Monday, November 9, 2015

A Canticle For Leibowitz

"As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being."- Carl Jung

A Canticle for Leibowitz is a 1959 novel by Walter M. Miller Jr. that I read when I was about 21. It is one of those post-Apocalyptic novels in which the world, after a nuclear war, has collapsed into a Mad Max insanity.

There are many of these many novels and films, ranging of course from the Mad Max movies to the ridiculous Waterworld (which is a sillier version of Mad Max, this one on the high seas).

I was a great fan of science fiction from 11 to 14, so when I read Leibowitz I was past my peak interest in it – and in my early adolescent years I found it to be amazing stuff. Still, the novel has stuck with me after all these years, so much so I read it again a few weeks ago (it's a great novel).

Miller was Catholic (the novel is Catholic, although the word isn’t mentioned) and also knew his history, since he understood that in a world collapse we end up with small religious monasteries which becomes an oasis of knowledge - which is what happened in Europe during the “Dark Ages” (I am more familiar with Ireland, though).

This is what the Mad Max movies got wrong - in reality there would be geek/nerds living together in self-supporting religious communities trying to keep knowledge alive by copying old manuscripts even if they didn't understand them in the slightest. While surrounded by ignorant, superstitious barbarians who thought if you couldn't eat it or have sex with it or torture it to death for fun, it was worthless.

In the second part of the novel Miller points out that there are about two people every century who are polymaths who advance discovery and invention in astonishing ways. These days I think of Stephen Hawking, who is a once in a century thing (who, by way, is kept alive through advanced science and technology).

Or as Miller wrote: “…this young scientist showed promise of becoming one of those rare outcroppings of human genius that appeared a time or two every century to revolutionize an entire field of thought in one vast sweep.”

Of course, the polymaths in Miller's novel could not have done what they did without the knowledge passed by the monks in the monasteries – in their case, over a thousand years before humanity staggered back to its feet.

These days, these "oases of knowledge" are supposed to be universities, and when it comes to science and technology they are doing their job, although even they are still under attack by the Social Justice Warriors (think of the Ph.D in Physics who helped land a spaceship on an asteroid and was attacked by mentally-ill leftists (is there any other kind?) over his girlie Hawaiian shirt.

This sleeved-out weight-lifter actually got tears in his eyes, since he was way too sensitive for his own good. He even apologized (you never apologize to these insane leftists, just attack them, hoping to destroy their lives - since they plan on destroying yours).

Thank God these people didn't exist in the past during the Scottish Enlightenment, which was one of those amazing things in which a tiny country produced an astonishing variety of educated and very creative polymaths. The evil probably would have attacked them with pitchforks and torches and set their windmills on fire, just like what happened in Frankenstein.

For that matter imagine what would have happened if these lunatics had been around during for what is all practical purposes the American Enlightenment - the years before and during the founding of this country.

Think of Increase and Cotton Mather (who were admitted to Harvard when they were about 12) and Jonathan Edwards, none of whom were religious fanatics and instead geniuses who were great supporters of science and education.

Later, think of polymaths such as Benjamin Franklin. All of the well-known men in those days were close to being geniuses or were geniuses – educated, creative, productive.

Such men are still around today, but damn if the Politically Correct aren’t attacking them (look at how leftists are now attacking those involved in computers and software).

For that matter, look at how the so-called religious (including the Catholic Church) are trying to open the borders to let the barbarians in. Either that or trying to convince us to unconditionally support Israel since they believe the Rapture is coming any second now and we're going to zip up to Heaven (well, at least some of us) after converting all the Jews to Christianity.

The world is quite correctly what Martin Luther called "the Devil's Inn." (The Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”) War appears to be the natural state of mankind with some short intermissions. I'm astonished we have gone as far as we have.

I suspect if the Four Horsemen hadn't been romping all over the world for the past 5000 years we'd probably be about 5000 years more advanced than we are now.

I see the world as the archetype of the horror story - good attacked by evil, order attacked by chaos. Of course, those who believe in good, in order, have to continually defend themselves and continually fight back since they are continually under attack. These people are, to use Carl Sagan’s phrase, a candle in the dark (Miller uses the word “dark” to describe the world several times).

Oh, another thing - in Miller's novel, after the war, there were many scientists and other educated people still around. But since the natural state of mankind is to blame its problems on other people, the mobs killed every one of them they could find, blaming them for the war, usually by torturing them to death.

These killers were called "simpletons," and this mass murder was called "the Simplification." Think of the torture and murder and destruction of the French Revolution.

Unfortunately, society is always under attack by the simpletons. That's why I see things as the archetype of the horror story – wholeness attacked by the unholy.

Which means we are always involved in an eternal fight with the barbarians.

When I look around today what I see is a very small number of people who understand science and technology, history, political science, economics, theology. Then I see a small minority of destroyers who have way too much influence. Then I see the mass of people who just want bread and circuses and cable TV.

Miller also understood the nature of the State (which he called “the colossus of the State” and of which he heartily disapproved) - to start wars, to oppress, to retard progress and advancement and discovery. Even after society got back on its feet after the nuclear wars...still more wars and destruction, which was why the monasteries were walled and the monks defended them by the sword.

Of course, Miller believed in Original Sin (“Is the species congenitally insane?” asks an abbot in the novel). Personally, I don’t care if you call it Original Sin or people being sleep-walkers or whatever suits your fancy. But it is true all people are deluded and imperfect, although some are less deluded than others.

He also understood that history repeats itself because people keep making the same mistakes over and over and never learn its lessons.

“Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk,” Miller writes. “Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America – burned again into the oblivion of centuries. And again and again and again.”

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn once wrote of how every square inch of this world is continually being claimed and reclaimed by God or Satan.

