Dune: He Who Points the Way
"My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self...Why is my self a desert? Have I lived too much outside of myself in men and events?" - Carl Jung, The Red Book, page 141.
"We Fremen have a saying: God created Arrakis to train the faithful." - Paul Maud'Dib, Frank Herbert's Dune, page 792.
Few sci-fi texts cement their place in the popular consciousness like Dune. Even those who've never worked through its pages have heard sometime the infamous line, "the Spice must flow."
Ironically, the line never actually appears in Dune or any of Herbert's sequels.
Yet why is Dune so eerily enduring? Even in 2020, the year of catastrophe, a Dune adaptation is coming to the big screen. English-speaking cultures cannot get enough of Dune, a story first printed more than 85-years ago, one so convoluted and hodge-podge that no modern publisher would consider picking it up today. As alarmists insist that the human attention span is shrinking in response to electronics and that the age of the book is nearing its end, Dune continues to resurface in the cultural memory at odd moments, like some kind of literary ghost. The answer is in Dune's obsession, often neglected by other science-fiction texts, with life.
The setting for Dune, the desert planet of Arrakis, stresses to an almost painful degree the consumptive nature of human beings. Strategically, the most valuable resource on Arrakis is the drug-Spice Melange, which when consumed grants the user a limited amount of prescience by allowing them to anticipate possible futures. In a world without robots or supercomputers, Spice allows the starship navigators of the Spacing Guild to plot safe interstellar space routes. Arrakis is the focal point of a galactic empire that requires Spice to remain connected.
Yet if Spice is the most valuable strategic resource to the Empire as a whole, it always plays second-fiddle to water in the minds of Arrakis' residents. On a planet scorched into a sandy wasteland, there is nothing so valuable or coveted as water. All humans consume water. As Paul, the protagonist of Dune, states, "from water does all life begin." While the rest of the galaxy is focused on the societal value of a critical resource, the Fremen (warrior desert-dwellers on Arrakis) care only for water. Living in a desert, they begin to see the most fundamental element of life.
I began this post with a quote from the psychologist Carl Jung - and not without reason. Long before writing Dune, author Frank Herbet encountered a pair of Jungian psychologists, and it was his exposure to Jung's ideas that shaped much of his series. In particular, Dune latches onto the Jungian notion that religious symbols carry forward deep truths, even biological truths, about human beings. And one symbol that enamored both Jung and Herbert was the desert.
In Ancient Christianity, long before monasteries dotted the European landscape, African and Middle-Eastern Christians practiced ascetic devotion. Like Christ before them, these Christians would travel beyond the limits of civilized society, going into the place where Judaism held that demons dwelt: The desert. The first hermits dwelt in the desert. The first monasteries were founded in the desert. Among the blistering heat of the sands, a human mind could be stripped of its concerns with that which is fleeting and illusory. The desert was the ultimate testing ground - to overcome it, one needed primarily two things: Water and faith.
Jung believed that the West had lost itself in the Enlightenment, and that the cataclysmic violence of the 20th Century were the symptoms of advanced cultural decay. The sacred symbols upon which human cultures depended were dismissed, by and large, as oppressive superstitions of the past. The soul, the self, faded into a spiritual wasteland out of which nothing could grow unless there was a miracle. Only then, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, could "the desert rejoice and blossom as a rose" (35:1a, KJV). Yet the desert within the human psyche was both the problem and the promise. By turning away, for a time, from the larger societal concerns and encountering the barrenness within the self, a miracle could be found. The desert, as Paul Maud'Dib of Dune says, is a training ground - a place of transformation.
It is probably no accident that Luke Skywalker too is found dwelling in the desert.
The very centrality of the desert to Dune, its obsession with humanity being stripped down to its essence, is both the secret of its endurance and its secondary-status in the cultural memory. Dune can never be so well-known as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings because those texts are written for the greater part of life - when attention to and care for the larger elements of society is essential. Dune is a text for the quarantine, for the time spent looking inward and finding only an inhospitable desert. It is one of the strange accidents of history - though Dune would not consider it an accident - that a film adaptation of the text would be released amid a year of lockdowns and plague. In the midst of a desert, life becomes more precious, not less - and if demons abound, so do miracles.
Which is perhaps why, when Paul must choose a desert name, he names himself after a constellation called Mau'Dib: He who points the way.
In the desert, the path is written in the stars.