He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s October. Grad school is heating up with the oncoming deadlines of three seminar essays, research assignments, and over two hundred pages of reading a week. You’re exhausted beyond belief, some of your peers possess a self-righteous disdain for your work, and you’re starting to wonder if this was ever a good idea at all.
Then Friday comes, and with it the release of a new film.
The night I went to see Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the theater was packed out of its mind. The ticket line was out the door. The popcorn line was even longer.
It had been a last minute decision to see Dune, really. I wanted to read the book first, get a feel for Herbert’s original world, and preserve my “yes-I-read-the-book-before-i-saw-the-film” dignity.
But I was tired. And hungry for a new movie. And Villeneuve’s film was the kind of artistic creation that broke my mind and then put it back together. I was in awe. And I don’t use the word awe lightly. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that left me so speechless, so utterly entranced and mesmerized.
And, it not only spurred me into reading the first three of the original Dune novels, but it also spurred me through the remainder of my first semester of grad school.
Nota bene: I’ll keep the following discussion as spoiler free as I can. There are a few hints at potential spoilers, but nothing explicit.
One of the biggest—if not the biggest—film to release in 2021 was Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
I walked in to the theater expecting a riveting film, and immediately, as it opened with the throaty Sardukar chant and words “Dreams are messages from the deep,” I knew it was going to be something extraordinary.
And it was.
The visuals. The performances. The score. I looked over at my sister when the credits rolled and just said “wow,” letting the experience wash over me. I had to process it to fully appreciate it.
I read the first three Dune novels in rapid succession after that first initial film release in October. Then I saw it five more times in the theater and watched it twice more at home when the early access came out in December. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say I really love Dune.
My experience in the fandom has been one of awe, beauty, realism, and the true fear of raw, unbridled power. From Paul’s visions as a young man, his arrival on Arrakis, and his generational legacy through Leto II and Ghanima, it’s breathtaking.
Dune wrestles with a multitude of themes, the most prominent being messianic corruption, organized religion, and determinism. Even though Dune is sci-fi, it is incredibly dense with realism. “Heroes,” as we known them in our world, do not exist in the Dune universe. There are only people with power. And the choice between right and wrong isn’t always obvious to the main characters, which makes them all the more human. It is their wielding of power that defines their place both on Arrakis and in history.
I say to you still that man remains on trial. Each man is a little war.Paul Atreides
I once heard my beloved friend and fellow Dune aficionado Parker say the following: “Paul isn’t a chosen one. He’s a convenience.”
And it’s one of the better descriptions I’ve heard of Paul as a character. He’s a conveniently placed young man labelled as a long-awaited messianic figure who must decide how to bear his forced-archetypal existence both for his own good and for the good of those who follow him.
And his humanity shines through, as he isn’t completely capable of either.
It’s been exasperating to read film critics tag Paul Atreides a “chosen one.” Even more frustrating is reading critical reports labelling Dune a “white savior narrative.” The story of Dune is neither of these, and is instead a critique of both.
Paul is incapable of choosing his destiny due to his ability to see the future—his gift of prescience. It reveals all to him. He finds nothing but chaos, bloodshed, and pain in his visions and it terrifies him to no end. He sees the future in which “[his] name is a killing word.” It is thrust upon him by the cosmic forces of a determinism he is unable to control, and despite his best efforts, time keeps moving.
The emptiness was unbearable. Knowing how the clockwork had been set in motion made no difference. He could look to his own past and see the start of it—the training, the sharpening of talents, the refined pressures of sophisticated disciplines, even exposure to the O.C. Bible at a critical moment…and, lastly, the heavy intake of spice. And he could look ahead—the most terrifying direction—to see where it all pointed.
I’m a monster! he thought. A freak!
“No,” he said. Then: No. No! NO!”Paul’s thoughts, from Dune p. 247
An important aspect of Paul’s gift of prescience is that he can see multiple alternatives—all of which sometimes lead to one outcome. He can still choose a path for himself.
But Paul is continuously human—painfully human. His handling of power, his messianic complex, and his fervent desire to do good all fight inside of him, just as they do in every human. In this way, he is no hero; he is a man with power. He is like us.
Herbert keeps reminding the reader of Paul’s flawed humanity. Significantly, the opening scene of the novel is a test to the death to determine the triumph of Paul’s humanity over his animal impulses.
And yet one of the reasons I adore the young Paul is for his tortured internal conflict, simultaneously resulting in an iron-fisted, formidable leader and a somber, reluctant prophet. Not to spoil too much, but Paul makes horrific choices that bring forth the wanton bloodshed of his visions. He then becomes repulsed by his power, by the fanatics who kill in his name, and the death sweeping the universe.
And what have I done for the Atreides name? Paul asked himself. I’ve loosed the wolf among the sheep.
For a moment, he contemplated all the death and violence going on in his name.from Dune: Messiah p. 34
And in the end he makes heart-wrenching choices that sacrifice his own happiness for the good of his people, and (oxymoronically) it solidifies him as a true hero: the one he never was and never wished to be.
Alluding to the Nietzsche quote I opened with, Paul’s why allows him to bear his how.
For Frank Herbert, even though heroes don’t exist in Dune, unheroic humans can still choose the good, the virtuous, and the beautiful even when they’ve failed to do so for so long. And this shows strongly in Paul’s relationship with Chani.
Chani keeps Paul grounded in the soft, delicate, beautiful things. This is not to neglect the reality that Chani is a fierce warrior and mother in her own right. All the same, her presence in Paul’s life is what keeps him soft, and he clings to her for that stability. It is her love for him that continues to point him towards the good that he craves, and he adores Chani for it. It’s the reason Chani is truly his one and only beloved. She is the one beautiful source of love in his life, and he holds tightly to her because of that.
He turned toward Chani in the darkness, felt her waiting there. Her water rings tinkled like the almsbells of pilgrims. He groped his way to the sound, encountered her outstretched arms.
“Beloved,” she whispered. “Have I troubled you?”
Her arms enclosed his future as they enclosed him.
“Not you,” he said. “Oh…not you.”Paul and Chani, from Dune: Messiah p. 49
I’m going to be profoundly anti-feminist here when I say that while there’s a lot to discuss about Chani on her own, in the context of her relationship to Paul, she is his sihaya; she is the idyllic beam of peace and femininity that pierces his sometimes harsh power and masculinity. I think it’s beautiful.
This is why Herbert often compares her to the moon or writes that she walks in the moon: the moon symbolizes femininity and new life. Chani is the yin to Paul’s yang.
Paul’s sense of the beautiful (to use the Kantian term) emanates from Chani, and he races for it, eventually making tragic decisions in order to preserve that greater good despite the multiple conflicting urges within him and the price he has to pay.
Paul isn’t a hero, and he doesn’t always make good decisions, but the point of him is that he is human, flawed, incapable of perfection yet constantly striving for it. Paul is us. Gifted with power, burdened by his influence, and contemplating his authority, Paul falls remarkably short of the good. He isn’t the idyllic savior, nor is he the hero the Fremen needed.
Yet he still wants to be good and honorable. And he sacrifices all in the end to lower himself and exalt the good. I do love Paul Atreides so very much.
But enough of my rambling. What did you think? Have you seen Dune? I’ve been wary to write an assessment of Paul’s character for a while, but would you agree? Please do comment below. I do so love talking about Dune.
And we didn’t even get to talk about my favorite character—the Lady Jessica—in this conversation about “heroes.” *sigh* I’m going to have to come back to rant about her later on.
Here I remain,