Dune as a 20th Century response to Nietzsche
In his earlier career as a reporter, Frank Herbert (October 8, 1920 – February 11, 1986) flew over the sand dunes of the Oregon coast, which were threatening to consume the town of Florence as wind blew them east. The USDA mounted an effort to suppress the dunes with a non-native grass — a meeting of the colossal forces of nature and the state. The story inspired the eventual setting for Dune: Arrakis, a desert planet which is the sole source of the most valuable substance in the universe called spice. In addition to Oregon’s mountainous sand dunes, it was the god-like power structures of the government intervening with the ecosystem that got Herbert thinking about the relationships between humans and nature.
Herbert never published the Oregon sand dune article he wrote. Instead, he used what he’d learned as the seed of inspiration for his novel. “I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us,” Herbert writes. “Demagogues, fanatics, con-game artists, the innocent and the not-so-innocent bystanders-all were to have a part in the drama. This grows from my theory that superheroes are disastrous for humankind. Even if we find a real hero (whatever-or whoever-that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader.”
At the same time as I was reading Dune, I was also reading Nietzsche’s first book, “The Birth of Tragedy,” a speculative interpretation on the psychology of ancient Greek art. Some spark jumped my neurons together as I read the tones of both books. Fittingly, a quick google search revealed some analyses which have already done made solid connections between both thinkers, not least because of their mutual dissatisfaction with humanity’s perennial ability to formulate gods where a void of meaning challenges us.
For those who haven’t read Dune, here is a quick summary: the story takes place across multiple planets about 20,000 years in the future. Humanity has narrowly survived multiple super-wars and has spread across the entire galaxy. Our hero is Paul Atreides, teenage son of the Duke Leto Atreides, a man feared in his leadership abilities by the Padishah Emperor. Shortly after the house Atreides is gifted the control over the spice-rich planet Arrakis by the Emperor, it becomes clear that this “gift” was not a gift at all, but a ploy to let the drama of the aristocratic houses destroy the House Atreides. Paul Atreides (also called Muad’Dib, his messianic name) emerges as the hero due in no small part to his mother, Lady Jessica, who puts Paul through intensive training as part of the religious engineering tactics of the Bene Gesserit sisterhood. This training, as well as his unexpected inheritance of specially engineered genetic abilities, have given him the ability to peer into the future—an ability called prescience, which I will refer to later.
To illustrate the similarity between the two thinkers, read the following pairs of quotes and try to guess who wrote each:
- “There should be a science of discontent. People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.”
- “The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?”
**Highlight to reveal**
Ok, so their language might be a giveaway. Nonetheless, the sentiment that suffering is something to desire for development is a clear line of agreement. In Dune, the context of this quote was within Princess Irulan’s “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib,” a book which gets quoted at the start of many of the book’s chapters. Paul has great reverence for the Fremen people, the natives of the planet Arrakis, who display psychological and physical abilities far beyond what he’d yet encountered. His rite of passage into desert life includes a long period of familiarizing himself with the lessons of the land.
The quote about the value of suffering by Nietzsche is from Beyond Good and Evil is a sentiment present throughout all his works. In The Birth of Tragedy, for example, Nietzsche praises Hellenic (ancient Greek) society as one whose greatness owed itself to the full bearing of life’s suffering. In art, the ancient Greeks incorporated the unconstrained wildness of despair into music, plays, and in the basic structure of society. Oedipus Tyrannus is Nietzsche’s foremost appraisal of a proper Greek tragedy. To him, the Greeks lost their full greatness when they came under the influence of the analytical philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, their intellectualization effectively cutting in half the embodied experience of living.
- “…This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy […] in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence…”
- “Yet, he could not escape the fear that he had somehow overrun himself, lost his position in time, so that the past and future and present mingled without distinction.”
