Frank Herbert, the Republican Salafist
December 31, 2021 8:56 PM   Subscribe

"Collapsing Herbert’s ideas of American and non-Western traditions, particularly Islam, is discombobulating."

"Herbert’s politics are not solely attributable to his skepticism of law and liberals. Where, then, to locate his politics? With the amtal rule, Herbert articulated his politics through an involved engagement with Islam."
...
"Looking toward “Oriental mythology,” Herbert doubled back into the romantic past. He idealized precolonial, non-Western traditions as models for mediating morality and ethics. Concurrently, his nostalgia for precolonial Muslims fit into a particular Islamic idea of returning to the early generations of the faith — that is, Salafism."
...
"Herbert, like the Salafis, critiqued present customary practices in order to recover a complex but nonetheless ideal past."
posted by Kabanos (17 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 


"The standard explanation assumes that non-Western traditions, particularly Islamic thought, are a monolith, and moreover that they’re a monolith that belongs to the political left."

Who thinks that? Maybe some not-very-smart people on the contemporary American right. But if any leftists think this... they must not know much about world affairs at all.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:05 PM on December 31, 2021 [9 favorites]


Having said that, I appreciate the depth of knowledge in this essay, and the light it sheds on the complexity of Herbert's use of ideas from Islamic tradition.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:16 PM on December 31, 2021 [3 favorites]


"Who thinks that? Maybe some not-very-smart people on the contemporary American right. But if any leftists think this... they must not know much about world affairs at all."

They are socially conservative, to say the least (patriarchal and anti-women would be more appropriate), but economically many majority Islam countries are fairly intent on government intervention.
posted by papineau at 10:28 PM on December 31, 2021 [1 favorite]


This is a fascinating read, especially after the link from @lumensimus brought me up to speed on Herbert's engagement with Islamic thought and history. I have to admit I just assumed it was appropriative decoration.

I probably don't agree with Herbert's politics (though they confuse me too much to be certain), but I think his environmentalist anti-colonialist Salafist work might be on the short list of what's remembered from that century.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:48 PM on December 31, 2021 [4 favorites]


Always worth remembering that not even the American Republican part is a monolith (even as folks under 40 might be well forgiven for thinking it was).
posted by wotsac at 11:08 PM on December 31, 2021 [3 favorites]


His portrayal of non-Western traditions must grow out of his conservative worldview and is therefore largely negative
Must they? Like how arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes grew out of Arthur "No They're Real Fairies I Can Tell By The Pixels" Conan Doyle's worldview?

I guess believing that every book's content is determined by the worldview of its author does save time on unproductive activities like reading and enjoying fiction.
posted by howfar at 2:46 AM on January 1 [16 favorites]


economically many majority Islam countries are fairly intent on government intervention.

But many aren't, also. More fundamentally, the belief that "government intervention" is inherently left wing is an invention of the American right.
posted by howfar at 2:57 AM on January 1 [12 favorites]


Meanwhile, the entirety of the “Dune” series may be read as a narration of counterrevolutions, a series of rebellions that initially succeed and are subsequently upended. As one character puts it, revolutions carry the seeds of their own destruction ...

I suspect this point offers relevant context for the homophobic quote that Jacobin focused on in an article on Herbert's politics: "In an unpublished epic poem Herbert wrote that [people Herbert doesn't like] Increase before / Each fall into darkness." If you put these two things together, what you have is a kind of Spenglerism, which was definitely in the air in science fiction when Herbert was writing Dune--e.g. it was explicitly the basis for James Blish's then-popular Cities in Flight series published from 1950 to 1962.

The situation in Dune also seems legible in Spengler's terms: the millennia-old empire is a mess--corrupt, monopolistic, stagnant. A 'well-born' man who might have been great as a local benevolent dictator can't succeed, not because aristocracies are a problem but because he'll be stabbed in the back from multiple angles. What's a nobleman to do? Basically, die well and make way for cultural regeneration through violence. Meanwhile, his son (the product of a eugenics program) combines the last vestiges of 'true' nobility with Übermensch powers and starts hanging out with a vibrant people of 'honor' who can start the cycle again.

It's been a long time since I read Dune, but if that's even close as a picture of the situation, it's pretty reactionary stuff, romanticizing some groups of people (e.g. Native Americans, as in Daniel Immerwahr's "The Quileute Dune: Frank Herbert, Indigeneity, and Empire") less for their opposition to colonialism/empire and more for their opposition to the very idea that large-scale societies can be progressive over the long term--such a common idea in conservative / reactionary thought that it didn't need to come from Spengler in particular.

