A Canticle for Leibowitz: Reaction, part II

Well, here we are at last. The second part of https://vacuouswastrel.wordpress.com/2009/02/22/a-canticle-for-leibowitz-reaction-part-i/.

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while. I’ve been putting it off because the issues seem too active in my mind, and I’ve been waiting for them all to settle down into a writeable order. They haven’t; they’ve just faded in my perception of them. I considered leaving this altogether, but have decided to press on, not for the benefit of you, the readers, or even of me, the writer, but for my future self, when I get around to reading Leibowitz again – because I have no doubt that I will. I’m a young man; I suspect I’ll read it many times. And so perhaps, so as to avoid a restart every time, I should try to preserve some reactions from this first reading. Let my blog be my booklegger…

[BEWARE: SPOILERS]

Yes, there are indeed many, many spoilers; beyond here, I assume that you’ve already read the book.

While I’m at it, I’ll also reiterate my own standpoint: religiously, I was brought up Catholic, but I don’t believe in God. Nonetheless, I have sympathy for Catholicism, and identify in some ways with it culturally (or at least with liberal bourgeois Irish Catholicism in England). Philosophically, I was for a long time a consequentialist of a broadly utilitarian bent; I hold this position to be valid, but I now also recognise a second viewpoint. That viewpoint is broadly influenced by Nietzsche and Epicurus, though also Schopenhauer. Both viewpoints are predominately though not entirely hedonist, and thus directly in the line of fire of most of the characters in this novel. I find its views attractive, not because they appeal to me, but because they so thoroughly repudiate me, yet in a way that seems almost within the grasp of what I can reach, as though it’s my own views turned backward, or my own views with something added or taken away (I suppose the faithful would say the difference was that I have no God). I find the whole impossible to accept – yet I am attracted by many of the parts.

I hope that’s cleared up any confusion about my perspective going into this.


Leibowitz is a conflict between materialism and religion, and that conflict manifests in many ways throughout the three parts. In the first section, FH, a recurring theme is the projection of a mystical status upon material things – made explicit in the passages where Francis realises the poverty of New Rome, having initially seen only stately grandeur. It is this grandeur, this awe, that sustains the Church through the dark ages, when its temporal power is extremely limited. In FH, the religious is merged with the scientific, not only through the Order’s purpose but more specifically in the pair of plans Francis brings to the Pope: the original blueprint and his medieval illuminated copy. For Francis, the copy, the work of his whole life, is of little value, while the blueprint is a thing of incomparable value; for the robbers, the illuminated manuscript is what is valuable, and the blueprint is so worthless that it can be given away. In that time, there is no doubt that the robbers are correct – but from the later perspectives of the latter sections, the blueprint has added to human knowledge while the copy has had no impact. Perhaps we might think that this is a validation of Francis’ valuation – in the long run, the sacred item plays a part in God’s plan. This, however, is far too simplistic. The blueprint is the work of a nuclear engineer – if it has contributed to anything, it is to the redestruction of mankind. And Francis’ projection of sacred value does not seem well-informed – to his ignorant mind, the sacred shopping list is also a holy relic, yet it has no impact upon the story in any way. We see the same projection in the way in which the Wanderer is transformed in the imagination from a simple travelling man to a mystical, angelic figure, possibly a vision of St Leibowitz himself.

We should not see this projection, then, as somehow divinely guided. Rather, FH shows us the nature of a world without science – a world that is dark, vicious, brutal, ignorant and superstitious. Yet this is not a world without redeeming features – as we go on to see in comparison to later sections.

Finally, we are forced to ask the question: has Francis wasted his life? On the surface, we seem to be offered a simple homily on providence. Yes, Francis seems to waste his life in his illumination project – but had he not done so the blueprint would never have reached New Rome. All has worked out for the best in the end – the seemingly pointless devotion to the Lord has been shown to have real material benefits. But Miller is not that blunt. For a start, we have to address the reality, as mentioned above, that the end result (the blueprint reaching New Rome) has no material benefit after all. Furthermore, Miller never suggests that his labour would have been meaningless had such serendipity not intervened – as a contrast we are given the sculpture by Brother Fingo, persisting through the centuries but never seemingly being of any use to anyone. Or the calculations of Brother Sarl – set aside after his death for a follower that will never arise. The image of Sarl’s lost labour seems to show a world crying desperately for science – a world where men live isolated lives and can only repeat what has been done before because there is no knowledge of the past, or interest in it.

