Posted in canticle for leibowitz, discussion, science fiction

October 2006: A Canticle for Leibowitz.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, the 1959 award-winning sci-fi book by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is the first selection for The Librarium book blog. It might seem a bit of a leap for an introductory selection, but the book, broken into three parts, strikes that odd and perfect balance of humor with an undercurrent of darkness. The edition of the book I use later in my reference to quotes with specific page numbers is this one.

First off, don’t let the classification of science fiction turn you away from the book, nor the seemingly slow beginning. What Miller manages to do with this story that spans several hundred years of post-nuclear war civilization in Southwestern United States is use symbolism and imagery to make a broad statement about the unfortunate cyclical nature of humanity. He touches on faith, government, the pursuit of knowledge and the locked nature of human nature.

I have a few questions and quotes that I wrote down while reading the book myself that I will include here as a kind of jumping-off point. There are also links to outside sources that you might want to consider. After you have read the book, please join us for discussion in the comments section of this post. Feel free to note quotes and excerpts, as well as additional questions, that you think important to include in the discussion.

Discussion questions:

  1. What is this book saying about faith? Is it easily misplaced? Or, even if it is, is it a necessary force against both barbarism and over-ambitious human intellectual endeavors?
  2. Are humans truly locked in inevitable destructive cycles? Is this the true price of sin, if you have such beliefs?
  3. Is the preservation of knowledge truly capable of stopping history from repeating itself? Can anything stop history from repeating itself?
  4. Is the pursuit of knowledge amoral and/or apolitical? Is it a consequence of free pursuit? (page 220-221)
  5. Who is the “Lazarus” beggar character? What/who does he represent and what is his purpose in the story? Is he merely a foil?
  6. What is the purpose of the frequent use of buzzards in the story? What do they represent? Why does Miller use them so much?

Quotes and passages of interest from the book:

  1. (p 221-222) “If you save wisdom until the world is wise, the world will never have it.”
  2. (p 228-229) The discussion on how each new age has an “intelligent” explanation for the origins of the world that “clearly” show the silliness of religion is very pointed and accurate in its perception of how foolishly wise humans think themselves to be.
  3. (p 234) “But why must it all be acted again? The answer was near at hand; there was still the serpent whispering.” (I found the use of the serpent, not a serpent, to be interesting.)
  4. (p 297) “Pain’s the only evil I know about. […] society is the only thing which determines whether an act is wrong or not.” […] “How did those two heresies get back into the world after all this time? Hell has limited imaginations down there.”
  5. (p 298) “Sincere — that was the hell of it. […] Perhaps Satan was the sincerest of the lot.”
  6. (p 213) The description of the “Jesus” statue is particularly startling.
  7. (p 326) “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. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

Outside Links: Read about the book

Outside Links: Discussion



Artist, writer, and pilot. Consumer of oxygen.

6 thoughts on “October 2006: A Canticle for Leibowitz.

  1. Of all the complex things there are to talk about in this book, the one thing I keep mulling over is the buzzards.

    I don’t know why this is. They could symbolize a gazillion things or mean nothing at all. I constantly visualize them…

    What’s with the buzzards, I wonder.

  2. I think the buzzards symbolized death. Very simply put. I know, rather boring also…
    But…they are a symbolization of several deaths…the death of a world that once was, the death of reason, familiarity, etc.
    And they were something to fear. When poor Francis would look into the sky…I wonder if he judged his own life on how close those buzzards were…the closer they loomed the sooner death would be at his door.

  3. Forgive me – I’m a little late to the party.

    I have read in many places that the final third of the book (Fiat Voluntas Tua) is the weakest, but I find it the most relevant. I found myself dreading Father Zerchi’s trip into town with the terminally ill woman and child because I knew it would end in spiritual and physical tragedy.

    The description of the Jesus statue hit me hard. Since reading Canticle, I have started Philip Yancey’s “The Jesus I Never Knew.” The statue reminds me of the pasty, effeminate Jesus of iconography that Yancey describes. This Jesus is a mother figure, a non-judgmental comforter who echos the doctor’s “Pain’s the only evil I know about.” Perhaps this conception of Jesus is the true antichrist. This Jesus would have us cocoon ourselves our comfortable houses, drive our comfortable cars, and live a life of pleasure. If the only true evil is pain, then the only true good is pleasure.

    I’ve seen this evil reflected in many first-world countries. From Western Europe to Japan, to the USA, people are fat and happy. But this comfort only leads to deeper problems. While we have somehow avoided nuclear holocaust, abortion is common and accepted as a humane alternative to forcing a woman to bear a child. Where pain is the only evil, there is no debate about using discarded human embryos for medical research. It’s unlikely that these embryos ever felt pain, and so many are suffering from debilitating diseases that might be cured by this experimentation.

    More insidious is our cavalier attitude toward sexuality. We treat sex like defecation, as if promscuity is as inevitable as moving our bowels. There’s no reason to prevent it, and teaching against it is unhealthy and misguided.

