I took the book—published back in 1959—from my shelf on April Fool’s Day because I wanted to fulfill my requirement of reading at least one classic each month. More the fool I because I did not realize that I would be reading prophecy. Little did I know that it holds up nicely. The themes within its pages maintain relevance in today’s world.
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. held its place on my to-be-read list since I first read science fiction. Everything I read about it mentioned it in hushed awe, like when you whisper in a Gothic cathedral only to still have your voice reverberate and echo about the arches far overhead.
Whether the blurbs are from critics living back then or that were born—like me—after the book had already won the 1961 Hugo Award, they all seem to love it. The Toronto Sun says “is on every sensible list of the half-dozen great novels of the last half of [the twentieth] century.” The Library Journal calls it “An exciting and imaginative story” and “Unconditionally recommended.” But my favorite—because I find it most fitting—is from the New York Times when they call it “Angry, eloquent…A terrific story.
Miller joined the Army Air Corps a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a radio operator and tail gunner, he flew over fifty-five combat missions. On one such mission, the Benedictine abbey at Monte Casino was destroyed. After reading the novel, I wondered how much his participation in that mission must have picked at his soul like a carrion bird nibbling and digging at a dead animal lying on the side of the road. No spoilers. But after you have finished with it, remember that little bit of the author’s history.
Author Mary Doria Russell has a wonderful introduction, written in 2005, in the edition that I finally read. She has read the novel three times: first in 1968 when she was 18, next in 1998, and the third in 2005. She says she wondered at first whether it should be classified as fiction or as literature. She points out that she read it with a dictionary at hand because of the English, Latin, and Hebrew words the author used. She said, “Those of us who read with a dictionary at hand are frequently rewarded.” I did not have a dictionary. I did have Google Translate. She was right.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is literature. And it is classical literature at its best. It should sit in that special bookcase you have reserved for those books you want guests to look at when they come over for dinner. Those books that they stroke their chins, nodding, and say, “Hmm,” under their breath. Russell was told by her stepbrother Jack Provenzale that “literature changes you. When you’re done reading, you’re a different person.” She contends that Miller’s seminal work is literature. I go one step further and say it is pure classical literature.
How is it prophecy? Miller wrote the novel after witnessing the horrors of World War II firsthand. I do not think it is coincidence that the story takes place after a nuclear holocaust has nearly destroyed the human race. A war that occurred when someone in a room far from living with or seeing the intended victims ordered the attack. Remember, Miller was part of a bomber crew. They received their targets and never looked those that fell to their weapons in the eye. This takes on significant meaning in the final chapters of the novel.
The prophecies are things he mentioned and predicted for his post-apocalyptic world that occurs during the 32nd century and later. What he never knew was that many of those things have filled niches in today’s society of the 21st century.
I do not like to dogear pages because I was taught from a young age that a person must have a certain respect for the printed page. My mother would be haranguing me endlessly were she to have watched over my shoulder while I read the noel. I found myself marking pages I wanted to re-read or that I felt had significance in today’s world of pay-at-the-pump convenience and microwavable meals.
As I mentioned before, the book holds up well for our time. I did not read a book written over a decade before my birth that happened to get the occasional aspect nearly correct. Instead, I was reading a social commentary about the very world I find myself living in today, at this very moment.
Today, second-hand knowledge is king. People will live or die according to it. They will take it up as a noble cause and march to their deaths—or martyr the victims of their crusades in violent clashes—in order to defend something they personally have neither seen nor validated through repetition of processes and experiments. How ironic that the book centers around the Albertian Order of Liebowitz, a group of monks tasked with saving scientific knowledge for a world plunged into barbaric darkness.
In the book, the masses blamed science for their ills. As such, they sought to scour it from the face of the planet in a vast movement termed The Simplification. Miller wrote:
The Simplification had ceased to have plan or purpose soon after it began, and became an insane frenzy of mass murder and destruction such as can occur only when the last traces of social order are gone. The madness was transmitted to the children, taught as they were—not merely to forget—but to hate, and surges of mob fury recurred sporadically even through the fourth generation after the Deluge. By then, the fury was directed not against the learned, for there were none, but against the merely literate. —Miller, pg. 63.
Today, we have become victims of people taking up the crusade merely on the word of some celebrity or flash-in-the-pan expert that has an opinion. We measure ourselves and determine our worth by the number of followers we have on social media. Rather than developing identities for ourselves, we take on the mantle offered by others simply because we either like that person, or may happen to agree with them.
We take their cause as our own. We march out into the public domain and demand change, or status quo, or revolution, or constancy. Half the time when I ask someone why a certain path is taken, the ideas cannot be put into words. Passion and emotion rules where logic and reason would very likely be much more conducive to a peaceful life. The crusade just feels right. Miller called these people Simpletons.
I’m a simpleton! Are you a simpleton? We’ll build a town and we’ll name it Simple Town, because by then all the smart bastards that caused all this, they’ll be dead! Simpletons! Let’s go! This ought to show ‘em! Anybody here not a simpleton? Get the bastard, if there is! —Miller, pg. 63.
The book points out that the masses faced a terrible existence by not turning to reason and careful thought, rather they embraced emotion and mass movements driven by passion over logic. Those same sentiments are displayed regularly in our society. We are told what to think, how to react. Everywhere we look, we do not look for independence and reason. We look to see what our neighbor is doing. What is trending? Then we do it. Without thought. Without contemplation of whether its applications mean ill or good. Often without even knowing why or having a legitimate opinion.
