Well, this whole Caitlyn Jenner situation has kicked up quite the kerfuffle, hasn’t it imaginary readers? The internet has veritably lit up with… well, more than its usual amount of nasty vitriol, I guess. There have been some interesting points, and some beautiful shows of solidarity, but as is often the way with our medium, the upswing of fundies and fusk-weasels has made the whole episode less than welcoming.
The media has made a meal out of it too, which is irksome as ever.
And I mean, I’m not one to pass judgement, really, and in truth this is all preamble. I’m not going to stand in the way of anybody looking to change their body; I’ll admit that I’d prefer nanoswarms and chrome inlay to what’s currently on offer, but whether you want to transition to the gender you’re more comfortable with or just be more like a tiger, you have my full support. So good for Caitlyn, she’s been lucky enough to be able to live the dream.
I will note that I have all of zero authority to speak on behalf of trans people, I am cis as best as I can tell, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s struggle. And like anything on this blog, I’m mostly just writing what I’m thinking about. And with that, I can end this totally not a cynical tag grabbing preamble, and get on to the actual article.
In which I consider Transgender themes in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Dune is one of the biggies. Though it lacks the reach in the popular mindset of say, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings, Frank Herbert’s fearsome turtle-cracker of a tome (and its myriad sequels) has slouched heavily into the science fiction mindset, and its echoes can still be seen in recent favorites, from the political slaughterhouse of Game of Thrones, to the deranged absurdist feudalism of Warhammer 40,000, to the fantastical apocalyptic landscapes of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds. Its never been blinding, but its always been there.
Its held a bit of a soft spot in my mind, in that it has always felt like the sort of thing that Tolkien would write if he just learned to loosen up and take a crap-tonne of LSD. Tolkien’s famed linguistic thoroughness is matched, I think, in Herbert’s work, even if Chakobska is based on real world languages; lets face it, someone speaking Elvish doesn’t sound all that different from someone speaking Welsh. The setting’s sprawling feudal society and mystic traditions may seem dated today, but part of that at least stems from the depth of imitation they have spawned.
And its those mystic traditions I’d like to explore here, as I have noticed a distinct theme in the path of Paul Atreides in the initial novel; before Paul can reach his messianic status, he first has to become transgender.
This must be taken in context. I don’t think one could truly describe Dune as a progressive novel on gender lines; the society depicted is one with very firm gender roles, with the feudal trappings of the galactic government leading to women being treated as chattel or bargaining chips fairly commonly, and the all female Bene Gesserit, despite their fearsome psychological and autonomic skill set, almost inevitably accept the role of advisor and shadowy manipulator. It is a patriarchy with strongly defined social roles, with little room to transgress. The nomadic Fremen have a more egalitarian society (as you often get with hunter gatherer groups, see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind), with leadership of tribes shared between the Reverend Mother and her war leaders of either sex.
Paul, however, in amongst the first scene of the book, is forced to meet a transgression with lethal consequences; the trial of the gom jabbar, a test of endurance that no male has survived. In some ways, this is a ploy by the Reverend Mother to remove what was considered a mistake, with Paul having meant to have been born a girl to satisfy the Bene Gesserit’s ancient eugenics program. Against expectation, the young man is able to endure the trial, marking the beginning of his shift away from his masculine identity. This begins a number of jarring shifts for Paul. His mother, Jessica, had already secretly taught him some of the rites of the Bene Gesserit, and after forsaking his disintegrating family to live with the desert nomads, he drinks the Water of Life, another trial that no male has a right to survive, and thus blows open the doors of his own perception and begins his ascension to godhood and leader of a revolutionary jihad. By shedding his connections to his gender, his ties to the feudal state, and his family name, he steps forth into an enlightened state.
This is not a new idea. There are a number of cultures throughout history that have practiced a form of symbolic gender realignment, particularly in relation to mystic societies. Sometimes this related to an abrupt shedding, such as the celibacy oaths of ascetic traditions, but in other cases, such as the self castrating worshipers of Cybele in ancient Rome, the change is more direct. A personal favourite in modern film is a scene in Onmyouji 2 (skip to about 2:20 for the good stuff), in which the male protagonist, attempting a hazardous ritual with no time to spare, must play the role of the priestess to placate angry deities. Indeed, early depictions of Christ show a strikingly effeminate figure, thought to stem from Jesus’ enlightened and life restoring reputation, before the newly formed Church attempted to repaint itself as an implacable moral authority, recasting their saviour to look more like Zeus, with all the delicious irony that entails.
