Science Fiction Studies

#66 = Volume 22, Part 2 = July 1995

Marie-Noelle Zeender

The “Moi-peau” of Leto II in Herbert's Atreides Saga

The key character of the Dune cycle, Leto II Atreides, is an enigmatic and disconcerting figure. Born under the sign of duality, he is the son of Paul Atreides and his Fremen concubine Chani, but he is also Ghanima's twin brother. While still a child, and after a painful initiation, he chooses to renounce a large part of his human condition and to cover his body with a new skin, that of the sandtrout, a creature having mythical significance for the Fremen. Through this “symbiotic assimilation” (Thaon 223),1 he gradually metamorphoses (though retaining his human head and parts of his arms) into another creature of mythical significance, the Sandworm.            

This “incarnation” is indeed the horrible price which he has to pay in order to save mankind. In spite of this, and surprising as it may seem at first, the character remains profoundly human, even until the end of his extraordinary adventures. In Children of Dune and in God-Emperor of Dune, he gives expression to his reluctance, his slightest hesitations, when resolving to make the sacrifice, as well as to his anguish and agony after the achievement of his metamorphosis. By thus revealing the most intimate manifestations of his unconscious, Leto allows us to follow the different phases of his evolution and perhaps to understand better the self hidden under this monstrous frame.

This study is inspired by the works of the French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu, especially his most famous work, Le Moi-peau. The theory of the “Moi-peau” posits a parallel between the skin (i.e., the “envelope” that limits, contains, and protects the body) and what he calls a “psychic envelope,” which serves a similar function for the self. Our purpose is to show to what extent the theory of the “Moi-peau” can be applied to a fictional character like Leto II and to demonstrate that through such a phantasy, Leto's behavior may be interpreted as autistic and also as the inevitable denouement of an adventure which has certain similarities to the “psychotic family novel” (Thaon 218).  

Before even considering the various aspects of Leto's development, it is indispensable to take into account the factors, as set forth in Children of Dune, which rule over his destiny from the very start. In the first place, his birth is marked by the dual seal of death and twinship. Contrary to all expectations, Chani dies while giving birth prematurely to heterozygous twins. Both “pre-born,” that is to say already initiated into the melange and capable of seeing and communicating when they are barely out of their mother's womb, neither Leto nor Ghanima has a very distinct identity at the dawn of their lives. In fact, they are often referred to simply as “the twins.” The feeling that they are aspects of a single personage is confirmed by their physical appearance: “Their faces betrayed the stamp of shared genes: generous mouths, widely set eyes of spice addict blue-on-blue” (13/9). Their names do not throw any particular light on their personalities; they even endow them with some form of ambiguity. Ghanima, which means spoil of war, has a warlike and not especially feminine connotation, whereas Leto suggests on the contrary the mother of the mythical twins Apollo and Artemis. In other words, it appears that the Atreides Dioscuri have an ill-defined sexual identity, a little as if they formed the split reflection of an androgynous being. But at the same time, they make us inevitably think of them as a miniaturized mirror-image of the couple formed by Paul and Chani. This becomes explicit when they play the “parent game” (71/74) during which Leto and Ghanima act the parts of their father and of their mother in turn. They then relive in words, in thoughts as well as in sensations, the romance of Paul and Chani.    

Ghanima may well say that her brother is not Osiris and she is not Isis, for many allusions in the text lead us to think that such is the case. Consequently, these incestuous implications are essential to the interpretation of the relationships between the twins, all the more so because the Bene Gesserit toys with the idea of mating the Atreides offspring in order to fulfill their genetic scheme. Such a revelation generates a feeling of inexpressible horror in them, which urges them to part for a while, as they profoundly wish to avoid an unnatural fate. Far from being taken without proper consideration, their decision is on the contrary adopted knowingly, since, thanks to their kaleidoscopic memory, they can experience every incident of their parents' past, including their erotic games, and also their ancestors'. For instance, Ghanima never considers treating tactfully her grandmother's modesty when she tells Jessica, talking about Leto: “You don't like the fact that he knows our father as our mother knew him, and knows our mother as our father knew her...” (129/ 135). When she goes on, not without irony, alluding to the “rutting sensuality” (130/135) of Jessica's late husband Duke Leto I, Jessica's embarrassment and terror can be easily understood.            

