Inspired by John Hodgman’s speech at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner, in which he interrogated President Obama about the Kwisatz Haderach, I decided to read (okay, re-read) Frank Herbert’s Dune. I’ve seen the David Lynch movie at least a dozen times, to the point where snippets of its dialogue are part of my conversational repertoire, but I haven’t read the book probably since I was 12 or 13.
I was expecting it to be slightly silly — and it is — but it turns out that it’s also surprisingly absorbing, despite, or maybe because of, its peculiar tone of haute solemnity, as if Spengler decided to try his hand at pulp sci-fi. Herbert seems to relish not only inventing superfluous terminology and casually throwing out details from the millions of years of epochal galactic history that he’d like readers to believe he has worked out in full, but he mixes in an ersatz Hegelianism, with occasional evocations of the master-slave dialectic, the ideas of totality and species being, and a grand transcendent design in history. What’s brilliant about all the quasi-philosophical jargon is that Herbert doesn’t try at all to use it coherently; he just seems to like the way it reads tonally. That’s enough to endear the novel to me, though I suspect if I knew more about Herbert’s pretensions, I’d be less seduced.
So far, a 100 or so pages in, the narrative seems preoccupied with capturing how the characters read so much out of various minute phenomena — it’s like a manual of hermeneutics rendered as fiction. Preposterous feats of intuition and prophetic dreams are blended in with painstakingly methodical deductions about other characters’ emotional states and what behavior they will prompt. Strategic problems are never far from the surface, virtually no details are given without a gloss of their tactical import, or alternatively, an intimation of its mythical portent. What emerges from this is a schizophrenic view of human character that alternates between ultrarationality and supernaturalism. I can’t think of anything else quite like it.
What I’m trying to resist though if reading the book as camp, though I’m not sure if this is possible, not sure if one can turn off the irony part of the brain. But it helps to regard the language not as accidentally bathetic but as a specific accomplishment of a mood through somewhat unlikely means, a fog of abstractions and interior monologues to conjure what ends up gripping readers as a kind of physical sensation — does that make any sense? Wait, it doesn’t matter, Michael Jackson might be dead…