“But in a dark sea of centuries wherein nothing seemed to flow, a lifetime was only a brief eddy, even for the man who lived it”

Perhaps we should distinguish, then, between Fingo and Sarl: perhaps we should say that Fingo’s labour endures because he has created beauty, while Sarl’s dissolves because he has striven for knowledge – and beauty has its own value, where every piece of knowledge is, when divorced from its context, worthless. Perhaps we should – but there is little indication of it from Miller. And what are we to make of Francis returning for the copy? Somebody expecting a polemic might read this as a rejection of God’s plan, a craving for possession of what he has created; somebody seeing a beatification of art might see it as a fundamental error on the monk’s part, placing the material object on a pedestal rightly claimed by the mere beautiful fact of the illumination’s creation. But Miller does not give us that so easily. On the one hand, it is far from clear that Francis’ motives are impure – it is for God’s glory that he wishes to save the illumination, not for his own sake, at least ostensibly. More profoundly, it is far from clear that Francis’ death is a bad thing. It seems strange to write that about a story – surely the main character being murdered is a bad thing? In Leibowitz, however, the death immediately fades to the endless cycle of death and to the image of the waiting vultures. All flesh is grass – so why is death a condemnation of a life? Francis’ death was inevitable – and for the remaining two-thirds of the book he is no more or less dead than any of his contemporaries. His life has been no more meaningless than any other of his age to mankind, and he has entrusted the meaning of his life to God. Perhaps, then, what we should read is a man who puts his life in God’s hands, who seeks to regain his illumination regardless of the danger it may place him in. In that, perhaps we see the echo of Leibowitz and the bookleggers, risking their lives to preserve knowledge.

Yet here too we find ourselves in the crux of a dilemma. Were the bookleggers right? If the bookleggers were wrong to preserve the knowledge of their time, the whole project of the Order, and of all the major characters, has been utterly mistaken. Yet if their actions are right, how can we avoid holding them responsible for the second holocaust of mankind? The Pope says explicitly to Francis of the blueprint: “Someday the meaning of the original may be discovered, and may prove important… we’ll have you to thank for that.” Do we indeed rest the thanks, and the blame, for genocide at the door of the monks?

The second section, FL, makes much of this question, and more generally the question of science. Miller is not so ignorant of his topic as most modern commentators on the supposed conflict between science and faith – he does not see the matter in a binary opposition. He reminds us, correctly, of the importance of the Church in the history of science – the monks of the Order wait patiently with their knowledge, waiting until secular mankind has grown up enough to want to know what they know, as the monasteries of our own dark ages preserved what little remained of their knowledge of the classical world. Like the monks of our own dark ages, the monks of the Order are in their own right at the very forefront of scientific experiment. The conflict is therefore not between science and religion at all – but between the priest and the scientist. The problem is not science, but the mentality of those who pursue it.

A key focus in FL is the relationship between science and politics. The character of Pfardentrott is condemned by the priests and the Poet as, essentially, a collaborator in the rise of a tyrannical regime. He appears perfectly willing to extend his scientific knowledge at all costs, even if that means aiding a dictator – although he steps in in minor issues, as over the mapping of the abbey, his actions are ultimately without effect. We might ask whether, in that case, it is in his power to do anything at all – but as a whole, his collegium clearly enhances Hannegan’s prestige, and presumably his military power also. He may claim that his life of science is impossible without the aid of Hannegan – but that is precisely the point. Given the costs, ought he to live that life at all? The costs become apparent when we see Pfardentrott as a parallel to the ‘wise men’ of the Deluge, putting the tool of genocide into the hands of foolish princes.

