The Crux of Religious Belief: “A Song for Leibowitz” by Walter Miller Jr.
I love the poet, and I love Benjamin (Eleazar). The rest you can have them.
Father Paulo is the most attentive of the abbots. Rachel is frightening, both a two-headed reminder of the biblical Rachel who weeps over her children (Mt 2, 18) and an allusion to the ship that saves Ishmael in the epilogue of Moby-dick. Brother FranÃ§ois is gentle and worthy of respect for clinging to honest experience and uncertainty in the face of violent authority. Father Zerchi is just as brutal as Father Arkos. The rest of them, the rest of the characters from the Walter M. Miller Jr. classic, A hymn for Leibowitz, you can have.
Like the Poet, therefore, I must here engage in apologetics, that is to say by employing the ironic meaning that the Poet offers in the middle of a banquet in “Fiat Lux”, the second part of the novel. . I apologize for myself. I’m sorry, but I don’t like science fiction. So maybe a fruitful way to start a discussion about this novel is for me to admit that I don’t really like it.
I find it clever and funny in places, but that’s it. I find that science fiction prompts the reader, in the middle of reading about an exotic world or universe, to say, âOh, it’s me! Or “Oh, it’s like us!” – noting the irony sown in the monstrous and the technologically fantastic.
Canticle is indeed entertaining. It can even be premonitory. Clearly “La Simplification” could be likened to the attack on the Capitol last January. The novel, in part, also aligns with my deepest intellectual engagements. I am basically a booklegger myself. I like the project carried by the Albertian Order of Leibowitz: âto save a small vestige of human culture from the rest of humanity that wanted it destroyedâ.
Canticle is indeed entertaining. It can even be premonitory. The novel, in part, also aligns with my deepest intellectual engagements.
I recognize the great value Miller places on tedious, hidden intellectual labor – and labor that seems quite unnecessary. I recognize the value of Elder Fingo’s intricate work in sculpting an image of Leibowitz, as well as the notion of shifting artistic taste and the varying whims of those who hold religious authority. I recognize the pain that comes from realizing that after a lot of intellectual work and arguments, we are in fact wrong. I recognize that the humility that comes from realizing that an idea that one has laboriously nurtured is only a rediscovery of the idea of ââanother.
I also recognize the danger of infusing too much meaning into an ancient text or inscription without knowing its immediate or wider historical context. I recognize that science detached from any religious thought or commitment can be utterly destructive. I recognize all these things in Canticle, but I don’t get attached to it as I am with a more realistic novel.
But that’s just me – my taste – and I align myself with the ever-lasting wisp poet and pathos that is Benjamin. Please tell me the opposite: what are you caught up in reading this book?
Two encounters within the novel grabbed me. If you haven’t read the whole novel, beware: reading this paragraph could spoil the suspense of one of the book’s last encounters. Towards the end of “Fiat Voluntas Tua”, Father Zerchi tries to prevent a woman and her child from assisted suicide. Both were badly burned and poisoned by radioactive fallout. The mother’s hip is also broken. As the mother ultimately chooses to hobble to a suicide tent at the height of nuclear war, Zerchi orders her to reject suicide as a choice to end the suffering. The exchange takes place as follows:
[Zerchi] “Are you in pain, my daughter?”
She looked at him coldly. “Do you think that would please God?”
“If you offer it, yes.”
âI cannot understand a God who rejoices in the suffering of my baby! “
The priest winced. “No no! It is not pain that pleases God, my child. It is the endurance of the soul in faith, hope and love despite bodily afflictions that please Heaven. Pain is like a negative temptation. God does not like temptations which afflict the flesh; He is happy when the soul rises above temptation and says, âGo, Satan. It’s the same with pain, which is often a temptation to despair, anger, loss of faith …
âKeep your breath, Father. I am not complaining. The baby is. But the baby doesn’t understand your sermon. It can hurt, however. She can hurt, but she can’t understand.
Tear. One of Miller’s talents, I think, is to enable the three abbots to take on the characteristics of their historical epoch. Father Arkos is sullen and brutal. Paulo is a thoughtful contemplative who is perhaps too permissive, and Father Zerchi is political, stepping out of the abbey (in a driverless car) and fitting directly into the lives of others, even hitting a public official in the face. Although gripping, the above exchange ends with the same recourse to violence that was expected at the time of Father Arkos. Father Zerchi’s last resort is the power of his own command rooted in his office. At least we learn the following from a more practical Abbot Arkos in “Fiat Homo”:
As long as thought could be governed at all, it could only be commanded to follow what reason claimed anyway; order him otherwise, and he would not obey. Like any other wise ruler, Father Arkos did not give orders in vain, when disobeying was possible and enforcing was not possible.
