The burning hand in Dune’s “Gom Jabbar”- and in Fight Club’s “Chemical Burn”-scene

The Gom Jabbar scene from Dune and the Chemical Burn scene from Fight Club share strong structural similarities. The most general similarity between these two scenes is that both Paul Atreides and the narrator from Fight Club (“Jack”) are being tested. They are being tested to suffer pain in their right hand. This similarity is what raises my interest to compare these two scenes and read them synoptically. I would even argue that they are essentially the same scene, with Frank Herbert’s original Dune-scene obviously inspiring Chuck Palahniuk to his own interpretation of it, situated in the broader context of Fight Club’s story. A closer look at the similarities and differences offers deeper insights into Herbert’s Gom Jabbar scene as well as into the specifics of Palahniuk’s interpretation.

Disclaimer: for practical reasons, we will be focusing on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune movie from 2021, and on Fight Club directed by David Fincher, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton.

Hand in the box, lye on the hand

Given that most people are right-handed, the right hand is, symbolically speaking, the hand with which we act. Yet, in both scenes the respective right hand is physically situated differently. Paul Atreides is ordered to put his hand inside a box, where he is announced to experience pain. Very differently from that, Jack is caught by surprise, with Tyler telling him “This is a chemical burn,” in the very moment he pours the lye over his hand. Paul is, physically speaking, free to remove his hand from the box insofar as he’s not actually captured or fettered. No one is directly disallowing him to remove his hand. Of course he is threatened to die by the Gom Jabbar if he does – but still, his hand is free to move and remains inside the box only by his own resolve.

In Fight Club, the situation is a bit more complex. What the viewer sees during the Chemical Burn-scene is Tyler Durden holding Jack’s arm in a firm grasp, with the latter trying to escape multiple times. But Tyler holds him fast, not allowing him to escape. The actual depth of this scene starts to unravel when we become aware that Tyler is only Jack’s alter ego, and that hence Jack is holding his own arm. Peculiarly, Tyler is holding Jack’s right arm with his own left hand. So we can imagine that physically, looking through the illusion of Tyler being a real person, Jack is holding his own right arm with his own left hand. In fact, in the scene, we see Jack first holding his own right arm with his left hand – but later, after the turning point of the conversation between him and Tyler, he keeps his left arm under the table. This might sound trivial, but it’s actually not. It is the detail revealing that Jack, just like Paul Atreides, is keeping his hand exposed to the pain through his own strength of will – even before Tyler lets go of his arm. But contrarily to Paul, Jack is not being threatened by instant death. He’s just dealing with the pain led by intrinsic motivation.

Test and motivation

The next question to be addressed is to the purpose of the test. In the Gom Jabbar-scene the test is obvious, because the Reverend Mother announces it to him: “The test is simple. Remove your hand from the box, and you die.” As to the purpose of the test, Paul learns about it in two steps. The first, cryptic answer the Reverend Mother gives Paul is that “An animal caught in a trap will gnaw off its own leg to escape. What will you do?” This answer implies that she wants to see whether he can keep his lower impulses in check when confronted with a situation of pain or danger. It is only after the test that Paul gets to know the reason for being tested – which is the power he inherits through his mother having taught him in the powerful ways of the Bene Gesserit.

Jack, on the other hand, does not see anything coming and is caught by surprise. While they’re cooking the fat he and Tyler stole from the liposuction clinic, Tyler keeps rambling about human fire sacrifices, which led to the discovery of soap – until he asks Jack to give him his hand. Tyler wets his lips, kisses Jack’s hand and laconically explains: “This is a chemical burn,” while pouring lye over Jack’s hand. Not only is Jack completely surprised by the pain, he also is unaware that he’s being tested. His natural reaction is to withdraw his hand from Tyler’s grasp. But as Tyler is holding him and he cannot physically escape the pain, he tries to escape the pain mentally through meditation.

Is Jack being tested? On first sight, yes. Assuming that Tyler is a real person, he burns Jack’s hand to make him give in to the pain, thereby raising his awareness of his own mortality. But could Jack actually fail the test? At first, it seems like it, when he tries to retreat into his meditation, into his “power animal” and into his memory of Marla. That’s why Tyler scolds him: “No! Don’t deal with this the way those dead people do! Come on! […] It’s the greatest moment of your life, man, and you’re off somewhere, missing it.” What Tyler asks of Jack is to give in to the pain, while at the same time becoming aware of his own mortality. Hence, Jack is not threatened to die if he fails (we’ll talk about the aspect of death in a bit). Instead, Tyler is holding his hand, not leaving Jack any chance to withdraw his hand and thereby fail the test.

This is crucial. Contrarily to Paul, for Jack it seems impossible to fail the test, due to Tyler holding his hand. But we must not forget that Tyler, after telling Jack that he wants him to become aware of his own mortality, releases Jack’s hand, leaving him with the pain from the burn for 8 seconds, before he pours vinegar over the wound to neutralize the burn.

Hence, despite Tyler being only another part of Jack, trying to initiate himself into a higher level of consciousness, he still could have failed, if he had not stayed with the pain, but gone directly for the vinegar.

Pain and Speech

This is where more similarities to the Gom Jabbar-scene become visible. Tyler telling him: “Stay with the pain, don’t shut this out,” is parallel to the Litany of the Bene Gesserit, which says: “I’ll face my fear and I’ll permit it to pass over me and through me.” Both scenes offer the same tactic to deal with the pain: not trying to escape it physically or mentally, but consciously feeling it, confronting it and thus developing the strength of will to bear and overcome it.

