Sunday, July 29, 2018

Our Bodies Stirred These Waters Briefly: Dune Club Messiah, Session 3

This was the paperback you were most likely to find in the eighties, so, naturally, this is the image that comes to my mind whenever I think "Dune Messiah."

The Fremen see her as the Earth Figure, a demi-goddess whose special charge is to protect the tribes through her powers of violence.  She is Reverend Mother to their Reverend Mothers.  To pilgrims who seek her out with demands that she restore virility or make the barren fruitful, she is a form of antimentat.  She feeds on that proof that the "analytic" has limits.  She represents ultimate tension.  She is the virgin-harlot -- witty, vulgar, cruel, as destructive in her whims as a coriolis storm. 
--St. Alia of the Knife
as taken from The Irulan Report
Presumably, this assessment of Alia was written by Irulan herself.  Note that it begins with a subtle qualifier: "the Fremen see her" this way, suggesting the possibility that others might see Alia differently.  This assessment, then, is as much an assessment of the Fremen themselves as it is of Alia.
Certainly, any Bene Gesserit reading these words would pick up what Irulan is laying down.  Or they would, at least, if they were aware of the Missionaria Protectiva and the extent to which Jessica was able to take advantage of the ways in which the arrival of Paul (and Alia) had been "pre-ordained."  Was it actually pre-ordained, or did Jessica and her children knowingly insert themselves into Fremen society in such a way as to make it seem pre-ordained?  

It's the latter, I'd say, but in order to say it I've got to adopt a Bene Gesserit sort of worldview.  If I adopt a Fremen worldview instead, I may well ask what the difference is.  After all, we'll recall that ancient Fremen axiom from earlier about how the truth suffers from analysis; if that's true and it's also true that Alia feeds on this notion (as hinted at here), then it seems likely to me that the average Fremen, hearing about the Missionaria Protectiva, would simply shrug and move on.  Might or might not also take your water for the tribe for good measure, but essentially they'd be unmoved.
This is a strong chapter, and it's one that had a big impact on me as a child.  Reading about Alia getting naked and knife-fighting a target dummy right up to the danger line and beyond was kind of a big deal for sixth-grade Bryant.  I wouldn't swear that that was the moment I hit puberty, but I wouldn't swear it wasn't, either.  It's kind of a gross feeling to be remembering that at age 44, what with Alia being a mere fifteen years and all.  Let's not dwell on it; but there IS a curious bilocation of emotion and of morality taking place within such thoughts (I am both 44 years old within that thought AND 11 years old), and the mental trippiness that goes hand in hand with that sort of thing brings one that much closer to empathizing with Paul.  And with Alia, for that matter.  So that's kind of cool.
The chapter begins with Alia on a balcony at her temple, looking out at the pilgrims.  She's kind of disgusted by what her planet is becoming, which leads her down a path of thinking not unlike what we've already heard from both Paul and Farok.  "Even danger had been good in those days -- clean danger from known sources.  No need then to strain the limits of prescience, to peer through murky veils for frustrating glimpses of the future."  Like many another Fremen, she is struggling to know what to do with power; the search for it makes sense, the defense of it quite a bit less.
This nostalgia for danger is likely what pushes her toward her dangerous duel with the target dummy; she needs to know that such "clean danger from known sources" is still possible.  But her exertions are thwarted at their apex by an intrusion from Paul and Stilgar, who bring with them reminders of the reality of their situation: "The rot is setting in," Paul grimly assesses the news that the Guild may soon be planning to try to capture a sandworm to take to a new world in an attempt to begin the spice cycle there.  Alia seems already to understand that such a thing is possible, and speaks to Paul in kind; Stilgar, overhearing them, has "the overwhelming sensation that his idols had admitted blasphemous weakness."
But this weakness, of course, is merely the truth.  Ah, but one should avoid looking too closely at the truth, eh?
"All power is limited," Alia insists.  It's one of this novel's primary concerns.
The most dangerous game in the universe is to govern from an oracular base.  We do not consider ourselves wise enough or brave enough to play that game.  The measures detailed here for regulation in lesser matters are as near as we dare venture to the brink of government.  For our purposes, we borrow a definition from the Bene Gesserit and we consider the various worlds as gene pools, sources of teachings and teachers, sources of the possible.  Our goal is not to rule, but to tap these gene pools, to learn, and to free ourselves from all restraints imposed by dependency and government.
-- "The Orgy as a Tool of Statecraft"
Chapter Three of The Steersman's Guild

Interesting.  We're gonna NOT get bogged down contemplating orgies organized and/or attended by Guild Steersmen, but ... interesting.

There's a lot going on in that epigraph, and I'm not sure I understand the implications of all of it.  My perception of it is that it establishes a sort of ideology for the Guild: a government-free existence wherein they are bounded only by their own rules.  One assumes that the journey to that sort of existence was not a quick one, and one wonders if perhaps the Guild's development as a spice-consuming band of prescient mutants was an accidental outgrowth of its search for complete autonomy.  In other words, in (relative to this novel) the distant past was there a group of some sort -- probably not yet called the Spacing Guild, although that's uncertain -- that was in search of a lever that would turn itself into an autonomous collective that was dependent upon and ruled by nobody?  If so, did their search for a method to solidify their power accidentally result in the discovery of spice and its ability to enable their minds to bend space via prescience?

