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.