Thursday, June 5, 2014

DUNE and Ideology

Trying to tackle a film like DUNE may seem off color for a blog about Israel-Palestine, but I beg to differ.  I do see certain merit in the infamous David Lynch science fiction epic, and not just that, I find the implications of that film underlie certain notions of Oriental as opposed to Occidental worthy of discussion.  The film was saying jihad on cinema screens in 1984, and yet seventeen years later, few were able to fully digest yet what David Lynch was saying as an artist.
Why is this?  First, it is vital to understand what the source novel by Frank Herbert stood for in terms of true ideology so to examine why Lynch differentiates from that text.  While the Herbert Estate has arguably been able to assign the DUNE novels the same reverence as Tolkien in terms of book sales, there has yet to be any discussion of the message behind the novel and its underlying ideology.  There are certainly entire websites and Wikipedia pages dedicated to de-coding the wordplay of the books, but none of them ever ask about the implications.  The reasons are quite informative.
In this sense, begin at the end of the novel, the most important site of ideological fulfillment.  The Protagonist has achieved his goal, the challenge of the Antagonist has been vanquished, and so the Protagonist is able to finally make manifest his desires.  From Wikipedia:
Kathy Gower criticizes Dune in the book Mother Was Not a Person, arguing that, although the book has been praised for its portrayal of people in a mystical world, the prominence of its female characters is significantly lower than that of the males. In her view, women in Dune culture are largely left to domestic duties, and the exclusively female Bene Gesserit religious cult resembles age-old notions of witchcraft. Women in this religion are feared and hated by the men. They also never use their power to aid themselves, only the men around them, and their greatest desire is to bring a man into their religion. Science-fiction author and literary critic Samuel R. Delany has expressed offense that the book's only portrayal of a homosexual character, the vile pervert Baron Harkonnen, is negative.
These critiques of Herbert are correct.  In the end, the Fremen religion is revealed to be merely a system of control imposed on them by the external governing authorities to keep them docile.  Chani, the concubine of Paul, is instructed in the long-term virtue and eventual sainthood granted such women in royal households by the vanguard of a former generation of concubines, the Lady Jessica, now a fully-glorified Mother Superior in the Bene Gesserit religious order., in this bitter final passage of the narrative proper, before Herbert's three extensive appendices.
Paul stared down into her eyes, remembering her suddenly as she had stood once with little Leto in her arms, their child now dead in this violence. "I swear to you now," he whispered, "that you'll need no title. That woman over there will be my wife and you but a concubine because this is a political thing and we must weld peace out of this moment, enlist the Great Houses of the Landsraad. We must obey the forms. Yet that princess shall have no more of me than my name. No child of mine nor touch nor softness of glance, nor instant of desire."
"So you say now," Chani said. She glanced across the room at the tail princess.
"Do you know so little of my son?" Jessica whispered. "See that princess standing there, so haughty and confident. They say she has pretensions of a literary nature. Let us hope she finds solace in such things; she'll have little else." A bitter laugh escaped Jessica. "Think on it, Chani: that princess will have the name, yet she'll live as less than a concubine – never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she's bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine – history will call us wives."
This sort of amplified patriarchal order of the entire universe, complimented by a literal inter-galactic army of jihadi warriors, armed by their Messianic delusions imposed on them from the ruling order, is the sort of crass representation of the Levant we see today in popular media.  Herbert's guerrilla messiah Paul is cast as the kind of enlightened and civilized European drawn into the byzantine politics of an imperial court.  Herbert is re-telling the biography of T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, and he does include in his narrative the sort of white supremacism that underlies Western representations of Lawrence, not just limited to the David Lean film but also the popularity of the man himself during and immediately following his successes in the First World War, a popularity brought on by the advent of silent cinema technology in the war theaters of the Western, Eastern, and Ottoman fronts.  If Paul is a re-imagined Lawrence, idealized and devoid of the sorts of blemishes regarding gender and sex that troubled the real man after he was imprisoned and tortured by Ottoman officials, many of the plot points become much more clear and, strikingly, also much more problematic.  In this way, Herbert is creating as an ideal the kind of Alpha Male that is devoid of any sort of tolerance outside heteronormative constructs.
But, does this hold true also of David Lynch's film?
