Esoteric Dune

Denis Villeneuve: Corrupter of the Youth

Knowing where the trap is—that’s the first step in evading it. This is like single combat, Son, only on a larger scale—a feint within a feint within a feint… seemingly without end. The task is to unravel it.

-Leto Atreides

As an historical matter, I have never found the case for Straussian esotericism as compelling as I’m supposed to. My main critique is that it’s overdone. Esotericism seems like shorthand, to the unbeliever like myself, for good, layered, sensitive, and prudential writing. Moreover, we might grant that some philosophers and polemicists elected, for various good reasons, to not be too on the nose in their presentations. Fair enough. That Jesus often taught through parables and the ancients preferred fables over disputation, and that both forms include subtlety, is not exactly a groundbreaking discovery. We need not, at this juncture, get into the obvious theological problems imbedded in Arthur Melzer’s citation of Calvin’s comments on Christ’s parables as proof of esotericism.  

If the concomitant Straussian claim is simply that modern historians are bad readers and possess an insatiable penchant for eisegesis such that the average tenured dolt cannot—because of his prejudice and short attention span—comprehend great texts, then I agree. The Bible itself can appear impenetrable to the novice. But even sidelining for a moment the promise of divine aid uniquely attached to this text, humanly speaking, training and practice supply the remedy. That it is a difficult text, a layered text, does not mean—again, humanly speaking—that it is a concealed text in the esoteric sense. Being a good reader helps, and the Straussian commitment to literacy is useful here too, as is familiarity with the best of the pagans. As Dr. Seuss said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

In any case, maybe I am being too hard on the Straussians. Illumination and conviction may reach me yet—I am told west coast is best coast. But none of this means that the maneuver described, mainly through anecdotal hypotheticals, by Strauss cannot or is not performed. Surely non-Straussians can dabble. Especially today, taken proscriptively, it is advisable. Subtlety and prudence are dear friends in a precarious situation like the one presented to us now. Egalitarianism, repudiation of memory and history, liberation unto licentiousness, and cultural erasure through dilution are the primary plagues of the liberal order, ones increasingly and militantly enforced by the Cathedral apparatus.


Let’s follow Strauss with an illustrative hypothetical. Imagine you work in Hollywood as a screenwriter and director on the make, and you want to adapt literature that, in most ways, predates the true and obvious advent of these revolutionary plagues. The difficulty of your task is compounded by the fact that your chosen story is, according to official analysis, inescapably right-wing and reportedly beloved by “fascists.”

How would you do it? You can’t. Either you must depart from the text, correcting its anachronism so as not to offend your audience, or you must toss it onto the sacramental pyre with the rest of the harmful material.

But a third option presents itself. Conspiracies abound about Jews controlling Hollywood. Who is that dweeb with the underdeveloped mustache that pals around with Kanye, I mean, Ye? Not sure. Anyway. You do not know if that guy’s fever dreams are true, and you lack motivation to find out. It is clear, however, that anyone in that cursed town, Jew or Gentile, is not a descendant, intellectual or otherwise, of Leo Strauss. They might brave the needle and excrement paved streets to get up to Silicon Valley, but they don’t venture down to Claremont. Hebrew or Greek, they are liberals first, card carrying members of the Cathedral.

You recall Persecution and the Art of Writing. Moreover, you discern that only narrative archetypes your colleagues understand are found in Margarett Atwood. Themes foreign to the oppression-liberation paradigm will not compute. This might be too easy, but you must do it right. Open defiance will not work. Cancelation would ensue. That is, you cannot obviously “lie,” i.e., contradict Cathedral doctrine.

At issue are the infallible teachings of the magisterium, viz., that hierarchy and especially patriarchy are bad. Inequality and its companion, aristocracy, are anathema. Destiny and Providence, divine governance of human affairs are backward; belief in any kind of revelation from the same is ridiculous (i.e., dangerous). MSNBC only recently cast the Declaration’s preamble as authoritarian zealotry.

A story, like the one you are desperate to adopt, wherein the protagonist is royalty, ascends the imperial throne after igniting holy war through fulfillment divine prophecy. It smacks of the Messianic, the Mosaic; its Biblical. Stuff of antiquity that. Aristotle was a sexist. Plato was a racist. Do they even have a classics department at Princeton anymore? If your colleagues had read the Apostle Paul, they might spontaneously combust.

