March 2011 Archives

Sobriquet 71.5

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I spent some time this afternoon and evening reading over three more essays dealing with Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz: Thomas P. Dunn's "To Play the Phoenix: Medieval Images and Cycles of Rebuilding in Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz," Thomas A. Hanzo's "The Past of Science Fiction," and David J. Tietge's "Priest, Professor, or Prophet: Discursive and Ethical Intersections in A Canticle for Leibowitz."

Of the three essays I read, Hanzo's devotes relatively little space to Miller's novel, but it does contain a rather nice discussion of the unique position into which the book's narrative structure places the reader, which I think is worth sharing:

As the material of the future, the past is rediscovered, repeated in a new key, and given a new emotional valuation. When we sit with Brother Francis Gerard outside Leibowitz Abbey, we are ready to assume the rules of the monastic order, but having already lived them as a part of the social and intellectual history of the West, we are also prepared to assume a critical, historical awareness of their development and decline. (138)

Interestingly, Tietge's essay also contains an insightful passage about the reader's relationship to A Canticle for Leibowitz:

Miller has constructed a possible future for humanity based on already existing social and historical conditions, using his present as a focal point that becomes incidental to the main narrative. While contemporary experiences necessarily provide the defining point of reference in this timeline (i.e., a nuclear war), this point is viewed from the past, present, and future simultaneously, giving the reader elements of familiarity from history and current events in a setting that is projected into the future. This technique allows Miller the freedom to construct contingencies in the direction of human destiny through the lens of many events that have already transpired, giving the reader a feeling of acquaintance with something that has not yet occurred. (684)

I find these two readings of Miller's novel to be among the better articulations of the novelist's uncanny ability to blend elements of speculative imagination with bits retrospective reflection into something both familiar and new.

Tietge's essay, though, is hardly limited to the discussion of this particular aspect of A Canticle for Leibowitz. Instead, the critic focuses on the various ways in which religion and science interact Miller's novel, especially through language. In particular, his discussion of language in the first third of the novel, Fiat Homo, is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and thought-provoking readings of the text I have come across.

Dunn's essay is notable for its rejection of the many pessimistic readings of A Canticle for Leibowitz, presenting a counter-view of the novel that is consistent with the quasi-Stoic philosophies underlying some of the world's imminent religions (which may be regarded as ironic considering the book's profoundly sensitive treatment of transcendent faith):

[T]here is another way to view cataclysm: nations and epochs of history, and even planets and starts, have their own "Arkos and Zerchi" or Alpha and Omega. We must not despair simply because we are seeing the death of a world: faith provides a final proof against despair, especially when the life cycle of a planet or of a society is viewed as analogous to our own life cycle, with which each of is, it is to be hoped, has come to some, at least, provisional terms. (112)

Indeed, Dunn continues, "[t]he end of society or even the end of a world is no more tragic than the end of each individual life" (113). Ultimately, though, Dunn's argument seems to be that we should not mourn the destruction of the world because "the world may never be ready to receive its saints, but in its very ugliness it makes a fine environment for their development" (113). In other words, humankind may cause its own downfall, but that downfall, in turn, can bring out the best in people.

Dunn's essay also contains one of the best reviews of the existing critical debates surrounding Miller's book.

Works Cited

Dunn, Thomas P. "To Play the Phoenix: Medieval Images and Cycles of Rebuilding in Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz." Phoenix From the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy). Ed. Carl B. Yoke. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. 105-115.

Hanzo, Thomas A. "The Past of Science Fiction." Bridges to Science Fiction. Eds George E. Slusser, George R. Guffey and Mark Rose. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1980. 131-146.

Tietge, David J. "Priest, Professor, or Prophet: Discursive and Ethical Intersections in A Canticle for Leibowitz." The Journal of Popular Culture 41.4 (2008): 676-693.
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Sobriquet 71.4

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My reading for this afternoon included two essays mentioning A Canticle for Leibowitz. Both Thomas Dunn's "The Deep Caves of Thought: Plato, Heinlein, and LeGuinn" and Andrew Pavelich's "After the End of the World: Critiques of Technology in Post-Apocalypse Literature" appeared in my recent search for Walter Miller-related material in the MLA International Bibliography database, but neither essay actually focuses on Miller's novel. In Dunn's essay, for instance, the critic limits his treatment of A Canticle for Leibowitz to a perfunctory identification as "[o]ne of the best known and most whimsical" examples of "those post-holocaust stories in which the past is a blank wall or a dark tunnel down which the light of history penetrates but a short distance" (107). Like Dunn, Pavelich incorporates a brief mention of A Canticle for Leibowitz into a much larger discussion of post-apocalyptic science fiction. Given the comparative brevity of Pavelich's discussion, the critic's reading of Miller's novel is, predictably, heavy on the plot summary. However, despite the lack of space Pavelich devotes to A Canticle for Leibowitz in his essay, the critic does make one of the more intriguing assertions I have yet encountered about the novel:  Since "[t]he history of science tells us that there is no such thing as the path of scientific development," Pavelich argues, "[t]he world of Saint Leibowitz ends up where it began (more of less) because history was intentionally guided that way by the church" (191). In other words, the Albertan Order of Leibowitz, in its noble attempt to save human knowledge from oblivion, nudges mankind right back onto the path of destruction mapped out in the inscrutable relics comprising the Memorabilia.