That's WAY more interesting than the orgy stuff.

This chapter details an audience between Paul and Edric, with both Stilgar and Scytale also in attendance.  Edric kind of jabs at Paul verbally, and with some surprising effectiveness.  Paul realizes what Edric is doing: testing the Emperor's limits, although less for his own benefit than for the purpose of showing him up in front of his guards and aides.

From there, Paul meets with Korba and Stilgar for the purpose of instructing Stil in some history lessons from "the Golden Age of Earth."  In the course of this lesson -- which seems to have been already on the agenda, and not a reaction to the counter with Edric and Scytale -- Paul tears himself down by proxy.  He tells Stilgar of Genghis Khan and Hitler, ancient despots who killed millions of people during their bloody reigns.

He then reveals to us what Stilgar would already have known: that the Jihad of Muad'dib has killed some sixty-one billion.  "We'll be a hundred generations recovering from Muad'dib's Jihad," he tells a dismayed and protesting Korba.

Let's think about what Frank Herbert has just done to us.  He's told us that the ostensible hero of Dune has, between that and this, its sequel, turned into a tyrant whose reign is approximately TEN THOUSAND TIMES WORSE than Hitler's.

There were hints of this in Dune, of course, and Herbert to some degree let Paul himself off the hook by suggesting that Paul's prescience informed him that once he had blundered into their midst, the Fremen would have enacted a Jihad with or without him.  He chose to remain a part of it in the hopes that he could at least guide it and prevent it from being even worse than it ended up being.  Although really, sixty-one billion served (their own heads on a platter) is pretty bad, so "worse" is an awfully slippery concept in comparison.  "I find it hard to imagine that anyone will ever surpass this," Paul admits with a rueful and humorless laugh.

He clearly is disgusted by all of this.  His plans are still very much in the shadows for us, but we know that he has a plan of some sort, and we also know that some of downfall awaits him.  And by this point, I think we suspect that Paul is beginning to engage in some tearing down of the myths that surround him.  Perhaps his reaction to Edric suggests a certain amount of sympathy on his part for the Guild and the various conspirators; even if he is unable to "see" what they are doing, it seems as if he may be weirdly supportive of their efforts.

A question comes to mind for me: would Paul secretly -- or perhaps not so secretly -- approve of the writings of Bronso of Ix?

Another question comes to mind: is there a chance that Paul might somehow have encouraged Bronso, maybe even supplied him with information so as to make his histories more persuasive?  That's sheer conspiracy-theory-type thinking (and about events within a work of fiction!), but since conspiracies drip off damn near every page of these books, I don't think it's inappropriate to speculate in that fashion.

The chapter ends with Paul discussing with Stilgar and Korba the seeming fact that a number of Sardaukar troops were among the Guild entourage and have plans to sneak into private areas of the palace during a party/reception.  Paul orders Korba to identify the intruders and put them to death by his own hand.

"And when the strangers are removed from the gardens, announce that the reception is ended," orders Paul.  "The party's over, Stil."  Stilgar replies that he understands; "I'm sure you do," Paul answers.

Something has passed between them during the course of this conversation.  It should be clear to us -- and incredibly haunting -- that Paul is talking about much more than the reception.  A bit earlier, as Paul delivers a rebuke to Korba, he reads "the growing light of understanding on Stilgar's face."  It is not clear exactly what it is that Stilgar has come to understand, but we also know that with all of his talk of genocidal tyrants, Paul has "set Stilgar's thoughts in motion along the track he wanted."

For me, it is difficult not to conclude that what has happened in this chapter is that Paul has (with a bit of an assist from Edric) guided Stilgar to a knowledge that (A) he is no God; (B) it is the Fremen who control the Empire and the Jihad, not Muad'dib; (C) that "Muad'dib" (which, via association, really means the Jihad) is a worse tyrant than those of Old Earth by a factor almost literally too large to grasp; (D) that Korba is a fool; (E) that Muad'dib himself knows all of these things; and (F) that Muad'dib wants Stilgar to know these things as well.

There may well be more to it than that; we'll find out, perhaps.

Am I wrong, or is this incredibly powerful stuff?


Here lies a toppled god--
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.
             --Tleilaxu Epigram

A groovy little poem, that; it seems self-explanatory enough that I need not comment on it further, so let's move on into the meat of the chapter.   
A great deal of the chapter is devoted to establishing the dynamic between Alia and Hayt (whom she refers to as Duncan).  She is obviously quite attracted to him, not the least due to the provocative way in which he simply speaks his mind and allows his feelings to be open around her.  They fly past the place where the remains of Leto Atreides are buried, for example, and he gives water to the dead; this gesture awes Alia, who may well possess the knowledge of such actions but who finds that the witnessing of it with one's own two eyes is a very different matter indeed.

