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“Mistakes were made”: Apocalypse of Truth in A Canticle for Leibowitz

What healing would come if (even one of) our rulers would not exit the press conference when invited to chant that hymn of Christian remedy: the trouble with the world is me.

Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz chants a litany of misdirection that resonates powerfully in our “post-truth” age. Miller, who helped bomb Monte Casino Abbey before becoming a Catholic convert, starts the novel in a comedic key—a fusion of funny and cynical ironies. Saint Leibowitz Abbey persists in its quiet work of preservation against a violent backdrop of deliberate forgetting (called, euphemistically, “The Simplification”). A desert-dwelling novice uncovers a fallout shelter and mistakes a nuclear blueprint for a holy relic. For fifteen years he illumines the blueprint, inking out a gilded and glorious artifact. Aloof to this and other documents’ true purpose, he and his brethren unwittingly contribute to still more nuclear warfare. Through ages alternately dark and enlightened, Canticle makes plain our painful capacity for untruth. And yet, even when mass-deception reaches a radioactive level and the monks wane helplessness against their leaders’ lies, the novel fosters a meager but substantive resistance, reminding us that institutionalized obfuscation must not eliminate our vital war against self-deception.

When our leaders lie, we too can become acclimated to the tallest of tales: that our acts are not “facts” but Rorschach blotches interpretable into oblivion. Miller loosens this “post-truth” preoccupation from our present era, plunking down the same problem in a far out future. In politics, the novel grimaces, truth is always scarce, in saeculo saeculorum, Amen. Still, Miller registers the increase in occasions for scandal and distrust that attend promises of transparency. The more we hope in the prospect of responsive rule, the more embittered we can become. When rituals of transparency become platforms for a far more sophisticated dishonesty, cynical faithlessness spreads freely until we find the phenomenon Patrick Deneen pinpoints in Why Liberalism Failed: “Overwhelming majorities regard their governments as distant and unresponsive.”

As Romano Guardini puts it, “there is a growing sense of there being no one at all who acts, only a dumb, intangible, invisible, indefinable something which derides questioning,” a phenomenon he finds captured by Kafka’s grim novels. In Canticle, this sense waxes during the section of Canticle whose tone, technologies, and regimes are closest to our own. With nuclear war nigh, a Defense Minister participates in that symbol of accountability known as the press conference. When a lady journalist requests his comment on a scientist’s report concerning high radiation counts, the Minister swerves: “I have not read that statement,” he says. Asked whether the scientist in question is competent, the Minister weaves: “He has never been employed by my department.” When she presses him for a more “responsive” answer, he insists that his reply was “quite responsive. Since he has never been employed by my department, I have no way of knowing his competence or responsibility. I am not a scientist.” The Minister’s attitude of distrust is contagious. We have no way of knowing his competence or responsibility. He distances himself from the scientist and from science itself, reducing “truth” to something (someone) that needs to be vetted and supervised before it can be properly publicized.

We know why he is loath to assent. Reticence eliminates commitment and thus—superficially—removes culpability. “To communicate a fact seemed always to lend it fuller existence.” This line comes from the mind of the monk Brother Joshua, who has just discovered scandalous radiation levels. He hesitates before telling his abbot, wary of lending facts existence. Upon hearing these levels, Abbot Zerchi assures his trusted monk that if there were a war on, they would know. But then he reels, realizing the groundless desperation in his implicit trust. “The government must know,” he muses. “And yet we hear nothing. We are being protected from hysteria . . . What is the fundamental irritant, the essence of the tension? . . . Ask a dozen experts, get a dozen answers.” The pains of post-truth persist, surviving several apocalyptic scenarios, shaking an Abbot on the verge of another.

As nuclear warfare continues to wreck the globe, the lady reporter again asks answers of the Defense Minister, noting that he “appears rather calm, in the face of the facts.” Two international laws have been violated. Warlike acts have been committed. The Defense Minister epitomizes a deflection that has fatigued so many of us: “Madam, as you very well know, we do not have a War Ministry here; we have a Defense Ministry. And as far as I know, only one violation of international law has occurred. Would you mind acquainting me with the other?” As the tedious exchange of officious obfuscations continues, the reporter risks an outright confrontation. The Minister seems to “attempt to shift the responsibility for a full denial from your own—” But she is cut short by his own accusations. She is taking a tone. She lacks propriety. The press conferences peters out pathetically.

