Another approach to “Dune”

I really like Dune. So, I thought I would look specifically at the novel through a Heideggerian lens. This will be shorter than my first analysis of it.

Before I do that, I want to look at some things in terms of Nietzsche. I suspect that Nietzsche would despise the Bene Gesserit. Their goal seems to be to genetically create an Uebermensch, yet they de-emphasize fear. Indeed, they reassert the idea of fear as bad in the novel’s (most famous) line: “Fear is the mind killer” (8). On the other hand, Muad’Dib’s betrayal of the Bene Gesserit would please ol’ Friedrich. Indeed, the following statement could just as well have come from Thus Spake Zarathustra: “And always, he fought the temptations to choose a clear, safe course, warning ‘That path leads ever down into stagnation'” (218).

So what of Heidegger? He too, I would argue, would not express much pleasure with the Bene Gesserit. One of their proverbs reads:

“Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere. Climb the mountain just a little bit to test that it’s a mountain. From the top of the mountain, you cannot see the mountain.” (69)

I would argue that Heidegger would be disappointed with this proverb because it assumes a merely knowledge-based conception of the world. Being at the top of a mountain may prevent you from seeing the mountain in a purely visual sense. Therefore, you would not know how the mountain appears, but such an ontology is not our complete experience. Rather, we first come to understand the mountain. It is equipment of Nature — an environment. Indeed, the mountain may even be such a ready-to-hand that it appears as the woraufhin: the scene on which things appear, the scene that remains distinct from those things or any-thing. Such a view of the mountain would no longer even allow it to be equipmental. Instead, the mountain as woraufhin would be a world.

My central argument about Dune from a Heideggerian perspective is that place is more important that Herbert suggests. Herbert likes to focus on things like religion and militancy and economics — yet the language he uses betrays a different trope. It seems unintentional, but it permeates the novel.  As I have explained, it is the idea of place, environment, and world that Heidegger would particularly notice; these are ideas with which Herbert spends little time, but they account for much of the representation of humanity.

We need look no farther than the function of the Kwisatz Haderach — whom we come to discover is Paul, Muad’Dib. The Reverend Mother states, “Yet, there’s a place where no Truthsayer can see. We are repelled by it, terrorized. It is said a man will come one day and find in the gift of the drug his inward eye. He will look where we cannot — into both feminine and masculine pasts” (13). Two brilliant things become clear. One, the Reverend Mother again announces the Bene Gesserit obsession with thought only; the Kwisatz Haderach is meant merely to look. Secondly, we see quite overtly that the pasts of men and women, the multitudes, are measured by place. This connection between time and space magnifies and gives meaning to the abilities of the Kwisatz Haderach. Late in the book we see Muad’Dib grapple with the numerous possibilities — many of which even he cannot see. It is only because the world bends in a certain direction (involvement) that allows any possibility whatsoever. Because of the involvement of time and space, the bent world opens, always, the possibility of being aware of our being (as Dasein).

See, I made this one shorter.

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…

Good as Gold

I finished Joseph Heller’s book, Good as Gold, last week. Because the book is old and Heller hasn’t written anything for a few years (which will happen when you’re dead), I don’t want to review the book. I will however do two things:

1) I highly recommend this book. The humor is excellent — bleak, but excellent. The joke about Chaim Potok is worth reading the book.

2) A few comments can be made about Heller’s attacks on contemporary culture. Yes, contemporary even though the book is from the 70’s. Again and again Heller shows the absurdity of the mass consumption ideology. More education = more smartness, more smartness = more money, more money = more happiness. We can think of this in the terms Ivan Illich assigns: we are caught up, thinking that “escalation leads to success.” Heller effectively shows that more, while always more, is not essentially better.  The main character, Bruce Gold (a college professor), rages constantly at his family for their stupidity. We see nothing but hatred for them from him, yet he is unable to cast them from his life. Indeed, the closer Gold gets to a government appointment, the more tightly he finds himself bound to his family. He cheats on his wife with several women, but, in every case, he cannot help but to weigh his mistresses against his domestic obligations.

Thus, we get an overall effect that it classic Heller. The things that are really valuable are not the things that the bulk of society tells us are valuable. Military action, government involvement, and money all splinter in comparison to something(s) else.

Heidegger and the Jedi

Movie marathons are, occasionally, very good for the mind. They relax and captivate. Last night I took part in a Star Wars marathon — we watched only the good movies, the originals. As I watched I consistently found myself in a phenomenological mood. I came to notice two big things.

First, there is a quasi-Heideggerian idea of destiny. The following clip should show this nicely:

Two ideas in Yoda’s speech seem in line with Heidegger. For one, we are told that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.” Here we can consider Heidegger and destiny — starting down a path. Once we go down a path, it is indeed very difficult to deviate from its course. Yet we might question Yoda’s wisdom in this. It seems we are to assume that the light side of the Force is then easy to deviate from. Therefore, it is not really the main way of destining and contributes to quite a different way of Being-in-the-World. To follow the light path is not the usual destiny apparent to Dasein at any moment. Proximally and for the most part, our mode of Being-in-the-World has to be the destining of the dark side.