And yet – what are the alternatives? Dom Paulo’s opposing position seems little better. It can be tempting to read Dom Paulo as the voice of Miller, and of Catholicism – he is such a sympathetic character, and seemingly so utterly convinced, that we may fall into assuming that his opinions represent his faith truly, and that that faith is endorsed by Miller. But I don’t believe either is true. For a start, he expresses himself so forcefully that it is easy to forget his vacillation throughout the FL, from skeptic to advocate to religious fanatic. But we should also hold him up to the ideal of Saint Leibowitz himself – a scientist who contributes to the Deluge, and spends the remainder of his life preserving scientific knowledge, eventually being martyred for it. Dom Paulo feels the pull of this legacy – he defends his Order against Pfardentrott’s accusations by referring to that martyrdom. But ultimately he rejects his Saint – he tears down the arc-lamp and decrees that only candles shall be used from then on. In doing this, he echoes the very Simpletons who martyred his Saint – like them, he sees the horrors that science can bring, and rejects science and progress as a consequence. I think that when I read this chapter at first, I was too taken in by Don Paulo – I thought that the emphasis was on Pfardentrott’s choice to serve Hannegan. I’ve changed my mind: the choice lies with Dom Paulo. It may seem counterintuitive, but after thinking about the book for a long time, I can only conclude that, of all the moments in it, this is the most pivotal for human history. In withdrawing the Order from human progress, Dom Paulo places the fate of humanity in the hands of Hannegan and Pfardentrott – hand that will never be able to bear the responsibility. Perhaps the most clear statement of this is the consideration of the Fall of Man – Dom Paulo does not deny that the serpent, strictly speaking, spoke the truth in offering power and knowledge, but he says that godhood can only be obtained with love as well. Hannegan has the power, and Pfardentrott has the knowledge – where can the love come from if not from the Church? The Order has waited alone through the centuries, and at this critical moment has the choice to join the progress of mankind. Dom Paulo rejects that choice – and we see the consequences in the third section, in which the church has been reduced to an irrelevancy, watching the doomsday clock count down to zero.

There are, in my mind, two lines in FL that are of paramount importance. The first is Dom Paulo, replying to Pfardentrott’s hopes of progress:

“It never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser until the very last day.”

The second, Pfardentrott, replying to Dom Paulo’s hope of responsibility:

“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, father, the world will never have it.”

Our response to these two claims, both pessimistic in their way, is essential to how we see the book. Is Pfardentrott right? Perhaps we might say that he is confusing knowledge with wisdom – but then we can compare Texarkana to Hongan Os and think that maybe some wisdom has been gained through learning after all. If we believe this, we cannot also believe Dom Paulo. If we believe this, then the entire idea of keeping back the knowledge of the Order until the world is ready for it is nonsense – it is only through having that learning that the world can become wise. And does that mean blaming God also, for holding back the apple? If we believe Pfardentrott, we only have two options – that man should explore all scientific options as far as he can as soon as he can, or that he should remain in ignorance through all history. Miller certainly is more sympathetic to the Dark Ages than most writers, but does he really expect us to accept the world of Francis as our eternal fate? And can he even believe that that is possible? Surely, even without the Order mankind would have come to knowledge eventually – and what then would stop the new Deluge from occurring? Would humanity have become so much more wise, so much more loving, in the interim – or would we not instead remain like Hongan Os, honourable perhaps but undeniably brutal and violent? We might suggest that if learning is necessary for wisdom, perhaps it is not sufficient for it – perhaps there is something else. This is where I suggest that what is missing from this point onwards is the Church, acting as a moderating influence on society and science. Yet perhaps that sort of control simply is not possible, and the progress of man is an avalanche that cannot be stopped or channelled, and my suggestion is as useless as any other. So again we face the question: what can change?

