Monday, February 28, 2011

What the Monk Said to the Scientist

I read a lot of fiction.  I know many people who think it is a waste of time, but every now and then I find gems that make it completely worth it.  Case in point: A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter Miller Jr.  This has become one of my top ten favourite works of fiction.  I just finished reading it the other day, and it blew me away, more so considering that it was first published in instalments in a Science Fiction pulp magazine.  It is the only work from such a source to be considered literature, and despite being first published fifty years ago, has never gone out of print. 

The story is divided into three sections, spanning 1800 years of future history after a nuclear war destroys our own culture.  The events occur within a monastery established by a long-deceased martyr named Liebowitz, who founded the monastery to protect the written records of the past civilization from those who would seek to destroy it.  The monks studiously preserved charred remains of books and blueprints, but with little idea of the knowledge they contained.  The three sections of the book roughly follow our own history (hitting a theme of Miller’s: the circularity of history), from the protection of knowledge after the fall of Rome, to the Renaissance, and finally to the rise of a technological civilization.

In the second section, entitled Fiat Lux (Let There Be Light), a secular scholar (Thon Taddeo) travels to the monastery to go through some allegedly ancient documents reputedly written by, among others, Einstein.  While there the abbot, Dom Paulo, asks him to give a talk to the monks about his research.  Although wishing to avoid religious quarrels, he tentatively agrees.  The following insightful passage highlights his talk.  I hope you will appreciate the intended irony as much as I did.

After some discussion of the phenomenon of refraction, he paused, then said apologetically: “I hope none of this offends anybody’s religious beliefs,” and looked around quizzically.  Seeing that their faces remained curious and bland, he continued for a time, then invited questions from the congregation.
“Do you mind a question from the platform?” asked the abbot.
“Not at all,” said the scholar, looking a bit doubtful, as if thinking et tu, Brute.
“I was wondering what there is about the refrangible property of light that you thought might be offensive to religion?”
“Well –” The thon paused uncomfortably.  “Monsignor Apollo, whom you know, grew quite heated on the subject.  He said that light could not possibly have been refrangible before the Flood, because the rainbow was supposedly –”
The room burst into roaring laughter, drowning the rest of the remark.  By the time the abbot had waved them to silence, Thon Taddeo was beet red, and Dom Paulo had some difficulty in maintaining his own solemn visage.
‘Monsignor Apollo is a good man, a good priest, but all men are apt to be incredible asses at times, especially outside their domains.  I’m sorry I asked the question.”
“The answer relieves me,” said the scholar.  “I seek no quarrels.”
There were no further questions and the thon proceeded to his second topic: the growth and the present activities of the collegium…
“I might mention a few of the current researches and investigations being conducted by our people,” he went on.  “Following Bret’s work on the behavior of gases, Thon Viche Mortoin is investigating the possibilities for the artificial production of ice.  Thon Friider Halb is seeking a practical means for transmitting messages by electrical variations along a wire –”  The list was long, and the monks appeared impressed…
“In addition to these studies, Thon Maho Mahh is heading a project which seeks further information about the origin of the human species.   Since this is primarily an archaeological task, he asked me to search your library for any suggestive material on the subject, after I complete my own study here.  However, perhaps I’d better not dwell on this at any length, since it’s tending to cause controversy with the theologians.  But if there are any questions –”
A young monk who was studying for the priesthood stood up and was recognized by the thon.
“Sir, I was wondering if you were acquainted with the suggestions of Saint Augustine on the subject?”
“I am not.”
“A fourth century bishop and philosopher.  He suggested that in the beginning, God created all things in their germinal causes, including the physiology of man, and that the germinal causes inseminate, as it were, the formless matter – which then gradually evolved into the more complex shapes, and eventually Man.  Has this hypothesis been considered?”
The thon’s smile was condescending, although he did not openly brand the proposal childish.  “I’m afraid it has not, but I shall look it up,” he said, in a tone that indicated he would not.
Walter Miller Jr., ‘Fiat Lux”, A Canticle for Liebowitz, 1959


Keith Shields said...

Thanks for this excerpt. I must plan to read the whole book. You may want to consider reading a non-fiction book dealing with some similar themes: How The Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill.

Matthew said...

Thanks Keith, that looks interesting, and is certainly part of the history Miller was relying on for his book. I think you'd like Miller. His book really is fascinating, made more so by his own life, in which he was responsible for an Allied bombing on a monastery in Italy. You can see him working out his own guilt in this novel.