Watching it all on a TV screen, Abbot Zerchi seems to read Guardini: “When this happens, when to the question ‘Who did this?’ neither ‘I’ nor ‘we’” answers, “the exercise of power has apparently become a natural force.” The outcome is obvious. “Are we doomed to do it again and again and again?” he wonders, recalling the falls of formerly great empires. Miller’s answer is an unnerving yes, for the escalation continues unabated, decimating the earth and but for burdened survivors ruined by radiation. “Lucifer,” code name for the bomb, blackens the horizons. The Abbey, in cooperation with orders from New Rome, moves the Benedict option into space, where they will establish a “daughter house” of monks.

Meanwhile, the monastery of St. Leibowitz opens its ancient quarters to the wounded, working out a tense agreement with “Mercy Camp” doctors who, by law, must read “hopeless cases” their right to state-sponsored euthanasia. The Abbot debates Dr. Cors, a Mercy Camp worker who puts the facts to sleep with an all-too-human pity. Cors embodies Flannery O’Connor’s contention that, “in the absence of faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber.” And, we might add, Mercy Camps. At the entrance to these zones of false solace, the Abbot orders his monks to paint a truer sign: “ABANDON ALL HOPE YOU WHO ENTER HERE.” The fact of euthanasia receive their right name.

The Abbot strikes Cors in the face when the doctor wrestles a radioactive baby from his arms. Miller makes the prospect of a radioactive child unnervingly painful. The baby cries without ceasing. The Abbot’s fist, though, tells the whole truth, even if later he must confess his own sinfulness. Confession, in Canticle, is the enduring correction to self-deception.

Lucifer falls again.

Knocked out in the ruins, grasping for consciousness, Abbot Zerchi’s doom seems complete. In the dark, alone, he wrestles with Doctor Cors, still trying to persuade the absent medic that his constructed morality lacks metaphysical veracity. Can’t you see, he says to no one, the paradoxical logic of “society and Caesar”? The children of this world work hard to “minimize suffering and to maximize security,” only to pervert these ends and arrive at their opposite: “maximum suffering and minimum security.” None of this can be denied. But the Abbot must persuade the hardest opponent: me.

In her essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt argues that “Current moral prejudice tends to be rather harsh in respect to cold-blooded lying, whereas the often highly developed art of self-deception is usually regarded with great tolerance and permissiveness.” She reminds us that in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, when the perpetual fibber Fyodor asks Father Zosima what he must do to gain salvation, the latter prescribes one thing: “Above all, never lie to yourself!”

“The trouble with the world is me,” Abbot Zerchi confesses, “with a little help from the father of lies.” His admission does not absolve the untold number of Caesar’s untruths; it does not discount the gravity and reality of these masked. Canticle is not a tract counseling quietism. Rather, it is a sober actualization of the Jewish hermit’s dictum: “The children of this world are consistent too.” Externally defeated by this terrible consistency, the Abbot is crushed under a deeper responsibility he had previously only glimpsed. Tempted to imitate the fabricators who rule, we too wish to “Blame anything, blame God even, but oh don’t blame me.

As the novelist Charles Baxter contends, there is such a thing as the “poetry of a mistake.” The Defense Minister peers out from behind the passive voice. “Mistakes were made,” he mutters. But when a character confesses with colloquial frankness “the action retains its meaning, its sordid origin, its obscenity, and its poetry.” Especially read against the Defense Minister’s misdirection, Abbot Zerchi’s own admissions are truly cathartic. Still, we cannot help wince at the meagerness of his conversion, wondering what it amounts to when amidst the ruins of reality. What healing would come if (even one of) our rulers would not exit the press conference when invited to chant that hymn of Christian remedy: the trouble with the world is me.


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About Joshua Hren 3 Articles
Joshua Hren is founder and editor of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey. He has published numerous essays and poems in such journals as First Things, America, and LOGOS. Joshua's books include Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy (Cascade 2018), the story collections This Our Exile (Angelico 2018) and In the Wine Press (Angelico 2020), as well as How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic (forthcoming, TAN 2021).

2 Comments

  1. Thank you Joshua. I bought my first copy of ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’in 1959 and am now holding my 2007 reprint. Time to re read this timeless and relevant classic!
    Gordon Carter. Adelaide. South Australia.

    • I read this in about 1971 – I mean I tried to read it but was too overwhelmed to finish. I thank you for your brilliant article. I will read “canticle” again but to the end this time. Now 50 years on, I realize how very many things I have bookshelved instead of responding to I resolve to do better

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