“Dune,” Reaction

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(Originally published on Substack.)

Last year, I joined a group-read of scholars who were reading Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, Dune, and discussing it on Twitter, in anticipation of the new Denis Villeneuve movie.

The movie got delayed till 2021, but the discussion we had, under the hashtag #DuneBookClub, was a lot of fun, and it culminated in a Zoom conversation hosted by ASAP/J. I’ve decided to post my notes for that meeting here.

You can watch the video version of my remarks (and the whole conversation, which is great) below.

This is my second time reading Dune. I think I read it for the first time when I was in high school, though I don’t remember exactly when.

What struck me this time about the book was its contradictory political vision, and how that contradiction shapes the way Herbert tells his story.

Dune marries a critique of Image culture—and what Daniel J. Boorstin called the pseudo-Event—with a self-conscious exploration of the use of myth in science fiction. Herbert is, in this way, a proto-structuralist. We see in Herbert’s writings about religion ideas that historically rhyme with the Myth and Symbol School of American Studies—and the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

The culturalist revision of Carl Jung on offer here has a notably cynical side. The claim that we need our myths to maintain social order would seem to be a criticism of the mechanisms by which social order is maintained, but in the hands of neoreactionaries, who basically hold a Straussian view of cultural life, there is a need to maintain social order, and religion’s role is to prop up that social order. These neoreactionaries invert the structuralist view: fictions are required to prop up the social order, but that’s a good thing, a reason for maintaining and expanding the reach of those fictions. In Dune, archetypes aren’t actually expressions of a collective unconscious but the necessary means of controlling superstitious indigenous populations (e.g., the Freman, who have been seeded with “implant-legends” by the Bene Gesserit).

I think Herbert thinks he is offering a critique of power, and I don’t think he thinks of himself as on the right. Still, the phrase that emerges from the Butlerian Jihad, “Man may not be replaced” very much resonates with the white nationalist slogan “You will not replace us.” The politics of this book are, in short, weird: Herbert is critiquing the neo-feudal world these characters live in, but the hero’s journey form of the book affirms the values of this world. You can enjoy the book as a (Jungian) power fantasy, with Paul as our typical Golden Age boy messiah, but the book also inserts various critical comments on the boy Messiah narrative.

Whatever Herbert thinks he’s doing, there is no avoiding the book’s Orientalism. What makes the “Jihad” inevitable is Fremen religious fanaticism. And what makes Paul’s story supposedly tragic is that, for all his prescience, he is a tool of that larger fanatical force. He can, at best, guide or mitigate it. Paul goes out of his way to tell himself, or others, that after a certain point the “Jihad” will move with a life of its own, because of some inherent or BG-conditioned Fremen propensity to fanatical religious violence.

Such moments have a double character. On the one hand, they speak to his prescience and real BG-honed powers. On the other hand he is skillfully reading from a script that has been laid out for him in advance. The real drama of the novel is therefore not found in sandworms and hand-to-hand combat but Paul’s ability to walk a certain prescripted path and successfully stage a set of pseudo-events on cue for the indigenous population. Paul and Jessica manipulate the Fremen only because the BG have pre-seeded their religious beliefs. So Paul and Jessica’s outsiderness is predicated on a prior Bene Gesserit getting-inside Fremen religious ideology. But then they become trapped by the non-cynicism of the Fremen. These indigenous people take this myth-and-legend stuff seriously.

From this vantage point, Dune might be a good book with which to think about the implicit logic of populism, the notion of out-of-control coalitions, the theory of media effects undergirding critiques of the Image. It seems as if popular passions must be cooled, and that Paul’s job is to act as such a cooling saucer. But he’s not very good at his job.

Dune thus represents a work of science fiction where the critique of the Image comes face to face with a new awareness of genre as a powerful social and political technology. Irulan suggests that the Great Man should have a “sardonic” relation to the myth he finds himself in. Which contrasts with a later description of Paul as “sincere.” It is no surprise then that there are moments in Dune when Paul gets “caught up in his own myth.” Paul’s prescience is one of the most obscure (yet important) parts of the book. It seems at the same time to make him nearly omnipotent and utterly helpless. It leads, in the later books, to bizarre contradictions in the narrative, especially in Dune Messiah, where he compares himself to Genghis Kahn and Hitler, and is fully aware of his own monstrousness.

Herbert comes close to recognizing the reactionary element of certain strands of Golden Age science fictional myth-making, stories of whiny boy Messiahs who rise from obscurity to save the world. The danger is that Dune—like Paul—might become “caught up in [its] own myth.” It must find a way to retain a “sardonic” relation to itself. Yet its paradoxical success is a sign of its own failure.

Dune‘s fans, not infrequently, have taken seriously its boy-Messiah narrative. Even as Herbert tries to untangle the legend of Paul Atreides, even as Paul himself in sequels tries to destroy what he has built, the genocidal ambition of Herbert’s story expands outward. This is what most fascinates me most about the book: the way it loses control of its own materials, and must try, again and again, to contain the reactionary narrative energies it has unleashed. I suspect, based on the trailer, that the Villeneuve film will not handle these aspects of the novel well—but we’ll see.