A Canticle For Leibowitz - Or: How We Learned To Love The BombSunday, February 04, 2007
Howard Houston in Texas and I have been discussing Edward Rutherfurd's novel Sarum particularly its section on Roman Britain. Howard is most interested in things Roman and in his last communication he wrote:
"One of the things that I found most interesting about Sarum was the tracing of the one family (the first Roman landowners) who managed to stay the leading family in the area for going on a millennia. That a society as advanced as that of the Romans could be brought down to the point that basics like how to make concrete were lost for 1000 years is a warning to us today. "
That set me to thinking about a novel that is one of my favourites and which I first read while boarding at St. Edward’s High School at Austin, Texas. The novel is Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz. I read its sequel, Saint Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman in 1997 when it came out. At about the same time I read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Those three books and Howard’s communication have lead to this:
And the story said how Dr. Teller feared the immediate effects of the blast at his viewing site twenty miles from zero point and how he decided it might be helpful to apply sun tan lotion to his face.
--Don De Lillo, Underworld, 1997
“Te absolvat Dominus Jesus Christus: ego autem eius acutoritate te absolve ab omni vinculo…..” before he had finished, a light was shining through the thick curtains of the confessional door. The light grew brighter and brighter until the booth was full of bright noon. The curtain began to smoke.
---Walter M. Miller Jr. , A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1959
Sometime in 1960, in a neo-Gothic chapel at St. Edward’s High School in Austin, Texas (Illustration above by H.N.Pharr II from the inside cover of the 1961 Edwardian), monks of the Catholic Order of the Holy Cross and their wards were chanting the Tantum Ergo. The evening’s benediction was interrupted by air-raid sirens that echoed off the walls and the high ceiling. At Bergstrom, the nearby Strategic Air Command base, B-52D bombers with atom bombs on board took off. We were herded into the basement shelter. Brother Peter Celestine C.S.C. said to us, “Sursum corda; oremus.”
To those of us who lived the day-to-day fear of mass vaporization during the dawn of the Atomic Age and the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis, the ultimate pean to nuclear destruction was Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. This 1959 science-fiction novel peppered with untranslated Church Latin – about monks who lovingly preserves the remnants of our 20th century civilization, including a delicatessen shopping list by a Jewish nuclear scientist’s wife – has never been out of print. In 1997 Miller’s posthumous Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman (Miller committed suicide in 1996) is a sequel of sorts. Both it and Don DeLillo’s Underworld are about Americans coping with nuclear war – in the former, with the actual aftermath of such a war, and in the latter, with the terrible fear of the spectre of such a war created.
Today the fear of A Canticle for Leibowitz ‘s “Flame Deluge”is gone. The Berlin Wall is dust and Mikhail Gorbachev filmed a commercial endorsement for Pizza Hut, before sinking into oblivion. Martin Amis called Underworld “Don DeLillo’s wake for the cold war.” Now that Bacillus anthracis is our weapon of mass destruction of choice, some of us might find an odd comfort in the familiarity of the nuclear blast and its fallout. But it all seems like many lifetimes ago, now. I would not be surprised if any contemporary reader of Underworld might not understand a number of DeLillo’s Cold War references, such as, “He stood looking at the strontium white loaf that sat on a bed of lettuce inside a cake pan in the middle of the table.”
For those like myself who have been rereading A Canticle every few years its sequel (not really a sequel, as it fits in between Canticle’s Chapter 1, “Fiat Homo”, and Chapter 3, “Fiat Voluntas Tua”) and DeLillo’s Underworld brings more of that comforting, familiar stuff. It’s kind of like seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show again. But just as we cannot ignore the Dakota, we can’t read DeLillo’s “Clyde Tolson, known as Junior, was Edgar’s staunchest aide in the Bureau [FBI] his dearest friend and inseparable companion” without knowing what’s coming. And that is the loss of innocence – the end of an era when G-men, the good guys battled crime, and criminals who had a face. Underworld is about what happened to Americans when the Russians exploded their own bomb and how the wonder of Kelvinators, Cinemascope movies, and Ford-O–Matic drive could not take away the fear of an unknown, the static beeping fo that Russian grapefruit, Sputnik. Underworld is more thematically fuelled than plot-driven, and it is populated by myriad characters. There is no single protagonist, except, perhaps a baseball that changes hands several times over the course of the novel’s four decades.
In Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, Miller plunks us down in a 32nd century post American Southwest where remnants of a previous post nuclear civilization, now horse-bound like Plains Indians, fight off the tightening control of the West by the Misery River Texark Empire while embroiled in numerous papal conclaves. We get to meet all kinds of unlikely popes, who die off with more regularity than victims in a serial-murder novel, while realizing that this future, with its papal schisms, interdicts, and marauding warlords, is no different from our own Avignon past. The Borgias would have relished this book.
Saint Leibowitz gives us delicious glimpses of what might happen in the future, such as the rediscovery of “electrical essence” and its first use (by means of a people-driven dynamo), not for lighting, but for the dispatching of criminals in an electric chair. There is an interesting parallel in Underworld. During the 70s, in a scary Bronx neighbourhood that could be a Leibowitzian ground-zero (when that word meant something that it no longer means to those who have lived 9-11), I read about a little kid seated on a stationary bike and pedaling frantically – but not for exercise. The bike is linked to a Second World War generator, and “there are cables running from the unit up to the TV and there is a wheezing drive belt connecting the the generator to the bicycle… the generator ekes out a flow of electricity to the television set – a brave beat-up model that two other kids dug out fo the garbage pits, where it was layered in the geological age of leisure-time appliances.”
Both books are complex reads and backwards page-turners. You come upon sentences with a sense of déja vu, knowing you have already read them somewhere in an earlier chapter. Each novel makes good use of repetition techniques. Miller uses the recurring themes of buzzards and a seemingly immortal wandering Jew. In Underworld, some of the sentences and paragraphs reminded me of composer Steve Reich’s 1975 composition Six Pianos –deceptively simple and repetitive music that evolves into a mesmerizing pattern. DeLillo also manipulates time. He writes as if he were working with electronic hypertext rather than words fixed on paper. And he brings to his novel such apparently unrelated topics as garbage, B-52 bombers in the desert, a single famous baseball, a martinet nun, and Lenny Bruce. Only at the end do all of the links become manifest.
Miller, a decorated Second World War hero, was a gunner in the bombing of the Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino. Fittingly each chapter of Saint Leibovitz begins with one of Saint Benedict’s rules for monasteries. Chapter 20 begins, “We think it sufficient for the daily dinner, whether at the sixth or ninth hour, that every table have two cooked dishes, on account of individual infirmities, so that he who for some reason cannot eat of the one may make his meal of the other.” DeLillo’s Underworld is certainly fitting but in Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman I don’t see anything but a splendid dessert. That two course meal would have to include A Canticle For Leibowitz.
And Howard, if you happen to read this, none of the above mention Roman concrete.