Study Guide

Isaac Edward Leibowitz in A Canticle for Leibowitz

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Isaac Edward Leibowitz

Despite the fact that this dude's name is in the title of the book, you never really know who Isaac Leibowitz is—or isn't. So we guess our job here is done.

Just kidding. We are in a bit of a pickle though, because this character wears many faces and goes by many names throughout the book… or maybe "the wanderer" is a totally different chap altogether. What do you think?

Ahem. What we're trying to say is: there are many different ways of understanding this character, and we don't want to cramp your style by locking you into any one analysis. We just want to Shmoop you along to a little funderstanding.

But before we get into all those hazy "What if?" questions about Mr. Leibowitz, let's discuss what we do know about the guy.

What (Little) We Know

Fact: Leibowitz definitely lived in the days before and during the Age of Simplification. Second fact: he was an electrician or engineer of some kind. We know this because a circuit design with his name on it gets discovered by Francis in Chapter Two. (See, our powers of deduction are first-rate.)

This means that the Simplification would not have been a pleasant experience for him. Since complexly engineered doodads and electrical gadgets of any kind went bye-bye then. Not that being without internet is pleasant for anyone, we must say.

After the nuclear holocaust, Leibowitz went searching for his wife. Which means he was a total sweetie. But unfortunately, he never found her. Instead, he became convinced she was dead, and he escaped from the Simpleton packs by seeking sanctuary in the Cistercians. He eventually took the holy vows and founded a new religious community.

His new community consisted of "bookleggers" who "smuggled books to the southwest desert and buried them there in kegs" and "memorizers" who "committed to rote memory entire volumes of history, sacred writings, literature, and science" (6.16). And educators think they have it bad these days. We're guessing booklegging doesn't come with a benefits package.

Anyway, Leibowitz's little pet project was "aimed at saving a small remnant of human culture from the remnant of humanity who wanted it destroyed," and it became known as the Memorabilia. Leibowitz also became known because of the Memorabilia—you know, it was his legacy and all.

This legacy then becomes the driving force for the creation of the Leibowitz Abbey, where a lot of the book's scenes take place. It's also the home of many of our protagonists.

Eventually, Leibowitz was caught booklegging, "[h]ooded in burlap," and killed "by strangulation with a hangman's noose not tied for neck-breaking, at the same time being roasted alive" (6.17). He became a martyr and eventually the patron saint for the Leibowitz Abbey and its cause.

And that's all we can say about this character for certain. Things get a wee bit iffy after this sentence right here.

Some Maybes

It is hinted that Leibowitz was Jewish (this'll become important in a second, trust us). The surname Leibowitz finds its origins in the Yiddish name Leyb, meaning "lion," and the Germanic –owitz suffix, suggesting European-Jewish descent (source).

Leibowitz's shopping list provides further evidence (2.26). Pastrami and bagels are traditionally thought of as Jewish foods since they were first popularized in America by way of Jewish-Germanic immigrants (source). Even today, Jewish delis in New York City are famous for their seriously tasty pastrami on rye.

Of course, to keep things from being too simple, many of these clues can also lead one to conclude that Leibowitz was of Germanic descent. Or Jewish-Germanic. Or, thanks to the wonderful diversity of our U.S. of A., just about any other combination of ethnicities ever.

But if Leibowitz was Jewish, then he might just be a whole lot of other characters that crop up throughout the book, too. And long after the Age of Simplification, we might add.

Man of Many Faces

Each section of the novel contains a Jewish character who may or may not be the same character, and who may or may not be Leibowitz himself. Still with us? Good. Allow us to give you a breakdown of these other characters who might also be Mr. Leibowitz:

The wanderer: The wanderer Francis meets in the desert in Chapter One could be Leibowitz. It is suggested he's Jewish when he quips that Francis is "'writing things backward'" (1.25). See, Hebrew is written right to left instead of left to right.

Also, Abbot Arkos mentions how novices have linked the wanderer's burlap lion cloth and makeshift rope belt to Leibowitz's martyred hood and hangman's noose (4.22). And then there's the way Fingo's wood statue of Leibowitz smiles; it's eerily similar to the old wanderer's smile (1.38, 8.18).

Benjamin Eleazar: We are told straight-up that this guy from Fiat Lux is Jewish. He claims Leibowitz as a distant relative, and tells the story of Francis's encounters with the old wanderer as though he had been there (16.25, 29). Kind of fishy, don't you think?

He also claims to be "older than Methuselah," the oldest man in the Bible, who lived to be 969 years old (16.37). Thirty-two centuries to be exact (16.86). Even fishier.

