Against Narrative Time

If the back cover of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction classic Dune is to be believed, Paul Atreides, the novel’s protagonist, is a righteous hero, one who “would avenge the traitorous plot against his noble family,” and “would bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.” A classic narrative. But this is not the narrative with which Herbert leaves us. Look inside “Science Fiction’s Supreme Masterpiece,” and you will not find another iteration of the hero’s journey. Dune poses a challenge to the very idea of the hero, and the stories that we tell about him.

I say him, first of all, because Dune cannot be disentangled from the structure of feudal patrimony that Herbert weaves, a world of birthright and power. Paul Atreides is a product of this world, groomed to be a Duke, destined to inherit his father’s seat. His blood is his right to rule. His status as hero is unquestionable. And Paul’s destiny does not terminate here. He is also the product of generations of selective breeding, the long-awaited Kwisatz Haderach, the “shortening of the way,” in whom the secretive order of the Bene Gesserit hope for the elevation of humanity to a new order of being. Paul is not only the rightful lord of his house, but the Messiah of all humanity.

But Herbert is not interested in hagiography. From the beginning of Dune, Paul is troubled by his “terrible purpose,” his prescient sense of what is to come. He sees a “jihad, bloody and wild,” sweeping across the galaxy in his name, the awful cost of his destiny being fulfilled. His birthright and his power are neither pure nor righteous. Herbert makes it impossible for Paul’s narrative to be justified in such a way.

On the desert world Arrakis, Paul’s father, the Duke Leto, is murdered by the Harkonnens (the previous rulers of the planet, a rival noble house sponsored by the imperial throne), the Atreides forces are almost entirely destroyed, and Paul and his mother are forced to flee and hide themselves in the wasteland. They are taken in by the Fremen, the indigenous population who had been savagely oppressed under the Harkonnens, and who now see in Paul a deliverer, a prophet, the Lisan al-Gaib, the “voice from the outer world,” said to be their liberation. Paul takes the name Muad’Dib, a name with deep roots in Fremen mythology, and the Fremen take his banner in turn, rising up with zealous fervour. Paul Muad’Dib leads them to victory against the Harkonnens and the Emperor, claiming vengeance for his father’s murder and taking the throne for himself—and the Emperor’s daughter, the Princess Irulan, for his bride. This is no story of heroism. Paul’s journey is marked by a catastrophic loss of life, and the terror of his name becomes the instrument of a tyranny the likes of which the galaxy has never seen. Paul’s story, his destiny, is a tragedy to be mourned.

But Paul has another name: Usul, the “base of the pillar.” This is the name given him by his Fremen mentor, Stilgar, his secret name not shared with the outside world. No revolutions or jihads are waged in the name of Usul, because the strength signified by this name is not a violent strength, but the strength of compassion, the strength of intimate suffering. It is for this reason that Chani, Paul’s beloved, calls him Usul. She is his Sihaya, the desert springtime and “the paradise to come,” a daughter of the desert who taught Paul its ways, who saw the gentleness in his strength, and chose to love him not because of the promise of his destiny, but in spite of it.

Book Two of Dune, “Muad’Dib,” concludes with a tender scene between Paul and Chani before the headlong rush of Book Three, “The Prophet.” Paul wavers, here, resisting his destiny, refusing to take up his Messianic mantle, waiting, for just a little while longer, hoping that a new purpose, a different purpose, might reveal itself to him. He feels “walking a thin wire of peace with a measure of happiness, Chani at his side. He could see it stretching ahead of him, a time of relative quiet in a hidden sietch, a moment of peace between periods of violence.” Hidden away from the world, from his destiny, from himself, there is only a boy and a girl, Usul and Sihaya. There, in the “communion of selves” is “no other place for peace.” “You’re the strong one, Chani,” Paul says, “Stay with me.” Under the burden of the narrative forced upon him, Paul is unable to believe Chani’s invocation of his own secret name. But she touches him and kisses him and tells him of a dream, of a purpose free of the weight of destiny, a dream of love and quiet. In the name Usul, in his name, this is the future she sees and cherishes.

There is a significant temporal gap between Book Two and Three. The narrative picks up again when Paul determines that it is time for his terrible purpose to be fulfilled. He departs from the sietch, he departs from Chani, he departs from their new-born child, and as we have already seen here, he takes up the name Muad’Dib and ultimately ascends the throne of emperor. The narrative gap is easy to miss. Such a time is irrelevant to the plot of Dune, and as such, it goes unwritten. But such a time is precisely that upon which Herbert wishes his readers to dwell. The gaps in the narrative, the gaps in history, these are the spaces in which life takes back ground from destiny, the spaces where patrimony cannot form bodies into instruments of power because such instruments are continuously undone in the gentleness of touch. With a caress, Chani dissolves Paul’s terror, drawing him to herself with the sort of strength of which power cannot conceive, the tender strength of communion.

The supreme masterpiece of Dune is not to be found in the intricacies of its narrative, but its silences, in the invisible, untellable, uncontainable spaces where narrative fails and life abides in peace.

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