by Ștefan Bolea
Denis Villeneuve’s movie, Dune (2021), is based on the first half of Frank Herbert’s cult novel published in 1965. It’s not the first adaptation of the novel. Alejandro Jodorowsky had acquired the rights of the book in the 1970’s but failed to complete the project. David Lynch’s weird, parodical Dune (1984) seemed unfaithful to Herbert’s intentions. The low budget of the miniseries produced by Richard P. Rubinstein in 2000 made Dune look like a penurious relative of Star Trek. Reading Dune, it’s easy to see why many people deemed it “unfilmable”: the first book of the series is long and condensed, intricate and mysterious, the multifaceted philosophical poem of a brilliant mind. Is Dune a political treatise designed for a “Ceasar with the soul of Christ”, to use Nietzsche’s expression in a different context? Is it just a coming-of-age story in Jungian vein, reminding of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey which inspired Star Wars? After all, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), one of the main character’s teachers, keenly observes at the beginning of the book: “How soon this child must assume his manhood”. Is it a geopolitical parable of the oil wars? Dune’s world is built around “spice” just as much as ours is constituted around oil. Or can it be an exploitation of the theme of the “holy”, a psychological meditation on both religion and esotericism, both mysticism and magic? I’d like to explore here the final hypothesis.
The movie’s emphasis on dreams is obvious from the epigraph uttered in a pseudo-Oriental (Fremen?) language: “dreams are messages from the deep”. There are at least two ways to look at dreams from a classical psychoanalytical perspective. Firstly, Freud argued that “the madman is a dreamer awake”. Dreaming while awake is the definition of psychosis, which consists in a transgression of what the father of psychoanalysis regarded as the “reality principle”. A sort of humble recognition of inferiority (the reverse of inflated megalomania) gives us an accurate estimation of reality, as Adler argued. The acknowledgment that we all are unnecessary and completely replaceable beings (what Sartre called contingency) proves that we are in tune with reality. Psychosis is something else entirely and invents what one may call the “surreality” principle. The psychotic has the feeling that all is connected and synchronous (the madman’s experience with magical thinking), that the subject is superior, even divine (the God complex), that the clinical and existential subject is the only necessary being. It is not unusual for the psychotic to see himself or herself as the “object of the whole cosmic process”, as the visionary Philip K. Dick wrote in his Time Out of Joint (1959): “A paranoiac psychosis. Imagining that I’m the center of a vast effort by millions of men and women, involving billions of dollars and infinite work… a universe revolving around me. Every molecule acting with me in mind. An outward radiation of importance… to the stars.”
Nevertheless, there is another way of looking at dreams. Jung thought that the “dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness”. On that view, dreams provide a method of becoming aware of the unconscious, of acquiring forbidden knowledge, of which the ego was previously not aware. “The soul knows what the mind refuses to admit”, one might say. Why is this crucial? Because the purpose of development in Jungian therapy is more important than the Freudian archaeology of the repressed trauma: we can attempt to change the future, but the past is unchangeable. Furthermore, dreams may be “today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions” (Edgar Cayce): the unconscious already hints the existential truth of “tomorrow”, while the ego prefers “today’s” infantile bad faith.
Combining these two dream theories (Freud and Jung), one may ask: what if you’re a psycho only until your dream comes true? What if the reality principle is only crutch, we conveniently abuse? A crutch that becomes obsolete when we access the “surreality” principle? If madness and initiation are sides of the same coin, is there a way to “turn water into wine”, a way of “becoming who we are” without losing ourselves in the process? After all, “the water in which the mystic swims is the same water a madman drowns in”, according to Joseph Campbell.
Paul Atreides (the vulnerable yet majestic Timothée Chalamet) accesses the “surreality” principle in an underground desert tent on the unfriendly planet Arrakis, where he hides with his mother, Jessica (the manipulative and self-disciplined Rebecca Ferguson), the Duke’s concubine, a member of the highly trained Bene Gesserit sisterhood (an order whose acolytes acquire superhuman abilities after intense physical and psychological training). Following the the death of his father (Duke Leto Atreides played by Oscar Isaac) and the crushing of House Atreides by the Harkonnen’s coup to retake planet Arrakis with Imperial help, Paul is forced to “assume his manhood”.