In fact, it is clear that as far as the twins are concerned, the self is not exclusively “another one” but a multitude of others at the same time, what Leto himself sums up in a most revealing sentence, “the entire universe with all its Time is within me” (95/99). He even confesses to the faithful Stilgar: “I have no first person singular, Stil. I am a multiple person with memories of traditions more ancient than you could imagine” (111/115).            

Through statements of the kind, we are directly introduced into the heart of the narcissistic issue. How then is it possible not to consider Leto—and as a consequence Ghanima, his alter ego in the full meaning of the word—as a borderline case finding its expression in the multiplicity of doubles that he claims to be? And this is all the more striking to the imagination because he is only nine years old, which is to say, from a purely objective and biological point of view, he is only a child. However, he never once contemplates being one. “This is a child's body; no doubt about that. But I am not a child” (88/ 93), he keeps on repeating, or again, “I'm an adult in a child's flesh” (113/ 117). Obviously, there is in him a total discrepancy between his physical being and his psyche, in other words between the envelope and the self, the container and the content. Of course, this is true of Ghanima as well, and it is no mere coincidence if, in the presence of the twins, even their family circle calls them “unchildren” (93/97) or “immature bodies” (127/133).            

In this respect, the obsessional and premonitory dream haunting Leto is extremely revealing about what could be termed his “existential lag.” It always follows the same pattern. It begins with a feeling of comfort and bliss suggested by the sand—this substitute for water—on which the dreamer sees himself “In bright yellow daylight” (75/78). Yet, he explains that there is no sun, so that at the very beginning, the phantasy, which is akin to a kind of “regressus ad uterum,” soon gives birth to the certainty that the dreamer himself is the sun. He then identifies with the creative and fertilizing fire, not to say with the father, and his “light shines out as a Golden Path” (75/79). But the sensation of power and serenity does not last long, for he suddenly moves out of his body and turns back, expecting to see himself as the sun. The mirror of the dream then only reflects the grotesque figure of a “child's drawing,” a mere “stick figure” (75/79), which is a clumsy sketch of his own body whose eyes are represented by “zigzag lightning lines” in sharp contrast with the fragility of the limbs represented only by “stick legs and stick arms” (75/ 79). However, he holds a real sceptre in his left hand, and when the thing begins to move, he feels such terror that he wakes up in his dream, which is not interrupted for all that. He then has the sensation of being encased in an invisible armor which “moves as his skin moves” (75/79), and the unbearable anguish that he had felt at the sight of the sceptre—the phallic symbol of the father, but also the attribute of Osiris—vanishes to give birth to a feeling of calm and security, because the armor gives him the impression of having “the strength of ten thousand men” (75/79).

The dream is particularly striking not only because of its content but also because of the form resorted to to relate it. The very “skin” of the words used, the direct speech in the first-person narrative and the simple present, contribute to showing that Leto makes no difference between the context of utterance (the context in which he speaks) and the context of the dream (the situation about which he speaks). This lag with regard to time may be interpreted as a characteristic indication of his mental state. As for the symbolic meaning of the vision, it reflects a whole set of oedipal preoccupations on the one hand, and on the other hand a powerful autistic impulse, finding its expression through the phantasy of a new skin.            

Leto's dilemma perfectly illustrates what Didier Anzieu defines as “a Moi-peau uncertain about its functions as a stimulation fender and a psychic container” (129). The protective armor mentioned in the dream is most surprisingly akin to those described by Frances Tustin for instance, when she analyzes the behavior of autistic children who make sorts of cardboard armors in which they find refuge. The analyst explains such a phenomenon by asserting that a nightmarish object causes some kind of mortal terror in the child's mind, so that his only possibility to escape from it is to leave his own body and to go into another one, one he has himself made.2 If Leto's experience is only a dream at first, the continuation of his adventures clearly shows an irreversible transformation of his Moi-peau. In fact, his endless wandering in the desert, his burial alive in the sand on several occasions, his lethargy after his spice trip as well as the torpor of his looks, all these phases of his initiation, may be understood as the successive stages of his psychosis.            

