Messianism is a complicated concept. It can be the result of the overlapping of many different, equally complex matters — eschatology, history, genealogy, politics, and law, among others. Broadly speaking, scholars agree it is a typically Abrahamic, originally Jewish belief in the advent of a savior who would either liberate, redeem, or offer restitution to a group of people, a nation, or a kingdom, ushering in the end of days, an era of everlasting peace, or both.
Sometimes this never-ending peacetime is portrayed as a return to some imagined origin (the restitution of a lost state of plenitude and innocence, for example) or the bringing about of something entirely new (as in the coming of the “New Jerusalem”). Sometimes these two visions, paradoxically as it might seem at first sight, go hand in hand — the foundation of the new world being itself a restoration of some original, Eden-like condition. Be that as it may, messianism clearly has to do with a thorough rupture with a given state of affairs that is considered fallen, corrupt, or at least strayed, and its replacement with a radically different order of justice and peace.
These rupture-and-restoration dynamics, however, are not exclusive to Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). In fact, some Jewish Studies scholars claim it is a typically Jewish-Roman concept. Messianism as centered in a single figure would be either post-biblical or a late-biblical concept (from a Jewish biblical perspective, that is) since ancient Judaism would privilege the idea of eschatological salvation overall, understood as brought about by God with no single human agent of salvation involved.
In the Book of Tobit, for example, the salvation of Jerusalem, the return from the Diaspora, and the conversion of nations to God are all mentioned, but a personal Messiah is totally missing. That is to say, that there are at least two variants of messianism found in the Hebrew Bible: one of them that understands the bringing in of this new era through the advent of an agent of God, and one that doesn’t.
Dune, the celebrated 1965 sci-fi novel by the American author Frank Herbert, somehow tackles both. Its central character, worshiped and recognized as an expected messiah by many, is at the same time the result of a series of both chaotic and carefully planned circumstances, and of a misguided will to power. In short, Herbert’s story is an always timely reminder of the tendency both societies and individuals alike have to cede their judgment and decision-making capacities to a charismatic leader (on the one hand) and of the obviously fallible humanity of said leaders, no matter how exceptional they might seem to be (on the other).
This is not a movie review, so feel free to read ahead even if you have not yet watched the new adaptation by Dennis Villeneuve, or David Lynch’s classic 1984 version —no spoilers. The following is just a brief commentary on the role messianism plays in the overall plot of the movie, and how Herbert’s work was supposed to be a cautionary tale on the dangers of (either misunderstood, or Machiavellian) messianism.
Dune is set in the distant future —the year is 10,191. The known universe is by then organized as a feudal society ruled by noble houses reigning over different planetary fiefs under the central authority of an emperor. One of these houses is House Atreides, to which young Paul (the main, “messianic” character of the story) belongs. This house accepts the stewardship of planet Arrakis, an inhospitable and (apparently) thinly populated wasteland that happens to be the only source of “spice” —a substance that extends life, enhances mental abilities, and makes space navigation possible.
Needless to say, since spice is only found on this planet, ruling it is an envied position as much as a dangerous undertaking. The factions of the empire soon confront each other in a fight for control of the planet and its spice, and young Paul eventually emerges as a kind of local leader seeking to gather the local native tribes of Arrakis under his leadership. The character, Herbert explained, was somewhat inspired by T.E. Lawrence, the British citizen best known as Lawrence of Arabia, who led Arab forces in the famous (and astonishingly successful) desert revolt against the Turks during World War I. Lawrence’s use of guerrilla tactics to defeat enemy forces and destroy their lines of communication gained him a messiah-like status in the eyes of the Arab fighters. Lawrence’s transformation into a god-like figure while fighting a corrupt occupying force in the midst of a desert gave Herbert all the inspiration he needed.
The word messiah is an anglicization of the Latin messias, which is borrowed from the Greek messias found in the New Testament. The Greek is an adaptation of the Aramaic meshiha, which is in turn a translation of the Hebrew ha-melekh ha-mashi’ah, “the Anointed King.” In Dune, the messiah is referred to with plenty of different names: Muad’Dib, Kwisatz Haderach, Mahdi, Lisan Al-Ghaib. All of these names have clear either Islamic or Jewish roots. But the point is Paul Atreides is not exactly a messiah — at least not in the Christian sense of a savior who gives his life for others. He is more of an archetypal hero-prince who goes on a quest that eventually forces him into assuming roles and making decisions he might not be willing to: that is, a false Messiah. He himself says at one point that he is but the byproduct of someone else’s (the Bene Gesserit’s) plan. Paul only rises to power because pre-existing religious and political messiah-oriented structures seem to fit well with his own personal charisma and capacities. He is not so much the triumphant hero of the story: he is the victim of circumstances that force him to impose himself as the central figure of a new religious-political-social order.
And this is precisely Herbert’s warning. In an interview he gave in 1979, he explicitly said, “the bottom line of the Dune trilogy is ‘beware of heroes.’ Much better rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.” Later, in 1985, he wrote that “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.” In short, Dune (either Lynch’s or Villeneuve’s new rendition of Herbert’s classic) is a thought-provoking film that aims at challenging our commonly held assumptions on personal and social responsibility, ideology and critical thinking, and collective and individual action — among many other subjects. Watching it through the lens of the dangers of messianism, understood as blind support of charismatic leaders or the uncritical embracing of appealing ideologies, can certainly be fruitful.