Apocalypse Now
The enduring significance of A Canticle for Leibowitz.


Thomas S. Hibbs

“When one age dies, its symbols lose their referents and become incomprehensible,” Walker Percy once wrote in an essay on A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller’s 1959 apocalyptic novel about life after the Flame Deluge. Percy found the novel at once so pregnant with meaning and so idiosyncratic that he resisted recommending it the way one can recommend a good read. Yet, at a time when we are inundated with ideologically charged and artistically mediocre end-times stories — the latest entry is the CBS TV series Jericho — it is perhaps time to recommend Canticle, a novel that serves to put in question our simplistic apocalyptic oppositions between science and religion, knowledge and faith, even Jews and Christians.

The opening episode of Jericho, named for its setting, a small town in Kansas, contains a simple, yet chilling scene of a young child, framed alone in the foreground, staring into the horizon as a mushroom cloud forms in a distant city. If its consequences are far from innocuous, the scene itself is almost quaint, a nostalgic throwback to a simpler time when all we had to fear was nuclear war. As they describe their first thoughts after seeing the mushroom cloud, older folks reminisce about the duck-and-cover maneuver they learned in grade school during the cold war.

As is often the case in such dramas, the technology on which we have come to rely either turns against us or is no longer of any use to us. In this case, lines of communication with outside cities are cut off, refrigeration is not possible, and the rain pouring down on the town may be radioactive.

As is also often the case, the larger issues of world war or impending apocalypse are a means of accenting the personal dramas of the characters and it is difficult to tell whether those will be sufficient to carry the show. Coincident with the mushroom cloud, a character, mysteriously absent from the town for five years, returns; the motives for his absence and sudden reappearance are unclear, but he responds to the crisis in ways that make it seem as if he had been preparing for precisely such an event.

End-times stories have become quite popular in recent years. In a recent New York Magazine piece, entitled “The End of the World as They Know It,” Kurt Anderson observes that from “Christian millenarians and jihadists to Ivy League professors and baby-boomers, apocalypse is hot.”

Every age has its apocalyptic narratives. We might be tempted to think in our time that it is only fringe religious groups that generate apocalyptic literature, embodied in our day in the Left Behind series. But, as the film The Day After Tomorrow and other liberal stories make clear, no one group in our culture has a monopoly on the apocalypse. Indeed, conservatives today often depict themselves as optimists in contrast to doom and gloom liberals, who see America as bringing destruction on itself: in the form of an out of control economy, imperialistic war-mongering, or indifference to the threat of global environmental implosion.

The apocalyptic impulse can be rooted in a desire for purgation, a longing to rid the world of evil and complexity, to return to a world of simple innocence. Radical liberation from the burdens of the past can also be a motive, as can plain exhaustion and weariness. But apocalyptic narratives need not be reductionistic; they can expand our moral imagination, heighten our awareness of the eternal significance of time, and deepen our sense of dramatic possibility. Anderson covers a lot of ground in his essay, but he fails to mention the most entertaining and deeply moral primetime drama of the apocalypse, the 1990s series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Recall the line from Buffy’s tombstone, “She Save the World — A Lot”.)

Buffy and other apocalyptic stories stress the recovery of a lost knowledge of good and evil, but this knowledge is typically needed, not so much to inform a living culture, but merely to fend off destruction and to do so by violent means. In A Canticle for Leibowitz, by contrast, the accent is not on destruction or even holding back destruction through violence but on preservation. The goal is integration and unification, however difficult that objective might be. Indeed, Canticle is a post-apocalyptic world that focuses on a community of Catholic monks, an ageless Jewish hermit, and atomic scientists. It thus brings together communities that our culture sees as inherently opposed.

The monastic Order of St. Leibowitz the Engineer attempts to keep alive relics, both religious and scientific, from the world before the destruction. Since knowledge is but fragmentary, the monks’ careful cultivation of remnants of knowledge has a comic effect of which they are unaware. Their documents and places of reverence include the blessed blueprint, the sacred shopping list, and the holy shrine of Fallout Shelter.

But the monks are serious about preservation, not just of sacred matters, but of knowledge itself, particularly scientific knowledge. After the great destruction, amid the “confusion of tongues,” hate and fear grow among the masses, especially toward “men of learning” whom the people now blame for the destruction. Thus begins a period of violence against scientists, who find sanctuary in the Church, and against knowledge itself, whose “flame” continues for twelve centuries to “smolder in the monasteries.” The supposition, a pervasive feature of our popular culture and of apocalyptic stories, of a necessary opposition between science and religion is countered by the devoted activities of the monks in Canticle.

The monks, then, are not intent upon fomenting apocalypse. Their task of preservation involves an insight into human nature: “Man is a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures are not immortal and they can die.” Against that death of culture, what the book calls “total amnesia,” the monks toil. Not through anxious terror over the end of the world, but through subtle suggestion and comic indirection, the book makes us wonder to what extent we may suffer an analogous amnesia, a forgetfulness and fragmentation of knowledge, a decline of culture, that to someone possessing a more comprehensive vision might seem comic, if not utterly without hope.

Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.