A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics

Dune

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Bear with me. I’m going to attempt to do my Dune post as a single post, but there probably two theses worth of ideas in here. Well, the plane trip across the country allowed me the time needed to read most of Dune. I’ll start out by saying that this book was very challenging for me at first. There is a very complicated system and hierarchy set up. There are families and alliances and sworn enemies. There are traitors. There are lots and lots of confusing names. The book essentially throws you in and although the first 100 pages or so are very slow in what I imagine is the author’s mercy at trying to catch you up, it makes for tough reading.

The other tough part is that it is incredibly dense. It is like reading Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. There are only 100 aphorisms because you are supposed to stop and think after each one. This kept happening to me, except that it was a novel and so I probably wasn’t supposed to do that. Anyway, I hit a critical point when I was on the plane and had these two ideas about what the book was actually about, but my history isn’t very good and so I had no way to check. I also couldn’t see if other people had come up with this or not. So I just started testing it against everything I read, and it fit way too well to not have at least crossed the author’s mind. This also made the book way more exciting to read.

Here goes. The first thing I thought was that Dune was a metaphor for the Middle East. I immediately checked when the book was published, and it said 1965. This was rather unhelpful because I couldn’t even be sure which countries existed in the Mid East in that year, yet alone what sort of political things were going on. I haven’t really researched it because I wanted to at least get this post out there. So I apologize if this is way off base.

First off, the book takes place on Arrakis…a desert. Does this sound like “Iraq” to anyone (for future reasons, I actually think that Arrakis is Saudi Arabia in this metaphor)? The natives are the Fremen and they have a tribal society. What are some common strange names that keep appearing. Muad’Dib or Kwisatz Haderach and even at one point Rhamadan. Do these have an Arabic flare to them or am I imagining it? Alright, so this one can be resolved with a quick google search. Kefitzat Haderech is Hebrew for “short cut”, and the made up word means “shortening of the way”. Well, those are all things that got me thinking about this, but they are sort of the fluff of this argument.

The real thing was that the universe seems completely dependent on the “spice”. So the spice is the metaphor for oil. All the conflict is essentially based around possession of the spice. Here comes a spoiler if you haven’t read it. But to solidify the metaphor beyond a doubt, the spice is created by some chemical underground process that happens to dead gigantic worms (maybe they don’t have to be dead, this was unclear to me). Um, what is oil (re: fossil fuels)? It is just decomposition of buried organisms in a particularly well-suited environment.

Some things I still haven’t figured out that will take a bit of researching of what was going on at the time are who the families/people are. I’m assuming that the Atreides are a country and the Harkonnens are another country. Who would have Herbert have thought of as the “good guys” at that time and who the “bad guys?” I don’t think the U.S. had a big involvement yet, so it probably wouldn’t be one of them. The emperor sort of presides over all the families (re: countries), but seems to have no power in controlling them. Is this the UN? Also, is this just a metaphorical retelling of events, or did he take it further and insert some sort of warning/message about the situation? This brings me to my next topic.

I thought the only really clear overriding message was one of religion. I guess I can pitch this at two different levels. The more dramatic level is that religion is invented by people in order to control people. Whether you believe this or not, there is no doubt this was an intention of Herbert. I wish I had quotations on hand, but it is repeated time and time again that the Bene Gesserit invented legends and myths to create the religion of the Fremen a long time ago so that when this time came it could be exploited for their protection. Paul is some sort of messiah figure that most religions have, but he also clearly exploits this to gain power.

The less dramatic religious message seems to be that religion and politics need to stay as separate as possible. When people believe they are doing things for a religious cause, then they will stop at nothing since the cause is far greater than their mere earthly bodies. In particular, wars waged with religious overtones break from any sense of a “just war” (whatever that is). The end of Dune talks about women, children, and elderly throwing themselves onto swords so that the men can get in actually kill the other side. The Fremen are often so feared as fighters because they have no reason to fear death with the assurance of an afterlife.

I’ll stop here. I’m sure there are holes and errors, and I purposely skipped details and quotes. But a first sketch of these arguments is now out there for criticism. Be gentle, remember this was my first time through the book. It is possible a second reading would make me embarrassed that I ever thought this.

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Author: hilbertthm90

I write about math, philosophy, literature, music, science, computer science, gaming or whatever strikes my fancy that day.

2 thoughts on “Dune

  1. I loved Dune when I read it, but it was several; years ago and I’ve forgotten most of the plot, except for the broad outlines. I’m sure it would benefit from a re-read, especially now that I’m older.

    While it’s obvious that the book takes an influence from Middle East politics and culture, I don’t like to read it (or almost any literature) as a simple allegory. There might be morphisms from parts of the book to various subsets of Middle Eastern history, but no overall isomorphism, if you see what I mean. I don’t see that much value in assigning specific symbols – House Atreides is this country, the Fremen are this country, etc. Dune is a book that has a fascination of its own aside from any particular interpretation. Certainly it caught my interest as a teenager with little to no knowledge of the political aspects of the book. I think any good story will merit comparison with many different places and events throughout history.

  2. Have you read Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”? It’s googleable.

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