| ||In Defense of the Bene Gesserit|
My favorite line from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is at the end. It’s the description of a postcard that Oscar sent to his sister Lola which begins, “My dear Bene Gesserit Witch,”--ha!! I lost it. I laughed right out loud and swooned. That book had been making me geek out in a wonderful wonderful way, but this was the cherry on top. I mean, I had loved the book’s history lessons, the writing itself and all the sci-fi and fantasy references in the novel, but this…this was amazing.
What’s a Bene Gesserit? And why was Oscar using it as a term of endearment?
It’s a reference to Dune, one of the most amazing science fiction novels ever written. And Oscar was using this allusion to lovingly characterize and acknowledge his sister as the powerful woman she was. And she was. The narrator had nothing but respect for Lola. He feared her and yet was in awe of her. Of her sharp intelligence, how she wouldn’t put up with his B.S.
But wait, hold up. Why am I talking about the Bene Gesserit?
It just so happened last week when I, bleary eyed from just waking up, did a quick scan of my Twitter feed to try and catch up with all the stuff the East Coast had put out since they awoke. It’s part of my morning news scan. Turn on the TV to catch the local weather and local news and turn on the computer to quickly scan Twitter to see what “Tweatre” folks were talking about.
I saw that a friend whose analytical mind I admire had published a new blog post. I had time, I started reading it. The author was laying out an argument and recalled a conversation in which he used Dune as analogy. And I’m always up for a good Dune reference.
But then he stated that the Bene Gesserit were the villains of the novel.
This was news to me.
I stopped reading the article to send the author a tweet expressing my surprise at this assessment of the Bene Gesserit.
But First What You Need To Know About the Bene Geesserit
I’ll let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting on this one:
The Bene Gesserit are a key social, religious, and political force in Frank Herbert's science fiction Dune universe. The group is described as an exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders…Sometimes called "witches" due to their secretive nature and misunderstood powers, the Bene Gesserit are loyal only to themselves.”
Now after I expressed my surprise to the blogger about his take on the Bene Gesserit he and I exchanged a few tweets. Here were his responses (in italics):
In book one it's revealed that they're kinda behind everything. And they're the force in the series that must be stopped.
No argument from me here. They were truly working behind scenes, positioning themselves and others like chess players.
I'd also say regardless the book treats their control of their fertility as something really terrifying and sinister.
This is an interesting way of describing them. Were they controlling fertility or were they controlling their own bodies? Now, since all the eligible ladies any nobleman in the Dune universe could marry were Bene Gesserit, I can understand how the men in the novel would hold this against them. And by “this” I mean how the women controlled their bodies, right down to the sex of their offspring. (Hey, I told you this was science fiction.)
And it’s also important to know that the Bene Gesserit all took orders from their Reverend Mother. So if their Reverend Mother said, have a girl, then they did. This is a major plot point since the Paul Atreides was suppose to be a girl but his mother disobeyed. And in doing so she messed up the plans to wed an Atreides daughter to a Harkonnen man to unite the two houses.
You see, the Bene Gesserit were playing a very long game. They were trying to unite families, build their power through births and marriages. And they were also trying to breed what they called the “Kwisatz Haderach,” a sort of male version of the Bene Gesserit with abilities that would exceed their own. And being male the Kwisatz Haderach would be able to be placed on the throne.
And this is a point I’ll return to later since it’s a crucial one: The power structure in Dune was feudal and therefore patriarchal (I should say "and also" because I don't know if feudal necessarily means patriarchal).
He Said, She Said
But back to my online conversation and to my friend’s explanation for his view on the Bene Gesserit.
My thought is this: (a) Not all the men in the book are doing that. All non-Atreides, non-Fremen men are. The book is not…actually that morally complicated in the way that, say, "Game of Thrones" is.
What aren’t all the men in the book doing? He’s referring to an earlier tweet where I express that all the characters in Dune are trying to gain the upper hand, including the Bene Gesserit. All are creating alliances, plotting, all trying to gain power.
My response to “not all men in the book are doing that [trying to gain power]” is this: just because the other characters, the disenfranchised who don’t have agency/power, aren’t currently seeking to gain power doesn’t mean they wouldn’t want to or try to gain power. But the novel isn’t about them (the powerless). It’s about the upper echelons of society and the power struggles between them. So I don’t think it’s a proper comparison. I think we should compare equals and the Bene Gesserit are political equals of the ruling houses in the Dune universe: the Atreides, the Harkonnens and the Padishah Emperor.
(B) We never get a section from a BG character's POV so they always remain profoundly other, reinforcing their sinisterness.
We don’t get a large section of the book from the Bene Gesserit point of view, but we get some. This could be because there are fewer female characters in the book that are active participants in the novel’s main focus which is Paul Atreides. So we get point of view from his mother Jessica, his concubine Chani, from the Reverend Mother who tests him.
But I think this “sinister” label comes from all the other male characters in the novel. They don’t trust the Bene Gesserit and despise them because of their powers, because they have power and exert it.
A feminist reading of this book could be that the Bene Gesserit are despised because in fact they have developed power that cannot be taken from them and appropriated by the men in the novel. And since the Bene Gesserit are necessary for continuing a family’s lineage, it’s not as if they can be disposed of.
So here’s my assessment of the Bene Gesserit. I think what we have here is a marginalized population (women) that was shut out of positions of power so they then developed power within (literally) and began to exert it in secret as a way to protect themselves until they had gained enough power through position (read marriage) that they were indispensable.
Why were they a marginalized population? Remember what I said about Dune having a feudal power structure? There’s an emperor, there are Dukes, Barons. And all the positions of power are held by men. A woman could not gain access to the throne. She could gain position through marriage, but once married she only really had control of the running of the household. So if you were a woman in this position, wouldn’t you want for something more? Some true agency. Enter the Bene Gesserit.
As a young girl I remember being fascinated by the Bene Gesserit. They were pretty badass. Women who were in complete control of themselves down to their own heartbeats and blood vessels. They were smart as all hell and had developed a method of fighting that was unrivaled in the universe. And to top it all off they could use their voice (The Voice) to control other people for short periods of time. See what I mean by badass?
So I can see why the men in the universe of Dune feared and hated them. But that didn’t mean I thought the Bene Gesserit were villains. Because after all the men in the novel had prejudiced views of them, they hated the Bene Gesserit because they couldn’t control them and feared being controlled by them. Yes, the Bene Gesserit had designs on the universe, but so did the Emperor, the Harkonnens and the Atreides.
The Bene Gesserit were equals to these other powers. And all of them, all of them were morally complicated. All of them were creating alliances to gain power and keep it.
A Battle of the Sexes?
So now I wonder: How do others view the Bene Gesserit? Do most men accept the assessment of the male characters in the novel and think the Bene Gesserit are “witches” who are the villains of the novel? Do most women think the Bene Gesserit were badass and awesome as I did?
This was truly an eye opening exchange for me in any case and I have to admit, I enjoyed returning to thinking about Dune (a novel I used to read annually for a few years), enjoyed returning to that fascinating and intricate world that Frank Herbert created. And now I’m thinking about other novels (both science fiction and otherwise) that had strong female characters with power. I’m wondering how one’s gender affects how you encounter a story and its characters.
Lots of great questions to consider, but all for another day.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
--Bene Gesserit litany against fear
| ||Posted 2/18/2012 11:19 AM - 538 Views - 0 eProps - 0 comments|
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