That Without Which There Is Nothing – Time and Space

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time:  born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place:  the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place.” – from “Manual of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan

So begins one of the most successful single volumes in the entire cannons of Sci-Fi or Fantasy. But this column is not distinctly about Science Fiction or Fantasy; it’s about the most important task in the beginning of any piece of imaginative writing.

The excerpt above quotes the first words of Dune, by Frank Herbert. On the cover of the 40th anniversary edition, the book is described as “Science Fiction’s supreme masterpiece” and surely, that could well be the case, personal favorites notwithstanding. In his biography of his father, Brian Herbert eloquently writes of what it was like to be in the house while his father was working on Dune and he is even more eloquent about the many influences that went into the shaping of this stunning book. He is also clear about the fact that this book, though most often considered on its own, is the first book of a trilogy that Frank Herbert later claimed was conceived as a whole work sufficient unto itself alone, not unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In a later column, I’ll be examining that assertion but for now, all I want to consider is beginnings.

The great 20th century philosopher and aesthetician, Suzanne K. Langer took care to emphasize two points about the relationship of the arts to the rest of our lives. Firstly, she described the arts as giving concrete form to our abstract feelings by recreating virtual equivalents of actual experiences. More over, these actual, concrete objects – the painting, the book, the score, were not to be taken lightly because they described “make-believe” things outside of everyday experiences. Rather through the semiotic (or symbolizing) processes of mind, language, art and play, along with our dreams, were to be understood as the means through which we discover and express the significance of experience in the actual world. Hence, for Langer, there were two aspects of “Reality” – our actual experiences in the actual world and our virtual representations of experiences through the make-believe activities of the mind and body. In effect then, art makes life just as life makes art. In Feeling and Form, she proposes a series of such equivalencies. For example, in painting we create virtual spaces in order to grasp the experience of actual space; in music we create virtual emotions in order to express and even control our actual emotions; in fiction we create virtual histories in order to understand our own actual histories, both on the personal and social level. And as with actual history, virtual history demands that information concerning time and place be presented early in order to establish for reader or listener the context within which the meaning of the text will be delivered.

In the quoted passage above, the very first words in his book, Herbert sets the facts of time and space squarely before us. He writes:  “To begin your study of the life of Muad’Dib, then, take care that you first place him in his time…And take the most special care that you locate Muad’Dib in his place.”

But wait, these words are not presented in the text as those of an all-seeing author writing in the objective voice. They are presented as a quotation from an invested (participant) observer – in this case the historian, Princess Irulan. Every chapter in the trilogy begins with a quotation from an outside source. Herewith, Herbert sets his hero’s personal, (virtual) history within the context of an outer, public (virtual) history not unlike the very subtleties of “a plan within a plan” that drive so much of his plot. It is such a simple yet breath-taking device, this “external” account, which helps to establish the illusion of the profound significance of his tale for the virtual history of Arrakis.

Not all books are crafted in such a layered way, yet the best beginnings are equally efficient in establishing place and time, often establishing a strange, exotic or even horrible mise en scene. For example:

As Gregor Samsa awoke from unsettling dreams one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous bug.

So begins The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s key text in the canon of psychological allegory (or literary expressionism) so crucial to our understanding of the 20th century. The establishment of the time (morning) and the place (the bed and bedroom) is natural and every-day and as tight as our own skin in commonality until we come to the words, “he found himself…”

The most famous beginning in English fiction employs the omniscient observer uttering the words:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” With these words, Dickens reminds us that all stories, if there is to be a story at all, must begin once upon a virtual time somewhere in a virtual place, however exotic or familiar it might be, where there are virtual beings, not unlike ourselves, living virtual lives that are actually exemplary and well worth being told over and over again.