It helps that your story of choice is set in an alien world centuries in the future, but that won’t be enough to cover explicit iconoclasm. Plus, you’ve got a reputation to maintain and you need to keep working in this godforsaken town, as much as you resent it. The adaptation cannot flop with fans but especially not at the box office. To get this done, to satisfy your passion and ambition, you must be prudent, subtle… Straussian even. Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

What was it Strauss advised, again? “[A] man of independent thought can utter his views in public and remain unharmed, provided he moves with circumspection.” Heterodoxy can go undetected by the unwary if rhetoric is rightly constructed. First, present the approved orthodoxy limply, as boring and “unspectacular,” in conventional and expected forms. “[T]he bulk of the work” must, of course, on its face “consist of virulent expansions of the most virulent utterances in the holy book or books of the ruling party.”

Then, at the core, in the central passage, as it were, “state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly,” dropping “all the foolish excrescences” of the approved creed. Thereby, the “reasonable young reader” will “catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit” if only by “brief indication.”

Yes, this could work. But it must be a message for “thoughtful men.” That’s the true audience. With this you must be content. Many who think themselves thoughtful will not get it. Their cynicism and lack of discipline blind them. More importantly, your enemies will see what they want—no, need—to see. And they will see it. It will be there, in all its expected glory, but it will not be your message. You might even have to run interference, commentary surrounding the story itself that assures them they have seen rightly and there is nothing else to see. You need press and ticket sales, after all, especially if you want to get sequels approved by the studio. Such are the times.  

But here’s the plan, in narrative form: comfort the hostile segments of the audience with an apparently formulaic narrative arch, but embed within the story, at its very center, the true meaning. Provide the trappings of condemnation for the presently offensive—plausible deniability—but insert, subtly, an appeal—prerational even—to the viewer’s better, primordial instincts, to their historic memory. At first, they will not be able to rationally account for what compels them in your vision. There the true message embodied in the true hero will flourish. The enlightened and discerning will see it, surely. And yet, the “gulf separating the wise and the vulgar” is wide and deep and the majority is “non-philosophic.”  

Part Two

Alaric the Barbarian, an engaging writer, has an excellent review of Dune: Part Two at the essential IM-1776. Do read the whole thing. I’ve cited his other work before in these pages.

Standard reviews can supply Dune’s basic facts, lore, and cinematic analysis. Alaric provides some of this and we are in full agreement as to the wondrous and wonderful aesthetics of Villeneuve’s world as well as the performances of the actors, good and bad. We will elect, instead, to jump right in to interpretive matters. I grant also Alaric’s annoyance with the movie’s departure from the book. He would know better than I. Albeit, creative license in this regard is part of cinematic adaptation. The only real issue in play here is Villeneueve’s rewriting of Chani, Paul’s Bedouin love interest played by Zendaya. Alaric and I both agree her performance was bad; I disagree with some “edgy” online cranks that her casting conformed to the current racial thing. She looks the part perfectly, i.e., Middle Eastern—any expert in that field will tell you this includes North Africa.

More to the point, Alaric’s contention is that,

“Villeneuve’s depiction of Chani defines her as a character written in 2024 rather than 1965. She parrots lines and ideas found in just about every other current-year mainstream cultural product, including anti-colonial theory and sneering contempt for religion. She has been rewritten into yet another installment of the generic Middle Eastern “freedom fighter” figure now seen everywhere from Disney’s Star Wars to Modern Warfare (2019). The audience is supposed to identify with her, adopt her positions, and conclude Paul’s ascent is something far less than glorious. In this way the movie undermines itself.”

Exactly right, actually. The only interpretive mistake is found in the last sentence.  

Let’s examine the original author before we consider the adaptation of his work, at least according to the official consensus. We must first know what we should think. A review of both movies in Slate described Frank Herbert’s book as a “bummer” because

“[Dune is] a very ’60s novel, responding to an era of idealistic upheaval and revolutionary turmoil, but Herbert was a middle-aged conservative who reacted in predictably reactionary terms… By Heretics of Dune, characters specifically muse on how much they hate liberals—and yes, Herbert uses that word.) The Fremen of Arrakis are Muslims less because of Herbert’s sympathy for the wretched of the earth and more because Muslims were fighting the Soviets, whom Herbert really hated. The villainous Baron Harkonnen is named Vladimir, for obvious reasons, and rendered homosexual because Herbert was a conventional homophobe. “Bene Gesserit” sounds like Jesuit in part because the idea that a charismatic aristocratic leader who promised to uplift the downtrodden might actually be a pawn of a conspiratorial religious order was literally a campaign issue when Herbert took a break from writing Dune to vote against the first Catholic president.

