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conceptual
fiction
A Canticle for Leibowitz

by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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
(whom 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. Indeed,
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 former, 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 thematic element 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.
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute


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