Sobriquet 71.5

 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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