Study Guide

A Canticle for Leibowitz Memory and the Past

By Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Memory and the Past

Chapter 1

Brother Francis visualized a Fallout as half-salamander, because, according to tradition, the thing was born in the Flame Deluge, and as half-incubus who despoiled virgins in their sleep, for, were not the monsters of the world still called "children of the Fallout"? That the demon was capable of inflicting all the woes which descended upon Job was recorded fact, if not an article of creed. (1.81)

Myths superimpose themselves onto history in Francis's worldview, and they blend together to become a singular whole. The myths superimposed here are those of the incubus, and the notion that salamanders are impervious to or born within fire. Salamanders, by the way, are totally not invulnerable to fire —that's what we call a misconception, folks.

Chapter 4

"Ho, yes! Brother Francis didn't think of it. Somebody else thought of it. Brother Francis didn't think of the burlap hood and the hangman's rope; one of his chums did. So what happens? By tonight, the whole novitiate is buzzing with the sweet little story that Francis met the Beatus himself out there, and the Beatus escorted our boy over to where that stuff was and told him he'd find his vocation." (4.22)

Past events don't have to be ancient history to be distorted by myth and stories. Francis's account of meeting the wanderer gets all sorts of wonky just a couple of days after the event. It's basically like an old-fashioned game of telephone up in here.

Chapter 6

There were great deserts where once life was, and in those places of the Earth where men still lived, all were sickened by the poisoned air, so that, while some escaped death, none was left untouched; and many died even in those lands where the weapons had not struck, because of the poisoned air. (6.10)

Again, we see the idea of a worldview being superimposed onto history. In this case, the Church's understanding of the Flame Deluge and the Simplification is told in a language very similar to a passage from the Bible.

Chapter 11

"We know, too, of your labors at the abbey. For the Brothers of Saint Leibowitz, we have always felt a most fervent affection. Without your work, the world's amnesia might well be total. As the Church, Mysticum Christi Corpus, is a Body, so has your Order served as an organ of memory in that Body." (11.33)

Where the mind goes the body must follow, right? But if the mind can't remember where it's supposed to be going, then…?

Chapter 12

"There! You have it. And during the time of the anti-popes, how many schismatic Orders were fabricating their own versions of things, and passing off their versions as the work of earlier men? You can't know, you can't really know." (12.84)

Thon Taddeo tugs at the root of this theme's problem right here. He knows the Church's view of history is a faulty one. He's actually got his head screwed on straight about the past. Boy, are we glad to have him around.

Chapter 13

Perhaps he thinks of our cloister as a place of durance vile, thought the abbot. There would be bitter memories, half-memories, and maybe a few imagined memories. (13.20)

Or is he? Dom Paulo suggests Taddeo's view of the Church might be based less on his beliefs about truth and reality, and more on the horrible (and imagined?) happenings of his childhood. Like our relationship statuses, it's complicated. Really.

Chapter 22

"But what—?"
"A fragment of a play, or a dialogue, it seems. I've seen it before. It's something about some people creating some artificial people as slaves. And the slaves revolt against their makers. If Thon Taddeo had read the Venerable Boedullus' De Inanibus, he would have found that one classified as 'probable or allegory.'" (22.82-83)

What goes around comes around, eh, Taddeo? Though a fan of objective thinking, Taddeo is as susceptible to reconstructing his memory of the past to suit his present worldview as the Church he scorned earlier. Bam.

Chapter 26

"We only know what that thing says, and that thing is a captive. The Asian radio has to say what will least displease its government; ours has to say what will least displease our fine patriotic opinionated rabble, which is what, coincidentally, the government wants it to say anyhow, so where's the difference?" (26.9)

In the world of tomorrow, that thing (read: the not-so-futuristic radio) presents information at the speed of sound. But faster information doesn't mean better information. And history and personal memory still get fused together. Just wait until these characters get a hold of the internet.

That's where all of us are standing now, [Zerchi] thought. On the fat kindling of past sins. And some of them are mine. Mine, Adam's, Herod's, Judas', Hannegan's, mine. Everybody's. (26.13)

We've talked a lot about memory distorting the past, but let's remember that the past really does influence the present. In this case, it's imagined as the pyre upon which the world will be burned, making distortion a dangerous proposition.

Chapter 27

Afterwards, geneticists had wryly demonstrated that—since each racial group was too small that unless their descendants intermarried, each would undergo deteriorative genetic drift due to inbreeding on the colony planet—the racists had made cross-breeding necessary to survival. (27.76)

As we've cracked open the human genome, most of what we'd consider "pure races" (emphasis on the scare quotes) are really just the result of millions of years of our ancestors moving about and breeding in not-so-pure ways. Our fragmented memory of the past is what constructs race more than anything. Here's hoping those space colonists don't forget that.

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