‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’: A Lesson on History and Global Warming

 

Kent, CT:  Kent School Bell Tower & Grave Yard  6/7/14
Kent, CT: Kent School Bell Tower & Grave Yard 6/7/14

          Last weekend, I went to my 50th boarding school reunion.  It was an altogether wonderful and wonder-filled three days.

           But I had something on my mind, something I couldn’t shake, haven’t let go.

***

           In my first days at Kent School, like most incoming students, I was terrified – not wrongly.  I found refuge in the library stacks.

           In my hiding place, I saw a new book whose title seemed strange: A Canticle for Leibowitz.  After a few days of The Book of Common Prayer (1928), I knew what a canticle was.  And, I knew there weren’t any for Leibowitz.

           I pulled this strange, magnificent book from the shelf.  Despite my desperate academic situation, I spent every spare minute reading it over the next three days.  That was in mid-September 1960.  It is the only book I didn’t read aloud to my sons when small that I’ve reread more than twice.  I’ve lost count how many times I’ve laughed, cried and mourned over it.

***

          I was born 14 months after a ‘Little Boy’ flattened Hiroshima, killing in the end 135,000.

           One sunny morning – a rarity in the smog-filled Ohio Valley – with my mother and two younger brothers I listened to CBS Radio describe the immensity of a hydrogen bomb test.  I was not yet five.

           In the Valley, we didn’t do the under the school desk, hands over the head drill.  I’m certain – wrongly? – administrators thought it pointless.  No one in the Valley would survive.  Our aluminum factories, power plants, steel mills and coal mines meant the first wave of Soviet missiles would head for us.

           In the background of my uneventful childhood played the certainty the bombs would find us. But what would happen if some survived?

           In the stacks that first week at Kent I found a suggestion in A Canticle for Leibowitz that has haunted me.

***

          One afternoon in 3781, Dom Zerchi of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz snaps off a telescreen which had been reporting the imminence of war – nuclear war.

           Listen, are we helpless?  Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?  Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?  Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk, ground to dust and plowed with salt.  Spain, France, Britain, America–burned into the oblivion of the centuries.  And again and again and again.[1]

 No, says Leibowitz’s author, Walter M. Miller, Jr., there will be an end.

           Eighteen hundred years before, the ‘Flame Deluge’ produced a world recognisable to anyone with passing familiarity of the history of the depopulated lands of the western Roman Empire after the barbarian apocalypse.  But with profound differences.

           For one thing, the Flame Deluge leaves irradiated wastes and mutants.  The survivors proclaim ‘a great Simplification’, ‘a holocaust of those who wrought this thing, together with their hirelings and their wise men….’[2]  The Simpletons put to the fire the literate and what they might read.  The world careens into ignorance.

           One literate, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, takes refuge with Cistercian monks.  After a futile search for his wife, he returns to the order, becomes a priest and founds an brotherhood of ‘bookleggers’ to secure for the future some fruits of learning and literacy.  The future saint was martyred.

           Miller makes the encounters of Leibowitz’s heirs with 20th century knowledge – the rediscovery of the electric light, an elderly abbot’s interactions with a computer – laugh out loud funny.

           Like monks in scriptorums of the monasteries that mushroomed across western Europe in the thousand years after Rome, those of the Order of Leibowitz lovingly copied and illuminated papers they didn’t understand.  For a decade and a half, Brother Francis, who discovered relics of Leibowitz the scientist and the remains of his wife outside the door of a fallout shelter, spends his free hours copying onto vellum and illuminating a wiring diagram the scientist had initialed.

           I remember Miller’s wit and humor and find more on each rereading.  But it is not what makes A Canticle for Leibowitz relevant today despite its origins in the 55 bombing missions its author flew in Italy and the Balkans[3] and its first audience haunted by the prospect of nuclear war.  It speaks to my apocalyptic visions of global warming.

***

From the place of ground zero,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
          O Lord, deliver us.

 From the curse of the fallout,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
          O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
          O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua [From eternal death],
Domine, libera nos [O Lord, deliver us].
[4]

           In the gloom of the dark age following the Flame Deluge, the runaway slave Brother Francis repeats these versicles to himself as he hesitates outside the fallout shelter he’s found.  He could not know what the elements were whose names he chanted.

           It does not take much to adapt ancient litanies to Global Warming’s post-apocalyptic world.  But as I heard from the Presbyterians who shaped my childhood, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’  I never thought to ask, to what?  For what?  Miller did.

When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.[5]

 ***

           I thought of Walter Miller’s bleak vision a week ago.  I had just come home from a CERES fundraiser where I’d heard Jeremy Grantham, the renown money manager and co-founder of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo (GMO) LLC.  Think Bill McKibben with PowerPoint and a soft English accent.  His was a sober yet somehow inspiring talk.

           I checked, as I do every evening,  the day’s links on NakedCapitalism.com.  They led to Rowan Jacobsen’s ‘Something Is Seriously Wrong on the East Coast – and It’s Killing All the Baby Puffins’, a superb piece of reporting which Mother Jones published.  This long, harrowing article concludes the culprit is a rise of two degrees in the water temperature in the frigid Gulf of Maine which is killing off the small fish puffin parents feed their chicks.

           I thought of Miller’s final paragraphs, describing the seacoast just after the light from the second Flame Deluge fades:

           The breakers beat monotonously at the shores, casting up driftwood.  An abandoned seaplane floated beyond the breakers.  After a while the breakers caught the seaplane and threw it on the shore with the driftwood.  It tilted and fractured a wing.  There were shrimp carousing in the breakers, and the whiting that fed on the shrimp, and the shark that munched the whiting and found them admirable in the sportive brutality of the sea.

           A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash.  The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers.  The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood.  Then they washed up the whiting.  The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the old clean currents.  He was very hungry that season.[6]

           Even the renewal of friendships 50 years old, the soft and sunny warmth of early June, the green glories of the countryside along old US 7 from northwest Connecticut to southern Vermont could not lift the pall from my mind.

           Can’t we who are given so much education, knowledge and discernment put them to saving ourselves and our children?

  

Notes

           1.  Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959] (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), p. 266-67 (hereafter ‘Bantam’).

          2.  Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz [1959] (New York: EOS Books, 2006), p. 62 (hereafter ‘EOS’).

           3.  The linked article cites no sources for its biographical information.

           4.  Miller, op. cit., EOS, p. 18.  That someone took the time to catalogue and translate all Miller’s Latin quotations speaks tellingly of the book’s power today when so much of the Catholicism he represented is a dim memory.

           5.  Miller, op. cit., Bantam, p. 288.

           6.  Miller, op. cit., EOS, p. 334.  You can’t write two paragraphs better than those!

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