Works Cited

Dunn, Thomas. "The Deep Caves of Thought: Plato, Heinlein, and LeGuinn." SciFi in the Mind's Eye: Reading Science Through Science Fiction. Ed. Margret Grebowicz. Chicago: Open Court, 2007. 185-198.

Pavelich, Andrew.  "After the End of the World: Critiques of Technology in Post-Apocalypse Literature." Spectrum of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Sixth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy). Ed Donald Palumbo. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. 105-112.
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Sobriquet 71.3

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Douglas Texter's "Institutional Crisis: State and Scholar in Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz," despite the essay's title and its ostensible foci, adds relatively little to the critical discussions surrounding either novel. This is not to say that Texter's essay is not worth reading -- it most certainly is -- but it is much less about critically exploring The Glass Bead Game and A Canticle for Leibowitz than it is about charting "the relationship between political power and academic knowledge" (123). Curiously, for an essay claiming to "develop the argument of . . . William Spanos, who has noted that post-secondary institutions of education tend to erase their own historical and political roots," Texter's "Institutional Crisis" barely mentions -- and does not cite even once -- the postmodernist critic upon whose work the author claims his own study is built (123). Rather, Texter's essay seems considerably more indebted to Lewis Mumford than to any other theorist, though the general thrust of the essay -- that is to say, the critic's contention that the academy has always served state interests -- is consistent with Spanos's thinking.

Texter's reading of A Canticle for Leibowitz largely serves to illustrate his observations that "Big Science can only exist when the state, despite its protestations to the contrary, engages in inherently authoritarian projects" and that academics work in "collusion with authoritarian rulers," thereby absolving themselves of the moral obligations accompanying potentially dangerous experimentation and research (136). This "collusion, combined with a reductionist view of human beings, over-determines the direction of scientific development and leads science down a grand avenue that ends at the intersection of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (136). In other words, Texter's reading of Miller's novel is fairly standard: A Canticle for Leibowitz, in the critic's estimation, represents "a sharp critique of academic hubris" by depicting the destruction caused by a Cartesian view of technological advancement as inevitable (137). If technology's march is inevitable, the argument goes, advancement will occur without regard to humanity's (in)ability to responsibly wield the tremendous powers scientific discovery unleashes into the world. This mentality, especially when adopted by the Joseph Oppenheimers and Thon Taddeo Pfardentrotts of the world, can lead to annihilation because it allows the otherwise scrupulous intellectual to claim that he or she is merely a cog in the great Cartesian clockwork of human advancement: it is going to happen if I do it or not. This, of course, leads to if I don't do it, someone else will and, ultimately, to if I do it, it won't be my fault because it would have happened anyway. One need only replace "it" in the preceding sentences with "the Bomb" to see where this logic can take us, especially when legitimated (and enabled) by the state in the form of sponsored research and commissioned experimentation. Thus, scientists and scholars simply cannot view themselves as the tools of abstractions such the state or history or progress lest they risk enabling the destruction of humankind. Miller's novel, then, "criticize[s] systems of thought that claim to be comprehensive and universal but actually attempt to reduce the fundamental irreducibility of culture and human beings" (140).

Work Cited

Texter, Douglas W. "Institutional Crisis: State and Scholar in Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz." Extrapolation 49.1. (2008): 122-141.
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Sobriquet 71.2

