April 15, 2010

SECOND VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST:

An Augustinian Wasteland: A Canticle for Leibowitz Fifty Years Later (Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, April 15, 2010, Ignatius Insight)

Walter Miller served as a tail gunner on a bomber during the Italian campaign in World War II. His bombing group, in part, aided in the destruction of Monte Cassino, the oldest monastery in the Western world. The destruction of this Benedictine institution haunted Miller, and after the war he found himself drawn not only to the study of Western Civilization and its preservation, but, more importantly, to the endurance and significance of the Roman Catholic Church as a protective institution. Probably to the chagrin of many of those around him, Miller converted in 1947, shortly after his marriage. He explored many of the ideas of Roman Catholic theology in his many short stories written during the 1950s. As it turned out, this decade proved to be Miller's Golden Age, an age that he spent much of his remaining adult life trying to recapture but unsuccessfully so. In the mid-to-late 1990s, frustrated with God knows what and taunted by who knows what, Miller took his own life. Another author completed Miller's unfinished sequel, St. Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman. This second book takes place during the second of the three eras featured in Canticle, roughly 1,200 years after the atomic war of 1960.

Numerous readings of Canticle for Leibowitz have left me with this: it is a complicated, nuanced, and perplexing novel, a mystery to be enjoyed, time and again, never to be solved. Set in the Intermountain Desert West in the futureless United States of America, A Canticle for Leibowitz offers a vibrant image of a desiccated human culture and a desiccated human politics, an irradiated landscape, and an inevitably dark and shameful future. As with some of its contemporaneous fiction—such as Ayn Rand's much less earnest Atlas Shrugged—Canticle for Leibowitz offers great insight into the nature and power of ideas, set in a dystopian world. While Rand, by far better known in popular culture and in book sales, possesses a stunning power to plot an intricate plot, she cannot match Miller in character development or writing style. As an example of one beautiful sentence: "The water was clouded and live with creeping uncertainties as was the Old Jew's stream of memory" (p. 167). [...]

In the beginning of Canticle, set roughly five-and-a-half centuries from now, a wandering Jew throws pebbles at a confused and seemingly not-so-bright monk, Brother Francis. When the confused Catholic, led by the hand of the perturbed Jew, discovers an underground tavern, office, and bunker, he finds what he considers holy relics: a shopping list, some blueprints, and the body of a dead woman. This encounter, shaped from its beginning by the will and observation of the Jew, starts the cycle of civilization, corruption, decay, and death all over again.

Throughout the novel, the cycles of civilization revolve around two points: 1) the wandering Jew; and 2) the monastery.

The question Miller asks the reader and himself: can man escape Original Sin? Or, will man, doomed, carry it wherever he goes, whether it be into the American West or into the new frontier of space? And, if so, can man do anything by his own will to attenuate the great evils of which he is not only so capable, but seemingly so desirous?

Throughout the novel, Miller asks us and himself some of the most important questions to be asked by any person at any time. What is the human person? How does one man recognize the dignity of another man?

Few theologians whose belief in Hell had never failed them would deprive their God of recourse to any form of temporal punishment, but for men to take it upon themselves to judge any creature born of woman to be lacking in the divine image was to usurp the privilege of Heaven. Even the idiot which seems less gifted than a dog, or a pig, or a goat, shall, if born of woman, be called an immortal soul, thundered the magisterium, and thundered it again and again. (p. 98)



Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2010 6:03 AM
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