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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dune Messiah

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Looking at the publishing history of Dune Messiah, it was first published in 1969 and the first UK (NEL) paperback edition came out in September 1972. I bought it when the family were on a 'curling holiday' at Aviemore in October 1972. I hadn't read the original Dune so reading Dune Messiah first was slightly disorientating. According to this
the Dune books came about when Herbert combined his interest in the dangers of messianic religious belief with his experience of practical ecology – planting hardy grasses to control shifting sand dunes in Oregon. Wikipedia says 'The Oregon Dunes are a unique area of windswept sand that is the result of millions of years of wind, sun, and rain erosion on the Oregon Coast. These are the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. Some dunes tower up to 150 meters above sea level.'

As the sequence of Dune books unfolded, the 'actual' sand dunes of the desert planet Arrakis become less and less important and the series theme of the 'on-rolling devouring force of messianic myth' becomes central over the 5000 years of history the books document. [Timescale has been extended by books written by Herbert's son Brian]. Dune Messiah shows the hero figure (Paul Atreides/ Maud'dib becoming trapped and destroyed by the cycle of messianic myth he originally manipulated.

I have now re-read most of the sequence and... I found myself skipping over the philosophical/ psychological chunks where characters waffle on about the nature of reality and of humanity. For all that the setting is meant to be the distant future, it seems closer to an alternative past – one in which a belief system closer to Islam rather than Christianity became the religion of the Roman empire – an empire which then survived (as the eastern / Byzantine empire did) as form of Machiavellian feudalism and which did not then give rise to enlightenment/ industrialisation/ capitalism.... Since my current area of interest is the late eighteenth/ pre-Victorian nineteenth century – where the Age of Reason smashed into the Mechanical Age giving birth (via the exploitation of India, Africa and the Americas) to global Capitalism most of the Dune sequence is just noise.

On the other hand (suggestion made by my son), if global warming creates a desert planet, will it also create giant spice worms? That would be fun, but maybe the Dune sequence can be interpreted / read as a science fiction which anticipates a post global warming world? I am thinking here of the irrationality of global warming deniers. Could it be that the irrationality and rejection / refusal of science shown by deniers is itself a cultural product of global warming?

What do I mean by this? I am not quite sure. I suppose that, when viewed over the long term, most human societies have been ordered / organised around a mythic-religious or mythic-magical understanding of the world [Which is Frank Herbert's central theme]. The rational/ scientific/ technological/ industrial (capitalist/ economic?) understanding of the world is very recent, little more than 200 years old in practice- although the theory can be traced back 2500 years or so to the speculations of Greek philosophers. One path led from Aristotle via Judaisim and Islam to the disputations of medieval theologians and the work of Thomas Aquinas. Science as natural philosophy, grew from this path.

Another, more immediately practical, came from Roman Law. This was the law of the eastern Roman empire, codified under Justinian in the sixth century and which was rediscovered in Italy (esp. Bologna) in the late eleventh century.This was more practical since as the economy of medieval Europe began to become more complex. It needed more complex laws. Thus within a deeply religious society, the seeds of reason began to take root. Reasoning involved a necessary questioning and doubting of arguments from authority, or perhaps more a challenging of one authority by another. This happened with the Reformation when the authority of the Roman church was challenged/ tested against the authority of scripture, of the bible.

In Britain in the seventeenth century the Reformation led to a political struggle against the Stuart kings who claimed to be above the law, to have a divine right to rule. This struggle ended at Culloden in 1746.The Scottish enlightenment which followed gave rise to Adam Smith's economic theories and also allowed James Watt to improve the efficiency of the steam engine. But Watt was only able to turn his theoretical engine into a functional one with the help of English industrialists and himself joined the Birmingham based Lunar Society which was an enlightenment club.

In France and Germany(which was then divided into many small states), the eighteenth century enlightenment was more 'philosophical' and abstractly political, more concerned with ideas. It was not entangled with trade and industry as it was in Britain. It did not (from my reading of the background) lead directly to the French Revolution, but provided theories which fed into the revolution as it developed. During the struggle which followed , which led on to the Napoleonic wars, the French economy was damaged, as were the economies of other parts of Europe. In Britain, however, the pace of economic growth accelerated. Watt's steam engines were applied to industrial manufacturing including the cotton industry and the war economy also stimulated the iron and coal industries. For example, the price of fodder for horses rose which stimulated the development of steam traction and early railways. Political reaction to the French revolution made it more difficult for workers to organise, weakening resistance to the early growth of industrial capitalism.
The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 was followed by political reaction across Europe. The idealism of French and German enlightenment thought was seen as dangerous. Hegel and then Marx come in here, but so also do Henri de Saint Simon and Jean- Baptiste Say. It was J-B Say who first used the phrase 'industrial revolution'... what these two thinkers argued for was a scientific and industrial 'revolution' which would transform the world. Through their influence, the industrialisation of Europe was a more organised affair than that of Britain – railways for example were planned and key industries were protected from competition. Eventually, the necessities of two world wars and the intervening economic crisis encouraged Britain to adopt such industrial planning and organisation. Since 1980, a more market-led/ free – enterprise approach has been adopted which has partially de-industrialised the UK

Wandered away from Frank Herbert a bit there, but his big themes are in there – how to plan and shape the ecology of entire planets, the power of ideas and ideologies acting over many generations, the idea of the enlightened but absolute ruler, the conflict between order and chaos... between the reasoning of Herbert's 'mentats' (human computers) and the prescient (future anticipating) visions induced by the spice called melange..

What is going to happen as the global temperature keeps rising? Can we dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels but still remain 'civilised'? Or will humanity return to barbarism? Put another way – what is a 'civilised society'? Was the society of the enlightenment – on the cusp of the industrial revolution- 'civilised'? It was a society which practised slavery -as did the Roman and Greek civilisations – and had only a fraction of our scientific and technological knowledge. And the knowledge it did have was restricted to a very few. How many of the millions of Europeans of the time were actively part of the 'Age of Reason'?

The jewel in our present-day civilisation's crown is meant to be our science, our 'scientific method'. Yet – as the problem of global climate change shows, many people, perhaps even a majority – struggle to grasp how the scientific method works.

There is also the tension between what the science says we need to do and what the convolutions of the global economy will let us do. The global economy depends on growth but the growth (at present) depends upon the flow of oil. [like the flow of the spice melange in Herbert's fictions]. Without oil, the global economy will grind to a halt. If the global economy starts to seize up, how much social unrest will there be? Food riots. Fuel riots. Power cuts. If peak oil is a reality, then these problems will arise anyway.

Is there a non-apocalyptic future? Is there an enlightened solution? Is it possible to rationally plan and organise a low carbon future? But then we have the challenge of the dominant ideology which says it is impossible to plan in this way without ending up in a totalitarian prison. It is the belief that the Age of Reason led to the Terror of the French revolution... Rather we should be led by Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'. But Smith's invisible hand is very close to [divine] 'Pprovidence'

“The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition.”

The ideology has it that the market has its own rationality which cannot be directed, that economies cannot be planned or organised. The market, like God, moves in mysterious ways and is beyond the reach of science.

Marx disagreed and took Hegel's notion of reason achieving its realisation through history a stage further with his critique of political economy. Perhaps, if the French revolution had not intervened, the process of enlightenment would have continued on and overcome the myth of the autonomous economy. Perhaps Marx (almost) achieved this?

Perhaps global ecology = global economy? So that the real struggle is not to manage the destructive impact of climate change, but rather to manage the destructive impact of the globalised economy?


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