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lamed-tsade.pngIn "SF Intertextuality: Hebrew Runes Among the Ruins in A Canticle for Leibowitz," the first of the two critical essays that I read this afternoon, Russell Hillier proposes that many readers of Walter M. Miller Jr.'s novel, like Brother Francis in the first section of the book, do not understand the significance of the lamed-tsade chalked onto the rock by the mysterious pilgrim in the novel's opening chapter. Just as the monks of the abbey of the Albertan Order of Leibowitz suspect that the pilgrim intends for the two Hebrew letters to suggest the "L" and "Z" bookending the surname of the eponymous founder of the order, Hillier maintains, readers are quick to notice (and accept as probable) the superficial suggestion of the letters. Despite this striking similarity (which, of course, may very well be part of the author's grand literary design), Hillier observes, the two letters may very well carry an entirely different significance. As the critic observes, lamed-tsade is "the Masoretic consonantal root of a Hebrew word" and not merely "an abbreviated form of 'Leibowitz'" (171). Furthermore, the critic continues, "[t]here is only one Hebrew word that uses lamed-tsade as its Masoretic consonantal root," a substitutive verb pronounced "lets," meaning "mocker" or "scorner" and carrying the additional connotation of "fool" (171). In placing the hourglass-shaped "mocker-stone" bearing the rune at the apex of his shelter, a project Hillier describes as "the first rationally constructive project in the book," Francis thereby becomes "the scorner of its chalked inscription" (172, 171, 172). Indeed, the stone is "Miller's satirical omen presaging the second nuclear apocalypse" and its roles as both the keystone of the young monk's creative project and the "cork" sealing the "Pandora's box of woes" buried in the fallout shelter endow the bit of rubble with tremendous symbolic value. Specifically, Hillier concludes, the stone "reminds us that the more humanity continues to overreach, the more it guarantees the means of its own destruction" (172-173). In other words, the stone mocks humanity as it struggles to lift itself out of the rubble of its own destruction, knowing full well that the very drive that leads man to emerge from the destruction will eventually cause more destruction. One can easily see the parallels between Old Benjamin and Hillier's interpretation of the stone.

The second essay I read, Frank David Klevitt's "Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz as Third Testament" comes from Robert Reilly's collection The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy (Contributions to the Study of Science Fiction and Fantasy). Unlike Hillier's comparatively dark reading of Miller's novel, Klevitt finds a modicum of optimism in the bleakest corners of the book. Taking a decidedly Christian stance, Klevitt considers A Canticle for Leibowitz to be a work of Christian prophesy in which Miller attempts to fashion a "'third testament' that interprets religious truth in a way that makes it more real and immediate" for modern man (169). Central to Klevitt's reading is the critic's understanding of the novel's "tripartite division," which he considers to be a deliberate echo of "the three traditional divisions of spiritual life" (173). The novel's three sections, Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, and Fiat Voluntas Tua, according to Klevitt, embody the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of the soul's journey towards God. Simultaneously, Klevitt asserts, "the structure of the novel recalls the quest of the Odysseyan epic as the protagonist journeys toward his true home through a world beset with every kind of temptation and trial" (173). Each reading, of course, indicates that, despite the novel's depiction of cyclic destruction and humanity's apparent inability to heed the moral teachings of religion in an increasingly secular world, the book ends on a positive note of homecoming or completion. In order for such a positive interpretation to stick, Klevitt's reading requires that we regard the destruction of humankind as incomplete. In other words, "even if the world rushes madly to its own destruction," as Klevitt writes, God preserves "the truly human and the truly divine" (175). His case rests largely on the suggestion that Brother Joshua's spacecraft survives the nuclear war destroying earth and an interpretation of the bicephalous Mrs. Grales as the bearer of prelapsarian innocence into the ultimate post-lapsarian environment. The near-complete destruction of humanity at the conclusion of Miller's book, for Klevitt, represents humanity's ability to carry on with God's love despite its hubris and serves as a cautionary tale for what could happen should humankind stray too far from the path of religious virtue: "God, humanistic values, and traditional morality must play a role in modern society if it is to avoid the cataclysms that Miller's novel details so well" (174). The end of the book, then, does not represent humanity's inevitable destruction but rather God's grace; He allows us to live long enough for a second -- or third -- chance at living well.
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Works Cited

Hillier, Russell. "SF Intertextuality: Hebrew Runes Among the Runes in A Canticle for Leibowitz." Science Fiction Studies 31.1 (2004): 169-173.

Klevitt, Frank David. "Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz as a Third Testament." The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction/Fantasy. Ed. Robert Reilly. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. 169-175.

Sobriquet 71.1

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One of the things I have missed the most in the year since I completed my doctoral dissertation last year is the sense of purpose that accompanies a long-term academic project. Now, I am not saying that I feel especially unmoored in the grand scheme of things, but I do think a regular bit of scholarly activity will help keep me centered as I navigate the rather unfamiliar world of the gainfully-employed non-student. To this end, I have decided to research one of my favorite novels, Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz. This blog, for the time being, will serve as a space for me to report on my progress as I work my way through the stack of critical essays on the novel. I hope it proves to be of interest to folks.
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