Friday, March 25, 2011

Preserving the Good in an Age of Cultural Decline

Lydia McGrew, at What's Wrong With the World, has a post on my all-time favorite novel (except for The Lord of the Rings, which is in its own category): A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. She is correct to say that although there is darkness in the book: "At the same time, Canticle is an intensely Christian book and never succumbs to despair."

After introducing the novel, she talks about how it is about preserving good things in the midst of destruction, decline and decadence.

If you know the novel, read this. If not, go to her post here and read her brief introduction to it first. Then continue reading below.
At the moment, none of us expects all of human civilization to be wiped out by nuclear weapons. But there are plenty of destructive cultural forces to go around. In the end, what will be preserved will be preserved only by those who have a powerful creative impulse, an impulse not only towards saying what is wrong with the world but also towards saying what is good, what is great, what is beautiful and important, and what therefore must be preserved, however we are able to keep it.

If you are to be a preserver, you must know not only what you oppose, what you fight against (though you do need to know that) but also what you love, what you guard, what you uphold. It may be the truths of theology, of philosophy, or of science. It may be dance, literature, mathematics, music, or the beauty of visual art. It may be the lives, minds, and hearts of children. It may be the order and peace of a home or the love between man and wife. All these things can be served and nurtured. There are always good things, great things, things worth knowing and worth doing, to the greater glory of God. How blessed we are that, unlike the earliest monks of the Order of Leibowitz, we are able to understand what we preserve, to know not only that it is valuable but why it is valuable.

Everyone who loves the permanent things is invited to join the Order of St. Liebowitz.


Gordonhackman said...

As a science-fiction fan, I really want to read Canticle but have never gotten around to it. This post makes me want to go get a copy in short order. Have you ever read the follow up book, "Saint Lebowitz and the Wild Horse Woman"? If so, is it also worth reading? Thanks.

Craig Carter said...

Yes, I read as much as I could stand of the second novel but I recommend you save your money. It is terrible. By the time he wrote (most of it - it was finished by someone else), he was a very different person.

BTW, I know Canticle is considered to be a Si-Fi novel but I think it transcends that genre and is more of a novel of ideas. I have my students read 300 pages of St. Augustine and then write a paper on Canticle as an Augustinian novel.

Gordonhackman said...

Thanks for the insight. I'm sorry to hear the second novel is so bad. I'm intrigued by the statement that Miller was different person when he wrote that one. I don't know a lot about him or his life.

I can see how Canticle could transcend the sci-fi genre. It seems like it might fall into a similar category as the works of C.S. Lewis or Ray Bradbury, who both use the vocabulary and tropes of science-fiction to talk about what it means to be human and moral.

Craig Carter said...

Miller grew up in the American South and was a tail gunner in a B-52 bomber in the Allied raid on the Abby of Monte Cassio in Italy during the war. That is, of course, the first monastery in the West founded by St. Benedict in 529. Miller's loving and detailed creation of the fictional Abby of the Order of St. Liebowitz can be seen as a an act of penance for this act. Miller had a profound sense of the tragic nature of life.

After the war he became a Catholic and was a very articulate and well-educated Christian. But over the years he struggled with depression, mental illness and finally ended up a suicide.

He turned to Eastern mysticism in later years as his Augustinian pessimism overwhelmed his Augustinian sense of grace and faith. It is a tragic story of a soul whose pain and struggle to have faith gave birth to a beautiful and profound meditation on life, death, good, evil, knowledge and responsibility, church and state, and war and peace.

I find it fascinating how many people who are Augustinian in orientation have read Miller's novel. It is like a secret handshake linking one to Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Dante, Solzhenitsyn, JP II, B XVI and other notable Augustinians.

Gordonhackman said...

Thank you for the brief on Miller's life. You are right that it is tragic.

I am moving it up on my "to read" list. I haven't read any fiction for a while and have been feeling a little overwhelmed by all the choices available to me. I think this is something I'll really enjoy and I have wanted to read it anyway.