A Canticle for Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz

A little bit ago I posted that I’d finished ACFL and didn’t quite know what to make of it, especially of the ending. Then I finished Till We Have Faces, a book that is most unlike it, and while contemplating the puzzling endings of both books was hit by one of those sudden strokes of insight, like suddenly seeing how one puzzle piece fits and then suddenly another and another and suddenly the puzzle is done and you can finally see the whole picture clearly. I started working out my insights in the comments thread for Canticle; but wanted to repost them here in an expanded way. And to include some more insights I gained while talking over that comment with my sister, to whom I am indebted for my deeper understanding of so many books.

So here goes:

I think it is wrong to categorize this book as “post-apocalyptic”. More properly it is apocalyptic literature, the story of the end times, of the last battle and the last judgment.

I think Mrs. Grales’ deformity is an image of the stain of original sin. It’s curious if that’s the case to note that while she wants to forgive God for making her that way, the reason for her deformity is the first nuclear war, the one that happened centuries before the novel’s start. Likewise, I think that war represents the Fall. Which fits theologically since it is man, not God, who is responsible for sin and all its effects and the suffering that ensues.

At the end of the novel Dom Zerchi has just made his confession and said his penance and hurries through Mrs. Grales’ absolution when the bombs go off. I think that’s important to note.  So they are both in a state of grace. Sort of.

Mrs. Grales is either dead or dying and Rachel represents her resurrected body, perfected. “She had only just been born,” makes sense in the Christian understanding of death as a birth into eternal life. Her body no longer seems to suffer from arthritis, the skin seems less wrinkled, and she doesn’t seem to feel pain where her arm has been cut by a piece of glass and there is little blood as he pulls them out. The face of Mrs Grales, meanwhile, he imagines as a scab or an umbilical cord, destined to fall off. A scab is evidence of a body healing its wounds, when it sloughs off there is new healthy skin underneath. An umbilical cord is a remnant of a previous life. After birth it is no longer necessary and it falls away leaving not a scar or deformity, but a belly button, merely a mark that reminds us of our former existence before birth.
So I can imagine Rachel after the other head has fallen away, her body will somehow be perfect with only a reminder of the former, deformed existence. It seems pertinent that we never learn Mrs Grales’ Christian name. “Rachel” is not so much a second person as another name for a different stage of being. Rachel is the name that belongs to the newly born self, just as a child gets a new name at baptism. 

Rachel is an image of the resurrection. Dom Zerchi sees in her a promise of resurrection, his last thought.

That is why she rejects the conditional baptism. She ha already experienced the rebirth of which baptism is a sign. And because she has already entered into the new life she is fit to administer viaticum to Dom Zerchi.

He is inspired to pray the Magnificat as she gives him communion. She is an image of Mary, the mediatrix. Also, she is an image of how all daughters of Eve will be like Mary when they regain that blessed state which Eve enjoyed before the Fall. In fact, during Mrs. Grales’ confession he hears her as “a voice of Eve. The same, everlastingly the same, and even a woman with two heads could not contrive new ways of courting evil, but could only pursue a mindless mimicry of the Original.” (Incidentally, I love the imagery here of Zerchi as alter Christus: “he sensed the weight of each burden for a moment before it passed on to the One who bore them all.”)

In a way she’s kind of like Beatrice in the Divine Comedy, her role is to comfort and lead Dom Zerchi through his Purgatorio.

Dom Zerchi’s suffering at the end seems to me purgatorial. He might be in a state of grace following his confession, but there are still things he needs to work out and suffering he needs to accomplish: “Pain he could bear, but not that Awful Dark. Either there was something in it that should not be there or there was something here that remained to be done. Once he surrendered to that darkness, there would be nothing he could do or undo.” And going back to the idea of him as an alter Christus, he embraces suffering on behalf of the woman and her child: “He was afraid to die before he had accepted as much suffering as that which came to the child who could not comprehend it, the child he had tried to save for further suffering—no, not for it, but in spire of it. He had commanded the mother in the name of Christ. He had not been wrong. But now he was afraid to slide away into that blackness before he had endured as much as God might help him endure…. Let it be for the child and her mother, then. What I impose, I must accept. Fas est. (Again the image of Christ on the cross: bearing the burden of suffering until is is accomplished.)

Throughout this section the Dies Irae is running through Dom Zerchi’s head. This is the clue: the final scene is an image of the day of wrath, the day of judgment. It is the end of the world. When the monks and the sisters and the children flee the earth in the spaceship, it is an odd image of the preservation of the innocent from that final suffering.  They are on their way to a new earth and a new heaven. Miller deliberately gives no hints as to what that will be like. But it seems clear that all is done on earth. We do know, however, that Brother Joshua is the leader of this group. And in the Old Testament it was Joshua who led the people into the chosen land. And the last monk looks at the “visage of Lucifer mushroom[ing] into hideousness” and murmurs, “sic transit mundus” and then beats the dirt from the soles of his sandals, just as Jesus commanded the apostles to do when they encountered a place that rejected His Word. This is the last battle, there won’t be another chance.

All that remains is the shark, very hungry and brooding in the deepest waters, in the “old clean currents”.  The earth has reverted to what it was before the arrival of man.

This final scene is dense and full of troubling imagery because it is trying to accomplish so much in a few pages, a meditation on the last things, on judgment, heaven, hell, purgatory, resurrection, salvation. It uses very odd imagery, as tortured as some of that in the Book of Revelation, stranger because it uses the stuff of science fiction rather than biblical symbology.

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  • Thanks for playing!  I thought about making a top 25 list of my own books, but I can’t imagine a home with me in it with only 25 books.  If I keep finding people like you I will never feel guilty about having so many books again.

  • In our family the favorite is Dinner at the Panda Palace. A delightful sense of whimsy pervades it and the girls just loved looking through the pictures seeing what all the animals were being served that was appropriate to their nature (such as peanut butter and jelly sandwishes for the elephants). It is one that I will still come across one of them sitting and reading when I have begged for book culling permission (and they are in high school and college). Obviously highly recommended! (I love it too…)

  • If I keep finding people like you I will never feel guilty about having so many books again.

    There is comfort in knowing other people share your particular breed of insanity, isn’t there?

    I actually have been culling my books in the past few months, listing the culls on bookmooch so I can acquire more, more, more books I want. Including more picture books. But 25. That’s just insane. Another reason why I tell my husband that the dream of living on a boat is just that. Not enough shelf space!!!

    My criteria for what’s a keeper have changed. There are just some books I can’t see packing up and taking with us if we have to move. And then I also think about whether I would want Bella to pick up and read a particular book if she happened to find it laying around. (Some day in the future when she’s just like me and reading everything in sight…) Thinking of whether a book is one I’d want my baby to read definitely changes my point of view!

    Julie, thanks for another recommend. The list keeps growing and growing…. smile