Aided by “spice”, a psychoactive substance that expands consciousness and improves vitality (which exists only on Arrakis), Paul experiences a transmutation comparable to Neo’s metamorphosis from the end of the first Matrix. Just as Neo sees the code of the Matrix (the hidden fabric of reality), Paul foresees the future, while creating it. “That’s the future. It’s coming”, reflects the grieving Paul while his anxious mother suspects him of mental illness. Paul sees himself as leading the native Fremen to a “holy war spreading across the universe like unquenchable fire”. Respecting the aspect ratios, what if Paul’s immersion in “surreality” is comparable to Jesus’s messianic enlightenment from his early teens? Religious psychology may pronounce itself where Orthodox theology keeps silent: I don’t want to diminish the greatness of historical religious figures, but to suggest that under certain circumstances, new religions (and new Gods) may appear. That’s one the strong points of Frank Herbert’s (and Denis Villeneuve’s) Dune: a glimpse into the mind of a new creator of religion, a virtual new God.
Dune has also various ways of looking at death. For instance, when Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (brilliantly played by Stellan Skarsgård) is asked what to do about the rebellious Fremen, he mimics the words of the Papal legate Arnaud Amalric, responsible for the Cathar massacre at Béziers from 1209: “Kill’em all!”. Like de Marquis de Sade, the Baron sees himself as a murderous sovereign: “A Unique Being, unique among men, this is truly a sign of sovereignty”. According to Blanchot, “when he kills, the criminal is God on Earth, for he realizes between himself and his victim the relationship of subordination”. Not unlike Lars von Trier’s architect Jack, the Baron endeavours the extreme nihilistic project of universal murder.
Paul understands death either as sacrificial suicide, or as transformation. Murder may be seen firstly as a philosophical suicide: “When you take a life, you take your own”. If one recognizes one’s essence in the other, as in the Indian saying tat twam asi (“thou art that”), one cannot exist separately, as the Vladimir Harkonnen thinks he does: when killing the other I kill myself. Secondly, in the hero’s progression, one must kill a part of oneself to gain a new aspect of the personality. If we are unable to create the future through a certain leap, we are programmed to relive the past and repeat the same mistakes ad nauseam. Consequently, this metaphorical death is the oven of our phoenix selves.
Conclusively, I’d like to add two impressions regarding the Bene Gesserit training, that facilitates Paul’s initiation. The “Voice” is a tool “which permits an adept to control others merely by selected tone shadings”, as Herbert claimed. It may be seen as an expression of the Jungian shadow (the strong autonomous subpersonality from ourselves, which takes control if we are not able to deal with the situation). However, departing from Jung, we encounter here the shadow as a superior side of the personality: not subconscious, but hyperconscious. The “Voice” is a higher shadow: a combination between the personal shadow (the devil within) and the self (the God within).
I also think that the fear meditation (another “jewel” of the Bene Gesserit training) anticipates contemporary existential meditation and should be appropriated as a tool of coping with the stress of living in this new age of terror. “Fear is the mind-killer”: fear incapacitates our reasoning and lucidity (a victory of the lower soul over mind). “Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” Not only that death is hidden behind any anxiety (a reminder of the unacknowledged mortality), but fear is also a “killer” of the higher self, which becomes inaccessible in dreadful moments. “I will permit it [fear] to pass over me and through me.” Not repressing or avoiding fear is the key, but rather journeying “to the end of the night” (“And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.”) and mindfully mapping the ordeal. “Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” Whoever learns to fear in the right way, is much closer of salvation than the ones who block fear: the management of anxiety is a method of cleansing the self (the proverbial becoming who we are) from the pollutants of the lesser ego.