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a canticle for leibowitz


The day after my 14th birthday, because it was then legal, I went to work. I have had one or more jobs constantly every since, except for three short periods (of two to four weeks) when I’ve moved to a new state. So this summer, my first summer as a full-time teacher, has been my first summer “off” in 27 years.

The absurd luxury—when so many of us get two weeks of paid vacation per year (the equivalent of working 26 years for one year off) or nothing at all—of having ten weeks without having to work is not lost on me. I have been basking in it, reveling. The time to think and read and just be with myself has been invaluable; it makes me wonder how we, as a society, let ourselves become so work-centered, so “productive.”

With all this time it is perhaps not surprising that this has been a summer of ideas that were originally with me in my teens and twenties, but about which I have not often thought in the crush of “adult” responsibility (Edward Abbey called these responsibilities—relationships, children, job, mortgage, etc.—“the whole catastrophe”). The most recent of these ideas has been my preoccupation with whether human experience exists outside of the words we say to ourselves and others (see el hacedor and/or lunaception and redheads).

At the risk of substantiating a charge of onanism, I turn now to the question of whether people, say scientists and engineers, creating new ideas and technologies have responsibility for the use of those creations, say the atomic bomb. There are other examples, but this is one of the classics. It’s a debate about whether knowledge is worth pursuing, no matter the consequences. Speaking only for myself, ignorance is not bliss; it may be a different matter on the societal level.

This question, among others, is addressed in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s 1961 Hugo Award-winning A Canticle for Leibowitz. Using clean, sharp prose, Miller tells three linked stories (the first one is the tightest) spanning over 1200 years; his vision of a world and civilization starting over after nuclear war has its origin in the cold war milieu, when the end of the world seemed imminent. Bomb shelters were built. Fallout drills were performed by school children, cowering under their desks as if the steel and formica and paper and pencils would somehow protect them from uranium.

Miller populates his post-apocalyptic future with warring tribes, radiation-mutated outlaws, desiccated hermits, and a catholic church trying to do what it’s always done: proselytize, consolidate power, enforce its rule, preserve literacy, and, most importantly, survive. The titular Leibowitz is among the scientists who made the nuclear conflagration possible; he then, legend has it, saw the error of his ways and tried to save as much of civilization and its knowledge as possible from the roaming hordes of self-proclaimed Simpletons—anti-intellectuals who burned all evidence of learning, animate or not. Leibowitz becomes a martyr to the cause and a monastic order is founded in his name to protect what’s left.

Miller was a WWII vet and I assume he saw war first hand. Perhaps it was that experience that led him to write this novel, his only novel published while he still lived (he died in 1996). His vision of human kind is not optimistic. He leaves unanswered the question of whether to search for knowledge of the world, knowledge that may make life easier, despite the danger it potentially poses. And as usual, it is not knowledge itself that is dangerous; it is the uses to which some of us will put that knowledge; a gun or even a knitting needle is not harmful unless someone uses it for harm. But Miller’s opinion of society’s potential is clear: “If you try to save the wisdom until the world is wise, . . . the world will never have it.” Further, he ridicules hope as the balm of ignorance:

The closer men [sic] came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they—this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness.

Thus, Miller doesn’t answer his question because he doesn’t think it matters—we are doomed in any case, neither because of nor despite our big ideas. Either we will perpetually live in suffering, pain, and ignorance or we will destroy ourselves over and over, like children with matches and firecrackers they can’t bear to leave unlit.



  1. jd2718 says:

    So I’m trying to figure out why this guy who writes so little during the year has been posting so regularly.

    From 16 on I worked, except for one extended period of unemployment, until I lost my summer school gig 3 years ago, and, well, yeah. I’ll keep these 10 weeks free for the rest of my career.

    The summer off is when I read, and I devour books. Not novels, but where we come from and where we are going. I’m currently reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, and I daresay that the themes are not totally unrelated.

  2. halshop says:

    I admire Diamond’s work, though I have yet to read a whole book of his. I have no doubt that he is addressing some of the same questions as Miller.

  3. SB says:

    Hello Hal, as a reply that only marginally has to do with this post: I definitely believe at least 1/2 of you could enjoy Swiss bakeries and the benefits of neatness regardless of shower patterns all summer vacation long. I cannot speak to the other half of you, however.

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