Dune as a Cautionary Tale


Using Dune as an indicator of the future of psychiatry…

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“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” - Carl Jung

Dune is one of the rare science fiction stories that has many sequels and a staying power for almost 60 years. The current movie “Dune: Part 2” has drawn raves. So, why?

Not being a viewer of many movies, I cannot really comment well on the movie-making process, though it seemed to be very well done and exciting. Breaking the 800-page book into 2 parts proved successful, and the actors were excellent. However, perhaps being somewhat hard of hearing, I did have some trouble appreciating all the words of the script.

Science fiction, at its best, seems to me to be cautionary tales about future dangers and benefits to humanity. At least so far, and with the promise of a third movie about the second book in the series, Dune Messiah, the benefits do not seem to be the driving force of Dune, although the prediction that humans will still be around in the planets in 10,000 years is optimistic in itself! Yet, worryingly, “Dune: Part Two” ends inconclusively with a major interplanetary war on the horizon and a major challenge to the central cross-cultural personal love story. Therefore, it must be that it seems to transmit relevant warnings in where we are headed. Here are some of the warnings I would nominate.

Do Not Worship False Messiahs. Although it is debatable, it appears that Paul Atreides, the focal character in the story, is a false Messiah. Being bred by the Bene Gesserit clan may be a product of a cultish process for power. That the indigenous Fremen decide to follow him may be a warning of a populist leader who promises what cannot be fulfilled. We are now entering this year of political races in many countries with various party leaders promising a better world. As a later theoretical development after Freud, we must be aware of what Heinz Kohut taught us about self-psychology and the dangers of strong emotional bonds with such narcissistic leaders.

Do Not Worship Technology. After winning a war against robots, computers and artificial intelligence (AI) are forbidden in the Dune world. Instead, with the help of a psychedelic, the human brain evolves to do more of what technology could do, but with more human control. We now face the rapid development and use of AI, and are already familiar with the harm social media can do to mental health.

Do Not Worship Psychedelics. Nevertheless, if we thought that psychedelics were the answer to our problems, Dune suggests that is doomed. When a more addictive and powerful psychedelic called spice was discovered, the world’s powers fight to control it. Withdrawal causes likely death. As we are coming to the second coming of psychedelics, potential profits are starting to outrun psychological benefits.

Psychiatry seems absent from Dune, but it has worked to avoid such risks. It has much knowledge about dangerousness in leaders, appreciates the psychological harms of social media, and has been careful in its current research on psychedelics. Instead, at its essence, psychiatry tries to increase the basic freedom of the mind in our patients and ourselves, as well as potentially in the public sphere as long as we enter it wisely and courageously.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

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