That Walter M. Miller had a unique perspective on monastic life is hardly surprising given he gained it one bright February morning in 1944 from the rear gun turret of a B-25 bomber.
Miller’s squadron was one of those tasked with the bombing of the vast fortress-like abbey atop Monte Cassino in which Allied commanders believed the Germans had sited an artillery observation post. The strike, a deeply controversial act both then and now, was ordered in support of the campaign to revive the Allied advance on Rome which had stalled amid mud, blood and vast Allied casualty figures reminiscent of those last encountered on the Western Front during the First World War.
As his aircraft turned for home, Miller had time to observe boiling clouds of dust and smoke – all that remained of a monastic presence, first established by St Benedict, which had endured for more than 14 centuries. It was a sight that never left him and one which, 16 years later, would prove to be the catalyst for a remarkable literary achievement.
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is an enigmatic tale of 2,000 years of monastic life. By the time of Miller’s death in 1996, the book had already sold more than two million copies. Since then, it has never been out of print. Yet despite the vocation of Miller’s leading characters, the novel is not an historical retelling of the lives of Augustine, Columba or Patrick, but is rather a work of post-apocalyptic science fiction, considered not just the finest example of its genre but quite simply a literary masterpiece.
In Miller’s imagined world the nuclear apocalypse, ‘the fire deluge’, took place in the latter half of the 20th century. In its wake the benighted survivors launched a crazed millenarian effort to purge humanity of its sinful possession of knowledge. Subsequently, the collected wisdom of mankind, together with its practitioners, was put to the torch and within a few generations illiteracy became almost universal.
Nevertheless, amid the chaos of ‘the simplification’, books were secretly preserved by a number of Catholic monastic orders in the more remote parts of America, now a hotch-potch of feuding entities with suitably medieval appellations such as The Empire of Denver and The Kingdom of Laredo.
The book opens in the 26th century, 600 years after the world had entered its new Dark Age. It follows generations of brothers in the The Albertian Order of Saint Leibowitz in their struggle to preserve and understand the knowledge of the past, then to propagate it, and finally to adapt to a world where mankind’s scientific and technical achievements have eclipsed those of its long dead forefathers.
Miller’s choice of the monasteries as a possible future safe haven for knowledge was a shrewd one. The Catholic Church itself is nothing if not a survivor. As the great Victorian poet and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay put it: “She [the Church] was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”
As for the monks, who Miller so lovingly brings to life, they are the future echoes of the thousands of largely nameless brothers who, in their scriptoriums and libraries, kept alive the wisdom of Aeschylus and Sophocles and the words of Vitruvius and Tacitus through the medieval Dark Ages. This knowledge they then re-transmitted, often first from monasteries in Ireland, back across Europe.
For Miller this template, carved amid Western civilisation’s first great fall into darkness, serves as his blueprint for how the bedrock of civilisation, namely the written word, might survive the great nuclear catastrophe which threatened to engulf his own generation. In his post-atomic, war-ravaged vision of a future America the monasteries have once again become lonely lighthouses of knowledge in a dark sea of ignorance.
After the war Miller studied engineering at the University of Texas and during this period he converted to Catholicism. It wasn’t until the 1950s that his first stories were published but, once he got his break, his output became prodigious and in 1955 he won his first Hugo Award.
The lessons Miller learnt in the tough, competitive world of sci-fi pulp magazines are evident in this, his only full length novel. Although the book is epic in its scope, the elegantly pared down prose prevents it from becoming flabby. Miller is rarely tempted to stray too far from the cool stone cloisters of the abbey but when he does he is capable of conjuring up new vistas every bit as compelling as the monastic world he so cleverly creates.
One need not hold a candle for the Catholic Church, or indeed possess any religious faith at all, to appreciate the beauty of the novel. While its themes have been much debated, both the setting and the underlying philosophy (or philosophies, as its examination of the cyclical view of history seems to owe as much to Hegel as it does to Augustine or Aquinas) repeatedly challenge the reader, of all faiths and none, in unexpected ways.
The book was a challenge for Miller who struggled with depression in the years after the war. The writer Joe Haldeman said of him that he had “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for 30 years before it had a name”.
This was something Miller himself seemed to acknowledge: “I was writing the first version of the scene where Zerchi lies half buried in the rubble. Then a light bulb came on over my head: ‘Good God, is this the abbey at Monte Cassino? What have I been writing?”
Sadly Miller took his own life in 1996. But in writing A Canticle for Leibowitz he left a literary legacy which, with its subtle grace and beauty, continues to intrigue and delight readers in equal measure.