Monasticism and the Redemption of Walter Miller, Jr. in A Canticle for Leibowitz
Stalking the skies high above Monte Cassino, the famed monastery of St. Benedict, at the height of the Second World War, Allied bombers released a devastating barrage that destroyed the spiritual redoubt of the founder of Western monasticism. Somewhere in the dark of that night, February 15, 1944, Walter M. Miller, Jr. served as a radio operator and tail gunner aboard an American bomber. What he witnessed haunted him for the rest of his life. It is this experience that led Miller to pen his greatest work of fiction, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Although firmly situated in the pantheon of science fiction classics, Canticle transcends the genre. A dystopian tale of the far future, it is at once a work of post-apocalyptic fiction employing familiar science fiction themes, and a work of profound religious insight. Walker Percy, fellow Southerner and Catholic, argued that “the peculiar merit of this novel is traceable to virtues which are both subliterary and transliterary.” Indeed, so great was his admiration, so precise his assessment, that Percy claimed Canticle was of “more moment” than Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World even though he declined to rank it as a masterpiece of literature.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is haunted by Miller’s complicity in the destruction of Monte Cassino, but it is also hallowed by it. Miller himself was unaware of the residue of this regret while writing Canticle until well into the third part of the book. In recalling this moment of insight he said, “I was writing the first version of the scene where Zerchi lies half buried in the rubble. Then a light bulb came on over my head: ‘Good God, is this the abbey at Monte Cassino? . . . What have I been writing?’” There is something of fictional atonement here. Whether Miller intended it or not, Canticle immortalized the spirit of Monte Cassino in the human imagination.
To be sure, Miller isn’t the only writer to have attempted a work of fiction as an exorcism of the demons of wartime experience. Even within the science fiction genre, he is in good company. Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five, impelled by his experience during the fire bombing of Dresden, and Joe Haldeman published The Forever War, born of his tour in Vietnam. Both are potent reminders of the human cost of war, but it is Miller who surveys the spiritual topography of temporal devastation. He chooses to do so most strikingly, and most originally, through a fictional community of monks. In A Canticle for Leibowitz and his posthumously published follow up, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, the action is dominated by members of the Albertian Order of St. Leibowitz.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is by any standard the better book. Divided into three novellas, it is the tale of a monastery in the scorched and scarred desert of Utah. The first novella, Fiat Homo, takes place six centuries after the Flame Deluge. The monastery and the order were founded on the blessed memory of Isaac Edward Leibowitz, a Jewish scientist at the atomic facility of Los Alamos. Following the nuclear devastation, a popular reaction against all types of learning and scientific knowledge led to the martyrdom of Leibowitz. The monks of the abbey preserve what little remains of the Memorabilia, Leibowitz’s writings and work. In a rather humorous sequence of events, a novice named Francis discovers a fallout shelter believed to be that of the Blessed Leibowitz. The find leads to the canonization of the order’s founder and to the demise of the hapless Francis.
The second novella, Fiat Lux, is set several hundred years after Fiat Homo and a millennium after the nuclear catastrophe. The story centers on a visit to the monastery by one Thon Taddeo, a great scholar of a secular kingdom. The mass rejection of learning after the Flame Deluge has eventually given way to the beginning of a new era of human discovery and advancement. Thon Taddeo, a leading figure in this enlightenment, comes to the monastery to study the repository of books and papers in the hopes of finding lost gems of human thought amidst the collected rubble of the past. The Abbot is wary of Thon Taddeo’s motive since Thon’s secular patron is aggressively seeking conquest, and the specter of another conflagration looms over human gains in science and technology. Though the middle part of the book is thin on action, it features an excellent debate between the Abbot and Thon Taddeo about human progress without concomitant advances in virtue governing the use of science and technology.
The concluding novella, Fiat Voluntas Tua, is set even further in the future in a world once again visited by nuclear war (“Lucifer has fallen!”). Space travel is common and represents Abbot Zerchi’s last hope for the survival of the order. A detachment of monks is chosen to travel with the Memorabilia to Alpha Centauri in the hope of perpetuating the order and all mankind. The monastery is ultimately destroyed in the ensuing nuclear war, and the reader clearly sees human folly still on the march while ever present vultures lurk overhead.
