Posts Tagged ‘ Postcolonialism ’

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…

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.

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.

Last Post for the Semester

In Bharati Mukherjee’s book, “Holder of the World,” one of the characters is an “asset-hunter.” Essentially her job is to seek out things that have value. This sounds specific, but I somewhat doubt it. An asset-hunter is simply someone searching for what is valuable. Don’t we all do that?

The following is a video from TED (one which a “steve thomas” posted a comment on about a month ago) that, I think, deals with the relationship between our self and what we determine has value. Plus, it’s a talk given by Adam Savage — so it’s bound to be good.

I really don’t want to try to sum up a semester of stuff in one blog, so I’m just going to talk about this value thing a little more. My current object is to memorize the Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Why? Well, why not? I suppose that would be the existentialist answer. But I think it’s a bad answer, because there are reasons — it’s not arbitrary that Adam is trying with such fervor to create replicas of the two birds. He chose to recreate the Dodo, but why not some other dead critter? He could have chosen from any number of extinct animals, yet he picked the Dodo. Part of his decision was undoubtedly formed by what information is available. He isn’t bombarded by images of extinct marine mammals, so he doesn’t construct a marine mammal.

But there is another factor that I think Mukherjee hits on. She says often that there are no accidents. I take this to mean that she believes in fate, and since the novel is essentially a romance story that makes complete sense. But not really. Here is my perspective:  Just because something is “accidental” doesn’t make it any less meaningful. You may meet the love of your life through a freak series of events (traveling from Boston to London to India to transform from a Puritan housewife into “Precious-as-Pearl,” the Salem Bibi), but you may meet through no contrivances at all.

Because if the universe isn’t going to provide us with contrivances — wouldn’t it be impossible for us to find love? Doesn’t the whole romance-destined-to-be mentality box some of us into a place with No Space? Are those who never find true love so hated by the universe that they are doomed to be alone? It seems like Mukherjee dropped the ball by following that common ideology of love. I can really suspend my disbelief that Hannah went through all of what she did before coming to love — yes, I can suspend my disbelief of the contrivances and plot devices. What I can’t accept is that she still, even with the story of the asset hunter, attributes value or love to a kind of fate. Fate is about the end of the matter, but the important stuff (as Adam points out at the end of his talk) is never the thing itself. Is the point of reading a book to finish a book or is the point of reading a book reading a book?

Well, for a class it could be to finish a book…

~Hopefully that suffices for an end of the semester blog~