Herbert believed that progress was an illusion because he was an ideologically motivated reactionary who hated the New Deal, the welfare state, the Civil Rights Movement, and any political leader who promised to help the oppressed. He was interested in eugenics, wrote speeches for a Republican senator… In Dune, the world is just a neo-feudalist Hobbesian nightmare without end, and there is no such thing as society.”

So on and so forth. Another review of the first movie from 2021 notes that “scholars” using “textual evidence” have cast the Dune books as

“an orientalist fever dream, a pean to eugenics, and a seductive monument to fascist aesthetics; others look at the same text and see an excoriation of hero-worship, a cautionary tale of revolutionary dreams betrayed, and a warning about Indigenous sovereignty subverted by a charismatic charlatan.”

Others add “race consciousness” to the fascism charges. Very serious. Very problematic. Heretical, even. The Slate reviewer is a still, oddly, captive to early aughts partisan politics for some reason, thinks Villeneuve might be trying to justify the Iraq war in retrospect, and is obviously hysterical about Herbert the man. He nevertheless gets at something bordering on the profound. “Officially,” Paul Atreides is the villain, an eventual tyrant. But Villeneuve’s Paul solicits sympathy from the viewer.

“At the end of the two films that he set out to make, the reality Villeneuve has created has given Paul pretty ironclad permission to secure the future of his people and children by killing billions of strangers (who made him do it, by attacking him first). It makes me wonder if that’s the fantasy we’re playing out here, one in which massively disproportionate preemptive warfare turns out to be justified.”

The reviewer is nearly there, perhaps, in spite of himself. I would venture that it is not sympathy intended by Villenueve for Paul, but rather admiration unto aspiration. If the real-life Napoleon is no longer allowed to supply modern men with visions of brilliance, sacrifice, and greatness—only a longhoused, cuckholded one—maybe a fictional concoction of Moses, Hamlet, and T. E. Lawrence set over 8,000 years in the future can.

The honest viewer does not feel bad that the Fremen are the foot soldiers for his vengeful, imperial ambitions. They are part of the Out Worlder prophecy too; it is their prophecy. (The archetypal story of familial revenge by a son on behalf of a father was most recently captured by The Northman, another not so subtly right-wing coded film, but its as basic as The Lion King. On this front, right-wing just means outdated now. Come to think of it, has there been a better portrayal of a good, self-sacrificial, masculine father than that of Leo Atreides in Dune: Part One?) He is invigorated, not chilled, by Paul’s marshalling of the Fremen forces through the strength of fulfilled prophecy. He is inspired by the man of destiny and ambition.

“A king isn’t born, Alexander, he is made. By steel and by suffering,” Philip tells the young Alexander in Oliver Stone’s film. And the process of Paul’s training while wandering in the wilderness, his eventual acceptance of the fate and revelation thrust upon him is a necessary process; the story wouldn’t feel natural without it if Paul really does possess (increasing but fragmented) foresight into his great terrible future. That full, multifaceted revelation offers requisite conviction to get in step with Providence, as they used to say, is an equally natural progression unto duty and destiny. What’s more, despite what the haters suggest, while Paul is skeptical of his own messianic status, he never rejects his aristocratic birthright. Dune’s economical use of dialogue precludes an internal self-warring in Paul. If it’s supposed to be there, the director doesn’t tell us.  

The focus is on action and environment. What does Paul do? After escaping his assassins, he completes his desert exile, fights demons, raises an army, and returns to defeat his murderous rivals, sacrifices love for familial duty (much like The Northman), accepts a politically expedient marriage after defeating his satanic cousin in single combat Old World style, and triumphantly assumes his place in House Atreides in route to launching a crusade across the empire. It’s poetic and primal, it’s epic and elitist. It’s compelling and charismatic.

Concealed Endorsement

But we must deal with Alaric’s main objection, the so-called protagonist shift and the pathetic film version Chani. On this reading, Paul is the good guy until he succumbs to the temptation of the water of life and assumes his mantle as prophet and king, in the face of nuclear holocaust visions.  

Protagonist shift? I don’t think so. At least, not quite. That is to say, an apparent but not actual shift. Alaric notes that “Every other piece of this production feels like it was created with extreme care and attention – except for Zendaya’s performance.” Exactly. Is it more reasonable to assume a singular mistake or an intentional anomaly? Is the movie at war with itself, as Alaric claims, or does his acknowledgement of this obvious incongruency reveal deeper intended meaning?

Alaric, again:

“The pivotal scene – Paul’s speech at the war-council of southern Arrakis, in which he claims his place as the prophet of the Fremen – is downright electric. Chalamet delivers a rousing war-cry, and the viewer is brought along as an inspired member of the fundamentalist audience. Chalamet has clearly evolved since The King, and it is all put on the table in scenes like this. The music swells, the tension rises, and the film is brought to a fever pitch; how is this supposed to feel tragic?”

