Part 2:Well then, what now?

(Read Part 1 here, a short essay on the aftermath of 9/11/01)

If I may, I would like to preempt the criticism that might be brought to bear against what I said in, “Remember, But Be Thorough” by reminding readers that the first step in solving a problem is becoming aware that it exists. Unless some form of heretofore unknown prescience lurks in the gene pool of homo sapiens and an equally unknown capacity to come to infallibly functional and comprehensible conclusions does likewise, it would seem that our particular branch of the primate tree is inextricably bound to do things the hard way. Fortunately for us, we have evolved to the point where the disinterested universe and its wasteful and bloodily meandering cycles of reproduction no longer represent the only available route.

In the absence of a proven superior method, the arduous and time-consuming work of figuring out how to move ourselves forward falls to humans. The first task that must be undertaken is figuring out what we ought to want. After that, we must ascertain the limitations reality places on our ideal. Lastly, we must apply ourselves in the task of making the two intersect, focusing our attention primarily on working to find ways to bend the latter in the direction of the former in spite if the difficulty of that path and the beguiling artlessness and ultimate futility of its antithesis.

In the end it will remain more effective to wrestle cultural and social reality into confluence with our commonly professed morality than to enlist ourselves into an endless succession of conflicts fought within the microcosm of the individual while armed only with the clumsy instruments of governance. Leave the transformation and salvation of the souls of man to those who are content to profess a belief in them, and spend our limited resources in the pursuit of those goods which are detectable and demonstrably extant in the reality we share.

It is the position of myself, and I daresay all secular humanists, that the result of spending of $100 to save the life of a child from preventable illness is superior to that of $100 spent on reassuring that child’s parents that their beloved youngster is in a better place now. Until the presence of a soul can be confirmed, I remain of the opinion that an evidentially grounded sense of responsibility for the common good of mankind’s living, breathing bodies, and active minds is superior to one based on the presupposition that the world we know is a sham.

Pursuant to this collection of notions, I have decided to label this post and the first with the category, “The Golden Path,” in allusion to the writings of Franklin Patrick Herbert, Jr. wherein the characters Paul Atreides and his son Leto Atreides II use their prescience to predict the possible future downfall of humanity. Obviously I am not possessed of the abilities of the Kwisatz Haderach and neither is anyone else at least thus far. Obviously the point of my invocation of Herbert’s work is not to say that we need to desperately begin searching the galaxy for a source of spice melange–but I think that there are definitely things which a thorough read of the Dune epic can grant us which will be of significant assistance.

So let me break out the old literary analysis toolkit and begin to sketch out a rough and ready reading of the Dune epic, at least as it relates to the topic of what humanity and more specifically America, ought to be working at. The “Golden Path” that Paul “Mua’Dib” Atreides and his son Leto II chart out is the result of prescience, or more specifically developed in response to the existence of it and their possession of it as a consequence of a multi-millennial breeding program involving the Navigator’s Guild, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, and the Mentats–three powerful and influential groups possessed of unique powers granted to them by the incredibly rare and precious spice mined on the planet Arrakis.

Arrakis is a profoundly harsh desert world whose lethality is matched only by the stark beauty of its sands and the relentlessly tough self-sufficiency of the planet’s human population, the Fremen. It is the single place in all the galaxy where spice can be found, and as such is a place of inconceivable value to the Human Empire. Much like the colonial South Africa and its diamonds or perhaps colonial Iraq, the planet is dominated by a powerful group granted supremacy over the land by agreement of the Emperor and the Noble Houses of the Empire, (loosely analogous to the colonial powers of Europe), and brutally segregated between marginalized Fremen and workers and the stunningly wealthy nobility.

