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.

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This page contains a single entry by Sobriquet Magazine published on March 9, 2011 4:23 PM.

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