Though Paul does exhibit a number of socially feminine roles in his context, having survived their trials and learned their secret language (the Bene Gesserit Voice), this may be less of a direct gender change and more of an attempt by the protagonist to escape his destructive male nature. The Dune series has a very pessimistic outlook on male bio-psychology, to the extent that in God Emperor of Dune the titular character rebuilds his army as an all female fighting force after having come to the conclusion that men are incapable of maintaining civilisation. Even in the first novel, Paul’s fedaykin Death Commandoes view themselves as a gruesome necessity for a desperate time, with Stilgar considering himself not an honoured warrior or authority but a desert executioner, or even at times little more than a tool in the hands of his Prophet. Perhaps here we can see a degree of obsessive behaviour attributed to the male brain; most of the Mentats of the series are male, and where this obsession is not turned to rigid computation it quickly devolves into the sadism of the Harknonnen barony or the brutality of the fervent Fremen.
Perhaps Paul tends more towards the point of a spiritual hermaphrodite in his ascension to Messiah. He still maintains socially male roles; those of father, war leader and destroyer, while access to his feminine nature, that precious X chromosome, allows him to throw off the limiting factors of his male mind. The story certainly has a touch of the old 1960’s flair to it; that a Messiah is born not from divine will but through a cocktail of psychotropics, the demolition of rotten social structures and the merciless enlightenment of the empty reaches where humanity clings to life. Paul’s marriage into the Imperial family that forms the culmination of the story feels almost like a disappointment, a surrender to the forces he had been attempting to escape, a crushing return to a realisation that even as Emperor and the monopolist of the vital Spice, the structure cannot be changed through violence alone. He returns to his male role, and his frenetic path to enlightenment fades, never to be fulfilled in his lifetime.
So we have, in our hands, a path to enlightenment through a mystic step across established gender boundaries. This is important, I feel, because it is very difficult to grow beyond one’s assigned role in the world if one is unwilling to question it. Though Dune approaches the path to enlightenment in a hopeful manner, with the sense that it is there if you can just find the right circumstances, with the right drugs or music or ritual, the though remains that with or without an end goal, with or without the throne of the Kwisatch Haderach to claim, one ceases to grow as a human being once one ceases exploration of the entire human condition. For Paul, this was a systemic and painful shredding out of the masculine limits on his mind to allow for broader comprehension.
Dune, as I read it, was a call to tear down the walls that are holding you back, and it remains relevant today. It is not hard to see the calcified, self interested nobles in our own time, the willful sacrifice of chattel slaves and attempts to enforce gender and social roles in a world desperately wanting to be free of them, the monopoly of vital resources making kings of killers, and the word jihad sings across the popular mind despite its meaning being so very different.
And it wants you to bust loose of all that. Throw aside everything your society wants you to be, twist at the foundations and limiting functions that you think your brain is locked into, and call your generation to tear down the old order on a tide of blades and nuclear fire. To give you a chance to see what the other side of life is. I’m not saying its not a great drama; hell, its probably the seminal political melodrama of twentieth century science fiction. But it wanted something, Herbert did, but it never quite reached the people. It was a good story, but I think we lost the mysticism along the way.
Perhaps Paul Muad’dib transgressed for nothing.
So yeah, that’s some stuff I thought about Dune. In summary, be nice to the trans people in your community. Or I’ll pull out your fusking spine. Also, transgress against everything you’ve ever believed was true; our history is a pack of lies as any fool can tell; and no, poor quorganism has made no money out of this article, and any part of it can be redistributed under an Attribution-Share Alike-No Alterations Creative Commons License, so you know. Butcher it, but name the relevant pig (that’s a metaphor; authors/creators as pigs, inhumanity of the meat industry… yada yada, you know the drill…).