Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz


I’m still reeling from this book, so you will have to be patient.  Mrs. Richardson and I finished it last night, and I found it to be, in a word, astounding.  Of all the novels we’ve read together, this will go down as one of the most memorable.

Originally published in 1959, the late Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of the most profound, unsettling, haunting, effective, and brilliant novels I have ever read.  It’s a scifi cult classic, and with good reason.  I think I agree with Time magazine’s initial assessment of the book as “Extraordinary…Chillingly effective.”

I should probably call my father and apologize to him, for he has been telling me for years that I really need to read this book.

He was right.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the future and tracing the events of the human race primarily through the lens of a monastic community in the deserts of western North America called The Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz. The book consists of three movements dealing with three different periods of time:  the 26th century, the year 3174 A.D., and the year 3781 A.D.

The first period deals with the resulting dark ages of ignorance, savagery, and brutality following nuclear holocaust (the “flame deluge” in Miller’s memorable terminology).  The Order of Leibowitz is a monastic community determined to preserve “the memorabilia,” or the remains of the past society of men.  The second movement finds the order dealing with an increase in scientific knowledge, the beginning emergence of the human race out of the long darkness of its own ignorance, and the reconstruction of the basic contours of society.  It is, however, a time also of great strife and war.  The final movement finds the human race in a state of great technological advancement but plagued by the old, consistent malady of man’s moral, societal, and ethical corruption.

In truth, the common thread throughout each epoch, and, in my opinion, the primary concern of Miller’s novel, is precisely the problem of original sin and man’s refusal to recognize that all political and social attempts at reestablishing Eden on the earth inevitably dissipate into barbarism and, ultimately, self-destruction.

Miller was a tail-gunner in WWII, and he knew well the ravages of war.  He participated in the bombing and destruction of a famous monastery in Italy, an event that had a dramatic impact on his life and, obviously, his writing.  He converted to Catholicism (a point that must be grasped if the novel is to be understood) but later lived in adultery, became extremely reclusive, and, finally, died at his own hand in 1996.

Miller understood theology very, very well, and the book is marked by both theological depth and, at times, density.  Some readers may find the copious Latin references burdensome, but they are quite germane to the story and helpful in creating mood and context.

Miller is thoroughly Augustinian in his view of the sinfulness of man.  More than once the abbots of the Leibowitzian order pontificate on the disastrous effects of both the Fall of Man and man’s refusal to see and understand the radical implications of that Fall.  This aspect of the novel reaches its apex in the concluding thoughts of Abbot Zerchi during the second nuclear holocaust as he lay dying.

“The trouble with the world is me…Thee me Adam Man we.  No ‘worldly evil’ except that which is introduced into the world by Man – me thee Adam us – with a little help from the father of lies….’Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me; Me us Adam, but Christ, Man me,’ he said aloud.” (330)

In truth, Miller’s handling of harmatology, soteriology, and theophany in this novel are quite impressive.  Along the way, the novel also offers powerful reflections on war, technology, and euthanasia (particularly in part 3).

In many ways, it’s harder to describe an overwhelming book than a lesser one, and I find that I’m experiencing that even now.  So perhaps I should simply end with this:  A Canticle for Leibowitz is everything a great book should be.  It is thought-provoking, psychologically and emotionally engaging, challenging in the various dilemmas it offers the reader, memorable in its descriptive force, and, ultimately, expressive of the grand verities of the gospel.

This is undoubtedly one of the greatest novels I’ve ever read, and I intend to read it again.

A great, great read.

Highly recommended.

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