Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

25 following

Currently reading

Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz - Walter M. Miller Jr. ETA 09/03/13: Cloud Atlas to the reading path, below.


I was conceived somewhere late summer/early fall of 1963, roundabout the time the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the US, UK and Soviet Union; close to a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and about two months before JFK's assassination. There had been an earlier miscarriage, a child who would have been a year or so older than me.

I may have picked up, in the womb, an interest in the politics of that time. My father, in particular, was clearly fascinated by it: for years, he kept a stack of newspapers from the Kennedy assassination preserved haphazardly in plastic bags in a box in the basement.

Also in the basement, as I discovered when sorting through some of my mother’s books after her death in 2000, was a box of books dating back to around that same time. In it, Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care and a book of baby names. On the inside front cover was a list pencilled in my mom's handwriting: Constance, Judith, Stella, Rebecca, Jennifer. (good choice, Mom).

And in the box, a pamphlet, probably 8 or 12 pages long. The cover was a deep red with large blue and yellow type on the front: “How To Build A Backyard Bomb Shelter.” This was no joke: there were blueprints, charts and diagrams, tips on how to select a site, how to provision the shelter and so on.

There was such a story being told about my parents' lives in the juxtaposition of those three books in that dusty old box in the basement, uncovered during a time of grief and remembrance. It was startling to find them there, and instantly be taken back to 1963, my own existence slightly more than a gleam in Dad's eye, but not much more than a name written in a book. To my parents, I must have felt -- the whole world must have felt -- so precarious.

A crisis point during the Cold War - the air permeated by a dread and anxiety that my generation and later ones can barely comprehend. Now, the end of the world is a slow melting of ice caps and gradual warming of the planet through a series of cumulative acts of stupidity and addiction to fossil fuels. Still distant, deniable and de-personalized, like lung cancer from smoking. Then, however: annihilation would be instantaneous. The blinding flash, the mushroom cloud and its impact on real people had been seen and felt. Then, there were living human beings whose real fingers were on real buttons beside real telephones. Rockets buried in mountains were pointed at cold-warring continents. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not yet 20 years past and underground atom bomb testing was still shaking the earth, literally, on its axis.

For my parents, though, it was also a time of incredible -- almost delusional ­­-- hope and optimism.

That urge to procreate - that psycho-biological drive to perpetuate the species by whatever means possible - which seems to spike during times of natural or man-made disaster in spite of, or perhaps because of, the threat of utter destruction, has always baffled and fascinated me. The desire to bring new life into a world that is doomed is statistically, logically ill-advised, to say the least. It seems equal parts insane and imperative; delusional and courageous, too.

That is A Canticle for Leibowitz, in a nutshell.

This book, first published in 1959, holds up remarkably well (although we envision the endtimes looking a little different now than they did then). A Canticle for Leibowitz is steeped in the very real, very ubiquitous, post-WWII/early Cold War socio-political context in North America.

One of the reasons for its longevity, no doubt, is its speculative fiction time-and-place setting. Taking place in three different times, centuries apart and far in the future (it wraps up circa "The Year of our Lord 3781"), its very structure illustrates our species' cyclical stupidity and irrepressible, almost biologically-driven, hope for a different outcome, against all odds.

After all human knowledge and culture is wiped out in the aftermath of a mid-20th century nuclear armageddon (and read that as a direct metaphor for the Holocaust as well as a cautionary tale for the nuclear age in which it was written -- this is a Canticle for Leibowitz, after all), an order of Franciscan monks emerge as safekeepers of what remains of all human knowledge: a shopping list, a memo to a work colleague, a blueprint for an electrical circuit (later hilariously illuminated by a bumbling monk who is central to the tri-part storyline); scraps of paper and books, painstakingly collected, protected and defended over the centuries.

The main themes at play: science versus religion; progress versus history; empiricism versus faith; the future versus the past; the existential inevitability of repeating our mistakes ad infinitum.

Reading path:

Dystopian, end-of-the-worlders: [b:The Road|6288|The Road|Cormac McCarthy||3355573] - it provokes similar Rorschach-blot like questions-and-answers, with lots resting on your own interpretation and, especially, religious (or non-religious) perspective. Also, [b:Oryx Crake|46756|Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)|Margaret Atwood||3143431] and [b:Year of the Flood|6080337|The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2)|Margaret Atwood||6257025] - these with the technology/progress-gone-awry and alt-religion aspects, too. Adding multiple, cyclical timelines/themes/stories to its dystopian worldview, [b:Cloud Atlas|49628|Cloud Atlas|David Mitchell||1871423].

"If-there-is-a-god-why-does-s/he/it-allow-us-to-suffer" speculative fiction (starring priests): [b:The Sparrow|334176|The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)|Mary Doria Russell||3349153], but CfL has better, and much funnier, characters and dialogue.

Anti-war polemics with characters-as-symbols: [b:Johnny Got His Gun|51606|Johnny Got His Gun|Dalton Trumbo||180461] - in dialogue especially, stylistically very similar in parts; [b:Slaughterhouse Five|4981|Slaughterhouse-Five|Kurt Vonnegut||1683562].

Theatre of the absurd or it's deja-vous all over again (with fools-as-prophets): [b:Waiting for Godot|17716|Waiting for Godot|Samuel Beckett||2635502], [b:Skinny Legs and All|9370|Skinny Legs and All|Tom Robbins||1231351], [b:Catch-22|168668|Catch-22 (Catch-22, #1)|Joseph Heller||814330].

Music: Eve of Destruction and Masters of War.

Still with me after a week, and likely will be for some time to come.