According to Dom Paulo: nothing. How do we interpret this fatalism? On the one hand, we may see this as Dom Paulo simply being wrong. If he is wrong, he is wrong because he lacks hope in God’s providence. Critics have accused Leibowitz of being a pessimistic book, a book without hope in it – but they can only conclude that if they have skipped half the words. Leibowitz is an almost incredibly optimistic book. It paints a picture of a world undergoing a seemingly endless cycle of inescapable death – and it does not flinch, and it does not despair. Throughout the book, and especially in the final section, FVT, there remains a pervading hope that somehow things may be better this time. Somehow, our apparent fate will be avoided, and not just once but for ever. Nothing encapsulates this better than the spaceship sent out to the colonies at the end of the book – a symbol of defiance, a step of progress made beyond the age of the Flame Deluge. Humanity has, literally, reached the stars. When Joshua looks out at the dying world and says “sic transit mundus”, we see an ambiguity in the Latin: Latin has no definite or indefinite articles. “Sic transit gloria mundi” is rendered “thus passes the glory of the world”, and so we are tempted to read Joshua’s version as “thus passes the world”; yet it is no less valid to instead read “thus passes a world”. There are other worlds! The colonies are small, perhaps no larger in number than the survivors that will endure on Earth, and one day they will in their turn confront the day of reckoning – probably. But maybe not. Perhaps, this time, we will do better. And yet, better in one way need not be better in another: Zerchi speaks of their mission as a new flight from Eden, and as a new Exodus into the desert. Neither image is a pleasant or a comforting one. I think that one of the great virtues of the book is that it takes a common accusation – that religion is a crutch, that it makes life easier for people, that it is for people who cannot confront the harshness of reality – and turns it on its head. In Leibowitz, religion hacks your legs off. This is not a religion that uses the afterlife as a painkiller – the afterlife is mentioned, even hinted at, only a handful of times in the book. It is those who are secular are seen cowering behind their protective idols. Religion, in Leibowitz, makes you suffer; those who deny it are, in a way, cowards. It is a breathtakingly, admirably, bold retort to atheist critics. Is Pfardentrott’s message of progress just such a protective idol – a pleasant myth to spread to keep humanity from going mad? Is Dom Paulo right? The obvious answer is: no. Dom Paulo is wrong. Dom Paulo is frightened, and in that fear he surrenders hope, and retreats from science – just as Zerchi retreats from his commitment to non-violence. Dom Paulo, in his turn away from the arc lamp, and from the knowledge that he believes is divine in nature, and Zerchi, in his frustration over his inability to prevent the suicides, feel forsaken by God. Perhaps even the Pope feels the same – Zerchi puts a good face on it, but in singing the battle masses and not the prayers for peace, surely the Pope is abandoning hope? We may even suspect that the Pope’s ‘retreat to the mountains for contemplation’ is a last-minute flight from the heavy bombing zones and up into the clean air away from the radiation. Even the most sympathetic and devout characters feel forsaken in the dark times, and the parallels with Jesus are unmistakable. Zerchi speaks of his own crucifixion, but the concomitant of that is each man’s Gethsemane.
That’s the easy route. Yet I cannot completely exorcise the voice in me that says that maybe Miller does intend Dom Paulo to be right. If that is the case, what is the hope that we are expected to have? Hope… without any hope? Perhaps that is indeed the aim. We see the same thing again with the baby – why is the baby to endure horrific pain without hope of recovery? Why is her mother, for that matter? Zerchi talks of crucifixion, and perhaps there is indeed something to be said for the idea of individual sacrifice. But the crucifixion was not simply about pain. There is no inherent virtue in accepting pain. So what is the hope that the girl and her baby are surrendering? Another hope without hope?
In the case of the world, on the other hand, there may well be a middle ground. If we read Dom Paulo as despairing without reading him as necessarily wrong, we are given another version of the dilemma of faith – if we can measure it, we are not having faith in it. We might then read it as an embrace of ignorance – we cannot say what could change to prevent the recurrence, but we cannot say that there is nothing that could change. To say that is to abandon hope.

Dom Paulo, I believe, despairs. He abandons science, and he abandons hope, and to a large extent these two are the same thing. Again, Miller destroys the lazy images of faith that are put up by militant atheists, of faith as somehow contrary to reason. In Leibowitz, reason is at the heart of faith. When Zerchi lashes out, his confessor describes it as ‘abandoning reason’ – which is to say abandoning trust in God. For Catholics, reason is not contrary to faith, because reason is a guide to God. By abandoning reason, Zerchi and Dom Paulo both despair in God’s power to resolve the situation. One reason why Pfardentrott is such a sympathetic antagonist is that he does not abandon reason in his personal life – seen, for instance, when he patiently listens through and rebuts Dom Paulo’s argument, even though it is an argument he has considered himself already, or when he refuses to act in a partisan manner despite his master’s action. In many ways, he reminds of Francis in FH, who refuses to believe or disbelieve dogmatically what his Abbot tells him to believe – and suffers as a result of it. Honesty is a virtue throughout all three sections; and it is a virtue inextricably connected to the virtue of faith. Both virtues are inseparable from arguably the most important theme of the book: responsibility. It is, perhaps, also the most confusing theme.