Unfortunately, he was right. Still is right.

The novel ends on an ambiguous note. Again, 4000 years after the first nuclear holocaust, there comes a second (again, history always repeats itself, with the main lesson being people never learn and keep making the same mistakes).

This time, humanity has developed interstellar travel, so a fair number of people flee to colonies on other worlds.

But that’s not the oddest thing. Even 4000 years after the first nuclear war, there are still genetic mutations. One of them was an old woman born with a second, infantile head which never showed any sign of consciousness.

During the second war, as people flee the earth, the old woman’s conscious head dies (and is apparently going to fall off like an umbilical cord) while the infantile head wakes up. A priest, trapped under a pile of rocks and dying, tries to talk to this head and realizes this infantile, now conscious head is a new Eve (the body even grows younger).

Miller never explains what this means. Will the new earth, rising from the ashes, be a second Garden of Eden? Will it be permanent this time? Will humanity get kicked out again?

It’s an ambiguous ending. Actually, it’s not any ending at all, just as there will never be an end to human history.

"The question Miller asks the reader and himself: can man escape Original Sin? Or, will man, doomed, carry it wherever he goes, whether it be into the American West or into the new frontier of space? And, if so, can man do anything by his own will to attenuate the great evils of which he is not only so capable, but seemingly so desirous?" - Bradley J. Birzer


DeNihilist said...

Read it a long time ago myself. Still reflect upon it to this day. Have even mentioned it to my sons.

Bob Wallace said...

Unforgettable, isn't it?

Shaun F said...

I've read it as well, maybe 20 years in the past. Have to look at it again.

This post also reminds me of Asimov's Foundation Series and Hari Seldon. I sometimes think some "groups" would be of the opinion that they are the hope and gatekeepers of society's well- being. However, as Thomas Sowell pointed out with the label of "the anointed" they're the screwball leftists who are destroying the world.

Bob Wallace said...

I thought the Foundation Trilogy was great when I read it at 12 but years later I thought it was screwy. I'll take Catholic monasteries (and I'm not even Catholic) over some guy who thinks he can predict the future with a handheld calculator.

Shaun F said...

Bob – I think I read it around 16, but it’s so long ago. I did re-read Second Foundation last year, and taken lightly – it was fun, pulpy, easy to read sci-fi. The novelty of the mule was an added twist. And I agree Hari Seldon was some kind of super economist or actuary. I’ll have to find Canticle for Leibowitz again, and take a gander.

Anonymous said...

"In reality there would be geek/nerds living together in self-supporting religious communities trying to keep knowledge alive by copying old manuscripts even if they didn't understand them in the slightest."

There is a wonderful little colophon after the Táin Bó Cúailnge in the Book of Leinster that says a lot about how Medieval monks viewed the texts they were copying: "I who have copied down this story, or more accurately fantasty, do not credit the details of the story, or fantasy. Some things in it are devilish lies, and some poetical figments; some seem possible and others not; some are for the enjoyment of idiots". Despite his hostility to some parts of the text, he copied the tale exactly as it was, without alteration or bowdlerization.

I thought of Canticle quite a lot when, years after reading it, I picked up a book outlining the consensus of Catholic prophecies concerning the end of the world. Ordinarily, trying to understand revelations about the end of the world is just about the fastest way for a person to drive himself utterly insane, particularly if he tries to come up with an exact date (as a friend of mine once remarked, Jesus said "But of that day and hour no one knoweth, no not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone", so by my friend's reckoning, if anybody declares an exact date for the Second Coming, that date is guaranteed to be wrong!) Still, Birch's "Trial, Tribulation, and Triumph" was a very level-headed and sober-minded look at the long tradition of apocalyptic prophecy. What struck me most was how much all of the "approved" prophecies paralleled the cyclical processes of crisis, recovery, decadence, and return to crisis that Miller highlighted in Canticle. The struggle between faith and brute power, between piety and blasphemy, and between knowlege and ignorance, will truly continue to the very end of the human race, whether it's 50 years from now, or 50,000 years from now, or 50,000,000 years from now.

Glen Filthie said...

As a Simpleton myself I take great pleasure in torturing my moral and intellectual superiors! I wonder if Leibowitz didn't set the tone for those mutants on Planet Of The Apes that worshipped that ICBM... both settings have very much the same feel to me as a reader...

When you talk about simpletons tearing down our civilization today Bob...I ask you to consider your previous posts on education: like much of the Manosphere you seem to advocate against extended education for young men and I find this stance most disagreeable. Even I have to admit that there is a time and place for the liberal arts (assuming they are uncorrupted by the social justice warriors as they are today).

I think we need to push higher learning at our kids for all we're worth. We are going to need it in the days ahead. Or they will assuming we don't survive...

Bob Wallace said...

I agree, Glen, but everything I learned about economics, political science, theology, history...I learned on my own. I have a degree but found it worthless in the workplace. Which is why I have always worked for myself.

aphroditesmusings said...

Love this post. Thank-you. Must read this novel. What Miller wrote about seems timeless...human nature. Same today as ever. Though I think the opposites of good/evil are more extreme today.

Mindstorm said...

I'd take some guy that thinks he can simulate the future with an unknown piece of technology over a two-headed woman with a body that gets younger just because.

Bob Wallace said...

"Just because"? Please. Read the novel sometime.

Mindstorm said...

I have, as a late teenager. Nothing to write home about. Do you think a re-read would improve my opinion?

Mindstorm said... - analyze the bottom graph please. What do you think, would some 'overgrown calculators' of the future finally surpass biological 'wetware' in their computational abilities? What do you think, how far in the hypothetical future is the life of Hari Seldon?