Ignorance has been our king. Since the death of empire, he sits unchallenged on the throne of Man. His dynasty is age-old. His right to rule is now considered legitimate. Past sages have affirmed it. They did nothing to unseat him. —Miller, pg. 210.
Something may have happened back in the 1950s that left a bitter taste with the author. That’s not hard to imagine when he witnessed the destruction wrought by war—a war ended by a weapon that burned hotter than the sun, scorching shadows into the very earth, leaving a wasteland in which nothing could live.
Ignorance still reigns today. I hear so many people that take up cause after cause simply because someone else has. I hear that coal-powered electrical plants are bad. Why? Because I believe these people that say it is. I hear that nuclear power is cleaner and more efficient. Why? Because I believe these people that say it is. I believe red meat is bad. Why? Because I believe these people that say it is. I believe grass-fed red meat is good for you. Why? Because I believe these people that say it is. People believe, but they do not verify. They do not test the hypothesis.
The Order of Leibowitz had the sole task of preserving scientific knowledge. Their mission was to bring it back to the world when the people were ready for the responsibility. Hanging around since the 17th century is this principle called the scientific method. Today, I think people have forgotten it or how to apply it. Were the Order of Leibowitz around today, I fear that we do not possess the collective responsibility to be given the knowledge they kept.
Why? Because people react too much out of emotion. They say they follow this or that cause because of the emotional appeal to their sense of morality offered by a certain way of thinking. No one applies the scientific method. First, we observe and question. Second, we research and study the situation or problem. Third, we form a hypothesis. Fourth, we test that hypothesis through experimentation. Fifth, we study the results of our tests. Sixth, we report our conclusions, meaning that we come to a decision. Emotional connection to a cause, however, often means that the second, fourth, and fifth steps are missed. Instead, we see something, form an opinion about it, and then say it is good and just even though we have never tested it.
Miller must have observed something in the world around him that revealed to him everyone reacted not out of reason, but out of passion and emotion. He never says emotion, or even impassioned sentiment, is wrong. Emotion has its place in the world. The theme of the book merely points out that it should not be the ruling system, overpowering all others.
The world’s been in a habitual state of crisis since the beginning—but for half a century now, almost unbearable. And why, for the love of God? What is the fundamental irritant, the essence of the tension? Political philosophies? Economics? Population pressure? Disparity of culture and creed? Ask a dozen experts, get a dozen answers. —Miller, pg. 259.
That strikes me as an accurate description of today’s world. There is an expert for whatever path you choose. There is a cable program that will support any principle. There is a support group for any affliction that ails you. There is a term that has become synonymous with journalism in our modern world: If it bleeds, it leads. This keeps the hysteria hyped up. Scared people are easy to control.
The hysteria in which we find ourselves living is contrived. Based on our generation, political affiliation, economic standing, or educational background, we can find some news outlet that can tell us what to think, how to act, and which side to chose with just the few pushes of a button or swipes across a screen. Based on our choices, algorithms can be applied so that we don’t even have to see the other side. We go on living in this perpetuated perception with blinders on, rushing to-and-fro in a panic.
“Where’s the truth?” he asked quietly. “What’s to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder’s been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there’s no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is the bloodier…Why do they do it all again?” —Miller, pg. 279-280.
Exactly. Where is the truth? There are so many things that point in one direction. There are just as many that point you in the opposite. I sit here some days and shake my head at the absurdity of it all. I do not fear calling myself an anarchist. Yet it frustrates me at times to see friends and acquaintances from one side saying hurtful things about their opposition. Then it hurts me to see friends and acquaintances in that opposition believing hurtful things about the other side. All of them wonder why the other side cannot see reason when neither side has embraced logic and acts only out of the comfort provided by arguments that pertain to their own emotional or assumed moral stance.
And the way people react to each other and opposing thoughts or ideas has led to this ever-widening fissure between them. The possibility of a reunification grows less and less likely as people entertain only one train of thought—their own they have been directed toward.
The evil to which even you should have referred was not suffering, but the unreasoning fear of suffering…To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. —Miller, pg. 326.
No one likes to suffer. But we are built for it. We are made to cause suffering. From the moment we first come squealing into this world, we cause suffering and pain, discomfort. To the point of the novel, we have such an aversion to pain and suffering and discomfort that its avoidance becomes our only purpose. In other words, we forget to live.
Why don’t you forgive God for allowing pain? If He didn’t allow it, human courage, bravery, nobility, and self-sacrifice would all be meaningless things. —Miller, pg. 328.
Therein lies the gist of the matter. Miller’s novel points out to the world that it is so caught up in doing things a certain way, it forgets how to live. It is so interested in preventing pain and discomfort, it ends up causing those things. Why? Because the comfort for one person is the discomfort of another. Everyone is so certain their way is the only way, they fail to live.
Without sorrow, we can never truly appreciate joy. Without discomfort, we will never receive the full benefits of a lazy afternoon listening to the birds sing to one another while we swing back and forth in a hammock, counting the clouds as they pass by overhead. Without pain, we will never know rest. Without sickness, we can never appreciate health.
I sat down to read a classic post-apocalyptic science fiction novel and ended up reading a social commentary of the world around me, prophesied back in 1959 by Mr. Miller. Perhaps if I should read it again thirty years from now, it will have a different impact on me. Whether it does or not, I am certain that it will leave an impression. Of that, I have no doubt.
Miller, Jr., W. (1959). A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Eos. 2006 edition.