Dune and mortality, rereading via accident and error

I’m in the midst of rereading Frank Herbert’s Dune novels, and in so doing I have once again seen something in them which I’d not seen before. I first read Dune when I was just a shade younger than the young Paul Atreides; I was in ninth grade, and it seemed to me to be most definitely the best novel I had ever read.

Since that time, I have reread Dune and the five sequels Herbert penned more times than I can count – well over two dozen for some of the volumes in the series. I have loved them, in each reading, and drawn something new from them each time. I am now about the age of Muad’Dib, Paul Atreides once again – this time as the Emperor of the Lion Throne, twelve years after the defeat of Shaddam IV. I have grown up with Dune, and I have profited by it throughout. It is no longer the greatest novel I have read; that title, if it exists at all, would have to go to another of my favorites. It is nevertheless a great work, one from which I suspect I will be drawing lessons when I am edging up on Leto II’s age.

Reading Dune again, I encountered the chapter near the close of Book Two in which Liet-Kynes meets his end atop a spice blow, killed by his own planet (pages 270-7 in my venerable paperback copy). This chapter, coming as it does in the middle of Stilgar’s confrontation with Paul and Jessica in the desert (plus Paul’s first meeting with Chani on the ridge) always seemed overlong, an interruption in the narrative thread. It is not as though I did not appreciate Kynes’ hallucinated lesson from his long-dead planetologist father; on the contrary, I found then and continue to find now much of interest there. Even Kynes, though, is less than impressed with his father’s oration: “Lecturing, lecturing, lecturing — always lecturing.”

Kynes calls himself a desert creature, and the chapter opens with a description of him as a man, then as a mote, his clothes rags and his life near its end. He listens to his father’s words of hope for man as a force of ecological transformation, even as the pre-spice mass builds up to an explosion beneath him. As a younger reader, the tension there escaped me, especially when counterpoised with the odd amusement of Kynes trying to turn his head to see his father, to meet his gaze. His father is not there, of course, and Kynes’ frustrated attempts to find him, despite recognizing his own delirium, form a darkly comedic element for the scene. Death approaches, as the spice blow and as the hawk.

In the early chapters of Dune Messiah, Paul is tortured by his station, holding himself and his enemies in check while he searches for a solution. The chapter in which he holds council regarding the Treaty of Tupile (pages 67-83 in my edition) shows him in a moment of near anger when Irulan pushes for him to impregnate her. Paul refuses an answer and walks to the window, and catches himself in reflection. His mind wanders over his reign and his planet, and he turns to the pilgrims who come on the Hajj from conquered worlds:

What was it that the pilgrims truly sought? Paul wondered. They said they came to a holy place. But they must know the universe contained no Eden-source, no Tupile for the soul. They called Arrakis the place of the unknown where all mysteries were explained. This was a link between their universe and the next. And the frightening thing was that they appeared to go away satisfied.

What do they find here? Paul asked himself.

Paul goes on to consider that he has “out-fought and out-thought and out-predicted the universe of men, but a certainty filed him that this universe still eluded him.” The Emperor, the Oracle, does not have the answer, does not have control. This is a rumination on personal mortality, considered by one whose first son is long dead and whose next child means the death of his wife and his own exile.

The kwisatz haderach sees this, but the man does not want to go into the desert. Kynes, as he stares down his death in the implacable words of his father, the patient hawk, and the inevitable spice blow, realizes that the danger to his dream of man as a positive force for ecological transformation is a Paul Atreides: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.” It is the deadly personality, the desire for action, the harnessing of human energy for the immediate that Kynes sees, but he can see it only as he approaches death. Paul sees the same, from the other side: the universe is beyond his reckoning, beyond his understanding, and beyond his control. Kynes sees the same truth at the moment of his demise, which Paul will not understand until later: “Then, as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, and that the most persistent principles in the universe were accident and error. Even the hawks could appreciate these facts.”

Again the darkly humorous comes to the fore with the frustrated hawks overhead; they rail against their lost prey, but they understand the lesson all too well that there are no certainties. Paul learns that there are none, not even for the Oracle. This melancholy brooding on mortality was not something I really understood or placed in its appropriate context until this reading. Perhaps I feel a certain sympathy for Paul at thirty, holding the universe at bay after finally coming to some sort of understanding of it. I feel his wonder at the pilgrims who find solace.

Kynes finds his solace in being enveloped by the planet he hoped to save, pursued by the hawk and at last recognizing the chaos of the natural world. It is that balance between wild, deadly forces and careful analysis that Herbert manages so well in the chapter – Kynes and his father, the planetologist and the planetologist-Fremen. Who better to lecture at the moment of your death?

Coming to appreciate the interrelated narrative in these two chapters also gave me a little better reading of the opening quotation to the Kynes chapter, a short introduction and then a piece of Fremen music called “The Old Man’s Hymn.” Here again is something I was not ready to appreciate all those years ago:

I drove my feet through a desert
Whose mirage fluttered like a host.
Voracious for glory, greedy for danger,
I roamed the horizons of al-Kulab,
Watching time level mountains
In its search and its hunger for me.
And I saw the sparrows swiftly approach,
Bolder than the onrushing wolf.
They spread in the tree of my youth.
I heard the flock in the branches
And was caught on their beaks and claws!

I don’t feel that I ought to write a proper analysis of the poem above, or at least not yet. It is visceral for me in a way it has never been before, beautiful like a chipped gem or a cracked mirror.

I love Dune. I will be reading it, I hope, for many more years to come. In so doing, I know that I will continue to find more than I have before. I recognize that my reading is changing with time, not just getting better in some teleological sense. I am a different person with each reading, and it is always a different experience.

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