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Conceptual Fiction: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

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Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.

When literary critic Wyatt Mason recently ridiculed A Canticle for Leibowitz in the “Sentences” blog he runs for Harper’s, he was amazed at the heated backlash from readers. As a seasoned book blogger, Mason must be used to critics getting criticized, but the intensity of response from fans of Walter M. Miller, Jr. “took the soup,” in his words. “Readers voted early and often,” Mason explained. “I got handed my hat.”

A highbrow critic poking fun at a science fiction book is nothing new. But the story behind this story is even more unsettling. Mason dismissed A Canticle for Leibowitz on the basis of the first sentence alone! It wasn’t even clear whether he had read the whole book. (It later turned out that he hadn’t.) And this supposedly skilled reader of texts even managed to mis-interpret these few words. He misses entirely the tongue-in-cheek humor of the opening sentence, attacking novelist Miller (who he doesn’t even mention by name in his blog post—after all, who cares about some hack genre writer?) for the phrase “girded loins” which is clearly offered by the author with a wry smile.

I wonder if Mason would launch a preemptive assault on a book by Thomas Hardy or Saul Bellow on the basis of a single sentence in a novel he hasn’t read. Okay, I know that Mason calls his blog “Sentences” . . . but really! Such dismissals reveal less about the quality of sci-fi books or Miller’s novel—which is quite well written, by the way—then about the snobbishness and biases that still pervade the supposedly egalitarian and open-minded world of literary criticism. “I’m all for sci-fi,” Mason clarifies. Oh, but of course. “Or, at least, have never turned up my nose thereto,” he adds. Except, that is, when he turns up his nose at it.

Mason promises to read the rest of A Canticle for Leibowitz. But I have some doubts that he will enjoy the book even after the chastening response he received from its devoted fans, who have kept this book in print for almost a half-century. Miller offers a less than flattering portrait in his novel of Thon Taddeo, who is not exactly a literary blogger, but is close enough for discomfort. Taddeo is an intellectual who likes to make high-blown pronouncements on the basis of very few facts (does that sound familiar?). In fact, this whole novel is a plea for folks not to engage in preemptive attacks—a general category which must include, somewhere in its taxonomy, the judgment of a book by its opening sentence.

Taddeo is one of those who “fumble awhile with error to separate it from truth,” yet too often “seize the error hungrily because it has a pleasanter taste.” This type of epistemological musing is all too typical of Miller’s book, which takes ideas very seriously. In fact, A Canticle for Leibowitz takes them seriously in a way that few contemporary novels do. The long drawn-out discussions of concepts that once served as the centerpieces of big books (The Brothers Karamazov, The Magic Mountain, or perhaps most pronouncedly The Man Without Qualities) went out of fashion around the time Moses Herzog started writing crazy letters to dead people. Instead of encountering something like the Grand Inquisitor, we are more often treated to bad sex scenes nowadays. But as Dostoevsky reminds us, we all get what we deserve: angels enjoy a glimpse of God’s throne, while insects are given sensual lust. Miller, for his part, clearly aspires to the latter, and is proud to be part of this once vibrant tradition of novelists who incorporate serious Socratic dialogues into their fiction.

The concluding section of this tripartite novel is dominated by a debate between an abbot and a doctor on the morality of mercy killing. When is it valid to terminate a life in order to limit the risk of future suffering? Is pain the greatest evil (as the doctor insists), or is the desperation with which the sufferer responds to pain (as the abbot counters) the real tragedy here? You might be tempted to dismiss this part of A Canticle for Leibowitz as a dry, theoretical matter—until you learn that author Miller was a Roman Catholic who later committed suicide. His life, and its termination, embraced both sides of the debate . . . and as much more than an intellectual query.

Miller’s novel focuses on the members of a monastery who are pledged to preserving knowledge and culture in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. They are inspired by a murky tradition of a scientist named Leibowitz (later Saint Leibowitz). Leibowitz himself—or at least his alter ego—seems to linger on in the flesh, a post-nuclear realization of the myth of the Wandering Jew. (Miller lived for a while in the 1950s with sci-fi writer Judith Merril, and her Judaism interacts with his Catholicism in the pages of this novel.) The monks emulate Leibowitz and his quest to save some remnant of learning during the new Dark Ages, when all books and ideas are suspect. Miller's novel is divided into three separate stories, self-contained novellas set in the same locale but at different time periods, but each revolving around the same over-arching themes.

On a simple level, the book takes the real historical experience of the Middle Ages— when a faith-driven church often became the chief custodian of secular culture and tradition—and projects it into the future. But the real substance of A Canticle for Leibowitz is less the bare story, but rather Miller’s sensitivity to the nuances and paradoxes that accompany his tale at every turn.

His life was part of the paradox. Miller was a radio operator and tail gunner during World War II. He participated in 55 combat sorties, including the 1944 mission that destroyed the oldest monastery in the Western world, the Benedictine abbey at Monte Casino, founded in 529. Was Miller a war hero? Or was he a villain who toppled a cherished monument of European culture? Or perhaps a bit of both? Clearly Miller’s work on this book was his way of wrestling with these very issues.

Twenty years after Miller wrote his book, Michel Foucault sensitized academics to the murky relation of knowledge and power, and the ways the latter often hides behind the screen of the former. Yet few novels explore this matter with as much sensitivity and irony as Miller brings to play in A Canticle for Leibowitz. Here are big questions for musing. What responsibility does faith have towards the intellect, and vice versa? Are the two, as Thomists would suggest, ultimately compatible and complementary, or do they inevitably enter into a battle for supremacy? Above all, why preserve the learning that led a previous civilization to destroy itself? Or, to put it on a more personal level, what should our attitude be toward knowledge that might destroy even a single individual?

No, these are not typical subjects for a sci-fi novel. Or even for literary fiction these days. But Walter M. Miller is not your typical writer. You can find that out for yourself. But you will need to read beyond the opening sentence.

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About Ted Gioia

  • Jordan Richardson

    Such a great book! Glad to see it getting some attention here.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    I did read beyond the opening sentence – many years ago. Upon rereading the book several times (Miller was a great writer), it seemed a fundamentally Catholic book, dealing with fundamentally Catholic themes – cloaked in how Catholicism goes wrong and is unable to save the world from a second nuclear holocaust, let alone a first one.

  • Dori

    Thank you for reminding me of this book that I loved in the 80’s. I will try to purchase it for my nephew.

  • bliffle

    Man, it must be a hundred years ago that I read this book. Back when i was reading SciFi. But I remember enjoying it, peculiar as it was. I got a kick out of archeologists misinterpreting common store signs as mystical religious texts.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Cannonball Jones

    I just finished the book and was browsing the net looking for other peoples’ appraisals when I came across your review. Nice job!

    It’s not often I enjoy a book so much when I so vehemently disagree with the views of the central characters (assuming they’re being portrayed sympathetically). Normally the dialogues concerning euthanasia would have had me tearing my hair out and screaming in defence of the doctor but Miller handled it particularly well. Knowing that he eventually took his own life adds a whole new perspective to this.

  • http://space4commerce.blogspot.com Brian Dunbar

    I note with interest that it is now August of 2009 and we have yet to see Mr. Mason’s promised comprehensive review.

    P’haps he bogged down in the second paragraph.

  • paai

    I first read the book in… 1971 I think, in a kind of students edition with questions and assignments. The cover had a still from Bergmans ‘The seventh seal’ on it (death), which was much more effective than the other covers I have seen.

    I read it every three or four years again.

    Paai