Analysis of A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter M. Miller’s novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, deals with a common trope within science fiction of life in a post-apocalyptic world. Unlike most works in this genre, Miller is interested in more than simply using this premise as a novel setting for conventional storytelling. What interests Miller is how the human race doomed themselves to this new Dark Age, where they are going from there and whether they are doomed to eventually repeat the entire thing over again. The novel also deals with the value of knowledge and specifically scientific knowledge and also the value of faith in the development of human history.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to Brother Francis, a young man who is ready to pledge his life to the Order of Leibowitz. This order is a seemingly Catholic (though the novel is not clear on if other sects of Christianity have survived or even other religions.) and is devoted to Issac Edward Leibowitz, a technician who had survived the nuclear war that had destroyed civilization to become a priest. After the war survivors began to attack the intellectuals that were left after the war and to destroy much of the scientific knowledge that was left and Leibowitz attempted to preserve as much of this knowledge as he could but was killed by a group of “simpletons” leading to him being remembered as a martyr.
Throughout the novel, which takes place over a thousand years of future history, Leibowitz would become “the patron saint of electronics” and the story of the novel will follow members of his order as the history of the post nuclear strike world develops. As the novel opens however, he has still yet to be canonized and it is an important goal of the order to make this happen. The story of Brother Francis sets up much of the background for the story but also develops many of the themes of the novel that will be part of the narrative over the millennium of history that the story will unfold over.
Brother Francis encounters a pilgrim who has been wandering near the abbey which he lives. Their encounter is a comically hostile one but of significance. The pilgrim scrawls markings in Hebrew on a stone and also leads Brother Francis to a bunker where belongings of Leibowitz can be found. This event will set in motion the story of how Leibowitz will be canonized but also is of great thematic significance to the philosophical questions the rest of the novel will pose.
While no other Jewish characters seem to exist in the novel and it is even hinted at that Judaism did not survive the nuclear war the Pilgrim seems unquestionable a Jew. This is supported by his writing of Hebrew, which Brother Francis does not recognize. It is of significance that Leibowitz is a recognizably Jewish name and this and the fact that the Pilgrim knows where the bunker is located implies that he may be Leibowitz himself (as the supernaturally altered story that the monks begin to circulate claims) or somehow a decedent of Leibowitz. To have known Leibowitz or to be the man he would have to be several hundred years old.
When Brother Francis inscribes words in English for the Pilgrim to read, he makes the comment, “still writing things backward” which is an obvious reference to the fact that Hebrew is written from right to left but it also symbolic of the Pilgrim’s place within the narrative framework of the story. As someone who seemingly has knowledge of the world before the nuclear war he stands outside the story in order to comment on the Monks' efforts in an ironic way. The Monks have preserved some of the knowledge of the old world but have no frame of reference in which to understand the meaning of what they have preserved. They are literally forced to work their way through history backward piecing together the path that knowledge had taken through the previous history by looking at bits and pieces of the results.
In this way they find themselves in a similar situation as the medieval Catholic Church who had little knowledge of what Greek civilization had accomplished before them until they were able to piece together lost texts and notes from that era and to meld the philosophical and scientific thinking of the Greeks with the theological belief system of Christianity. Brother Francis finds a blueprint in the bunker and attempts to copy it but cannot even understand why the outline is colored while the writing on the blueprint is white. He has no idea what he is doing but he feels that it must be preserved anyway.
In Miller’s world, it is men of faith who hold onto the knowledge that is important until it can be used again. What is interesting about seeing this practice from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic scenario, we see how what was once mundane becomes holy in the eyes of the church and gains a supernatural implication it would not have otherwise. In this way, Miller takes a skeptical viewpoint on the development of religion and seems to be saying that what is thought to be sacred was once the product of utility. For example, dietary laws that were written in the bible in Leviticus may have once had a purpose of being in the interest of public health but even as that interest has lessened with further development of scientific knowledge, ways to store food safely or other factors, the laws themselves still retain a kind of weight to them that they were never intended to in the first place.
In the novel, we see this attached to scientific knowledge from the past and we are asked to evaluate this trait of religious faith against the potential harm that scientific human progress has brought in the form of increased ability of the human race to kill each other and wage war. Science does not concern itself with the moral or with the metaphysical, only with the practical ability to predict outcomes. It is Miller’s suggestion that without some kind of strong foundation of faith or moral authority within society to regulate the more base impulses of human nature then we are doomed to destroy ourselves. At the same time he wants the dangers of religious conviction and its relationship to objective truth (which may not exist) to be taken into account when making this evaluation.
The monks serve what amounts to an overall positive portrayal in the novel. This is the kind of novel that has no heroes but it is the monks who preserve knowledge and who make the rebuilding of society possible while standing in opposition of the forces that threaten to destroy it again a second time within the novel. At the same time, we see a dangerous side of faith portrayed where often the monks avoid truth in order to preserve the illusion of a perceived divinity. This can be seen early in the canonization process for Leibowitz where the fact that Leibowitz gets beatified is more important than whether he actually is worthy of such an honor to the monks in the abbey.
