Canticle For Leibowitz
Inkjet on watercolour paper
90 x 60 centimetres
The existential horror that young American bomber crew member Walter M Miller felt during the World War Two bombing of the sixth century monastery at Monte Cassino resurfaced years later when he became the author of one of the greatest apocalyptic science fiction novels.
Canticle For Leibowitz is difficult to characterise; it’s profoundly thoughtful, frequently surreal, oddly comic and always thoroughly inventive. Slabs of latin exegesis punctuate memorable images such as breathless monks powering a hamster wheel connected to a dynamo used to feed electricity to a single dim light globe. Years of labour are spent on an illuminated manuscript copy of a holy relic — a blueprint of an electronic device — a document whose original purpose is completely obscure to the reverent monks.
The setting centres on an isolated monastery in a post apocalypse desert in the US, and this together with the novel’s religiosity settled one decision — that the lighting has an old pinkish tint bathing a landscape entirely devoid of greenery, much like the Hollywood bible movies of the 1950’s. The chosen moment is the unexpected arrival of the peripatetic figure of the Wandering Jew, a wise but puckish presence who regularly reappears over the novel’s time span of millennia, and who frightens the novice monk sent into the desert by his abbot to prove his fitness.
The debris scattered over the landscape carries ominous graffiti quoting texts such as the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and the eminently quotable Winston Churchill. A half buried sign bears the name New Rome which has become the post nuclear seat of the Catholic church, the institution who historically became the guardian of knowledge after the fall of Rome. The eroded head which has a likeness to Julius Ceaser, the hovering vulture and the dynamo are talismanic and atavistic objects that populate Miller’s dense symbolic narrative.A Science Fiction Classic Still Smolders: The New Yorker