One approach to “Dune”

It’s been a while since I read Frank Herbert’s masterpiece, Dune, so I decided to reread it last week. What struck me was how colonial/postcolonial the novel is. It really reminded me of Heart of Darkness in its ambiguities. Actually, both novels hold light and darkness as significant. I think examples from Heart of Darkness can go without saying, but Dune includes such gems as:

“To attempt an understanding of Muad’Dib without understanding his mortal enemies, the Harkonnens, is to attempt seeing Truth without knowing Falsehood. It is the attempt to see the Light without knowing Darkness. It cannot be.” (13)

Indeed, the basic structure of the Kwisatz Haderach is that of one who can look into the darkness:

“She focused on the psychokinesthetic extension of herself, looking within, and was confronted immediately with a cellular core, a pit of blackness from which she recoiled. That is the place where we cannot look, she thought.” (354)

We are even told of the possibility of becoming like Kurtz:

“His own eyes, he knew, had a touch of the color, but smugglers could get offworld food and there was a subtle caste implication in the tone of the eyes among them. They spoke of ‘the touch of the spicebrush’ to mean a man had gone too native. And there was always a hint of distrust in the idea.” (415)

Now, such similarities are all well and good, but one might ask, “So what?”

First of all, Dune is not the same as Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s novel allows one character to present his story, while Herbert allows many characters a passing chance to take a hand in the narration. The other issue at hand is in regards to genre. Dune is distinctly sci-fi; Conrad’s novel, not so much. These differences create several divisions — I shall highlight three here:

1) Herbert’s novel appears as a story, Conrad’s as an incident. This is an important distinction because of each author’s writing style. Both use language kind of weirdly. Conrad is boggling, this much is typically agreed. Herbert, in my opinion, shifts (often jarringly) between a journalistic tone and a transcendental/spiritual tone. In short, the two share a similarity that makes their novels strange to read. I argue that Herbert is less cunning in his use of analogies and allegories than Conrad. Herbert’s jarring writing actually makes us pay closer attention, while Conrad’s creepiness just confuses the heck out of us. As a side note, my favorite description in Heart of Darkness refers to the technology monitoring the steamboat, the technology an African is responsible for paying attention to. I love it because it links Western technology to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, yet it is phrased so oddly that it is almost impossible to slog through it properly. Conrad writes:

“He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.” (37 [Norton Critical edition 2006])

2) Herbert revels in explaining, Conrad doesn’t give a damn. The journalistic tone Herbert parades is no anomaly. It is typical sci-fi. When you’re exposing readers to a world that isn’t the world in which your readers live, it is kind of important that they come to understand it. Journalistic methods involve explaining stuff briefly (which does not always happen in sci-fi, much to the dismay of our brains) and giving something with which we might feel at home on, say, Arrakis. It seems to me that Conrad is not at all concerned with science fictional truthiness. My view of Heart of Darkness is that the book presents the river — and all Africa — as a mythical otherworld/other-world. In other words, the Africa of Heart of Darkness is myth and mystery, the Arrakis of Dune is technological myth. Marlow approaches the Congo with little scientific bearing. Rather, he approaches as an explorer; it is the Unknown. Arrakis is likewise unknown, but it is an unknown to be prodded by the sciences of the Guild, the Mentats, the Bene Gesserit, the Empire, etc… Arrakis is an object to be obtained, though it does retain some mythos. We are told that “Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his [Muad’Dib’s] place” (3) even though he was born and raised on Caladan.

3) Herbert wants to avoid “going native,” Conrad doesn’t seem as sure. Paul certainly “goes native” — his name shifts to Usul, then to Muad’Dib. He comes to effectively rule the Fremen through a quasi-religion. However, he is not totally “native.” He spends a huge chunk of the novel trying to avoid the “jihad” he perceives the future may hold. He intentionally shifts the way Fremen society and religion work — indeed he shifts the science of the Bene Gesserit as well — to avoid “going native,” engaging in the religious crusade the Fremen seem to desire. Conrad, primarily because of his totally confusing (and awesome) use of language, questions the location of the heart of darkness. I think it can be argued that he shows how none of us are quite innocent; evil lurks, crouching in every heart, within humanity. Muad’Dib’s concern with preventing evil is certainly good, but I believe Herbert grants too much credit to Puritan concept that only the chosen few are okay as humans (Hell, the Bene Gesserit test people to decide if they are “human” or “animal”).

I really like both novels, as you might be able to see by the length of this post…

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  1. February 17th, 2010

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