“A mystery: it’s as if everything came together by some felicitous chance, then fell apart into normal negative entropy. I’m as mystified as ever” was apparently Walker Percy’s take on A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Having finished it on the same weekend I listened to a lecture on Christendom’s relation with monsters, I wanted to scribble some thoughts on the final scene (depicted above). Those thoughts turned into more. The biblical typology is on overdrive. You can read the essay below.
Calvary as Nuclear Apocalypse: A Reading of Heads and Monsters at the End in A Canticle for Leibowitz
“I mean Jesus never asked a man to do a damn thing that Jesus didn’t do.” Dom Zerchi
“If God is to be seen at work here, he is indeed a strange God, a hidden God, who does not uncover his will in a straight line of development, but fully enters into a world of confusion and ambiguity and works in contradictions” Rowan Williams
“We call him the dumb
God with an effrontery beyond
pardon. Whose silence so eloquent
as his? What word so explosive
as that one Palestinian
word with the endlessness of its fall-out?1
Thesis: While A Canticle for Leibowitz pushes everything it can think of past its limit, the motif of monsters and heads in its penultimate scene shows that for Walter M. Miller Jr. nothing on Earth can go further than the interventions undertaken by the God-man; 0-30AD.
In his talk Pageau explores Christianity’s historical relationship with the monster as a portent, a visible representation of chaos and disorder, a visible threat to our stable hierarchies and systems of order, an affront and denial of them which occurs on the boundaries; the edges of space and time and epochs.
The Nephilim before the flood, Cynocephalus at the ends of the earth, Gargoyles at the frontiers of the church, St. Christopher at the edge of the Waters. Our own era congested with zombies; that sign becomes not so difficult to discern.
The connections with Walter M. Miller Jr’s classic are not difficult to discern either. The novel gains its power from placing and then exploring everything it contains at its limit—and often on past it. The 3 sections: Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux, Fiat Voluntas Tua, force man, and light (photonic, intellectual and cultural), and the idea of the divine will to their limit.
Civilisation, the Church, the State, Science, Technology, the value of Beauty, Art, Friendship, Judaism, Medicine are all placed at their limit and held there for questioning. Ethical limits abound: euthanasia, abortion, murder, war, espionage, cannibalism, plague, the limits of human personhood. As do physical limits: deserts, extrasolar colonies, starships, continents, empires, atoms.
But as we learn above, where there are limits, there shall be monsters.
Pageau introduces his archetypal monster as one from a story in the Greek Alexander Romances. It is a stillborn child from the waste up and a mixture of writhing spaghetti animals from the waste down. Alexander seeks an interpretation of the omen and it’s eventually revealed to be his empire: with him, its head, dead it will descend into bestial factions.
The monster with a dead human head in charge of a living animal body is a harbinger of chaos for the world.
For Pageau the fundamental symbolism here is that it is the conscious agent—the human head—which holds the multiplicity of the person, the society, the state, the civilisation, as a coherent whole. The centrality of the head which the Alexander myth and Pageau’s exposition highlights helped me see the centrality of heads in the penulitmate Leibowitz’s scene (the one depicted at the top).
The scene occurs moments after the the second nuclear fallout which terminates the novel. There is a two headed woman.. yes. But there is also the Abbey’s (the novels central location and home of the the Albertian Order of Leibowitz—around which the novel’s plot revolves) current abbot (head), Dom Zerchi. He lies under the Abbey’s millennia-old rubble having attempted to flee from it with the ciborium containing the consecrated host (ie. Christ, the head of the Church). Further, while trapped he uncovers the skull (head) of an ancient saint of the order, brother Francis Gerard—the main protagonist in the novel’s first part.
Here then are gathered the ‘head’ of the novel itself, the head of the monastic order, the head of a martyr, the head of the new Adam (run with me), the head of an Eve, the head of an infant Mary (see below), hell even the head of a God, thee God, who is also (thanks to hypostatic union) the head of the human race, round the fire of an atom bomb to see the world off.
Head and Endings
Why gather so many heads in the light of the Earth’s End? Well that’s just it I think. This is the Earth’s End, and the symbolism of monsters and their heads helps us see that such a comprehensive concentration of heads which are soon to be lifeless signals a coming earthly chaos which must be taken as final.
This reality is also reinforced elsewhere. The appellation in the novel of atomic detonations as “Flame Deluges” links their occurrence to Noah’s Flood; the coming of a chaos of fire rather than water which mythically ties any monsters we might find here to the Nephilim, but the ultimate finality of a flood-event is still indeterminate, I’m saying something more.