According to T. Nathan, dreams containing an explicit illustration of the Moi-peau are exceptional and would characterize the patients who have lived an experience of fusion with a brother or sister, as is usually imputed to twins (235). In such a light, Leto's attitude becomes meaningful, and his refuge in autism is to him the only way to survive, to be a full being if we may say so. His suffering is all the more intense because, as an obsessive leitmotiv, he keeps on repeating “My skin is not my own” (255/277, 305/326, 309/330, 320/342). There is a time when he has the impression of being actually disembodied and has the feeling of being merely “a dry shell like that abandoned by an insect” (267/282). Thus stripped of his envelope, his only chance of survival is to put on a “substitute false skin” (Anzieu 200) large and elastic enough to contain him.

When he lies naked on the sand to make a “skin symbiote” of sandtrout— in other words when he puts on this ”living membrane” (308-09/330)—he does not simply experience a new birth but creates himself anew, reconstituting through an artificial process something similar to an “amniotic membrane” (Nathan 235-36). Moreover, to a certain extent, he generates himself, thus cutting off the cord which united him to his progenitor and the rest of mankind. As a consequence, Leto supplants his father—who is reduced to wandering, blind like Oedipus, in the solitude of the desert—and puts on the skin of the ideal father which he has himself made. Everything happens as if the family roles were inverted, and the doubts which Stilgar had expressed about Leto are strangely confirmed: “The boy spoke of an ability to be his father—and had proved it. Even as an infant, Leto had revealed memories which only Muad'Dib should have known...” (9/5)            

Such an inversion reappears still more explicitly during their last meeting when Leto does not hesitate in the least to pass judgement on his father, reproaching him for never being a real Fremen and for being cowardly enough to shrink from the Golden Path. Although it may seem surprising, Muad'Dib accepts this judgment and suddenly asserts: “I'm not your father. I'm only a poor copy, a relic” (320/342). This acknowledgement is essential for the interpretation of the Dune saga. Leto's later comparison of his father to “a dry shell like that abandoned by an insect” (375/402) awakens powerful echoes in us, for the words used here are those he earlier used to describe himself as he was before the metamorphosis. As for his own body, it is already that of the Sandworm, of Shai-Hulud, the “Old Man of the Desert,” “Old Father Eternity,” and “Grandfather of the Desert,” who will become afterwards Shaitan, God-Emperor of Dune.            

Through the phantasy of absolute power and deity, Leto fully satisfies his oedipal cravings, but he does it at the expense of both his humanity and his mental condition. In fact, he displays all the symptoms of a delirious psychosis whose most striking feature is his Moi-peau. However, even if he claims that “The child who refuses to travel in the father's the symbol of man's most unique capability” (357/384), we have the strong impression that he only perpetuates a family tradition, though carrying it to extremes. The pharaonic empire which he sets up largely reproduces the parental pattern. Indeed, just like his father, he founds a dynasty based on a legitimate union which will not be consummated, as well as on a kind of morganatic union supposed to perpetuate his race. Just as Paul had married Irulan for reasons of state and made Chani, his concubine, the mother of his children, Leto makes the decision to marry Ghanima but to give her Farad'n as companion. “As my mother was not wife, you will not be husband” (379/407), he tells him. And here again, Leto inverts the roles, or rather, having no sexual identity after his self-inflicted castration,3 seems desirous to assume all the roles at the same time, not only that of the father, but of the mother, the brother, and the spouse as well.            

It is obvious that in this instance, he behaves as the domineering twin towards his sister, asserting thus his “dynastic position” (Lacan 36) in what may be considered as his fraternal complex. Nevertheless, this marriage, one justified by dynastic preoccupations, has incestuous implications, even though the incest is to be consummated by proxy and in fulfillment of a very elaborate genetic programme. This is a fundamental difference between Paul and his son. The relationships between Muad'Dib and Chani were the fruits of a mutual and genuine love, but such is far from being the case with Ghanima and Farad'n.            

At the end of Children of Dune, the Atreides twins are reunited at last, a bit like Isis and Osiris, yet, unlike the Egyptian gods and in accordance with the etiquette imposed by Leto, they must never appear face to face in public:

“This is the way it will always be with us. We'll stand thus when we are married. Back to back, each looking outward from the other to protect the one thing which we have always been” (380/407).            