The second item we can gather from Yoda is his proposition of knowledge. He says, “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” We come back to Heidegger’s refusal of Descartes — there is no “Bridge Problem” because the res cogitans and the res extensa are not opposed entities. Rather, Dasein finds her or his  being as Being-in-the-World. One is effectively smeared with the “things” in-the-world, however they appear. Knowing, for Heidegger, then becomes a matter of separating those “things” from the self. It is not a Bridge Problem but a Hygiene Problem: How can Dasein remove those things from her or his concern, how could we look and not touch? Here Yoda fails as a Heideggerian (indeed the Jedi fail as Heideggerians). There is always necessarily concern contained within defense, so to pursue knowledge and defense is a hopeless task. Knowledge, as rigid objectivity, is of supreme difficulty.

Now, to continue an analysis of Star Wars through Heidegger, we must consider that George Lucas was pretty much a hippie. His distinctive focus on the Force (spirit/energy) should be proof enough of this. It could also be argued that the the Ewoks fighting the Empire is an allegory to the Vietnamese and the U.S. (Empires are bad). Though, as a side note, this critique would ignore some pretty racist overtones — notice how it still requires people rebelling from the Empire (hippies) to “save” the Ewoks. I would observe, with a smile, that the Ewoks weren’t really in any kind of danger until after the rebels (hippies) began interfering on Endor. The stormtroopers were just defending their shields from the rebels — the Ewoks didn’t really seem to care too much, and they weren’t getting killed until Han Solo (who was totally Jabba’s drug dealer) decided C3PO should get them involved.

Returning to Heidegger… it might be fun to consider the use of technology. Unfortunately, Lucas hits us with the old complaint that technology is bad. It is useful, but should be avoided — you can’t beat Darth with a blaster, you’ve got to solve your daddy issues to beat him. Heck, the technology of beauty — Art — appears only in the hip music of the bar, Jabba’s seraglio, and the Ewoks (primitive) dance. Thus, one of the main messages that arises from the trilogy is that love and compassion (which appear suspiciously like coincidence and being really lucky) will save humanity. Because technology will doom us unless its really close to nature.

Dang hippies.

Sorry NYT, that is not news…

As I went to breakfast this morning, I picked up the New York Times. Just one of my many habits. I scanned the front page as I took a bite of yoghurt. Haiti, check. Blackwater investigation, check. Toyota dying? check. Gays in the military, check. No Child Left Behind being changed by Obama, check — though to be fair, Obama is not really seeking “Sweeping Change” like the headline suggests. And then… “Men With Guns Defend Historic Mandela Site… From Rabbits

Yup. The NYT did a front page article about rabbits. Front page. Front page.

The article included: 1 color photo of a bearded man holding three dead rabbits, 1 black-and-white photo of butchers preparing rabbits to be donated to the poor, and 1 map of Robben Island, the Mandela Site in question.

Yes, we understand that the overpopulation of one species can destroy an ecosystem. Yes, we understand that rabbits are pretty freakin’ annoying. Yes, we understand that Nelson Mandela’s historic sites must be purged of lagomorphs. But seriously, a front page article continued on page A7 about rabbits? Come on NYT! That is not news!

The Glass Palace

I recently finished Amitav Ghosh’s book, The Glass Palace, for my class on Postcolonial Literature. So, I decided to write some babblings on that today. What really becomes apparent is how the problems of colonialism are not capable of being whisked away by some Solution. Ghosh shows several different approaches to “fighting” the colonial power; notably economics, military force, and art.

I think the commentary Ghosh makes on economics is quite interesting. The books central character, Rajkumar, spends much of the book figuring out how to make money within imperial-controlled Burma and India. He begins with teak — the wood that ushered in a war — but moves to rubber once he discovers there is money to be made there. One must note that, in the rubber business, Rajkumar is effectively a slave-owner. Of course, WWII destroys Rajkumar’s business and he lives the remainder of his life as a poor man. I think here we could argue that the imperial-capitalist economic system is incapable of offering any good living to those who cannot — for whatever reason — engage in high risk investments. However, this is probably farther than Ghosh’s novel would reasonably take us.

There is an irony, I’m not sure if it’s intentional, within Ghosh’s presentation of military force. Near the beginning of the novel, Burma’s city of Mandalay is attacked by the British. The British are not aiming for destruction — they strike a swift victory by kidnapping the royal family. But there is one other swift victory found in the fighting that takes place in The Glass Palace (and there is a lot).  This short victory wasn’t actually short, but in the novel its presentation certainly is — the reversal General Aung San pulls on the Japanese. I think, to find a unity between these two, we must again consider that the problems of colonialism do not have easy solutions. Whether it is the British trying to gain authority in Burma or the Burmese trying to excercise their own authority, there is a tendency for peace to vanish. War and violence seem to rise before us at every turn.

In art, Ghosh gives us his best solution. One of his characters, Dinu, is a photographer. At one point in the novel he is married to a writer — a writer of political opposition to the dictatorship of Burma. After her death, Dinu allows his photography shop to be used as a meeting spot for locals to talk about… photos. But, there’s a catch! As Dinu tells his niece, “… photography too is a secret language” (p 438). So yeah, basically Ghosh’s conclusion is that, in order to fight ruthlessly violent power-seekers, we must be intelligent.

Linguistic Analysis No. 4 — Dictionaries

Wow. I don’t know what to say, exactly. Read this.

Yup. Dictionaries are banned. Because a student “came across” a term deemed inappropriate. BANNED.

I would, humbly, like to suggest some parents take a look at the Bible, specifically Song of Songs. Specifically verses 7-10.


So, we have the sum of education. Children are precious snowflakes who must not experience anything that would soil their pristine little existence.

The ghost of John Dewey, like Gollum, needs to go away and not come back.