Responsibility is brought to the forefront in the way in which scientists assist their rulers – in particular the way in which Leibowitz and his cohorts created nuclear weapons for politicians who could not be trusted with them. We have talked above about the inevitability, or otherwise, of the Deluge, but much of the emphasis, certainly in FL, is on the scientist as a person. The sins of the world are given a foundations in the sins of individual men. What is Pfardentrott’s sin? We may think that we see it clearly when Dom Paulo tells him that a man may serve either Hannegan or God. But in fact we are offered something more psychological than this brute political analysis:
“Why do you wish to discredit the past, even to dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer,’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?” Dom Paulo gives us two sins here for the scientist: fear of responsibility, and hubris. But these two are not unconnected. Pfardentrott’s alleged hubris is not a hubris of overconfidence: he “can’t bear” the humble option. Why can’t he bear it? One reason might be a fear of “the dark sea of centuries” – he does not want to be another brief eddy, but a decisive shift. He wants his life to be special, to mean something, to be unique. The fact that as a scientist in a new era he can never create or invent or discover anything new, no matter how brilliant he is, but only bring to light another person’s prior work, must tear at him: it is something he cannot bear to accept. And now again we must compare him to Francis, because Francis does something very similar, and Francis does accept it. Francis devotes decades to creating a copy of Leibowitz’s blueprint, and rejoices in it; his soul ‘magnifies the Lord’. Why? I think there are two explanations. One is that he has in his mind imbued the blueprint (which, let us not forget, he knows only to be the work of a man, and a flawed man at that) with a divine respect, and Francis takes the meaning of his life from that source of the divine in his life. Pfardentrott sees science, indeed sees everything, only as a means to an end – the story of FL is the story of how everything, from science to the Abbey to religion to entire nations is reduced to the status of a means before the insatiable lust for power of Hannegan – and so his life can derive no meaning or purpose from the old papers. He sees even his own life as a means, validated by its effects – and ultimately his life has no effect. He dies, and the vultures eat; and even his civilisation dies in the end. Everybody’s life is ‘a brief eddy’. Given enough time, everything becomes meaningless, if meaning of events in the past is judged by their effect on the future. And the second reason Francis can do this is that Francis – as we see when he journeys back to meet the bandits – is not afraid of death. All the characters in Leibowitz suffer not only the death of the flesh but the death of memory, in that all are forgotten, and all are ultimately unnoticeable in the stream of time. Francis accepts this; Pfardentrott cannot. He must make himself important. And here we should also consider Christ – who passed through Gethsemane to the Crucifixion, because he overcame his fear of death. We should think likewise of Zerchi, and his own agonising demise, his own crucifixion.
It almost seems as though Miller had been reading Nietzche as well as the catechism.
Francis is not afraid of death; Francis has hope. And here perhaps we see the key: it is not a matter of asking what hope he has, because only having hope when we can see something to have hope in is itself to lack hope. True hope is blind hope. This is not hope in heaven or the resurrection: see how little that is mentioned. This is simply hope as the opposite of fear. That is the message to the woman considering suicide: do not fear pain.

“Pain is the only evil I know” – Dr. Cors
“The evil… was not suffering, but the unreasoning fear of suffering” – Zerchi
“Pain is like negative temptation” – Zerchi
“Do not be an accomplice” – Zerchi

