A Canticle for Leibowitz

The current Faith ‘n Fiction Roundtable book is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. I read the book a few years ago and honestly didn’t feel like a re-read. So this post is what I wrote back then, edited to include some discussion points that came up as the other people in the group read the book.

I thought the book was . . . interesting. In some ways, the ideas were fascinating. The plot was somewhat outdated; published in 1959, the book posits a world decimated by nuclear war in which culture and literacy are preserved only by a small group of Catholic monks. And even the monks don’t understand half of what they’re preserving. The barbarians have taken over the world, and only a few isolated outposts of civilization remain. Near the end of the book, euthanasia is a major issue, and that section was startlingly relevant to contemporary culture.

Some questions brought up in this novel:

Is it possible for an entire culture to be destroyed or lost and then revived or regained?

Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible–that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true in only the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God’s and not Man’s, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection.

Is there meaning in suffering? Particularly, why do children suffer?

“I cannot understand a God who is pleased by my baby’s hurting!”
The priest winced. “No, no! It is not the pain that is pleasing to God, child. It is the soul’s endurance in faith and hope and love in spite of bodily afflictions that pleases Heaven. Pain is like negative temptation. God is not pleased by temptations that afflict the flesh; He is pleased when the soul rises above the temptation and says, ‘Go Satan.’ It’s the same with pain, which is often a temptation to despair, anger, loss of faith –”
“Save your breath, Father. I’m not complaining. The baby is. But the baby doesn’t understand your sermon. She can hurt, though. She can hurt, but she can’t understand.”

Maybe this book isn’t outdated at all. Maybe the barbarians are at the gates. Maybe we are danger of destroying ourselves and our culture either with our nuclear weapons or with our gene-tampering technologies or in some other way that I can’t foresee. Perhaps we are becoming so illiterate and TV-obsessed that the treasures of Western culture and of Christianity may only be preserved in isolated communities and homes. Or maybe the sky isn’t falling. It’s worth thinking about.

Several of the characters in A Canticle for Leibowitz seem to carry deep symbolic meaning but I’m not really sure what that meaning is. There’s a Mad Poet, who is either a prophet or a fool. And Benjamin the Old Jew of the Mountain who lives out in the desert alone, waiting for the Messiah, or waiting for something, is intriguing, but I can’t exactly tell you what his character is supposed to signify either. Some of my fellow readers thought he was Lazarus, and others thought he was drawn from the legend of the Wandering Jew. Then at the end of the novel there’s an old “tumater woman” with two heads. Is she significant or just odd? (The other FnF roundtable readers struggled with the meaning of the two-headed tumater woman, too.) My guess is that all these ambiguous characters are thrown in to hint at meaning, maybe to tease the reader. After all, the question that runs through the entire novel is that of whether life has any meaning at all. I think the novelist intends us to keep asking.

I did a little research and read that not only did Mr. Miller renounce his Catholicism later in life after the publication of A Canticle for Leibowitz, he also suffered from depression and finally committed suicide. It’s a sad ending, and it contradicts the hope inherent in A Canticle for Leibowitz. But the book also indicates that men are inconsistent at best.

More discussion at the following blogs participating in this round of Faith ‘n Fiction Roundtable:

  • Book Addiction
  • Book Hooked Blog
  • Books and Movies
  • Crazy-for-Books.com
  • Ignorant Historian
  • Linus’s Blanket
  • My Friend Amy
  • Roving Reads
  • The 3 Rs Blog // Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
  • Tina’s Book Reviews
  • Victorious Café
  • Word Lily
  • 4 thoughts on “A Canticle for Leibowitz

    1. I read “A Canticle for Leibowitz” more than 30 years ago. What stuck with me was the idea that — given a second chance — humanity will repeat the same mistakes it’s made before.

    2. Although this wasn’t a favorite read for me, it did bring up some great topics for discussion! I especially appreciated the passage on suffering you quoted above.

    3. I thought the book was surprisingly timely and relevant, especially given that it was written at the height of the Cold War, and it does continue to provoke good questions.

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