Memento: Relics and Memorabilia in A Canticle for Leibowitz*

The Albertian monks’ preservation of Memorabilia from before the Fallout (worldwide nuclear destruction) is a constant theme in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s post-apocalyptic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz. The monks attempt to maintain a history exclusively with Memorabilia, “meaning… only… books and papers, not… interesting hardware,” because their experiences with an intercontinental launching pad independent of proper documentation or instructions resulted in death (24). Unfortunately, keeping documents independent of their coinciding objects makes it much harder to decipher their significance, in the same way as it is useless or potentially dangerous to keep a relic without any explanatory Memorabilia. Both are needed in order to supplement memory of “an age which the world had, for the most part, deliberately chosen to forget” (24). In the third and final part of the book, “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” a piece of Memorabilia appears without relics and a relic without Memorabilia, illustrating the loss of meaning that occurs when one exists without the other.

            The Memorabilia that appears sans relic is the Poet’s book. Abbot Zerchi takes a volume with him to a rooftop, “by legend ascribed to a mythical saint” (303), consisting of a dialogue between a poet and a thon (304). This is the book the Poet mentions writing in the second “Fiat Lux” section, when he tells Dom Paulo that he will be staying at the monastery “[o]nly until my book is finished, of course” (142). The Poet apparently did finish it, yet, in Abbot Zerchi’s time, “No one, indeed, had ever found evidence that such a person as Saint Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball had ever lived” (303). The Abbot places emphasis on the importance of evidence, possibly in the form of a relic, that would help place the Memorabilia in history. Without proof of his historicity, the Poet’s writing loses its meaning as a potential commentary on the visit of the Thon and the politics going on around them that could then be taken as a lesson for the future of humanity.

            Equally cryptic, or perhaps even more so, is a relic without Memorabilia. Abbot Zerchi is again the one to encounters a relic from the distant past in the form of Brother Francis’ skull. In the first part, “Fiat Homo,” Francis is killed by the “Pope’s children” on his way back to redeem his illumination from the thief who had robbed him: “The arrow hit him squarely between the eyes” (116). When the Abbot becomes buried in the rubble of the monastery during an attack, the crypts break open and he picks up a skull whose “cranium was intact except for a hole in the forehead from which a sliver of dry and half-rotten wood protruded. It looked like an arrow” (331). Of course, the Abbot does not know that the skull is Francis’ or the significance of that monk’s mission and the radical reemergence of art in a time of desolation and subsistence, through Francis’ illumination. A gap of even more time has passed between the Abbot’s life and Francis’ than between his and the Poet’s, and the appearance of the skull cannot convey any meaning to the Abbot besides its being one of the monks. In direct contrast to that is the skull that Francis himself finds in the Fallout shelter, which is able to be identified as Leibowitz’s wife’s because of accompanying Memorabilia mentioning her gold tooth (62). Without any similar Memorabilia to explain the skull to Abbot Zerchi, Brother Francis’ discoveries, his illumination, and his death are all lost to history.

In either case, Memorabilia loses its historical significance when uncorroborated by evidence in the form of relics, and relics lose all potential for meaning when divorced from relevant Memorabilia. In order to effectively preserve humanity’s knowledge and sustain its development, as the Albertian Order of Leibowitz tries to, both Memorabilia and relics are needed.

Works Cited

Miller Jr., Walter M. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Bantam Books, 2007.

*This is a short close reading paper I submitted for an English class in October 2019. As there was a very strict word count on the original paper, I have made minor edits in the form of additions for clarity and context. Here’s hoping I haven’t just thrown words at it and made it more confusing.

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