Pain is at the heart of the most difficult section of the book for many people – the polemic against euthanasia and suicide. Pain is a temptation, says Zerchi to the terminally ill woman, to despair – as despair is a loss of hope, which is to say a surrender to fear. But it is also a temptation to anger, and to a loss of faith. Why does it matter that those who are hurt may be angry? Because as Dom Paulo said many centuries earlier, infinite power and infinite knowledge will avail mankind nothing without infinite love. Anger abandons love, as well as hope. It may seem odd to us that the priest mentions this in the context of suicide, but only if we accept a particular perspective: the perspective of the individual. From a wider perspective, the woman’s life is not over, even though she will inevitably die, and die painfully. Miller makes sure we know, throughout the book, that all of us will die, and many of us painfully, and that if that makes our life meaningless then it has been meaningless all along. Nothing has changed for the woman – only her knowledge. She can see her death now, and the death of her baby, and the pain of her baby – but all these were going to happen anyway, only at a different time, and without foreknowledge. Life, for the individual, is always a zero-sum game; it is hope that defies that knowledge and plays it anyway. Perhaps for a community it is similarly doomed – though perhaps not. The equivalent of hope, when we abandon the perspective of the individual, is love. Though the woman is sure to die, that does not mean she cannot do anything with her life. Even if she is going to die tomorrow, she has an entire day to help other people. And if those people will die as well? Well, and if the whole of humanity is going, one day, to be extinct? Zerchi’s perspective is not the perspective of means and ends – it is not the perspective of some calculus of effects. In helping others, it is not the ultimate result of that help that matters, as ultimately all is futile (even the scavengers who rejoice at death throughout the book find their own lean times in the new apocalypse), but what that help expresses – love. Suicide is without love, and without hope – and that, for the Catholic Zerchi, makes it ‘unreasoning’. It lacks reason, because it elevates the suffering of an individual into a prime motivation, despite the futility of that ethical perspective. And finally, in the context of the war, suicide is an act of conformity – the suicides are accomplices to war crimes. The state has provided for euthanasia to salve its own conscience as it headed into war, because its rulers believe that pain is the only evil, and by reducing the pain that issues from their acts they reduce their own responsibility. By obediently killing themselves, the injured are therefore making things easier for their killers; they are making it easier to kill. If euthanasia were not available – if, in the extreme case, humans were immortal and the radiation would bring only immortal suffering – it would be harder for the ruling powers to allow such an atrocity to come to pass. Abandoning hope makes you the accomplice of those who seek to take it away.

And here we return to responsibility. Suicide abandons responsibility because it abandons love, out of fear. And Pfardentrott, likewise, wishes to absolve himself of responsibility – and that, too, is motivated ultimately by the fear of suffering and the fear of death. He tells himself that he cannot do anything, because if he opposes Hannegan he will die, and because without the knowledge that he brings into the world there will be more death and more suffering. Fear motivates him; and abandoning responsibility is a reaction to another kind of fear, of another kind of suffering. Those who are not responsible cannot be tormented by guilt. They surrender their responsibility as another kind of flight from pain, of flight to worldly security. This is what Leibowitz did when he developed nuclear weapons for the US government, without thought of whether they would be used well.

In decrying those who give in to fear, Miller is not condoning the world of FH, or of Hongan Os for that matter. Miller is not judging the world at all; he is judging us. His target is not our drive to improve our world, but our reasons for that drive. In this, for instance, we can contrast Pfardentrott with Kornhoer: both are driven to science and invention, but for one it is (allegedly) due to fear, and in the other case it is from a love of God. Here again we should return to Brother Sarl and his experimental calculations in FH – he labours out of curiosity in his spare time, not caring that when he dies nobody will continue his work, and that everything he does will come to naught. We may lament this eon of ignorance, yet admire those who laboured in it. And likewise, even if we find Pfardentrott sympathetic, the same accusation can be levied at Hannegan and his followers: that they desire Pfardentrott for the power he can bring them, not because he satisfies their curiosity. To modern ears, this sounds suspiciously like embracing the Dark Age: after all, if we condemn the mechanisms that brought us out to civilisation, is that not condemning civilisation itself? Pfardentrott makes the point powerfully that there is no route to the future other than the one we follows. But that, of course, would merely be to prove Miller right: that would be a form of despair. The way of faith would be to trust that God would bring us into civilisation by some other route, or into some state better than civilisation. That would be have hope. What Miller opposes is a modernity-at-all-costs drive, a drive born out of terror and the revocation of hope.

“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and themselves as well…But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”

The progression of the world into genocide is clear: the world affronts man with its inadequacies, and man, in fear, takes it on himself to improve the world. Man equips himself with money and knowledge and the trappings of civilisation, but remains terrified of death and pain, which it can never extinguish. Having sacrificed faith in God, and having exhausted all faith in his own ability to progress, man continues to hold himself responsible for suffering, but has no way to end it. The only option for him is suicide, effected on a societal scale through the insanity of nuclear holocaust. The driving forces of this process can likewise be seen on the small scale – the arms race, and the detonation race, both progress out of terror of what the other side may do. This terror is the antithesis of love – where infinite love would lay down its life for the enemy, terror demands a pre-emptive strike, though everybody who gives in to this nihilistic urge must know that in doing so they are surely dooming their own side also. Likewise the nihilistic, malign, urge of those who retaliate when they are already doomed – the moment of terror is a moment of unreasoning hatred.

