“A Canticle for Leibowitz”: Was There Really No Point?

Spoilers for the ending of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” forthcoming, though honestly it’s been out for fifty-five years now. The ending isn’t a shocker.

As I said in the past, I’m the sort of weird guy who likes looking up reviews of things he’s seen or read to see what other people have gotten out of them. One thing I’ve seen – which I admit I had some trouble with initially – was what sort of “point” was being made with the book. Are we really doomed to continually blow ourselves up until Christ returns? Was preserving the Memorabilia worth it when this same Memorabilia would help contribute to the world’s ultimate nuclear annihilation?

One person went so far as to accuse the universe of “Canticle” as being deterministic.

This charge is unfair. The Leibowitz universe is Catholic, and in that sense it is not the universe that is deterministic or not deterministic. It is man, each individual man. Whether or not most men, in society as a whole, stumble and fall is ultimately a backdrop to the battle going on in each man’s individual soul.

It is Abbot Zerchi who demonstrates this theme the best. The events are the most sweeping of all the novellas: A nuclear war is, again, about to destroy all life on earth. A small group of monks moves to escape to the stars. But the climax of the novella is not when the spaceship takes off: That’s the epilogue, or might as well be. No, the climax is when Abbot Zerchi, trapped beneath the ruins of the monastery, wonders why he’s afraid and realizes it’s because he might die before he suffers as much as the infant he counciled the young mother not to kill earlier. He resolves to survive so that he can suffer, and he is gifted with a vision of the Immaculate Conception before he finally succumbs to death. Father Zerchi is proof that the story of people and the story of mankind are not synonymous.

The question, too, is what Miller meant to show when he had his monks leave for exodus in space as explosions go off in the distance. Was this meant to be a sign of the futility of the monks’ work? As a way of saying they could only run away and delay for a time, and never fix the world?I would argue that the book actually addresses this directly. Again, from the third novella:

Was not the starship an act of despair [because it gave up the earth for lost]…Retrahe me Satanus, et discede! The starship was an act of hope…It isn’t hope for earth, but hope for the soul and substance of man somewhere. With Lucifer hanging over, not sending the ship would be an act of presumption.

It doesn’t get much more unambiguous than that.

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One Response to “A Canticle for Leibowitz”: Was There Really No Point?

  1. Ilíon says:

    Spoilers for the ending of “A Canticle for Leibowitz” forthcoming …

    Frankly, I have nothing but scorn for those shriveled souls who freak out about “spoilers”.

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