Well, it is tragic, but this does not mean it’s not glorious. (Also, I liked The King quite a bit. Maybe this betrays my Philistinism.) Something else is going on.

Again, Paul’s figure is compelling and admirable, sacrificial and noble, perceptive and cunning. All the traits of the statesmen and generals of old—the ones that used to have monuments commissioned in their memory only to be defaced by ungrateful youths.

If Chani is supposed to be the new protagonist halfway through, then Villeneuve utterly failed. Her character, and Zendaya’s performance, is completely unattractive. It is predictable, rote, and wooden. The audience can imagine her objections to the sacramental and superstitious before she utters them. Chani serves a contrastive, presentist role; her dialogue is that of a gender studies major with a minor in post-colonial studies.

As Alaric rightly describes, “The mockery of Stilgar fails beyond the first few instances, as the prophecy is fulfilled and the music swells to new heights with each portend. The foil that Chani is supposed to provide comes across as a childish, self-centered tantrum against destiny itself.”

All of that is drowned out not merely by Hans Zimmer’s magisterial score, but the battle cries of the Fremen at the back of the ascendence of House Atriedes. Chani, ever pouty faced, literally storms off the scene. By this point she has been a paragon of righteous indignation for some time, always babbling on about equality and oppression. She claims she wants liberation for her people but, as it turns out, the Instagram feminist freshman fresh off her first reading of Paulo Freire and Judith Butler is not prepared for the realities of what true freedom requires, viz., her own humiliation and self-denial. She doesn’t really want real liberation for the Fremen people; she aspires to a low-resolution abstraction, libertinism of the grad seminar. She embodies the hick-lib distaste for her own countrymen in the South. They are too backward and zealous. She cannot understand their superstitious motivations. Her life is bohemian and artificial. This, this, is the protagonist of the third act?  

As it happens, the shift in question occurs almost exactly at the center of the tale. Time to put your Straussian hat on. In other words, I am saying that Villeneuve presents the supposed new protagonist in such a feeble mode that even as all the appropriate boxes of orthodoxy are checked and a mirror is provided to the undiscerning viewers, the true protagonist remains. Villeneuve’s alleged condemnation of “tyranny” and nationalism are so poor that it functions as an endorsement of the same.

This is akin to Costin Alamariu’s fascinating claim—contestable, I assume; I’m not a Plato scholar—that Plato’s ostensible condemnation of tyranny is so weak that it constitutes an endorsement of it insofar as the tyrant and philosopher are identical types both oriented to the “preservation of nature.” Plato is, in fact, with Callicles, not for Socratic moralizing, in the Gorgias. “[Plato] conceals… the fundamental kinship between philosophy and tyranny under the most vehement attack on tyranny.” For philosophy itself is not just “investigation” but “spiritual warfare.” For our purposes, Denis Villeneuve is Plato, Paul Atreides is Callicles, which is not to accuse the latter of tyranny—the negation of public good by private gain. Chani might pay lip service to the common good but lacks the will to achieve it. Paul, on the other hand, pursues the good of the Fremen by fulfilling their messianic longings and freeing them from a shared enemy. Ambition and accompanying aims do not negate this.

End Scene

If, in the alleged Dune protagonist shift, the new antagonist is presented as compelling and the new protagonist is, as Alaric says, whiny, predictable, and presentist—foreign to the narrative world—what other viable conclusion is there?

Now, Alaric could be right that Dune is at war with itself, a manifestation of Villeneuve’s awkward attempt to reconcile the story to audience pieties, but this is a paradoxically more esoteric reading. That is, less straightforward, less obvious.

In any case, my “Straussian” reading is more fun, more hopeful, more satisfying. As an act of esoteric defiance, I choose mine over Alaric’s. Or maybe I’m just being post-modern now. In this instance, I will provisionally embrace reader-response theory out of necessity. Dune: Part Two is too aesthetically and viscerally compelling to cede to our enemies. But it just might be that Denis Villeneuve is an unintentional “philosopher.” An esoteric subversive. A corrupter of the youth. It is undoubtedly true that, as Alaric insists, Dune’s “[s]trong aesthetics” conquere the “moral lecture” of Chani. But so too does the true message of the story itself, concealed only for fellow philosophers and to excite the young. Indeed, “by the time the credits roll – accidentally or not – the film places the audience firmly on the side of destiny and greatness.” But it was no accident.  

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

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