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Dune: Breakthrough as Breakdown of the One

Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) explores the confines of his new home on Arakeen, capital of Arrakis. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The release of Denis Villeneuve’s remake of Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi novel Dune has its entire fandom reflecting back on what made the novels great, thus bringing to mind the mythic dimension of the Dune universe. 

When Dune appeared on the scene in 1965—two years after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—it was well received by its audience as a counter-cultural narrative that helped boost a modern environmentalist movement, while warning us against the dangers of digital technology and autocratic rule. The fact that Frank Herbert was himself deeply conservative, decidedly a Republican voter and operative, did not stop Dune’s own mythic universe from carrying certain progressive elements. At the same time, the intensely anti-government propaganda—especially on display in the last books of the saga —is a definite echo of Herbert’s own politico-ideological commitments. 

Nevertheless, in spite of its spiritual ambiguity, Herbert famously said that he wrote the Dune Chronicles “because I had this idea that charismatic leaders ought to come with a warning label, ‘may be dangerous to your health.’” Or more poignantly still, he wrote, “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero” (Dune), because Herbert himself believed that “superheroes are disastrous for humankind.” 

Similarly, Joseph Campbell was aware of the danger that such heroic men of action represent with their mono-maniacal single-mindedness, for clearly they “are not the ways and guides to freedom, but the very nets, and the wielders of those nets, by which the seeker of freedom is snared, entrapped, and hauled back into the labyrinth.” (Mythic Dimension 243) The net that Campbell is talking about here, the net that curtails our spiritual freedom, is none other than the mythic web of ideological phantasies.

Appearing at first sight as the saving thread of Ariadne to help us navigate the labyrinthine darkness, positivistic ideology, like a crutch, is sometimes a necessary condition. But if we try to cling to fixed ideas, fetishizing them as final answers to life’s unanswerable questions, then we get caught in the web of an ideology. After all, Ariadne’s thread only helps us retrace our steps backwards, to run away from the danger zone, but does not teach us to fly away, upwards towards the Sun, despite new dangers. For that we need the artistry of Daedalus, what Campbell liked to call “the Wings of Art.”

On a broad philosophical level, there is a striking similarity between the Dune saga and The Lord of the Rings trilogy: they both affect a kind of “transvaluation of all values,” a fundamental critique of the mythology of the One and its hyper-masculine heroic attitude. Where the masses are programmed to worship superheroes and bow before “the One,” both of the greatest epics of fantasy literature are there to warn us against the dangers of Its rise.

So rather than dismantling the supremacy of the One from the outset, as Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings—where he re-brands it as the greatest evil and pits it against it a Fellowship and not a singular hero—Dune fanatically asserts the singularity and genetic supremacy of the One. Affirming the messianic hope of the superior Kwisatz Haderach, Herbert wants to allow all the disastrous—indeed, genocidal consequences that follow from the One’s brutal imposition upon the collective. 

The imperialism of the One is easily accommodated within Dune’s feudal sociological vision, which is like Game of Thrones in space. This game of imperialism seems to be the critical target Herbert had in mind when he wrote Dune. Nevertheless, we can still ask if he ultimately succeeded. Did not Dune end up inadvertently strengthening and propping up the very thing it was supposed to take down: the naturalization of an imperialist ideology?

It is true, there are at least two ways of undermining or subverting a given ideological edifice: one is by deconstructing it directly, in diametrical opposition to it, and the other is by agreeing with it all too strongly, believing in it all too literally, and proceeding to act accordingly. Where the former is a straight confrontation against the other, the latter brings out into the open its unspoken absurdity. Where Tolkien took the first path against the dominion of the One, Herbert chose the second option.  The question still remains, however: did he succeed in tearing down imperialist ideology or did he not end up glorifying it and justifying it in the end?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and further comments on the mythic dimension of Dune—especially when we take Frank Herbert at his word and attempt to read this space saga as a cautionary tale against the emergence of heroes.


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