In Canticle and its follow-up, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, monks are in the center of the action. But only in the former does Miller transcend genre and achieve something on the level of a master work of speculative fiction. He explores the human condition, amid the great stress of civilizational decline, and the tension inherent in a monastic order that is very much in the world but not of the world. Perhaps the greatest thread of continuity in the three novellas is the presence of the Church. Miller, a convert to Catholicism, recognized the other worldly permanence of the Catholic Church in a world consumed by hubris and total war.
Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, a sequel in name only (the setting and characters are similar, but the narrative departs in a decidedly less significant direction than in Canticle), struggles to get beyond the trappings of the former. It is a book that sadly, like most of Miller’s short stories, can go unread except by science fiction scholars and diehard readers who obey the rule of authorial completeness.
In both works, Miller’s monks bear the most resemblance to the Benedictine Order, and not least because of Miller’s adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict as a structural component of the narrative. Still, there is something of Carthusian austerity about the novices’ Lenten fast in the desert and a definite Cistercian quality to the communal life and daily work of the cloistered monks of St. Leibowitz. But it is the dedication of the monks to learning and its preservation in Canticle that distinguishes. This particular monastic mission figures prominently in Benedictine history as well as the tumultuous centuries of the early middle ages. By no means did they act alone but when one considers the great centers of early monastic learning, the Benedictine abbeys of Cluny and Monte Cassino rank at the top.
The fictional monastery of St. Leibowitz quite intentionally resembles Monte Cassino, a rocky hill seventeen miles from Naples between the regions of Lazio and Terra di Lavoro, which has long had the twin advantages of a spiritual and military fortification. At various times throughout its history it has served both purposes. These conflicting purposes, combined with the inevitable juxtaposition of temporal fragility and spiritual indestructability, are captured in Miller’s second novella in Canticle. The Monastery of St. Leibowitz, located in the desolate wastes of Utah, is likewise of great strategic importance for the contending powers of the day, Texarkana and Denver. One of the conflicts of the second novella centers around the abbot of St Leibowitz trying to keep the monastery from being commandeered as a base by Texark forces.
Unlike the fictional monastery of St. Leibowitz, Monte Cassino was rebuilt after its destruction. Following the Second World War, the monastery rose again just as it had after successive sackings by the Lombards, Saracens, and Napoleon. It also rose again in Walter Miller’s subconscious mind. Even though the monastery of St. Leibowitz is destroyed at the end of the novel, it attains a permanent foundation in the reader’s imagination. The book has aged well and still resonates. Novelist Mary Doria Russell writes of Canticle, “I am sufficiently fed up with my species to share Walter Miller’s resigned amusement at this bleeding world, which would surely convince sentient vultures that God created it for them. Call that cynicism, if you like. I call it accuracy.”
While Miller’s narrative focuses on a coenobitic order of monks, his personal life betrayed an eremitic impulse. Following the success of A Canticle for Leibowitz in 1959 (the book has sold more than two million copies and has never gone out of print), Miller lived a reclusive existence in Florida. Terry Bisson, a science fiction author and the writer responsible for finishing Miller’s second novel, never met him. Pat Congdon, longtime agent for Walter Miller, Ray Bradbury, and William Styron, also claims never to have met Miller. He suffered from decades of depression and, as fellow author Joe Haldeman claimed, a case of post-traumatic stress disorder. Miller committed suicide in 1996.
In his essay “Rediscovering A Canticle for Leibowitz,” Walker Percy describes Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s novel as a “cipher, a coded message, a book in a strange language.” Based on his experience, Percy “learned that passing the book along to a friend is like handing the New York Times to a fellow passenger on the Orient Express: either he will get it altogether or he altogether won’t.” Anyone who has read this book is likely to affirm Percy’s description. For those of us who get it, it is a book that is impossible to forget.
Timothy D. Lusch is an attorney and writer. His work has appeared in Crisis, New Oxford Review, and New English Review. He blogs at www.pityitspithy.com.