Dune and its laughable honor code relative to Beowulf and Fast & Furious

Note: this is an addendum to an earlier post on Dune.

In Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents ,* Elaine Showalter quotes a letter that Kingsley Amis wrote as a student regarding the Old English requirement at Oxford: “The warriors and broken-down retainers who strut bawling across its pages repel by their childish fits of self-glorification and self-pity. The cheapest contemporary novel has more to teach us than those painful reminders of what we have long outgrown.” Although I think Old English has more merit than Amis gives it here, the sentiment regarding the sentiment of that time is one I can get behind, and one of my major criticisms of Frank Herbert’s Dune is essentially that it is guilty of the same sins: childish warriors, ceaseless strutting, and the acceptance/embrace of retrograde cultural ideals regarding the roles of women and the need for killing.

You can see the worship of honor in Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, when the eponymous warrior’s death is occasion for twelve warriors to ride around the king and for them to “extoll… his heroic nature and exploits / and [give] thanks for his greatness; which was the proper / thing.” This scene wouldn’t be out of place in Dune, which is a problem for a novel written in 1965 rather than, say, the tenth century.

That’s not to say that these problems are limited to Dune, or to novels. Take the recent movie Fast & Furious, which is is astonishingly good when measured by decibel. In it, Paul Walker is compared unfavorably to Vin Diesel when a character implies, with a completely straight face, that Walker has no “code.” It was one of many unintentionally funny moments because the creators of the movie apparently missed, say, the last two hundred years of cultural development away from the idea of rigid masculinity codes and towards a great sense of irony and fluidity. If your code of honor forces you to kill someone because they’ve disrespected your MacGuffin, or whatever, your most likely destination is jail, which is appropriate, and your code is likely to prevent or hamper you from adapting to new social or environmental situations. But Dune and Fast & Furious both present having codes and what not as positive. In that respect they resemble Beowulf

I would like to imagine that at some point the culture as a whole will move beyond its silly obsession with tit-for-tat internecine identity fighting that causes people, usually of the male persuasion, to behave like moose who ceaselessly charge against one another because it’s mating season. Still, given the deep cultural, and maybe even biological, roots of this disorder, I’m not counting on this happening anytime soon, but maybe recognizing malady, as Amis did, is a step towards dialectically surpassing it.

* Which I’m reading in preparation for a conference. More perhaps on that later.

Dune — Frank Herbert

Unlike, say, Ray Bradbury and or Dan Simmons’ novels, the Dune series is probably best appreciated before one’s literary taste has better developed. It still offers some treats like a plot that moves worlds, which begins with a deadly test that, even if we know Paul Muad’dib will pass, still offers immediate tension reminiscent of the later His Dark Materials trilogy.

Granted, some of the motives regarding moves and action don’t stand up to great scrutiny—why go to Arrakis in the first place, again?—but writing that isn’t actively abhorrent. Dune does some things really, really well—most notably its descriptions of cognitive states, which have the subtlety and nuance absent from the many, many moments when the book drops into characters’ mind to telegraph what they’re feeling instead of letting us infer it. Thufir Hawat, one of the many guards and weapons masters, thinks:

He might be at that, Hawat thought. That witch-mother of his is giving him the deep training, certainly. I wonder what her precious school thinks of that? Maybe that’s why they sent the old Proctor here—to whip our dear Lady Jessica into line.

Somehow we need to be immersed in the world and given information about it, but this seems a clumsy and transparent way of doing it—and it persists through the novel, and most of the time it conveys that we’re not smart enough to understand the characters without their little soliloquies. We’re constantly hearing about how “This must not get out of hand” even when the need is already obvious. The Harry Potter series is guilty of the same problem, as revealing too much about characters while simultaneously making them flat, stealing the mystery that might otherwise make us interesting. Hamlet’s soliloquies make him less scrutable and more real; Hawat and Paul’s have the opposite effect.