The beggar from Fiat Voluntas Tua: This guy can speak Hebrew and he asks to be called "Lazarus," which is the name of the man Jesus raised from the dead and a Latinate version of Eleazar (25.158). He also wears a burlap sack as a jacket, which is totally Derelicte (25.155).

So, if you've caught our drift, you'll agree that there are many clues linking these various characters together: names, fashion sense, and a common Jewish descent. Benjamin might be telling the truth about his immortality and his relationship with Leibowitz.

But if the old wanderer and Benjamin are the same person, then why does the statue of Leibowitz look so much like him? Could Benjamin be telling the truth about his immortality but lying about Leibowitz? If so, then why? We want to believe, but sometimes it's hard.

For each clue, there exists a counterpoint that suggests maybe these guys aren't the same person. For example, Dom Paulo wonders where Benjamin "pick[s] up enough knowledge of the abbey's history to invent such tales" and decides the source must be "the Poet" (16.30).

That's possible. And even though Benjamin claims to be near immortal, the other two characters make no such claim.

But there is still one more layer of mystery to this character that we need to consider: the myth of the Wandering Jew. Hold on to your thinking caps, Shmoopers.

Carry On My Wayward Son

Because things weren't complicated enough, right? Now the novel has to go and bring Middle Age mythology into the works.

The myth of the Wandering Jew comes to Europe from the Middle East and seems to have its origin in Matthew 16:28 (source) when Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom."

It also relates closely to the Diaspora of the Jewish people and their loss of a homeland way back in the 6th century BCE (source).

As with any myth, many variations of this story exist. But the gist of the tale is pretty simple. Here goes. A Jewish man taunts Jesus as he comes by carrying his cross. In some versions, he denies Jesus rest, and in others, he strikes him.

Either way, Jesus curses him with immortality for his lack of hospitality (source), and the Jewish man is forced to wander the world until Jesus' Second Coming.

There are several clues that Leibowitz—or rather, one of the characters who might also be Leibowitz (ow, our heads hurt)—is the Wandering Jew. Check it:

Dom Paulo asks Benjamin, "'Still waiting, Old Jew?'" and his response is, "Certainly!" (16.51-52). Perhaps this a cryptic reference to the Wandering Jew's curse, since he's supposed to be awaiting Jesus' return.

Benjamin further says that "'The burden—it was pressed upon me by others,'" which is another reference to the myth (16.90). Finally, when Benjamin comes to see Thon Taddeo, he exclaims "'It's still not Him'" (20.151). Note how the Him is capitalized. As in, he's still waiting for Jesus, but Jesus still hasn't (re)arrived.

And then there's Lazarus. The children tell stories about how the old beggar is "'[s]till huntin' for the Lor' 'ut' raise him'" (24.132). Even Zerchi remembers stories of a man "[r]aised up by Christ but still not a Christian" (25.163). Both myths surrounding the old man suggest that he might be the Wandering Jew.

But, yet again, our loveably mischievous author Mr. Miller leaves us with reasonable counterpoints to all of these clues. Since Benjamin is Jewish, he might not be awaiting the Second Coming of Christ, but the first coming of the Jewish Messiah (although that would not account for the immortality bit).

As for Lazarus, these could simply be tales surrounding a mysterious old man—they echo similar hermits, like Benjamin. But that doesn't mean Lazarus is the Wandering Jew.

We should note at this point that the Wandering Jew story has been used in the past for anti-Semitic purposes. But we don't think Miller's trying to show any prejudice against the Jewish faith or peoples here.

We believe his purpose for layering this myth into the story is that all of the main characters in the novel seem to have a sort of wanderlust. And humanity in general, in the dystopian future Miller imagines, is kind wandering through time, awaiting a second coming of something: be it Jesus, civilization, paradise, or even self-destruction.

So maybe Leibowitz (and all these other guys) are supposed to be The Wandering Jew, or maybe Miller just wants to allude to the myth. But its mention is probably not intended as a slight against Jewish readers. Instead, it's more of a commentary on modern society: we're all a bit lost, aren't we?

Some Food for Future Thoughts

We know, we know, we just threw a lot of information at you. But you're gonna need it to construct your very own reading of Leibowitz's character. Here are some potential analyses for you to consider:

  • Leibowitz, Benjamin, the old wanderer, and the old beggar are all the same character and the Wandering Jew.
  • Benjamin, the old wanderer, and the old beggar are all the same character and the Wandering Jew but not Leibowitz.
  • They are all separate characters and the Wandering Jew is used for metaphor and allusion only.

If you feel stranded on the edge of a great literary labyrinth, dear Shmooper, Just remember this: Leibowitz/The Wandering Jew claims to have been around for thirty-two centuries. So it may take more a couple of days to figure out what he's really about.

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