It seems to be the end of the Order. “The last Canticle of the Brethren of the Order of Leibowitz” quoted from at the start of the section we are told is “sung by the century that swallowed its name”. But it is the the next scene (the final final one) which has another Joshua shake the Earth from his feet as a band of monastic pilgrims actually jets off to the promised land of an extrasolar colony. The earth has become a desert2 from which God’s chosen people exit not in triumph but in sorrow.
At their parting the Abbey Zerchi tells this group, “Remember this Earth. Never forget her, but — never come back. If you come back, you might meet the Archangel at the east end of Earth, guarding her passes with a sword of flame.” With this second Fall/fallout/flame deluge man has permanently banished himself from Eden-Earth.
The final scenes of the novel are therefore the endiest end you can get, or definitely the endiest end Walter M. Miller Jr could think of. The end of a habitable earth and the Leibowitzian Order, the (possible) end of the human race and the Catholic church. It’s an immanentised science-fiction-fueled Day of Judgment which draws on the imagery of the Fall, the Exodus, the Flood, and both Daniel and John’s Apocalypses.
So far, however, Christ-as-cosmic-event is curiously missing. Might we find ties which connect any of this to the biblical endings, transitions and cosmological breakthroughs which marked the paschal mystery of the God-man?
Nuclear Holocaust (an inherent limit of time, space, life, and epoch) has been the mother of all of these circumstances. In Leibowitz she is the pearl of great price for which sufficiently advanced societies seem incapable of not selling all they have to attain.
But she is also the mother of monsters.
Mrs. Grales is—by my lights—one of only two speaking female characters in Leibowitz. While the other woman euthanises herself and her child due to the effects of the contemporary nuclear fallout, Mrs. Grales gives births in spite of—and thanks to—both the original (over 2 millennia old) and contemporary nuclear fallout. In this sense, she plays the strange role of an apocalyptic Mary, on which I am sure much has been written. She is a being born from chaos, one whose death and life and motherhood are intertwined with cosmic transitions.
But then, ‘motherhood’ mightn’t be the right word, because Mrs. Grales is a bi-headed mutant.
That is to say, Mrs. Grales is a monster.
Now, Mrs. Grales like Alexander’s monster always has a dead head—and all the symbolic import of that. But, unlike Alexander’s monster, she always has a living one too! During the End Times which constitute the third and final section Mrs. Grales’ second head (whom she calls Rachel) had been seemingly lifeless, a mere disturbingly-serene and childlike appendage, with only vague hints of being something—or someone—more. But this second nuclear fallout which terminates the novel kills the ‘Mrs. Grales’ head of Mrs. Grales causing ‘Rachel’ to come (fully?) to life.
So here even at the End of the End we, sure enough, find another monster, a changed monster, a redeemed monster (?!). What is going on? What does this monster symbolism mean for an interpretation of Leibowitz’s ending?
Monsters and Heads
Enter Christ. The presence of the dead God—of the ‘head’—of Christendom fluttering around his dying priest, a suffocating alter Christus, in the final scene deeply informs the monster motif.
Firstly, in that the newly vivified Rachel, as a seemingly immaculate alter Mediatrix, acts as priest to the priest, feeding him the host. The new (bastard? epiphenomenal? monstrous!) creation ministering to the old during its last gasps. But also because Mrs. Grales name seems to reference the Holy Grail—the ciborium—connecting her, at the very least, back to Mary as the one who contains/births/sustains a perfect person.
In the knowledge that the monster is the key, and the nature of the monster’s embodiment is itself the omen, we can now see what Miller Jr. is up to. For, while Alexander’s monster is a hybrid of human and animal, Leibowitz’s is a hybrid of redeemed and unredeemed humanity; Eve and Mary on the same shoulders.
Well actually, Mrs. Grales herself seems to be both Eve and Mary—complex, inverted, perverse. An Eve who births perfection, a Mary who commits serial abortions. But then, Christians have forever lived in between: simul justus et peccator. A sinner who moments before Zerchi hears as “a voice of Eve…even a woman with two heads could not contrive new ways of courting evil, but could only pursue a mindless mimicry of the Original”, she is a symbol of original sin as genetic deformity.3
This leaves Rachel (ewe—as in ‘female lamb’) as an immaculate conception of a genetic-mutant resurrection. One who has “only just been born” thanks to Eve’s death in the light of Satan’s second fall. Rachel is one who apparently does not need even the church’s baptism to “fulfil all righteousness”—and so rejects it. This is a new birth from which Mrs. Grales’ head will fall off like an “umbilical cord”, so is this a new Mrs. Grales?