The second part of the novel is where we see the most damning analysis of human nature. While the central character of Thom Taddeo is compared to visionary scientific minds from the pre-war era he is strictly a theoretical mind. It is worth noting that while he is responsible for helping to bring about a new renaissance and works with the Monks and their storehouse of knowledge he is made by Miller to be a secular scholar. He is interested in knowledge gained for its own sake but often in order to gain this knowledge he must make allies of some who have less than pure motives.
The middle part of the novel contains convoluted political scheming where the new knowledge of science is almost immediately used by those in power to further their aims and the section ends with the church experiencing a great schism based on political motivations just as many similar events in the pre-war history have come to pass. In this way, Miller is showing scientific knowledge as a kind of “Pandora’s Box” that once it is opened can never be closed again. This is a common theme in science fiction stories about the misuse of scientific knowledge and a reflection of the world we have always lived in when every new scientific advance results in ethical implications that must immediately be considered.
Seemingly, the Pilgrim from the first section appears again within the second section, though hundreds of years have passed. He is portrayed here as an aged Jew who claims to be hundreds of years old and once again he makes ironic commentary on the thematic concerns of the novel. A sign on his house written in Hebrew is said to say “Tents Mended Here” but in fact makes a reference to the brotherhood of man. The old Jew never reveals what it says and Miller’s use of Hebrew is not perfect (his accents are often misplaced changing the meanings) but the back of the same sign contains a Hebrew prayer proclaiming God to be oneness with all. When asked if he ever turns the sign around the Old Jew replies, “Turn it around? You think I’m crazy? In times like these?”
This is an interesting contrast to the sections harsh criticism of science. While science can be potentially destructive and has no moral component by itself it does have in its favor an actual relationship to truth. What Miller seems to be implying by the Old Jew’s words is that prayer in times of great upheaval is completely useless. Its only purpose can be served to give comfort in times of personal distress and the illusion of guidance from a higher power.
The final section of the novel jumps to a time where another nuclear war seems eminent even though mutations are still rampant throughout the human race from the last nuclear destruction. Here, through the character of Dom Zerchi, we witness a plan by the church to send Monks into space in order to colonize other planets. We also see some of the novels most interesting meditations of faith even as Miller has set up a plot in which scientific advancement has once again seemingly doomed the world.
With people dying in agony of radiation poisoning, Dom Zerchi reluctantly allows a doctor to set up a clinic in his abbey on the condition that he does not instruct any of his terminal patients to commit suicide to avoid suffering. Zerchi sneers at the doctor’s claim that the only evil he can fight is pain and remains convinced that suicide is morally wrong even in the extreme circumstances that he and the rest of civilization now finds themselves. A young mother is convinced that she must kill her child in order to avoid suffering but Zerchi tries to convince her otherwise, first by telling her a story about a cat in his childhood that had been hit by a car and he had killed with much effort but had always regretted.
It is unclear whether the story that he tells is actually true or made up (Zerchi would not be above making up a story to convince) but it does not work. What does work is that he clearly forbids her to kill her child by invoking the will of God and she then submits to his authority and agrees not to kill her child. “She needed the voice of authority now. More than she needed persuasion.”
The question that Miller implies here is worthy of those posed by Dostoevsky in his existential novels. He asks whether submission to an authority may be better for the human race than the ability to choose through free will even if that authority is false. While Dostoevsky himself believed in the truth of Christianity it is not so sure that Miller thinks so and while Dostoevsky would ultimately side with free will Miller is no more sure of this course than he is of the idea that knowledge had intrinsic goodness to those who seek it. While he does not outright endorse the viewpoint he considers the idea that ignorance is bliss may be true while at the same time making you face the implications of the agony of slow death from radiation poisoning.
Also in this section, a woman who has grown a second head seeks to have it baptized. She calls this head Rachel although it seems to have no sentience of its own and has been refused baptism by a number of different priests. Zerchi does indeed end up giving Rachel her baptism after the woman has died and the head now seems to have risen to have a mind of its own. In a strange reversal Rachel repeats the Latin words and absolves God of sin rather than the other way around. Previously having referred to Rachel as an immaculate conception and her sudden consciousness representing a kind of resurrection the parallel between Rachel and Christ seems to be easy to make.
What Miller means by this imagery is not exactly clear. What is clear that Rachel represents a true innocence who is without sin and was not “born of sin” since she was not brought about by a sexual union but her very existence is the representation of man’s ability and wiliness to destroy each other. Her very creation in her monstrous form is perhaps a sin against her and it is this that she most has to forgive humanity for as well as the authority of God that is claimed by these monks.
By the end of the novel the monks are setting out into space in an attempt to colonize other planets. The suggestion here is that they will take what knowledge they have to begin a new civilization elsewhere and it will rise up just like the old one had. The other implication is that the events will play out as they did before in much the same way and the humankind’s impulses to destroy themselves can never be completely quelled.
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