The Atreides dioscuri do appear as a kind of Janus presiding over the destinies of Dune from then on; they already foreshadow the door-keeper of Arrakis, the terrible human-headed dragon which Leto will become in the course of his evolution. Before the metamorphosis, he had given expression to the risk that he was running, addressing Ghanima in the following way: “Power attracts the psychotics. Always. That's what we have to avoid within ourselves” (78/81). This aphorism, which constantly recurs like a leitmotiv in the narrative, is surely one of the keys of the Atreides saga, for all the members of this extraordinary family are particularly obsessed with power. First was Paul, who could not resist the temptation; by setting himself up if not as god, at least as Dune Messiah, he had been led to launch the jihad in order to maintain the stability of his reign and his absolute authority, but the result was only a bitter and complete failure. As for his sister Alia, she too had thought herself capable of holding the reins of the Empire by enforcing a tyrannical and bloody system of government inspired by the precepts of her uncle, the loathsome Baron Harkonnen, whose containing envelope she had become.            

A truly strange family saga in truth, in which the characters act like possessed creatures or like “Abominations,” to use the favorite terminology of the Bene Gesserit. They assume dual or multiple personalities at will; thanks to their elastic memories, they can have visions in which the past, the present, and the future are mingled indiscriminately, very much in the tradition of the “psychotic family novel.” In this insane universe, Leto embodies, in all the meanings of the word, the inevitable outcome of the lineage.

If at the end of Children of Dune he confesses to being dominated by Harum, whom he defines as an ancient and all-powerful autocrat, it is most of all in God-Emperor of Dune that he gives the full details of the particularly disconcerting aspects of his lunacy. Thus he claims to be God because he is “the only one who really knows his heredity” (63/60). Moreover, he asserts that he is all his ancestors (100/96) and considers himself a predator whose function is to ameliorate the race. Once he has become at the end of his evolution an antediluvian monster weighing five tons and being five meters long, he describes himself as a “holy obscenity” (155/147) or again as “the ultimate alien” (172/162). And still more, he proclaims to all, “I alone am a whole population” (193/181) or “I am both father and mother to my people” (237/ 222) and at last, “I am Janus magnified a billionfold” (277/258). In his delirium, he even goes as far as to say that he is an integral part of the planet, thus granting himself not only a universal dimension but also a cosmic one.            

Analyzing some family complexes, Jacques Lacan comments, “the patient suffering from paraphrenia, integrates into the self the world, asserting that he includes the Whole, that his body is composed of the most precious substances, that his life and functions support the order and the existence of the universe” (81). If we take such data into consideration, then Leto perfectly illustrates this sort of pathological case whose various stages from autism to schizophrenia are presented to us. In this respect, he is quite in tune with the characters portrayed in the works of the greatest science-fiction authors, such as Philip K. Dick for instance. In a survey devoted to Dick, Marcel Thaon points out that “schizophrenics, supposed to live outside the generative lineage, are often great genealogists” (214) and concludes, “The psychotic family novel may be the representation of an immense family bag in which the generations are indiscriminately piled up” (214).            

Now, the Atreides are precisely great genealogists; Leto is especially so since he claims that his lineage goes back to Atreus, which is somewhat enlightening as far as the family conflicts described to us are concerned. Furthermore, at the end of his evolution, he does embody this “immense family bag” contained in the monstrous Moi-peau which he has himself moulded. Placing himself outside the limits of time, he also creates his own various mythical identities which he borrows without distinction from Graeco-Latin, Christian, Arab, and Egyptian mythologies, among others. Not content with being Atreus, he is also Behemoth, Leviathan, Shai-Hulud, Shaitan or Satan, and he knows too that he will have to meet with the fate of Osiris, the “split up god,” living again after his death. Obviously, his Moi-peau isolates him from the rest of mankind, but above all, it symbolises his regression to an archaic stage, characteristic of his madness.            

It is no mere coincidence that this is reflected in the form of government which he establishes; it is indeed a sort of schizophrenic regime meant to rule over Arrakis. Promoted to the rank of Emperor and God, Leto imposes upon his people a tyranny based upon a pagan worship of the personality suggesting the darkest and most ancient ages of the history of the world. In the same way, the matriarchal organization of his army, the “houris” who look after his own safety, may recall some extinct civilizations.            