    Most insidious, and damaging, I think, is our materialism. Jesus said “no man can serve two masters.” I believe our moral lapses are rooted in our comfort- in the love of money. Money, which is comfort, becomes our idol. And this idolatry is just as prevalent in the church as in the world. We have the “health, wealth, and prosperity” movement which serves to turn God into an ATM. Outside of this movement, church giving is pitiful – nowhere near a tithe. Christians think nothing of borrowing $30,000 to buy a new car, but making a pledge their church for that amount over 3 – 5 years would be unthinkable.

    What does this have to do with Canticle? It’s the idolatry of comfort. It’s expressed starkly in the final third, when a young mother has to make the choice beetween a “humane” or awful death for herself and her child. Satan may yet blast us with nuclear weapons, but his idolatry is much more successful at causing us to forget the true Jesus and replace him with money, which in our world, means comfort.

    The statue of Jesus at the Green Star station is relevant to us today, even though we don’t face a choice of suicide or dying of radiation poisoning. We face a life with money and comfort as our god, and a posty, impotent Jesus to sooth our consciences.

  4. The part of the book that struck me most was where the young man was asked to lead the group which would fly to another solar system to start the new colony. His decision had to be made quickly, and his dilemma was whether it was enough that God believed in him or whether he needed to believe in himself. His issue is a problem we all face when asked to reach beyond our comfort zone or our box to undertake a new adventure or task. Are we good enough? Are we strong enough? Will we fail? What if we succeed? Is it enough that God or people around us have faith in us? Or do we wait until we have our own inner strength?

    I loved this book. It had so many “truths” to it. And even more amazing was that it was written in 1959, yet so relevant to so many situations in our world today.

    You have to admit that it is funny how after the world is destroyed by nuclear war, the only things to survive are illiteracy and the Catholic church. (Well, as a church worker, I find that funny…maybe I have an odd sense of humor, though.)

    I will post again next week. We are discussing this book in our “live” book club and I’ll write about some of the comments.

    Sarah Raymond

  5. We had a great discussion with this book. First, we all agreed that we would not have picked it up without Julie giving it as our book selection.

    Second, no one hated it. Some even loved it. Most found some of it going over our heads, but there were also a lot of great things to discuss.

    For example, we had a long talk about who we thought Rachel was (the head on Mrs. Grales shoulder). I just thought she represented innocence, but my Catholic friends pointed out that the only woman to be without original sin (and thus not needing baptism) was Mary. They think Rachel was Mary.

    We also talked about the buzzards. I felt they represented death. Everyone else thought they represented pure evil. When someone is overcome by life and its struggles, evil comes in to completely overwhelm them or they can fight it off. (Catholic reference again?)

    I also loved a couple quotes from the book…
    p. 216 “It (the world) never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser until the very last day.”

    And p. 217 “Why do you wish to discredit the past, even to dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer,’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?”

    We also discussed “Lazarus” the beggar and most thought it was Leibowitz recurring in the book. We didn’t think he was a foil, but essential to the plot direction. i.e. discovering the fallout shelter.

    I’d love to hear more comments from everyone.

  6. Having read Canticle twice now, I still find it hard to put my words about the book down in writing, but here goes.

    Concerning the issue of faith, I wonder what Miller thought about religion and faith. On the one hand it seems that the monastery served much the same purpose as monasteries did in the dark ages – as repositories for knowledge. In this way, they are to be commended for the work they did/do, even in Canticle. On the other hand, it is amazing how the “church” in Canticle seems to abandon some of the traditional elements of the faith and make a saint out of someone who was probably a non-observant Jew. Is this an intentional slap at the Church and/or faith? Is it a comment about the “superstitious” nature of religion. I can’t help but believe it is.

    I believe that Miller is a firm believer in the cyclical nature of human existence, particularly our tendency to repeat our more destructive behaviors. This is part of what it means to be human, and no amount of learning from the past can prevent our repeating its mistakes. In this vein, the buzzards in the story not only serve as symbols of death, but also as a symbol of the “circle of life”- birth, life, death, rebirth, life, etc…. I believe it was their use at the end of the first and second parts of Canticle that led me to think this.

    Concerning Lazarus, it was intriguing for me to think of this character as actually being the Lazarus of scripture. That after his being raised from the dead, Lazarus never again died. I would imagine that his tired worn-out old carcass is still around even after the second nuclear holocaust at the end of Canticle. He also serves as a bit of comic relief in the novel, interjecting at times some measure of humor and sarcasm is a community (the monastery) that takes its mission a little too seriously.

    As for the pursuit of knowledge, I think that Miller is stating something I (and many others) have long believed: that human knowledge far outstrips our ability to deal with it in moral or ethical ways. This is true especially of technical and medical advances in knowledge. The current debate about stem-cell research is one area that we see this, and I often think that our ability to provide child-less couples with opportunities for birth children (something that most religions, and even some evangelical Christian communities, accept)shows us that we do not fully consider the moral/ethical dilemmas that such an advance inevitably brings with it (for instance, what do we do with all those frozen embryos).

    Finally, Canticle reminded me of the biblical book Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, all is vanity.”

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