These two quotes give a simple window into Frank Herbert’s use of Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Recurrence, a thought experiment in which you are put under a demon’s spell that makes you live your live on repeat. Nietzsche believed that conceiving of reality as eternally recurring was a prerequisite for becoming the Overman (Übermensch), the human ideal who sees through all ideology and forms his own myths by which to live. Fitting to Nietzsche’s formula for the ideal human, Herbert’s formulation of Paul-Muad’Dib is as a man who is constantly in the visionary state of eternal recurrence. But instead of a demon who causes this condition in him, Paul’s eternal recurrence comes from training and genetic selection of the Bene Gesserit meta-religion. He is designed to carry the ability of Prescience, the power to see time as navigable landscape. Unlike Nietzsche, Herbert uses this ability to illustrate how one becomes trapped by this abstraction of time rather than freed by it.
- “What do you despise? By this you are truly known.”
- “How much reverence has a noble man for his enemies!—and such reverence is a bridge to love. For he desires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction; he can endure no other enemy than one in whom there is nothing to despise and very much to honor!”
Both quotes refer to the growth-giving prospect of embracing, or at least closely examining, the things or people that make us uncomfortable. Nietzsche believed that rather than casting one’s enemies into the banal category of ‘evil’ (and thus cast themselves as irreducibly ‘good,’ despite the toxic effects of their resentment), one ought to identify with their enemy to know themselves better. Nietzsche, in fact, is among a few credited with the popularization of the use of “resentment” (from the French Ressentiment) as a term and concept within philosophy and psychology.
In Dune, the quote precedes a chapter of dialogue between the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, the deeply resentful and secret enemy of the Emperor, and his own military commander. The entire dialogue is a theater of the resentment that Nietzsche articulated: the Baron reassigns the pain of his lost power to everyone else, including his own family—he plans for his loyal nephew Rabban, for instance, to be the one to viciously conquer Arrakis again, only to “use and discard” Rabban when the task is complete. “But thus I counsel you, my friends,” Nietzsche says, “Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.”
- “Through tragedy the myth attains its most profound content, its most expressive form; it rises once more like a wounded hero, and its whole excess of strength, together with the philosophic calm of the dying, burns in its eyes with a last powerful gleam.”
- “The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.
The top quote comes from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy again. In this quote, he is pointing out the importance of lived emotional experience in giving power to myths. Some myths, like the Greek tragedies that Nietzsche believed spelled out the human drama to the fullest, are incredibly potent due to their ability to capture inarticulable truths about the human emotional experience. Without the chorus of the Satyrs, without wild Pagan orgies, and without music, Nietzsche really didn’t see a healthy Hellenic venture. A myth is only profound when it accesses those parts of us that aren’t perennially accessible; those parts which only come out to shine their wisdom as if from some ancient knowing when the ego has been removed from its throne of high consciousness. Tragedy does this.
Simply knowing a myth or mythic structure of reality does nothing to free us from suffering. Simply having an orgy doesn’t make one free. Believing a myth is what allows us to throw our fate to the unknown in the faith that, ultimately, the forces of the universe are stronger, more intelligent, and more capable of bearing your suffering than you alone. That is the power of tragedy; it evokes our grief so that it can take it away onto the winds of narrative, song, dance, etc. For the “person who experiences greatness,” suggests Muad’Dib, it is critical to not think oneself above the myth that they are implicated within. Without a harsh sense of realism—“the sardonic,” to balance the omnipotence of greatness—there is no reason to believe in anything other than the will of the ego. Without a cold look at reality, the hero risks taking themselves so seriously as to never surrender to fate or tragedy, and to avoid such pains at all costs. This is the situation that Paul-Muad’Dib finds himself within over and over again: he is weighed down by the consequences of his actions to the point of inaction.
- “You cannot avoid the interplay of politics within an orthodox religion. […] Because of this pressure, the leaders of such a community inevitably must face that ultimate internal question: to succumb to complete opportunism as the price for maintaining their rule, or risk sacrificing themselves for the sake of the orthodox ethic.”
- “…for this is the way religions are wont to die out: under the stern, intelligent eyes of orthodox dogmatism, the mythical premises of a religion are systematized as a sum total of historical events […] the feeling for myth perishes, and its place is taken by the claim of religion to its historical foundations.”
