Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ Intro; Or, Why I Think Everything Means More Than It Does

In order to talk about all that I want to know, I must first reveal my ignorance about everything.

For instance: I did not originally read Dune in order to read Dune. I first read up on Frank Herbert because some fanboys on the forums over at TheoryLand and DragonMount were talking about how Robert Jordan’s Aiel are cheap derivatives of Herbert’s Fremen, which I thought impossible because of how impossibly excellent Jordan’s Aiel are.

(This was before I’d hit Jordan’s wall of prose around books nine and ten and realized just how insufficient the characters were for their wordcount.)

I expected swift rebuttal from Jordan’s followers and instead, as the pages of commentary inevitably bled on, I read a lot of reinforcement of the odd coincidence of shared fictional racial and imperial overtones over the span of fifty years of literary and historical development. In other words, I thought huh and shelved the issue away because coincidences happen.

Did I mention that I was incredibly naive?

Literary critics can’t afford coincidences because they are generally professors and always have to write and publish or lose their jobs and teach composition courses. It’s a matter of survival to ignore the whole “correlation does not mean causation” thing, because if you twist logic tightly enough, you can enter into a dreamlike sphere where the suspension of disbelief is actually pretty high and you can get your papers published on how James Joyce’s Ulysses is the predetermination of American politics of the twenty-first century. I just made that up but it’s probably happened. I kid you not.

But I think that the ties between Herbert and Jordan are a bit stronger than that, mostly because I discovered this past year that postcolonial criticism is a thing. Essentially, postcolonialism identifies struggles between the imperial and native tendencies of nations, cultures, and peoples. These dynamics extend to everything from philosophy to anthropology to psychology to sociology. And so, of course, they extend to literature of all sorts.

Even the literature that academics tend to dismiss out of hand.

But hey, that’s what Sleeping on the Roof is all about: putting the ‘pop’ in pop culture, exploding issues out of their original contexts and figuring out unconventional ways for them to matter in our increasingly unconventional world.

My hypotheses: that popular fiction serves as either a reinforcement or a rejection of cultural constructs that affect our nonfictional, international discourse; that the ideas of one author who wrote during the 1960s and 1970s being transplanted into a different genre and format in the 1990s and 2000s is more than mere coincidence; that our imaginations and politics, especially in our postmodern culture of existential fear and crisis, do bleed into each other; and that academia is shooting itself in the face by overlooking trends in popular and cultural fiction and risking becoming irrelevant in order to maintain the ‘dignity’ of its tradition.

Which brings us back to Dune, and everything which I do not know.

This is the first of many posts, which will hopefully be less obtuse than the one you’re reading now. But I’m talking about academia, so I can’t be too sincere in that sentiment.

I will be reading and recapturing Dune in these posts. I’ll be looking at the unfolding of Herbert’s work from various angles, but predominantly issues of postcolonialism, because Dune is a hallmark of postcolonial struggles. It serves as a strong watermark of American imperial policies, as projected into the infinities of possibility through the melange-ridden melancholy of political prescience. I’ll be consulting texts that I’m currently researching, whether it’s Edward Said’s Orientalism or Culture and Imperialism or Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth or Gauri Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest or whatever else I’m reading at the time. I’ve got a stack of at least a dozen books of criticism that I’ll be getting to during this time and which will begin to color my reading in some pretty drastic ways.

And I’m looking into other veins of criticism, too. Whether it’s René Girard’s Violence and the Sacred or Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis or Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia or whatever else, you’ll probably encounter a full range of of ideas in here. At least, that’s the hope. Maybe this is just a lot of conjecture. But at least it’s theoretical.


So now, on to the first chapter. I call it a chapter but Dune doesn’t have numbered chapters, only breaks in the text heralded by fascinating in-world epigraphs that construct a mythology that immerses us in the scenario.

In this case, we’re fed a tidbit about the future Messiah-figure of Muad’Dib of Arrakis—a religious divorce from the reality of his origin, as a native of another planet, an heir of another legacy. For the cult of Muad’Dib, their savior has only the one possible identity.

