23 April 2008

Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Current scientific theory suggests that, while the universe has been expanding since the “Big Bang”, it will eventually run out of steam and begin contracting. As matter collapses into black holes, becoming denser and denser, it will finally be reduced to a single, infinitely compact and unsustainable point--leading to another “Big Bang”, when it starts all over again.

Miller’s tale, originally published by Lippincott in 1959, applys this same cyclic principle to humanity. It is the story of a Catholic sect, founded by a penitent scientist after the Flame Deluge--present-day man’s first nuclear war--to preserve what was left of historical knowledge from the backlash against learning that followed. its three sections show man’s progress, from the struggle to legitimize learning around 2800 A.D., to its embrase by secular society in 3200, through the inevitable repetition of history which, once again, brings down Lucifer’s fire to destroy a technologically advanced but morally corrupt society in 3700.

This is a book of complex ideas and theological questions, such as man’s responsibility for the use of knowledge and the meaning of hope, but it is neatly summarized in these lines:
How shall you “know” good and evil until you shall have sampled a little? Taste and be as Gods. But neither infinite power nor infinite wisdom could bestow godhood upon men. For that there would have to be infinite love as well.

Infinite love does return to the world, briefly, as the second holocaust descends, to show that hope, like history, moves in cycles.



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