We are, Miller thinks, to have faith in the Lord, and hope for a better world. This should not be interpreted as standing idly by and watching whatever happens, however bad things may be – that would be another dereliction of responsibility. Nor is it the vain assumption that whatever we do, God will make things turn out for the best. As Zerchi thinks: “not sending the ship would be an act of presumption… If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from the pinnacle. For angels will bear thee up.”
Miller does not deny that we should act in certain ways, only that consequences are what should weigh most heavily. In effect, the whole of Leibowitz is a philosophical treatise on the virtues of deontology vs. consequentialism, and Kant vs Mill. We are simply to act out of love, and leave the consequences to God. If, to obtain better consequences, we violate reason/love, we make ourselves ‘accomplices’, however noble our intentions. Perhaps Zerchi’s commandment should be the subtitle of this book, written in rage against an Armageddon Miller saw creeping ever nearer through the fifties: “DO NOT BE AN ACCOMPLICE”.

Except, of course, that we are all accomplices. No man can hope to avoid blame entirely, when we are all entangled in on another. This is the point made by Dom Paulo in his confrontation with Lazarus in FL: it is wise to sense responsibility, but foolish to believe that anyone can bear it alone. We have discussed hope and love; perhaps this is where the faith comes in? But that I’ll leave until a re-read, whenever that might be. It’s taken an awful lot of thinking about the book to beat its nest of thoughts and words into whatever little order I have given them here, and I’ve dealt only with the main theme. Opposed to that theme, or part of it, I cannot say, are the three great mysterious characters of the novel: Lazarus, Rachel, and the Poet. The first two, at least, are clearly of immense significance; but I cannot sort through it now. I think it has all faded to far from my mind, yet not so far that I can replenish my memory just yet. So, unfinished as it may be, that’s where I’ll leave this reaction, I think. I hope that somebody, anybody, has found something or anything in it interesting for a few minutes…

If anybody out there has their own views, I’d love to hear them. What are the significances of those three characters? Am I right about hope and love in the novel? Am I right in judging which parts are (presented as) true and which parts are despair? The book has plagued me, and the thoughts of others would be most welcome!

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9 thoughts on “A Canticle for Leibowitz: Reaction, part II

  1. TomHC in MI says:

    I very much enjoyed “A Canticle for Leibowitz” and “Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman”.
    I’m afraid I just couldn’t get into your blog post about them; it’s much heavier-going than the novels.
    One of the things I liked about the “Canticle” was the scholar who was afraid that talking about the refrangible nature of light would offend the Brothers, because a priest he knew back home said rainbows couldn’t have existed before the Flood.

  2. […] A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (further thoughts HERE) […]

  3. […] These musings are a second part to my review of A Canticle for Leibowitz, and are I guess something approaching some sort of critical analysis of the themes of the book, though focusing more on my reaction than on scholarly exegesis. It’s me trying to understand the book, I suppose. LOTS OF SPOILERS! […]

  4. Mary Coleman says:

    I have read Canticle 5 times and I loved this analysis of it. I need to re-read your words a few times to really get them into my head though. I’ll comment again when I can wrap my mind around all this. I might read the book again too. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I read your post and appreciated it.

  5. Thank you! It’s always touching to know someone else… well, frankly to know someone else has even read something I wrote, let alone been interested in it. Leibowitz is certainly a fascinating book – I’ve been reviewing books ever since, but this is still the only one I’ve felt the need to write an entire ‘what’s it all mean’ post, and I still wasn’t satisfied when I’d finished it. Few fiction books are so provocative, perhaps because few fiction books are so explicitly practical/philosophical in their intentions.

  6. […] NB. Further, and more spoilerific, thoughts on the book can be found in Part Two, HERE. […]

  7. This was remarkable. Thank-you.

  8. Thank you for the compliment!

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