In part, this is because myths of origin greatly determine the identities available to modern social counterparts. As the source of the quote—Princess Irulan—argues in the very first line, “A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct” (3). Consider this in light of what Georges Balandier says about origins: “Ritual . . . accentuates certain aspects of power. It evokes its beginnings, its roots in a history that has become mythic, and it makes this history sacred” (Le Goff 55).

But it’s when we get into the way in which society adopts an originary that we encounter dangerous territory. Jacques Le Goff argues that “this [particular] kind of history is the collective memory that tends to confuse history with myth” (56). So what exactly is Irulan doing when she claims that the beginning must be balanced—especially when she argues that the actual origin of Muad’Dib is not his true identity? It’s the rejection of the objective and factual for the subjective and mythological.

And what is that objective, factual origin for Muad’Dib?

It’s pain. It’s manipulation and agony and political artifice which deny Paul of his ability to be his own person, however ‘human’ the gom jabbar determines him to be. The Reverend Mother of the Bene Gesserit, after all, claims that “[their] test is crisis and observation” (10), with an almost inhuman callousness for the pain caused him, the destiny orchestrated for him, and the role expected from him.

Almost immediately into his narrative, Paul Atreides has been plunged into a fixed course that he has little power to change. His family’s estate has been given stewardship over the desert planet Arrakis, essentially forcing them by political necessity to uproot from the more than two dozen generations of holdings on their native, green planet of Caladan in order to lay claim and authority over the most valuable economy in the universe.

The entire situation screams empire. We have different economic entities which, in their political gambling, offer as chips on the table entire planets and cultures. Eternal legacies are their playthings. We move from the verdure of Caladan into the barren sand of Arrakis—from the Eurocentric “Castle Caladan . . . [an] ancient pile of stone” (3) surrounded by “river orchards” and “green farmlands” (6), to the orient of Dune itself, a sandwaste in which the natives suck the residual water out of their dead.

The conflicting tropes are so blatantly loaded with West vs East archetypes that it’s hard to not see them. This will become even more obvious later in the novel. But the point here isn’t that these tropes are part of Herbert’s work; it’s that they are clouded in the preference for a mythos over politicos, even though the projected role for Paul is political to a fault.

He is heir to an economic Western imperial conglomerate that has been granted power and sanction over a ritualized Eastern tribal society. The way in which these power dynamics work over the course of the novel showcase some fascinating insights into the way in which Herbert regards the development and destruction of imperialist dogma.

But since we’re still in the realm of beginnings, let’s form a quick summary of the dynamics behind Paul’s origin:

  1. Paul has no ability to determine his own future or past. He is the result of human engineering; the Reverend Mother admits as much by the end of this chapter. And his family’s politicking has placed his future firmly on Arrakis.
  2. Within the first paragraph of the novel, we’re informed that Paul’s political origin is irrelevant compared with his greater identity as Muad’Dib, a ritualized Savior figure that rejects factual grounding.
  3. This dichotomy between politics and religion reflects the stark divide between Western and Eastern philosophies, which serves as one of the central conflicts of the novel, if not the series.
  4. Who Paul originally is greatly determines who he will become, and who his people will claim to be.

Since Paul originates in manipulation and violence, then the ritualized mythologized politicized trail of cultural fragmentation surrounding him will probably (definitely) follow suit.

At the risk of becoming didactic, take a moment and ask yourself what such conjecture might mean for fragmented mythologies of origins in our own societies, and the interplay between Western and Eastern cultures. Where do our current conflicts originate within our cultural consciences and identities? Are those cultural identities legitimate or mythologized? And what might be informing those identities?

Come back for more in the next post.

Le Goff, Jacques. History and Memory. New York: Columbia UP, 1992.


Published by

Spencer Merrell

Spencer Merrell is a disillusioned college grad. We'll see where that goes.

One thought on “Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ Intro; Or, Why I Think Everything Means More Than It Does”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s