own time the words were unmistakably aimed at the Nazis and their anti-Semitism and racism. Yet papal documents like this are written not only to speak to a particular time and place but also to speak Truth to Power in all times and places. In this case Miller, through Zerchi, ingeniously notes how we might also apply the words of the encyclical to condemn the divinization of any “particular form of State”—Nazi, fascist, communist, even liberal democracy—insofar as any form of state is organized around security and the relief of suffering as the only possible legitimate public values.
It’s at this point that those in the “crisis of liberalism” camp might be tempted to take heart in Miller’s warnings, which dovetail neatly with some of the jeremiads against the perceived excesses of the Enlightenment project. But Miller hints at a critique that goes deeper and might also be applied to aspects of the Western philosophical and religious tradition that gave rise to the Enlightenment.
It’s easy to miss where Miller lays out that critique, even after multiple readings, since it appears in the novel’s first few pages, amidst the hope and humor of “Fiat Homo.” As the novel begins, Brother Gerard, as a teenaged novitiate, is in the midst of a solitary Lenten vigil of “Penance, Prayer, and Silence,” attempting to discern whether God is calling him to become a full-fledged member of the order. But Francis isn’t engaged in prayer when we first meet him. Rather, he has been picking out stones to build a roof over the trench in which he is sleeping. At first, he’s merely seeking better protection from the wolves that have been prowling about his shelter at night, but his structure increasingly takes on the orderly shape of a dome, lacking all but a final “keystone” to fit into the top.
A mysterious Jewish stranger then arrives, helping Francis find his keystone. He marks the stone with two Hebrew letters, לצ, “lamedh” and “sadhe” (as read right-to-left), and leaves it Francis to use the stone or not. Francis removes the marked stone, whereupon the ground beneath him collapses, revealing an old fallout shelter containing the Leibowitz memorabilia.
For the order’s leader, Abbot Arkos, the accidental archaeological find is potentially explosive. The Church is in the midst of investigating the cause of sainthood for Leibowitz, and the abbot understands that any “miraculous” discoveries by members of the order will be viewed with extreme suspicion by officials in New Rome. Not helping matters is the fact that the “lamedh-sadhe”, some of the monks say, could be read as producing a “lets” sound, almost as if it were shorthand for “Leibowitz.” Brother Francis’s fellow monks begin spreading rumors that the old Jewish pilgrim was a miraculous apparition of Blessed Leibowitz himself. Abbot Arkos thus orders the shelter sealed off, awaiting a papal investigation, and swears Francis to silence about the encounter.
Here the Jewish stranger may be playing a joke on Brother Francis and the other monks—and in turn Miller may be playing a joke on all of us. But it’s a joke containing a vital clue to understanding Miller’s sense of “where it all went wrong.” Miller was no expert in Hebrew, and neither are the monks, but the letters the Jewish stranger writes on the stone could be interpreted to mean “mocker” or as the King James Bible often has it “scorner,” as in Proverbs 13:1 (“A wise son heareth his father’s instruction: But a scorner heareth not rebuke”).1 A scorner, in other words, is the kind of person who doesn’t heed warnings. Francis and his fellow monks, likewise, are failing to learn from the mistakes of the “ancients” in their worshipful preservation of the knowledge and ways of thinking that led to mankind’s self-destruction once before. Nor are we likely to heed the rebukes contained in this novel.
So is Miller saying that the divinization of unaided human reason—tracing back not just to the Enlightenment but to the Western Christian civilization that gave birth to it—is the “original sin” that sets history rolling inexorably toward apocalypse? Are the monks escaping Earth with the Memorabilia doomed to repeat the same tragedy on another world? Perhaps. In his later years, at least, Miller drifted further toward that conclusion. In a 1985 anthology of post-apocalyptic science fiction that he co-edited, Miller’s introduction blames the “West’s idolatry of Logos,” now spread to the four corners of the world, for subjecting humanity to the permanent threat of nuclear destruction: “If Megawar comes, it will come because human reason has finally and permanently prevailed over human compassion on a global scale.”
But Canticle’s almost miraculous strength as a book owes to its ability to dance on the sharp edge of such cutting questions, avoiding excesses of both pietism and pessimism, forcing us to confront them without giving us the false assurance that it has all the answers, or that we do. This is a warning to which today’s scorners—liberalism’s maximalist critics as well as its maximalist defenders—ought to take heed.
1Thanks to Adam Garfinkle for Hebrew advice. All errors in translation and interpretation are my own.