The top quote, another chapter heading from Princess Irulan’s writings on Muad’Dib, spells out a contradiction of religion that it must sometimes survive by playing political hardball in spite of its original virtues, which ostensibly reject such an opportunistic ethic. Muad’Dib enters this contradiction each he leads his followers toward a promise of peace despite his prescient knowledge that his actions as a messiah will ultimately lead to a jihad.
Nietzsche’s had very similar criticisms of St. Paul in the origins of Christianity: he believed St. Paul exploited the lower classes by distorting the teachings of Christ into an abstract promise of immortality. Jesus lived a life that was an example of blessed living, an example of the unity of God and human—an ideal that Nietzsche truly believed in, in principle. St. Paul, on the other hand, created a Christianity whose sole purpose was to judge a person’s admission into the afterlife, an idea that was much more enticing to people than the hard work that goes into actually following Christ’s example. What is the meaning of your life if you’ve already ‘checked the boxes’ for admission into heaven? What is the purpose of Christ’s life if it was only his crucifixion that saved humanity? Nietzsche is describing this ‘paralysis by analysis’ pattern of religions; their original insights are lost on those who try dearly to preserve its insights through abstraction. I can’t speak for Frank Herbert on this one, but make what you will of his choice to name the messiah-protagonist “Paul.”
Post-Script (contains spoilers)
In Dune, Frank Herbert paints a hero with whom we can identify, someone enjoyable to project ourselves onto. And yet, Herbert is ultimately leading up to his thesis that “heroes are disastrous for society.” He eventually wants his readers not to be like Muad’Dib—to “run like hell” at the dangerous prospect of the traditional hero narrative. As the plot evolves, it becomes clear that no matter what Paul does, he will lead the galaxy into a war of unseen proportions. So, reading the first book, why do I love Paul so much (other than his recent association with Timothée Chalamet’s face in pop culture)?
First of all, what would it mean to read the (eventual) death of billions at the hands of a non-charismatic warrior? He would simply be a villain, or crazy; we would despise him. Making an antagonist responsible for starting a mega-war would not be enough to convince us that we, too, play a role in starting conflict in the real world. After all, you or I are not excused from the responsibility of making sure we’re not falling into the various social diseases that ruin the capacity for peace, wisdom tells us. To locate our agency in the power struggles that we must face as members of a civilization, we need to be put directly within the emotions of the hero ready to start a war before we can authentically choose a peaceful way through conflict–this is what Herbert aimed to do most directly, it seems: make us lab rats who go through the maze of heroism and find it leads to darkness.
If this was his intention, he succeeded; I ache for Paul and Jessica when the Duke is murdered, I rage at the greed of the empire and its various players, and I desire to see Paul’s vengeance against House Harkonnen through to completion.
But, at last, I disagree with Herbert’s thesis; I do not believe that heroes are disastrous for society.
As Paul sees the future consequences of his actions play out as galaxy-wide destruction, I relate most of all to his fear of purpose; he is in a position where he must necessarily compromise his moral code, over and over again. Is that really his fault? No, it was the overreach of the Bene Gesserits’ influence; the power structure they placed on a single being to hold the fate of the galaxy is truly at fault. To be sure, Frank Herbert would have agreed with this precisely. I am trying to draw a distinction between heroic individuals and heroic power structures; it was the latter that Frank despised. Heroic individuals, however, do not at all compromise this position.
Taken in context with the danger of heroic structures to magnify error, courageous individuals who take on meaningful responsibilities often find themselves trapped in the myth of the hero by the power structures that bore them, such as Paul’s situation as leader of the Fremen, or today’s healthcare workers’ situation as “heroes” of the pandemic, or soldiers who must choose who to save in battle–all of whom make supposedly necessary sacrifices that end in moral injury. In all cases, the hero myth is used as an avoidance mechanism of the system to address its own flaws; the truth is that many of these “necessary sacrifices” are not necessary at all, but the result of errors made by human, fallible leaders.
In spite of the disasters that inevitably follow heroic structures, each member of society finds themselves serving and served by these engines of disaster. It is ironic, terrifying, and depressing. To answer my own question–why do I love Paul as a hero despite the story’s tragic fate?–it is precisely because of the tragedy that I find Paul a meaningful hero. His situation is all of our situations; he is doomed to cause harm, and it’s not his fault.