Such a close association between power and insanity may be considered the Dune postulate. In fact, the theme is recurrent in Frank Herbert's fiction. A particularly original illustration of it can be found in The White Plague, published in 1982, a novel which has apparently no relationship with the Atreides cycle. Indeed, the action takes place in Ireland in the early 1980s, and the main plot this time is the revenge of a scientist who has been driven mad by the loss of all his family in a bomb attack claimed by the Provisional IRA. Taking himself for the reincarnation of Nemesis, he then blackmails the whole world with the threat of “gynaecide” through a virus of his own invention which can be fatal to women, and thus jeopardizes the future of the planet.4 However unexpected it may seem, we find in this book some powerful echoes of the Dune saga. O'Neill, the Madman, undergoes a physical change after sinking into lunacy; in his schizophrenic delirium, his discourse is very similar to Leto's as concerns elastic memory, or the multiplicity and multiplication of personality. But above all, the Madman embodies one of Leto's theories exposed in an interior monologue, about the dangers of fanaticism: “The ability to make and use savage destroyers falls inevitably into the hands of smaller and smaller groups until at last the group is a single individual” (God-Emperor of Dune 43/42).            

To the more or less initiated reader of Frank Herbert's fiction, there appears a whole network of correspondences between works of very different inspiration, so that The White Plague may be seen as a transposition into the real world as well as a “concentrate” of all the conceptions developed in the Dune cycle. In other words, we can go so far as to say that O'Neill is a bit like Leto projected into contemporary reality, the main difference being that the Madman becomes autistic only in the second part of the story.    

Strangely enough, this last novel by Herbert allows us to understand better the Atreides saga. Somehow, by reading his works backwards, we may find the keys opening the doors of an extremely and intentionally enigmatic imaginary universe. Such an approach could be justified as well by the creative process at the origin of Dune. In the preface to a bibliography published as recently as 1988, that is to say two years after the author's death, Mark Willard gives some precious information about the genesis of the cycle: “Herbert has frequently been quoted to the effect that portions of the last two books of the Dune trilogy were written before the first book was finished. He has even specifically stated that parts of CHILDREN OF DUNE and DUNE MESSIAH were already written before he completed DUNE” (Levack xvi).            

Despite the objection of some critics and the contradictory statements of Herbert himself, if such facts prove to be true, it would mean that the character of Leto II could be the source of inspiration of the whole cycle. And even if, still according to Willard, Children of Dune and the next volumes were influenced by new ideas and perspectives, the hypothesis remains very attractive. It would seem that the dream of an autistic child could be at the heart of the matter of Dune. The Atreides epic finally leads to Leto's monstrous Moi-peau, a powerful metaphor of their psychosis and cravings for despotism. Through the tale, Frank Herbert brilliantly shows that psychoanalysis may serve fiction and give birth to new myths based upon the exploring of the human unconscious.

            1. The translations into English of passages quoted from French texts are my own.
            2. Tustin, passim, especially the considerations about the monster and the armor.
            3. “No children will spring from my loins, for I no longer have loins” (378/407).
            4. See my “Le `Rêve Irlandais' dans The White Plague de Frank Herbert: Une Illustration Sociobiologique du Fanatisme de la Mort et de la Destruction.” Etudes Irlandaises, 14:77-88, Dec 1989. See also Ellen Feehan, “Frank Herbert and the Making of Myths: Irish History, Celtic Mythology, and IRA Ideology in The White Plague,” SFS 19:289-310, #58, Nov 1992.

Anzieu, Didier. Le Moi-peau. Paris: Dunod, 1985.
Thaon, Marcel, Gérard Klein, and J. Goimard. Science-fiction et Psychanalyse, l'Imaginaire Social de la S.F. Inconscient et Culture, Collection dirigée par R. Kaës et D. Anzieu. Paris: Dunod, 1985.
Herbert, Frank. Children of Dune. 1976. London: New English Library, 1987. / NY: Berkley, 1977. There are no chapter numbers. The in-text page/page references are to NEL/Berkley.
—————. God-Emperor of Dune. 1981. London: New English Library, 1987. / NY: Berkley, 1983. There are no chapter numbers. The in-text page/page references are to NEL/Berkley.
Tustin, Frances. Autism and Childhood Psychosis. London: Hogarth Press, 1972.
Nathan, T. Les Enveloppes Psychiques. Collection Inconscient et Culture, dirigée par R. Kaës et D. Anzieu. Paris: Dunod, 1987.
Lacan, Jacques. Les Complexes Familiaux dans la Formation de l'Individu. Paris:   Navarin Editeur, Bibliothèque des Analytica, 1984.
Levack, Daniel J.H. Dune Master, a Frank Herbert Bibliography. With annotations by Mark Willard. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1988.

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