Review: Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


If one accepts Darko Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement one gets to a vision that is somewhere between sf and fantasy. If the “estrangement” is not just at the level of specific devices and inventions but at the more englobing level of world-building then we can see bridges between the two genres, and hybrid cases. Further I think this estrangement goes even to the formal level of the “deconstruction” of the hero and the monomyth, as Bob Bogle shows with Dune and its sequels. Both Bob Bogle and Norman Spinrad show how DUNE is a critique of the “myth of the hero” that underlies much of SF and fantasy as being more of a formula for totalitarian domination than for liberation.

Underlying the DUNE cycle is a sort of freestyle Jungianism, that is quite conscious in Herbert’s case, who was friends with Jungian analysts at the time of writing DUNE, and who even tried his hand as a lay analyst. What I am calling “freestyle Jungianism” is an attitude that treats Jung’s works as providing metaphors of the psyche rather than believing in them as expressing literal truth and revering them as unchangeable dogma. This is the argument of James Hillman, a post-jungian analyst. He argues that Jung’s ideas are not literally true, and were never really meant to be, once he broke with Freud and went through his own descent into the unconscious resulting in THE RED BOOK. This would mean that individuation needs something like the monomyth and needs to break with it as well. Using Hillman I think that individuation breaks with the monomyth not just at the end, but all the way through in little ways too.

One aspect of consciousness that is treated with great care in Dune is attention, and the management of attention. If we take a symbolic view of the Butlerian Jihad we can see Herbert is a precursor in the critique of what nowadays is viewed as the destruction of attention that is being effectuated by the misuse of communication technologies. The Bene Gesserit, amongst others, is a school of attention, and it schools its members in the practice of deep attention.

This practice of attention provides the Bene Gesserit with a criterion to distinguish between mere men and women, governed by their pulsions, and human beings capable of sublimating these pulsions, binding their energy, and acceding to the life of desire. This is achieved by the discipline of attention, which is not a continuous presence, but which rather manifests itself in sparks of awareness and flashes of insight.

A good example is the testing of Paul with the gom jabbar to see if he is human. If the monomyth defines, as Bogle says what it is like to be an organic human being, the sporadic flash of awareness characterises what it is to be a noetic human being. As Bernard Stiegler emphasises, only a God is noetically conscious all the time (Stiegler gets that from Aristotle), an ordinary human is noetic only in flashes. These flashes constitute moments of attention and choice on the path of our individuation. We must distinguish here individuation from being an individual different from others, which is a rather banal “organic” phenomenon. I am thinking of the Jungian idea of individuation as a noetic process of differentiation and complexification, of becoming what one is, of cultivating the sparks of consciousness so as not to be programmed by our surroundings.

The problem is that we are constantly in danger of disindividuation: we sink into habit and let ourselves be guided by clichés and stereotypes, we accept and repeat other people’s opinions and perceptions, uttering standardised words and phrases and playing pre-defined roles. “Noetic” does not mean just conscious, but rather becoming conscious of a fork in the path, of alternatives, taking stock of the situation and inventing one’s own solution instead of just going along with the majority flow.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Dune

  1. Interesting take on a classic. I don’t know much about Jung, but it seems that Paul becomes less and less of an individual as he becomes Mua’Dib. Is this related to what you mention about deconstructing the monomyth of the hero? By becoming the “hero”, saviour, etc. Paul loses the capacity for individuation, so that by the time of Dune Messiah he is completely dependent on his prophetic ability and incapable of “becoming conscious of a fork in the path”.
    I’ve always thought of Dune as having the planet itself as its protagonist.


  2. Yes, in Jodorowsky’s version Paul is assassinated but he becomes everyone, and the planet becomes a paradise and self-ware: a messiah planet that leaves its orbit and traverses the galaxy to enlighten all the other planets.
    In Herbert’s DUNE Paul becomes a prisoner of his vision, unable to deviate from the script he has set in motion. He also becomes a tyrant, imposing his will, sacrificing millions in his name, encouraging blind adulation and fanaticism instead of the freedom and self-reliance of the Fremen.


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