Duncan also says more or less whatever he wants to Alia, telling her  that she has become careless of her powers, and that her brother was already destroying himself before the Guild make a gift of Hayt to him, and that she doesn't believe Paul "rules by the natural law of heaven."  All of these things are mere truth, but they are truths virtually nobody would feel free enough to express to her (or to Paul).

Another truth: "You are something ancient in flesh that is little more than a child," Duncan points out.  "And the flesh is disturbed by its new womanhood."  Translated: you may know what the pleasures of the flesh are like, but your flesh doesn't.  Might be it needs someone to show it.

And so he does, spontaneously kissing her.  Alia thinks, "His lips had been flesh of a future she'd seen in some prescient byway."  She'd reflected earlier about how she knew some mysterious him was waiting for her somewhere in the future; the implication is that she suddenly knows who that is.

"Your truthfulness, that's what's dangerous," she says; he has admitted as much, and says he has even counseled Paul that he should have him destroyed.  But his methods work, and with Alia having gotten to the place he wanted her to reach, Duncan shocks her back onto the right track.  They've been to see a body that was found in the desert, and he asks her for a fresh assessment of what she has seen.  She says that she can;t explain it, but she keeps thinking of Face Dancers.

"There's a young woman dead out there," Duncan says.  "Perhaps no young woman is reported missing among the Fremen."

The upshot of this chapter is that it gives us some very valuable character-interaction time with both Alia and Duncan/Hayt, both as individuals and as a pair.  Dune Messiah is a very heavy novel, and while this chapter itself has some very heavy concerns, it is also a ridiculously fun chapter.  The chemistry between Alia and Duncan crackles; this is like Dune Messiah starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, which is a thing I'd watch the shit out of.


I think what a joy it is to be alive, and I wonder if I'll ever leap inward to the root of this flesh and know myself as once I was.  The root is there.  Whether any act of mine can find it, that remains tangled in the future.  But all things a man can do are mine. Any act of mine may do it.
--The Ghola Speaks
Alia's Commentary

Given the focus of the previous chapter, that epigraph certainly carries a good deal of weight.  Saaaaaaaay ... I'm starting to think Duncan Idaho might be an important character! 

This relatively brief chapter involves Paul experiencing a series of realizations while immersed in an oracular trance.

Such as:

  • "It was gone: no moon."
  • "To buy an end for the Jihad, to silence the volcano of butchery, he must discredit himself."
  • "What would Chani say if he went to her with the statement that he had a particular death in mind?  Knowing it to be inevitable, why not choose an aristocrat's death, ending life on a secret flourish, squandering any years that might have been?  To die before coming to the end of willpower, was that not an aristocrat's choice?"
  • "Once . . . long ago, he'd thought of himself as an inventor of government.  But the invention had fallen into old patterns.  It was like some hideous contrivance with plastic memory.  Shape it any way you wanted, but relax for a moment, and it snapped into the ancient forms.  Forces at work beyond his reach in human breasts eluded and defied him."
  • "He sensed the vast migrations at work in human affairs: eddies, currents, gene flows.  No dams of abstinence, no seizures of impotence nor maledictions could stop it.  Muad'dib's Jiha was less than an eye-blink in this larger movement.  The Bene Gesserit swimming in this tide, that corporate entity trading in genes, was trapped in the torrent as he was.  Visions of a falling moon must be measured against other legends, other visions in a universe where even the seemingly eternal stars waned, flickered, died . . .  What mattered a single moon in such a universe?"

Duncan/Hayt intrudes upon this trance, and asks Paul what troubles him.  Paul tells him about his vision of a falling moon, and Duncan "comforts" him with mentat words that offer very little actual comfort.  It's not clear that Duncan actually understand Paul's vision; "My moon has a name," Paul whispers disconsolately.

He then gives himself back to his vision, and if it has been unclear to us prior to this, it soon becomes apparent: Paul's vision is of a future in which Chani has died.

"Though his whole being shrieked, no sound escaped him.  He was afraid to speak, fearful that his voice might betray him.  The air of this terrifying future was thick with Chani's absence.  Flesh that had cried in ecstasy, eyes that had burned him with their desire, the voice that had charmed him because it played no tricks of subtle control -- all gone, back into the water and the sand."

"Still, his vision lay before him.  Its terrible purpose gave him no choice.

The flesh surrenders itself, he thought.  Eternity takes back its own.  Our bodies stirred these waters briefly, danced with a certain intoxication before the love of life and self, dealt with a few strange ideas, then submitted to the instruments of Time.  What can we say of this?  I occurred.  I am not . . . yet, I occurred."

This is moving stuff.  A good friend of mine died this summer; much too early, a mere 31.  I've taken his passing without a huge amount of emotion.  I shed four tears at his funeral; I counted them, and wondered at the insubstantial number.  Many people gave a great amount of water to the dead on that day; why not me?  I'm certainly no Kwisatz Haderach.  But I do spend quite a bit of time thinking -- if only indirectly -- about some of the things Paul is thinking about here.  "All gone, back into the water and the sand."  "I am not . . . yet, I occurred."

My friend's name was Trey.  He is not; yet, he occurred.

I don't know which of those things strikes me as being more unlikely.

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