While the setting itself could support its own interpretation, the long and the short of it is essentially that spice is a kind of ‘X factor’ that unlocks potential in humans and changes them in a manner consistent with their effort. Arrakis is therefore the hub about which the entire Human Empire turns.  It provides the Spacing Guild’s Navigators with the means to transform themselves into misshapen but potent creatures that can “fold” space with their minds and move the giant ships that allow the Empire to maintain its cohesion. It helps the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood to gain access to a kind of “genetic memory” of all past human women as well as granting them The Voice, which is a sort of quasi-mind control which can compel obedience from those who hear it, depending on the strength of the Sister and the willpower of the individual. Lastly, spice melange grants the Mentats phenomenal cognitive powers ranging from eidetic memory to rapid synthesis of huge amounts of data including lightning-fast calculations.

All of these groups benefit additionally from significantly extended life expectancy, and suffer to some degree or another from spice addiction. In light of the dark period in endogenous history during which sentient machines nearly annihilated humanity, spice addiction is a small price to pay for these sorts of replacement for various technologies. The system works. People live their lives in relative peace, the government generally functions, and trade occurs. Here is where we begin to come back to the original thrust, having done a somewhat frightfully shallow skimming of the basics–allow me if you will to enjoin you to partake of the series itself and of my future exploration of its corpus. To put it as simply as I can, humanity in the Dune universe has begun to become stagnant. The familiar primate drives for love, sex, territory, power, safety, and resources have ceased to propel the species forward.

Humans have become reliant first on spice, and second, on special and powerful groups like the three I have mentioned to take care of business. Paul and his son are the rare inheritors of both prescience and what is called the, “no-gene” which shields them from prescience. The “Golden Path” to which I refer is the end result of a determination to avoid the final destruction of humankind by an unknown enemy who might possess the same sort of prescience. The curious thing which separatesDune from most tales and Paul and his son from most heroes is that Herbert’s dystopian future narrative is decidedly ruthless in its egalitarian approach.

While Paul Atreides is lucky enough to be the scion of one of the Empire’s foremost families, in the first novel his family is thoroughly betrayed by one of their most trusted servants and the entire house sans Paul and his mother are slaughtered essentially to the last man, woman, and child. Furthermore, if one takes the time to explore beyond the initial book, we realize that Paul is in fact not the Kwisatz Haderach and is in fact only a partial success and the result of his mother’s deliberate disobedience to the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood’s orders in the face of her love for Duke Leto Atreides. Mua’Dib himself comes to his power not by being granted a special magical sword, by being the ‘chosen one’, or by inheriting a position of power and privilege that he eventually becomes worthy of during the story.

If I must summarize in brief, Paul is completely cut off from his privileged nobility and thrust into the lethally harsh landscape of Dune, and is forced to earn his way into the equally demanding company of the Fremen. He receives no special magic, makes the acquaintance of no luckily placed bearer of profundity, and has no particular advantages to start with. His prescience is the source only of confusion and fevered dreams until he puts forth the massive effort to develop it, doing so only at extreme risk from Spacer Guild Navigators, and while he is skilled in combat, he worked for years to attain that ability and did not suddenly transform from simple farmer into master at arms during of a five minute montage that takes place within two days of endogenous time.

Paul Mua’dib at least, is one of the rarest breed of heroes: the sort whose roots dig haltingly into the basest soil of human nature and grows only by dint of painful and sustained effort. Imperfect and often troubled by it, the foremost hero of Dune neither accepts nor transcends the geas of the ‘destinies’ laid upon him by the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, the treacheous House Harkonnen, the Padishah Emperor, or even his own noble family, House Atreides. In spite of and perhaps due to his own human failings, he instead grasps the reality in front of him and accepts the destiny he writes for himself: the tortuous and agonizing path of doing what is right, no matter the price in convenience, comfort, or even life itself.

Having made what might seem a startling number of wide-reaching assertions without citation, I can almost hear the keening lamentation of my many wonderful teachers, professors, and TAs echoing through the aether to my ears. To those formidable persons I direct this brief request for forbearance: consider the previous piece my introduction and this the first portion of exposition necessitated by my choice in allegorical framework. The meat and potatoes will be attended to, and the depths of the texts rigorously plumbed for support. It is just going to take awhile to do properly.

Until next time, thanks for reading.