Dune: The Perfect Deathwork: How the thought of Philip Rieff illuminates a modern epic. (William Batchelder, June 26, 2024, Modern Age)

To reengage fully with the dark myth at the heart of Dune, it is best to turn to the work of one of the most pessimistic of our contemporary social theorists.

Philip Rieff (1922–2006) offers an effective theoretical framework for interpreting Dune as deathwork and dark myth. Rieff made his early reputation as an interpreter of Freud. At the heart of his later work was a historicist interpretation of Western civilization, which he divided into three “cultures.” The first culture was the culture of paganism; in all such polytheistic cultures the gods themselves emerged from a “metadivine,” a source of power prior to and greater than the gods themselves. This source of fathomless power above even the gods Rieff called the “primacy of possibility.” Charged with the “constant energy of menace,” the primacy of possibility can turn men monstrous or destroy them. First culture man understood the primacy of possibility through myth; his relationship to it was mediated by unfathomable, amoral, and relentless fate. To keep his distance from its menacing power, he observed taboos.

Rieff’s second culture is that of the Abrahamic faiths. There is no metadivine; nothing stands above the God of Israel. In place of the taboos walling off the primacy of possibility there are the “interdicts”: directly commanded thou-shalt-nots declared by the God who reveals Himself. Man’s relationship to this God, the final authority, is characterized not by mysterious fate but by faith. The second culture sinks the interdicts into each individual beginning in a preconscious foundational process that builds individual character.

The third culture is the culture of modernity. It rejects God and the interdicts. Rieff believed that, because there can be no culture without either tabooed prohibitions or the character-shaping interdicts, the third culture is an “anticulture.” This third culture was ushered in by an “officer class” of intellectuals and artists. Nietzsche, Weber, and of course Freud were the most important theorists of the officer class; Joyce, Duchamp, and Wallace Stevens its artists par excellence. Rieff observed that this officer class, while godless, feels itself perpetually “god-threatened.” These intellectuals are compelled to address themselves to the God of the second culture in endless artistic acts of defacement and mockery. Rieff called such works of art the “deathworks”: intellectual and artisticassaults on the old, now disestablished, second culture.

To Rieff, the closest this modernist officer class can come to the affirmative creation of culture is to create deathworks that negate the second culture of faith while also attempting an unbelieving return to the “primacy of possibility”—the source of power beyond even the gods themselves—that marked the first culture. Of course, a skeptical modern cannot approach the primacy of possibility as a first culture man did. Instead, third culture imaginations invoke the oceanic power of the primacy of possibility self-consciously, even ironically. To some moderns, this primacy of possibility returns as atheistic invocations of what Rieff called “the Nothing,” which serve as a kind of anti-creed best expressed in endless hostile parodies of the second culture. Rieff cites as an example Joyce’s mockery of the Old Testament and his sneering “Woid” (void) in place of the “Word.”

To fill the emptiness, other third culture imaginations have embraced, or even self-consciously invented, some supra-human power echoing the ancient primacy of possibility. Moderns have embraced everything from the Trotskyists’ “permanent revolution” to Wilhelm Reich’s orgone energy. Wallace Stevens, in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” demanded the angels keep silent while the poet creates a self-conscious pseudo-religious abstraction as a substitution for the Trinity: “It must be Abstract. It must Change. It must give Pleasure.”

Dune is a perfect third culture deathwork because it offers an eloquent address to the Nothing and a invokes a fictive primacy of possibility almost profound enough to approach again the slopes of myth.

The constant need to define themselves in opposition to God is a confession. Richard Dawkins recent admission to being a cultural Christian was particularly hilarious.