Yet Miller takes us to the heart of the problem of the suffering and truth of a good and omnipotent God. Here Miller and his science fiction got me.
In A hymn for Leibowitz, Miller takes us to the heart of the problem of the suffering and truth of a good and omnipotent God.
The other meeting that attracted me took place between Father Paulo and Thon Taddeo, a figure Ã la Descartes who considers religion as the great obstacle to scientific progress. There is an almost antiphonic dispute between the two over the relationship between science and religion. Father Paulo contradicts the claims of the tuna by citing Genesis. Finally, Father Paulo offers the following conclusion:
Abusing the intellect for reasons of pride, vanity or evasion of responsibility is the fruit of this same treeâ¦ I am not accusing you of anything. But ask yourself the question: why do you rejoice in jumping to such a crazy guess from such a fragile springboard? Why want to discredit the past, or even dehumanize the last civilization? So that you don’t need to learn from their mistakes? Or could it be that you just can’t stand being just a “rediscoverer” and you also have to feel that you are a “creator”?
Not bad, Dom Paulo. Overbreadth in the Garden of Eden was to acquire knowledge without the work and boredom of learning – a distortion of good human beings incarnate.
Overbreadth in the Garden of Eden was to acquire knowledge without the work and boredom of learning – a distortion of good human beings incarnate.
But I still need to convince that A hymn for Leibowitz is, in fact, a great novel. It is Catholic, indeed. It’s a classic – indeed, it’s still in print 62 years after it was first published. So tell me, members of the Catholic Book Club: Why?
Another observation: I leave you with two accounts of the first light â the electric light being on. Those who experience it in each novel are amazed. The first is from Canticle and the second of our last selection of the Catholic Book Club, This is happiness.
The monk at the foot of the stairs bowed in gratitude and deprecation. The blue-white glare cast sharp shadows across the room, and the candle flames became hazy scrolls in the tide of light.
“Luminous like a thousand torches”, breathed [Thon Thaddeo]. âIt must be an accident, but no! Unthinkable!”
I am aware here that it can be difficult to imagine the enormity of this moment [the electrification of rural Ireland], the threshold that once crossed would leave behind a world that had lasted for centuries, and that moment was only sixty years ago. Consider this: When the electricity finally came in, it was discovered that the 100 watt bulb was too bright for Faha. The instant scream was too shocking. Dust and cobwebs have been found to thicken on all surfaces since the 16th century. The reality was appalling. Siney Dunne’s beautiful hair turned out to be a wig, not even close to the skin of the skin on her neck, Mick King was an outright cheater at Forty-Five, and the healthy look of Marian McGlynn. was in fact a hardened makeup the color of red grass ash. Within a week of powering up, Tom Clohessy couldn’t keep any mirrors in stock, had a run in hand, oval, round, and even full-length as people came from the county and bought glasses of all kinds. , returned home, and in ruthless enlightenment endured the punishment of all flesh when they saw what they looked like for the first time.
Give me Williams any day.
Questions for discussion
- I first ask what I have posed throughout my introduction: what is attractive about science fiction? What is it about this novel that makes it more than entertaining? What makes it meaningful? Why read science fiction?
- Jim Keane shared two thoughtful reviews of Canticle from the 1960s, although at two very different points during the decade. Both are written by thoughtful Jesuits – Norrie Clarke and Ray Schroth. There is another review or sketch of the novel from October 22, 2014 by New Yorker contributor Jon Michaud. I was surprised by several of his opinions on Canticle, in particular his rejection of “Fiat Lux” as a filler between two exciting parts of the novel. I found this to be the most endearing part of the novel.
- I was also surprised that Michaud identified Ms. Grales as one of the few significant female presences in the novel. Eve is everywhere in the novel. There’s also Rachel, who is an odd part of Ms. Grales but important to her. Additionally, there is the mother I identify above. It is very important. There are also women whose memories influence history. Emily, who was Leibowitz’s wife before the initial nuclear war, figures in Leibowitz’s canonization, and Joshua’s wife is still a part of him in the final third of the novel. Finally, there is the cynically labeled âLady Reporterâ and portrayed in âFiat Voluntas Tuaâ. Indeed, as Michaud deplores, there is no intimacy in this novel, and the women are mostly absent. Yet how do women, in fact, enrich this novel?
- How is history or memory a stay against self-destruction? If the Albertian Order of Leibowitz is an “organ of memory” (when Google is really just a collecting body), what good is the preservation of memory if there is no organ or instrument to interpret it critically or to sift it to make sense of it?