WWFHT? - or, Would Frank Herbert Think We’re Human?
In eager anticipation of the then upcoming, now just released movie, this past summer I decided to reread Dune for the nth time. It’s not as if I needed a refresher on the story itself - I’m somewhat further toward the spice-geek end of the spectrum than most people I know - so I did hesitate a bit before picking it up again. But within the very first few pages, I was reminded of why this book has gained in popularity since its first publication over 50 years ago and continues to seem so fresh and relevant. Unlike those of other sci-fi novels of its era, the social world in which Frank Herbert immerses us is one that is so complete as to be utterly believable, despite its fantastical elements of spaceships, sandworms, and spice.
I’m not going to go into all the features that make this book the classic it is. Rather, I want to zero in on a couple of scenes that lend themselves to an ecological interpretation.
I use the word “ecological” because: a) this is the term that Herbert himself used and, b) it is the term that was best understood to represent the concerns of those involved in what we now remember as the early days of the current environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had just been published a few years before Dune and was already beginning to have a huge impact on a whole generation of thinkers. I don’t know if Herbert felt himself to be among those directly influenced by Carson’s book, but his work displays a deep understanding of and concern with ecological issues, as anyone who knows his books is well aware. While there are many important themes in the novel(s) - themes of power, history, religion, economics, politics, and leadership - these themes interact with each other within the plot to such a degree of complexity as to be not unlike the overarching theme of ecological interrelatedness itself.
Those who are familiar with the story will remember one of the key early scenes involving the testing of the main character, Paul Atreides, with the famous gom jabbar. An interesting precursor to this episode - one that I hadn’t remembered until happily stumbling on it this time around - was the setup to that scene that comes just shortly before, on page 5, when Paul practices a Bene Gesserit “mind-body lesson” his mother had taught him. In today’s parlance, we might call this a mindfulness meditation exercise - of the kind that has become much better known, in mainstream circles of more recent times, than we are now inclined to believe was the case back when Dune was first published. (I’m often dubious of the tendency to regard all current knowledge and insight as new discovery.) In Paul’s reflections we see Herbert’s distinction - soon to be echoed and amplified by the Reverend Mother in the gom jabbar scene that follows - between the fully, deliberately conscious human, and merely animal consciousness.
The distinction seems to rest in the idea of nested layers of consciousness informed by systems of values that in turn influence the individual’s awareness of its own recursive consciousness. (Here we can also see perhaps a harbinger of some later work of Douglas Hofstaedter.) A true human being is consciously aware not only of its own perceptions, but of the greater contexts in which these perceptions reside, to the extent that they are themselves influenced by, if not actually derived from the deep understanding of those same contexts. By contrast, a mere animal (we are enculturated to accept) is only aware of its perceptions of the moment and is motivated solely by its desire to satisfy its most basic appetites - the seeking of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, and the like.
The trial by gom jabbar is a test to determine whether Paul is fully human. He is subjected to this test because he is the ducal heir, born to a position of leadership and responsibility. Surviving the trial (failure means death) demonstrates his ability to overcome his animal instinct for self-preservation in the service of a larger contextual purpose: his responsibility to a society greater than himself. Only once he is proven to be fully human is he worthy of the mantle of leadership.
And here's where I think it gets really interesting and relevant to today’s moment: we people of 2021 walk around not questioning our own humanity, rarely if ever conscious of our implicit assumption of that fact, yet seem unwilling to acknowledge the largest and most consequential contexts of our existence. We allow ourselves to be consumed by the most basic of desires, these desires often manufactured on our behalf by those who believe their interests to be best served in distracting us from our collective impending peril.
“...to be conscious by choice…” as Herbert puts it, would require that we acknowledge, understand, and take steps to overcome the threats that face us as a species.
I’m not sure which cognitive bias quite applies here, whether it’s some version of Baader- Meinhof or something similar, but it is certainly striking to me that I began rereading Dune and came upon these passages mere days after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent and alarming report. Herbert may have been talking about individuals, but I think the distinction he makes could well apply to our society as a whole and even to the species itself. I find myself wondering if we are capable of surviving/passing the gom jabbar test posed by climate change. The IPCC report tries to outline reasons for hope, and so I try to remain hopeful, but the key action our entire society needs to take is to choose full conscious awareness. Being fully human is an active choice. Remaining anything less than that is a passive choice, but a choice nevertheless. And each of these choices comes with its own set of inevitable consequences.
So much in the Dune saga takes place against a backdrop of enormously long time scales. Actions and choices made by individuals and societies play out their consequences over decades, centuries, and millennia. Whether Herbert intended this interpretation or not, I read this as a reminder that ours do as well.
As so many of our wisest sages in the IPCC and elsewhere are warning us, we stand on the brink of a precipice, and the edge is crumbling beneath our feet. Yet these prophets are routinely derided, humoured, or ignored as so many Cassandras.
Our current peril has been generations in the making, yet the tipping point past a point of no return may be crossed at any moment. At the time of this writing, the COP26 Climate Conference is still underway in Glasgow. The terrible choices confronting our so-called leaders are indeed daunting. And with a deepening sense of dread, we observe that they give little indication of being up to the challenge. One wonders whether any of them would pass the test of Herbert’s gom jabbar. I fear not.