In 1944, Allied forces attacked a key stronghold along the Gustav Line, a defense line that was supposed to keep Allied forces from advancing deeper into Italy. That site was Monte Cassino, an ancient abbey that had existed for hundreds of years. It was the first monastery founded by St. Benedict in 529 CE. A refugee and bastion of knowledge and art in a world that does not always respect such things, the abbey had been destroyed and rebuilt many times; sadly, the Allied bombing in WWII was just the latest time the venerable site had been struck down. One of the soldiers who participated in that sad but necessary bombing was Walter M. Miller, Jr. That particular experience, and I suspect the larger war as a whole influenced him to write A Canticle for Leibowitz. Originally published as three separate novellas during the 1950s, Miller reworked them into one novel and it was published in 1960. As with many men and women who experience it, war left an indelible mark on Miller, one that he seemed to never quite escape (he committed suicide in the 1990s).
Part One of the book, titled Fiat Homo (Let There Be Man) takes place in the 26th century, some five or six hundred years after a great nuclear war wiped out the civilization and societies of today. Knowledge was all but extinguished from human society and a backlash against literacy and knowledge, dubbed the “Simplification” has wreaked havoc on humanity ever since. A strong and resolute refuge exists however, in the Order of Leibowitz and it’s monastery, located somewhere in what used to be the United States (I think it’s in Utah). The monks collect and maintain a collection of documents, drawings, blueprints and paraphernalia from the pre nuclear war world (our own) as best they can. They understand very little of it, having forgotten anything but the most basic aspects of learning, but nonetheless, they persist in their eternal quest to preserve knowledge for some future generation to rediscover in their Memorabilia, which is their name for the collection of ancient knowledge. Part One primarily tells us about a novice named Francis and his accidental discovery of a treasure trove of artifacts that might have been owned by Leibowitz himself. The story is not a big story; I think it’s mostly just letting us see what the world is like and how the monastery works. Eventually Francis travels to New Rome, located somewhere on North America, and meets the pope when the Church finally makes Leibowitz a saint.
The first part of the book reveals a hidden strength of the book that I really did not expect: humor. This book is really rather funny. The interactions between Francis and Abbot Arkos are quite entertaining and amused me greatly. Francis plays the role of the innocent fool perfectly and Arkos is like a deeply annoyed principal from a kids show, constantly being frustrated and annoyed by the innocent Francis, who just wants be a monk and nothing more. Preserving knowledge is not something new for the Catholic church and their act of picking up an old responsibility strikes on one the big themes of the book; the cyclical nature of human civilization and history. History may not repeat often, but it comes damn close. This part of the book is clearly modeled after the middle ages and after the fall of Rome, and while that narrative is not completely historically accurate, it has resonated powerfully down through the centuries, and it’s not surprising, and in fact comforting in a way, that the Church picks this burden back up in the dark future.
Six hundred years later, Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light) begins. The Monastery is still hard at work copying and recopying old things that they only half understand. Good news though, the world has begun to beat back this second Dark Age and rediscover science and knowledge. Thon Taddeo, a latter day Einstein or Tesla, comes to the abbey in order to study some of it’s Memorabilia. He and the abbot of the order at that time, Dom Paulo, engage in some quite maneuvering over whether or not Thon can remove some of the Memorabilia while some of the brothers rediscover electricity. The outside world breaks up this quite fight of no stakes when one of the regional leaders initiates a plan that imperils the independence of the monastery.
While not as silly or overt, the humor and jokes continue in this part of the book as well. Thon Taddeo is the ultimate buffoonish academic who hasn’t left his tower of ivory in quite sometime. His interactions with the Poet and members of the monastery are all very funny and filled with miscommunication and accidental offense that made me laugh more than a few times. Watching him and other educated men (there are almost no women in this book) rediscover ancient knowledge and wisdom is a very satisfying experience. It’s one of the few times in the book I felt hopeful for humanity; that despite all the terrible things we do to ourselves, we can rediscover things and make a better world.
After the final jump of yet another six hundred years, Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let Thy Will Be Done) begins. Mankind has moved past anything it ever has gained before. Space travel is common and we have started to settle the stars. Earth has been split into two opposing political and military powers, and the threat of nuclear war hangs over the planet one more time. The Order of Leibowitz has expanded its original mission and now acts as a storehouse for all human knowledge, both old and knew. With war eminent, the Catholic Church activates a contingency plan that collects all the stored knowledge at the monastery, along with some bishops and monks to care for it, and launches them into space to some of the colonies off planet. The space ship, caring all the collected knowledge of humankind’s time on Earth, launches as the two warring confederacies blast each other into dust and ash. Humanity must know exist elsewhere in the galaxy.
The last section of the book is the most somber. The monks that leave the earth must bear witness to humanity killing it’s home. There is no humor to be found here, no soft and silly interactions between men who have lived a lifetime working together. There is only the rush to get things to the ships and then off planet as soon as possible. In fact the whole tone of the last part is different; whereas before the brothers had been working for the betterment of some unseen and never met future generation, this is that generation. Abbot Zerchi takes all that the brotherhood had been doing for twelve hundred years and finishes it when he places it on a ship. The Order of Leibowitz may continue, but it’s very nature will never be the same; instead of preserving the past, it must now take that past and use it to build a new Church and new future. While Zerchi never seems to ponder this, it struck me hard what a profound change that would be. One of the books best scenes can be found here; it’s an exchange between Abbot Zerchi and a secular doctor on the topic of suicide. The doctor wishes to euthanize people who are withering in pain and will die from radiation while Zerchi apposes it on religious and moral grounds. I found it to be a respectful and insightful look on a tough, and in this specific case, impossible topic. Of course, if you are not religious you may find the Abbot’s argument without merit, but I’m not and so it worked really well for me.
The book has many themes and meanings that resonate with the current day. The cyclical nature of humanity forms the very backbone of the story and gives it a power it otherwise would not have had. We see a new Dark Age, we see a new Renaissance and we see a new era of globalization and nuclear brinkmanship. Ultimately, it’s a melancholy tale because humanity loses; Earth is a cinder and rendered uninhabitable by our own doing. And while the threat of mutually assured destruction is much less then it has ever been, the recent conflicts in Eastern Europe remind us that conflict can still explode where its unexpected. But even after such a holocaust, humanity survives. It may be among the stars on new and alien worlds but humanity will rebuild; just like it did last time.
Religion, seemingly, is at a crossroads these days. It’s power and prestige has fallen greatly in the last few decades. It’s often on the wrong side of history when it comes to large, society spanning debates (abortion, gay marriage, drugs, sex, music, art, birth control). A Canticle for Leibowitz shows a side of it that modern society often forgets. After the “Flame Deluge,” which is a great name for nuclear war by the way, all that keeps mankind from sinking into full barbarism is the Church. Catholicism keeps men sane and preserves knowledge where it otherwise would have died. It’s a strong reminder that religion and knowledge and science can coexist, that for much of human history they have in fact bolstered each other. Religion can be many things, and that it’s not always what it currently is. Just like people it is multifaceted. It can, and has, united people for a common and better good. It has helped create a better world. A Canticle for Leibowitz does not exonerate religion for it’s many fault, it barely mentions them in fact, but it does remind us of its great strength and the debt we owe it.
Next Book: I’ll Give You the Sun
Next Movie: Selma