I would argue that, because Lynch is such a talented artist and thinker, everything that is (and, more importantly, everything that is not) in his final cut of DUNE is worthy of re-evaluation, if it is seen as a film intentionally subverting norms of patriarchy and Orientalism in popular Western discourse.  It is extremely relevant, therefore, because the film uses the norms of epics such as GONE WITH THE WIND and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to create a vivid counter-point to the sort of hatred of Muslims seen here in America and the West today.  It is a blatantly pro-jihadist epic of massive proportions, and yet Lynch refuses to allow for a crack in such an ideology.  Deviating from the source novel, the film ends with Alia pronouncing Paul as the coming of the Kwizatz Haderach.  Todd McGowan further illuminates this point in his book The Impossible David Lynch.  Unlike Herbert, who essentially concludes pessimistically with the entire notion of prophecy being revealed as the Althusserian Ideological State Apparatus, Lynch refutes this materialist conclusion.  Lynch's Paul does not have feet of clay, like Herbert's, he is actually a unifying theological and phenomenological presence crossing multiple religious schools and ethnicities, an intergalactic Madhi as opposed to the anti-Christ Herbert offers.
This may perhaps underlie a great deal of apprehension towards the film, its harshest critics are usually adamant fans of the novels and are prone to critique the film plot for deviating from the written word.  This may also define the desire of many of these fans to have both a Masterpiece Theater-length 'Alan Smithee' cut of the film and a multi-hour miniseries, it is a reaction from the readers who want a literal embodiment of every page.  But David Lynch, while certainly an entertaining artist, is also not an entertainer like Frank Herbert, and the rejection of Lynch's legitimacy regarding DUNE is the manifestation of this reaction.
Herbert originally published the novel in 1965, utilizing both the popularity of Rachel Carson's insights on ecology and an obviously Western-trained eye towards the Arabic world to tell his story.  His Fremen tribes include the specialized Fedaykin warriors that Paul leads in a guerrilla war against the Harkonnens.  At this time, the threat of Soviet-funded Palestinian fedayeen guerrillas laying siege to Israeli society was a popular trope in the Cold War exchange, so the novel was emerging from an era where the radical guerrilla Muslim was just as much a threat to the West as the Viet Cong, at least according to Walter Cronkite.  But he also concludes the book by showing his Fremen are religious zealots and easily tricked.
Lynch's Fedaykin warriors are unique for several reasons.  Besides being honestly sympathetic revolutionaries and not simpletons, they are given much more of a substantial role in the proceedings.  Whereas Herbert includes scenes where the barbarian Fremen need to be gently corrected by the enlightened colonialist Paul, who terminates a power squabble by invoking the higher authority of his inheritance as the Duke of House Atreides, this entire sub-plot is excised by Lynch.  The social organization of the Fremen is therefore not given a negative connotation, and many of the racist tropes typically used towards the 'uncivilized' Arabs in Western literature are expunged successfully.
Furthermore, how these warriors fight is impressive.  In Herbert's novel, Jessica and Paul teach the Fremen the Weirding Ways used by the Bene Gesserit.  In this context, we again encounter the notion of the Enlightened and the Barbaric, badly disguised anti-Muslim prejudice transported to a galaxy far, far away.
But Lynch does something different here by replacing the Weirding Ways with the Weirding Machines, a technology which amplifies vocal tones and concentrates them into a powerful energy beam.  A vocally powered ray gun, in essence, has several meanings here.  First, Paul specifically tells his Fedaykin warriors in their first formation that they will be instructing the rest of the Fremen not in a foreign method that is superior to the native indigenous technology as much in how to build their own machines, using parts available to everyone and easily assembled.  Combined with the objectified voice, manifested in the beams from the Weirding Machines, a concept of democracy evolves.  Paul is injecting a certain kind of free will into the narrative and making his jihad dependent on the people, whereas the Fremen in Herbert's book are slavish dullards that worship Paul as a god.  Perhaps the real issue is that fans of the novel want David Lean to adapt the text properly, but instead what Lynch created was closer to the earlier silent epics of Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov.
