Dune, Dostoevsky, and Addiction

Posted: September 28, 2010 in Literary Musings
Tags: , , ,

I know everyone’s geek alarm goes off with a triple scream when I confess to loving George Herbert’s Dune saga.  I’m halfway through the fourth installment, Heretics of Dune, and have (much to my chagrin) actually read the two trilogy “prequels” his son wrote with Kevin J. Anderson.  I have a fascination with Herbert’s fiction, not least because I find myself self-disgustedly drawn to what I can only say is a proto-fascist vision of humankind, best realized by David Lynch’s 1984 film version.  Just glancing around at some of the responses to the Herbertian gestalt, I’m shocked to see so many writers and critics perform such mental acrobatics to prove the Dune is an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-fascist celebration of the goals of democracy.  Hardly!  

An online article I don’t know how to trust by someone called Kevin Williams does its share of backflips to assure us that Herbert’s literary horizons end in the destruction of capitalism and imperialism.  Rather, he sees in the novels an experimental movement toward a population able to “resist and transcend the need and desire to place leaders and/or systems above themselves” (para. 6). In particular, Williams sees a presaging of the U.S. involvement in the middle east:  the spice melange of the planet Arrakis, Dune, is the tempting oil reserves of Iraq and Afghanistan.  I would agree wholeheartedly that Herberts  posits the spice as a corporate, imperialist, and psychological addiction that literally generates the “ecology” of the social, political, and religious systems of his universe.  I don’t think the novels suggest the sustained freedom from this addiction that Williams insists on.

The Golden Path of Dune’s God Emperor, Leto II, turns the man himself into a repulsive, gigantic desert worm with a disturbing baby-face for a head.  Leto’s goal, to become so thoroughly addicted to the spice that he is no longer recognizable as human goes hand in hand with his decision to take total control of spice production and distribution.  With nothing to fight, and a God-like emperor to enforce the peace, the humans of Herbert’s universe into an arrested development for 3500 years.  Once Leto is destroyed (ironically because he allows himself to be vulnerable to the human sensation of love), the universe collapses into a chaos even more addicted to the use and abuse of the spice melange.

The vacuum created by Leto’s absence does not spawn resistance to and transcendence of tyrants, but a kind of paranoid hangover.  That paranoia is best  represented in Heretics of Dune by the Bene Gesserit “plans” (always only half known) to preserve their control on human breeding or the Tleilaxian genocidal/jihadist plans to destroy all other humanoids to preserve their master-race.  Herbert’s vision is dystopian and frightening, not liberating.  Humans seem naturally addicted to power, control, and ultimately self-destruction–all allegorized by the universal obsession with the spice.

In this way, Herbert shares much with Dostoevsky (and I’m not the first to say this:  see Gary Adelman’s book Retelling Doestoevsky), who seems at the end of Crime and Punishment to allow his protagonist Raskalnikov spiritual release from his obsession with his own God Emperor theory–that is, his fantasy that he can behave morally according to his own will, and neither that of his society’s or god’s. I say he “seems” to allow this renewal because the last few pages promise it so faithfully that “Instead of dialectics, there was life” (550):  finally the self-destructive philosopher has been conquered by his love of Sonya, the spiritual mistress of humility and faith.  But this isn’t the first time he has confessed–to her, to the populace at the crossroads, to the court, to the Siberian reality of prison itself–and each weeping release only leads to the “relapse” of pride and self-delusion.  Doestoevsky leaves us with an ominous description of the “amends” Raskalnikov will eventually understand  he must make:  “a new life would not be given him for nothing, that it still had to be dearly bought, to be paid for with a great future deed . . . ” (551).  Here:  the descent again into the image of himself as the Great Man, the Doer of Great Future Deeds–not the humble worm who doesn’t deserve even the tears of a prostitute but who, through grace alone, receives their blessing and love.  I see a relapse in his future…

In Dostoevsky, Raskalnikov fears the powerlessness of release from his delusions of grandeur.  In Herbert, more ferociously, humans crave chaos and power over peace, no matter how divinely wrought for them.  Neither writer is optimistic about our human willingness or even our ability to be free from these destructive, delusional cycles.  Guess that’s why I like ‘em!


Dostoevsky, Fyodor.  Crime and Punishment.  Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  New York:  Vintage, 1993.

Williams, Kevin.  “Imperialism and Globalization:  Lessons from Frank Herbert’s Dune”

  1. Stefanie says:

    I read all the Dune books in college and loved them. I have not read nay of the prequels though, just couldn’t bring myself to do it. My husband tried but abandoned them. I like your Dune/Dostoevsky comparison!

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