Voice Lessons: The Seductive Appeal of Vocal Control in Frank Herbert's Dune
Mack, Robert L., Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts
Calmness drained out of her. Jessica felt her teeth chattering, clamped them together. Then she heard Paul's voice, low and controlled, reciting the litany:
"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 me I will turn to see fear's path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain."
--Frank Herbert, Dune
FANS OF FRANK HERBERT'S CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL DUNE WILL NO doubt recognize the above quotation as the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. The affirmation appears many times in the narrative, becoming so representative of the central character Paul Atreides that an edited version of the invocation found its way into David Lynch's 1984 filmic adaptation of the book. Those who have not previously encountered the litany in either text or film, however, will likely register a fact that its more ardent fans tend to forget: namely, that it is spoken aloud. There is more to the litany than its content. Although at times Paul silently thinks the litany within the story, in dire moments--such as in the ornithopter crash excerpted above--it appears to require vocal repetition in order to calm a terrified heart.
The litany against fear is one of many vocal techniques that Herbert utilizes to construct the Bene Gesserit as a politically powerful force within his futuristic narrative. An ancient and mysterious order of women, the Bene Gesserit train (almost exclusively female) acolytes in diplomacy, espionage, sex, martial arts, lie detection, and mind control. Adherents perfect this last talent through a physiological trick they deem "the Voice," or the meticulous adjustment of personal vocal tones to mirror a target's own. Performed correctly, the Voice results in a frighteningly irresistible mental suggestion directed toward a hapless pawn. By assuming a voice uniquely keyed to each of her victims, then, a Bene Gesserit can almost unnoticeably bend the willpower of other characters in the novel by merely speaking to them.
The power and danger of the voice in these and other aspects of Herbert's narrative resonate with contemporary philosophical anxieties surrounding the nature and scope of human embodied speech. As Mladen Dolar notes in A Voice and Nothing More, the voice is the site of a great many paradoxes. It appears to substantively transmit meanings to others while evading any clear substance or secure meaning in itself. The voice seems to function as a unique expression of oneself, but it is also necessarily an expression of the other. We only gain our ability to speak from others who teach us--the (m)other, after all, ascribes meaning to the infant's voice long before the infant does. Even when the voice takes on more stylized forms in practices like singing, it registers as both beautiful and unsettling, a terminable signification coupled with an elusive excess that Roland Barthes once attempted to capture in his notion of "the grain." The fact that we cannot locate or define something so intimately conceived of as our own (1) establishes, in the end, a rather uncertain relationship with the voice, inspiring a mixture of both anxiety and pleasure that manifests across texts in popular culture. It follows, then, that a concern for the philosophy of voice is well served by studies that attempt to discern how cultural representations and deployments of the voice indicate the timbre of this collective anxiety and pleasure.
With its use of the voice to steer key narrative points, Dune certainly serves as a fruitful starting point for this kind of project. Herbert's masterpiece is "the best-selling science-fiction novel ever" (Freierman C7), with five further novels penned by Herbert. In addition to Lynch's cinematic adaptation in 1984, the novel has inspired television miniseries, video games, and even a modern run of eleven best-selling books set within the Dune universe and coauthored by Herbert's son. …