Why have a redeemed child of God birthed by the very man-made demonically-appellated apocalypse which will perhaps kill her and all (bar Zerchi) who may witness her? Does the Mrs. Grales/Rachel monster tell us something solid and abiding about Miller Jr’s soteriology and anthropology at the limits? Or is she ‘merely’ an incredible, awful, answer to Zerchi’s final personal petition?
Monsters and Endings
With the full weight of biblical symbolism, monster theory, narrative and biological reality behind this Second Ending—the Death of Earth—one might be forgiven for assuming the culmination of man’s “old maladies”, “swinging them this time to oblivion”, to be the end of all hope. In a religious sense as much as a secular one.
But a key part of the Christian understanding of the Day of Judgement is that it has already happened.
Satan and man did their worst to the Earth’s creator and life sprung back perfected. “Satan falling” a second time, the very “visage of Lucifer mushroom[ing] into hideousness”, the ultimate incarnation of man’s destructive potential “rising slowly like some titan climbing to its feet after ages of imprisonment in the Earth”, can therefore do no worse than Calvary.
And Rachel is Leibowitz’s mysterious monstrous little proof that this is so. An unorthodox little reminder that Satan’s destructive worst never was able to do much other than deliver God’s best. Human perfection from a monster, an immortal baptism bequeathed by hell’s fires, resurrection for the last of these, life from hideous death.
Rachel is a window, a symbol we are invited to see through by the very fact she has apparently recently been hurled through one herself, with Zerchi pulling its piercing shards (shadowing Cruxifixion) from her arm. She is herself a shattered, broken, kind of window, one we look through as we might through glass darkly.
The symbolism of the open ciborium whose holy content Zerchi lies amongst as he lies before Rachel mirrors what we see in her. As womb the emptied ciborium shadows Incarnation, as opened tomb it shadows Resurrection. This is replicated with this Day of Judgement casting Saint Francis from his tomb in a ghoulish sort of forced ‘resurrection’. Rachel is even transfigured, with talks of her strange radiance—transfiguration in the blinding light, not of God’s heaven, but of man’s hell.
In all this symbolism however we are called back to the knowledge that the destruction of Texarkana and thereafter the Earth cannot outstrip that of Calvary; that the flesh has already been pierced, by nails not radiation, the earth has already quaked at a cosmic detonation, a final roar has already descended the heavens, the sun has already been darkened by death’s seeming victory, man has already been destroyed, the woman has already lost her child, Christ’s body has already lain in the rocks among the dead, and undead monsters have already come forth and appeared to God’s people, stalking the precincts of God’s now-abandoned temple4.
Rachel is Leibowitz’s Incarnation and Transfiguration, its Passion and Resurrection, perhaps its stillborn Second Coming too—but a reminder that the Second is Coming nonetheless. She is a last fantastic incarnation of hope on Earth, an incomprehensible freak of God’s incomprehensible economy.
And if the descendants of the crew of the Quo peregrinatur ever do return to Earth’s Eden perhaps Rachel is the monster they will find waiting, guarding its gates.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Odds and End(ing)s
Brother Francis Gerard. The og ‘dead head’, and the campfire head I only touched on, Francis has been a skull for ~1300 year old in this scene. Given the motifs of monsters and heads his martyrdom in the first section is a triple irony.
- First, it’s at the hands of a.. nother two-headed mutant, who also happens to be a cannibal—I know, right.
- Secondly, he was enroute back from seeing Papa a the time and genetic mutant’s were at the time known as “The Pope’s Children” (due to papal denunciation of euthanasia)—killed by your boss’s kids, killed by your brothers—a single-headed Cain was bad enough. Note, that obviously makes Mrs. Grales/Rachel a “Child of the Pope”.
- Thirdly, he was killed by an arrow to the (you guessed it) head, which arrow is still present when Zerchi chats with the skull.
- “Nuclear”, The Way of It (1977)”
- “Space is your home hereafter. It’s a lonelier desert than ours.”
- The quasi-metaphysical status assigned to nuclear fallout and its effects—the potential eschatological import of a technology that can destroy and deface man as man, woman as woman—I take to be one of the most profound questions Miller Jr. explores. Much or all of this meaning is present in the naming of the event of a nuclear detonation, “Satan falling”.
And yet, the inverse is also true, and perhaps the more fascinating. The exploration of Christ’s incarnation as something in the way of a nuclear detonation (as R.S. Thomas words above affirm), the evangel a human pollutant that goes as deep as radiation, “piercing the very marrow”, the human race living amongst the ruins it has left, “the endlessness of its fall-out”. There seems a deep potential alignment at work here in spiritually history with what Leibowitz takes upon itself to envisage in terms of physical history.
- Matthew 27:52-53