At any rate, I appreciate that Durrani (not to mention probably everyone else on Metafilter) gets different stuff out of Dune, and I don't doubt there are any number of ways to look at it.
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:07 AM on January 1 [7 favorites]


I stopped reading it after Strip Malls of Dune.
posted by y2karl at 1:29 PM on January 1 [4 favorites]


@Y2karl, you made me laugh!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:31 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]


There is a lot of Muslim stuff in Dune and it is indeed pretty conservative. There are some relatively liberal takes on Islam, certain of the Sufi orders for example, but over all Herbert was more into the conservative view of Islam. Herbert saw Islam as being less logical and more rigid than it in fact is. Another thing, nomads were not necessarily well regarded. They had linguistic purity going for them, otherwise they weren’t considered better than people who farmed, or lived in cities.
Just because Islam originated in a harsh, desert does not make such places somehow better. Orientalists have kind of an obsession with deserts.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:41 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]


More fundamentally, the belief that "government intervention" is inherently left wing is an invention of the American right.

That, and "government intervention" can mean near anything. Are we talking intervening to ban abortion and queer relationships, or intervening to set minimum wages and curb the exploitative tendencies of businesses? They're both government intervention...
posted by Dysk at 8:17 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]


It's been a long time since I read Dune, but if that's even close as a picture of the situation, it's pretty reactionary stuff,

That's not inaccurate, but I think you're making the very common mistake of assuming that portraying a thing is the same thing as valorizing a thing.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:09 AM on January 2


It's still on a totem, tall as a poppy for people to use in their myth-forming. The Punisher isn't valorized (as per author's stated intent) and yet is valorized by consumers.

I think that there can be alignment in conservative and autocratic worldviews even if they're pitched as opposites: Crowley and Aziraphale were solving the same problems with the same toolsets for daimetrically-opposed authorities. It only takes a willful denial of The Other to cut yourself of from (imagining yourself) walking a mile in their shoes, and it's the source of empathy and compassion when you do so. Who denies themselves this perspective on the world? Yes, those who segregate Other perspectives.
posted by k3ninho at 6:33 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I think you're making the very common mistake of assuming that portraying a thing is the same thing as valorizing a thing.

I don't think I've said Herbert champions the idea of 'civilizational' decline and fall, but I don't think it's just an assumption he believes it's inevitable and that his portrayal connects with those personal beliefs--however attenuated it may be, evidence exists. The Jacobin article offers the through-line of his homophobia. The full quote from his epic poem titled "Carthage" is "Homosexuals, / Bureaucrats / And bullyboys / Increase before / Each fall into darkness." I think it's worth noting that he appears to be talking about history there, not science fiction, though with unclear context--e.g. is it a character speaking. But it's not a character who makes the Dune sequence into a portrayal of cyclical decadence and renewal at a 'civilizational' level. It's also not a character who has included the same homophobic theme in both "Carthage" and Dune: the Imperial troops harnessing their "deflected energies" are used as "bullyboys" in the service of bureaucrats, and Baron Harkonnen can easily stand in for all three categories that "Increase before / Each fall into darkness."

Is it hard to accept that Herbert believes in the theory of history his novels portray? In a 1969 interview, he tells us himself that his portrayal of human social organization in Dune reflects his essential belief that "feudalism is a natural condition of human beings … not that it is the only condition or not that it is the right condition … that it is just a way we have of falling into organisations," much like (this is his example) beavers naturally build dams. He clarifies that having actual noble houses and whatnot is a simplification he has made so that a social hierarchy crystal clear--as far as the interview is concerned, apparently any organization that even just technically has a hierarchy counts as feudalism, and any social organization based on consciousness of kind counts as tribalism, which he somehow sees as the same kind of thing. In any case, he says he aimed to make this simplified illustration "recognisable by anybody who knows the first damn thing about history." I think literally no one would suggest this means his work is cribbed from history, replays history, etc., but I do think it illustrates a simple fact that Dune draws on and reflects Herbert's personal position that history unfolds based on an identifiable social dynamic.
posted by Wobbuffet at 9:51 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I followed Dune feverishly ever since it's first installment in the large format Analog with fabulous Schoenherr cover. And while I've already gotten spanked for dropping complaints about the Fear is the Great Mindkiller line in the wrong thread but what a sadomasochistic load of crap that Gom Jabbar needle scene is in hindsight.

No, instilling fear in animals does not work for me as a method of training animals but neither does the idea of torture as a rite of eugenic passage. And pish and tosh on the unbelievable in retrospect Mentats and Guild Navigators.

It does interest me however about how Herbert was influenced by his houseboat building friend Jack Vance with the latter's footnotes and Baron Bodissey quotes above each new chapter. Which inspired Herbert to create an equally I'll Build Your Dreamcastle world in imitation, methinks.

And he was the first to drop the word ecology before my teenage eyes. So I will give him that.

But, really, who apart from me can blame him and his son for turning it into making big bucks by how he and his son turned the franchise into a well oiled but less and less credible money making machine? I just got sick of the whole the Dune Everything But The Kitchen Sink progression of titles.

Salafist? I doubt it. Don't confuse infodump verisimilitude for incisive cogent thought.

Such is my bland, diffident and neutral assessment.
posted by y2karl at 10:59 AM on January 4


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