Throughout the film, the notion of voice, oral tradition, and word-of-mouth communications are emphasized in ways never thought of by Herbert, and by relieving the film of the anti-Arab bias, potentialities Lynch teases out of the narrative become much more admirable.  This is a vital point to recognize because, if anything else, Islam is recognized as a religion derived from an oral tradition, as opposed to literary.  The emphasis throughout the Koran lies in recitation as opposed to offering a recording and accounting for.  Mohammad was not instructed to write the Quran, it is said he was told by the Angel Gabriel to recite.  Furthermore, the Quran rejects any attempt to glorify the Prophet above either the Quran or Allah, refuting the idea Christ was God's son and instead merely a prophet. It seems that Lynch has somehow injected these theological views into how he characterizes his various theological figures.  In the end, the Kwizatz Haderach has always been beyond the grasp of one single group, beyond the control of the Bene Gesserit who tried to manipulate nature in opposition of the love between Jessica and Leto.  This sort of resolution is quite in line, furthermore, with the work of Slavoj Zizek, a proponent of Lynch's work.  Paul takes on the sort of connotations of a vanguard leader that Zizek positions Lenin as eschatologically in REVOLUTION AT THE GATES, along with the sort of universalism embraced by Udi Aloni's vision of Zionism.
The sexuality and blatantly homo-erotic behavior of the Baron does take on nuance, in this sense, if not absolution.  The original novel's villain is a blatant stereotype of gay men, sickly, fat, lustful, and grabby.  But, if the Baron is seen in the wider spectrum of Lynch's villains, his behavior is less stereotypical homophobia than stereotypical David Lynch.  All these villains have had issues with sexual potency and gender relations, all are disgustingly violent towards women, and all are trying to enforce a dominant order based on prestige and station in life.  The Baron behaves in a fashion here so not to demonize same-sex eros as much to exemplify how the dominant ideology, whose ultimate commodity is the Spice Melange, perverts and deforms man.  There are essentially three stages shown throughout the film.  The first, the Emperor, lives at a busy court where his exposure to Spice and its manufacture has left him weak and vulnerable.  The second, the Baron, is waited on by only his few select subjects.  He has been exposed for much longer to the trade, and so he is deformed and scarred by the business.  Furthermore, his facial infection looks as if he were slowly mutating into the Guild Navigators, who occupy a stage three existence based on spice exposure.  These mutated humans (there are no aliens in this universe except for the sand worms and other exotic dessert animals) live in isolation tanks and survive after centuries by floating in a cloud of gaseous Spice, enabling them to utilize the transportation potentialities of the substance.
It is in these characters Lynch's purest and most blatant analogy is revealed.  The Spice Melange, in both the book and film, is the equivalent of the international oil industry in relation to transit and is also a sort of super-drug that can easily be turned into a deep addiction.  The entire universe is therefore held hostage in the film's final reel when Paul is able to inspire a total cessation of spice production through sabotage and guerrilla warfare.  And, because Lynch leaves open no room for the sort of sequel Herbert's writings suggest, ending the narrative with Paul effectively destroying his bargaining chip by making it rain and therefore only granting the power over spice and the worms who make it to the native indigenous peoples, the Fremen, Lynch is proposing a radical solution to the problems of Western-Arab relations.  He effectively replaces an entire imperialist system with a democratic order controlled by the colonized people, who assert their right to self-determination and control of their natural resources.  This revolutionary expropriation, caused when Paul makes the rain fall on Dune, is the complete opposite of what Frank Herbert ended his novel with.  In Herbert's vision, the whole lot of his Fremen warriors are doomed to a bloody jihad because they are fervent religious soldiers, rigidly devoted to an authoritarian ordering of the universe itself.  In his second novel, DUNE MESSIAH, the Fremen have been cast aside and live in squalor while the bureaucrats enrich themselves by building a cult of personality around Paul, a cult the Fremen dutifully subscribe to without skepticism.  Herbert is consistent in this subjugation, whereas Lynch refutes it and proposes a radical emancipatory experience, violent out of necessity but based on revelation and meditation as opposed to passion, the kind of passion Herbert insists is the guiding impulse for his Fremen.
Overall, I think this exercise is important, even if one is not left in utter awe of Lynch's film, because Herbert's ideology, including its racism and homophobia, do in fact impact the current discourse on Arab-Western relations.  Through a series of prequels, sequels, and mid-quels, the Herbert Estate has created a publishing industry unto itself, and the Herbert ideology has been accepted uncritically by many as a result because viewers refuse to understand the points Lynch was raising about the text.

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