In recent weeks I’ve read two novels that bear no relation to each other except as they reflect the difference between ‘fiction’ and ‘literature’. The first was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. The second was A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The difference is addressed in a 2006 introduction to the latter novel, which states: “Literature changes you. When you’re done reading, you’re a different person.”
I had not read To the Lighthouse since I was an undergraduate, and I had to push myself through the first two parts, ‘The Window’ and ‘Time Passes’ to part three, ‘The Lighthouse,’ which I found visionary and rewarding. I had a similar experience while reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, originally written as a trilogy.
I am relatively unversed in the literature of science fiction. Although A Canticle for Leibowitz is considered a science-fiction classic, I came to it late, as a result of a chance remark, and because I have always been attracted to the title – that wonderful and ironic juxtaposition of Christianity and Judaism.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is the tragicomic story of man (‘Fiat Homo’) rising out of his post-apocalyptic ignorance under the auspices of the Roman Catholic faith, in the abbey of the monks of ‘Saint’ Leibowitz (an electrical engineer whose grocery list fragment and other memorabilia are revered as holy relics of a lost civilization). Man then succumbs again to nuclear holocaust, after which he rises again (‘Fiat Lux’), and again (‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’), only to succumb once again to wholesale destruction.
Yet Miller (who converted to Roman Catholicism after serving in World War II) leaves us with a message of hope. In part three he speaks of his vision of man’s potential, which mingles so inextricably with his despair:
The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.
Near the conclusion of To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe, who has dedicated herself to art (as have the monks to the relics of civilization) cries out, “‘Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!’ feeling the old horror come back – to want and want and not to have.” Yet Woolf allows her the grace to finish the painting she has struggled with for years, and to say, at the end, “It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.”