Perhaps not surprisingly, much of the dialog clangs, whether it’s within or spoken. Early on, we’re treated to standard fantasy/sci-fi pablum about independence and caring:

“The old woman’s voice softened. “Jessica, girl, I wish I could stand in your place and take your sufferings. But each of us must make her own path.”
“I know.”
“You’re as dear to me as any of my own daughters, but I cannot let that interfere with duty.”

We could be in a Marine barracks, or a royal court, or a foreign planet, or a softball game, or any number of other places. This extends to the characters. The villains are irredeemably evil and cruel, taking obvious delight in those traits like a child with an over-sized ice cream. They’re more laughable than anything else, but they never laugh at themselves—how could they and maintain their dignity?—but no one else laughs at them either.

The entire absence of laughter makes Dune harder to take than it might have been in the past. The poignancy of its lack is most notable when references appear, like this one: “Paul held himself apart from the humor, his attention focused on the projection and the question that filled his mind.” But Paul never becomes part of the humor, and neither does the reader. We’re too busy being bombarded with relentless seriousness and nobility, like a 15th Century morality play. Destiny is so important that one can ignore life. Honor and codes are everything.

We’ve taken that 15th Century attitude and brought it forward thousands of years; Paul kills a woman’s husband and is asked by one of the many Noble Savages on Arrakis, “Do you accept Harah as woman or servant?” Maybe one should ask her. Maybe she should read The Feminine Mystique and ask herself if she should submit to cultural imperatives making her property to whichever buck has the biggest horns. But it’s not her place to grow—not in this narrative, or at least not in a meaningful way, and we’re not supposed to feel for her: we’re with Paul Muad’dib and his seductive powers, which give Dune its chief pleasures as he overcomes obstacle after obstacle, both physical mental, the two forming a dialectical cycle that, once begun, will of course break all the rules, as we would like to.

The issues I raise aren’t new ones, and their basic contours were known long before Dune was published. Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye writes:

It is… quite possible to take the alazon [which Frye says “means imposter, someone who pretends or tries to be something more than he is”] at his own valuation: this is done for instance by the creators of the inscrutable gloomy heroes in Gothic thrillers, with their wild or piercing eyes and their dark hints of interesting sins. The result as a rule is not tragedy so much as the kind of melodrama which may be defined as comedy without humor.

Alas, that’s Dune to the experienced reader: comedy without humor because the characters are too busy posturing to perceive their ridiculousness; they can’t see their own situation and so are affected by grandiose myopia. That seems common in descriptions of modern dictators as well; Mark Bowden’s Tales of the Tyrant describes Saddam Hussein as suffering from the same ailment. In Dune the heaviness of “dark hints of interesting sins,” or at least knowledge, is pervasive, though I didn’t have language in which to put the problem properly until I read Frye, giving better form to the ideas that had plagued me without resolution.

Although it’s unfair to say so, it seems that a great deal of fantasy has the humor problem, and for all its flaws one advantage of Harry Potter is that momentous prophecy is leavened with a sense of schoolyard folly. Lord of the Rings has Sam Gamgee and other hobbits to alleviate the gloom. Dune becomes ponderous by comparison, with characters’ religious roles of honor, death, need, and codes, as if the whole of 20th Century criticism and aesthetics hadn’t happened. This is, I suspect, the quality that science fiction and fantasy detractors point to when denigrating those two forms of literature, but just because the forms the genres tend to take are weak doesn’t mean the genres themselves have to be: their best practitioners avoid the Dune problems, or outgrow them. Some phrases, like the famous mantra that fear is the mind killer, have staying power.

Dune still has flair, but not the sense of inexhaustible possibility that a novel needs to endure over a lifetime or through generations. On re-reading it, the book feels exhausted, superseded, an artifact from an earlier age rather than a living story. I wish it were otherwise.

EDIT: See also this post on Dune and its laughable honor code.

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