The dimension of language unveils another dimension of these two scenes. In Dune, upon Paul’s first scream caused by the pain, the Reverend Mother commands him to stay silent, with the camera instantly focusing on the poisonous Gom Jabbar – implying that screaming or speaking would mean to to be put to death by the poisoned needle.

So the Gom Jabbar test is silent. Except for – at least in Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation – Lady Jessica standing outside the door, reciting the Bene Gesserit’s Litany Against Fear:

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings 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 and see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”

But Denis Villeneuve, who knows his material well from having been an avid fan of the Dune-novels since his youth, bestows us with an artistic touch in this scene. While in Frank Herbert’s original novel Paul Atreides silently recites the Litany Against Fear to calm himself down, here it is Lady Jessica to speak the ritual words. Only when we see Paul move his lips in silent recitation we begin to understand that he might be speaking the exact same words his mother is reciting. For the viewer, this detail impactfully conveys that Paul is recurring to his mother’s teachings to pass the test.

The Gom Jabbar-scene grows in intensity right after Lady Jessica utters the words “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” That’s when Paul raises his gaze, challenging the Reverend Mother. And at the same time, the deep, threatening brass-like sound ensues, together with the female religious chanting. Hans Zimmer’s masterful soundtrack perfectly underlines the simultaneously threatening and holy dimension of the moment. As now Paul boldly faces his pain, also Lady Jessica, progressing: “Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing,” becomes calmer – up to the point where in ice-cold and detached manner she utters the last words of the Litany: “Only I will remain,” with Paul victoriously holding the Reverend Mother’s stare.

The sacrifice to become who we are

In Fight Club, the test seems to be a conversation between Tyler and Jack. As before mentioned, Jack’s test is situated within Tyler’s narration about human sacrifices and heroes who led to the discovery of soap. But during the test, the conversation between Jack and Tyler is about the pain in Jack’s hand. While Jack tries to escape the pain, Tyler tries to persuade Jack to stay with the pain by explaining that the pain of the “heroes” who were sacrificed to discover soap is the pain of progress, which now Jack is experiencing in his own hand: “Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing.” While Jack tries to escape into his “cave” to find his power animal, Tyler seems to be able to read his mind and knows exactly what Jack is trying to do, urging him to stay with the pain. But even after Tyler shuts off Jack’s escaping strategies, Jack tries to talk his way out of it by verbally agreeing with Tyler, which the latter dismisses as “premature enlightment”.

If we now lift the Veil of Maya again, dissolving the illusion that Jack and Tyler were different persons, we see that Jack is arguing with himself. On one hand (no pun intended), he is inflicting the chemical burn on himself; on the other hand, he tries to escape the self-inflicted pain. But it goes further than this. After he hurt himself with the lye, and his natural instinct urges him to first escape, and then relieve the pain with water (which would only make it worse), there is a further instance in him, telling him to stay with the pain he inflicted upon himself. Staying with the present pain for the sake of a later benefit is the very nature of sacrifice. Hence, we realize that, from an inner perspective, Jack is inflicting pain to himself for the purpose of applying a new behaviour – or, psychologically speaking, activating a new part of himself.

After all, this is what Tyler is all about – he’s the entity that Jack’s subconscious conjured up to help him break out of his stagnant life: “Let us never be complete, let us never be content. I say: evolve, and let the chips fall where they may.” He doesn’t know yet what’s to become out of him, but he knows that he needs to change. He needs to give up his ego to develop into his higher self.

Becoming: Kwisatz Haderach and Tyler Durden

We need to investigate into the parts of Jack’s initiation ritual that we do not understand. While it initially seems clear why Tyler talks about sacrifice and pain, it is less clear why he suddenly starts talking about his father and God: “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?” Tyler seems to guide Jack to the insight that God doesn’t love him. Now, what’s that got to do with everything?

Or maybe it’s the other way around: everything Tyler is saying about pain and sacrifice is actually pointing to Jack’s insight of giving up the belief that God loves him. Accepting that God doesn’t love him is the sacrifice Tyler wants Jack to make.

But what does that mean, exactly?

“The Father” represents, symbolically speaking, civilization. Thus, Tyler urging Jack to accept that his father/God does doesn’t like him equals to accepting being rejected by civilization: “If your father rejects you it’s as if the spirit of civilization has left you outside the walls as of little worth,” explains psychologist Jordan Peterson in one of his lectures. And, coherently enough, Tyler goes on saying: “We are God’s unwanted children? So be it!” Tyler’s reaction to feeling rejected by his father/civilization is, so to speak, an extreme form of acceptance: accepting the rejection and, therefore, rejecting what he feels rejected by.

The sacrifice Tyler wants Jack to make is to give up on God’s/society’s acceptance. “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” And this means essentially giving up the societal value structure, by which adherence the individual is accepted in a society. Losing everything to be free to do anything, therefore, means giving up a given value structure to create a new one, a personal one.

Transforming into the Ancestral Father

This is exactly what Nietzsche has been talking about in terms of his concept of “Übermensch”. It is not of little importance to stress how this term has been misunderstood and falsely translated since Nietzsche brought it up (especially during Nazi-Germany). In the German language, “über” can mean “above”, as in Latin: “super” – which is where the “Superman” comes from, the “overman”. But that is not what Nietzsche intended. “Über”, the way Nietzsche uses the word, actually means “beyond”, as in Latin “trans”. So the “Übermensch” is essentially the human being that transcends himself and the given moral value structure he’s living in. This is also what Nietzsche meant when he said (another greatly misunderstood expression of his): “God is dead.”

In “The Gay Science”, Nietzsche says: “Is not the size of this deed too great for us? Don’t we have to become Gods ourselves, to only seem worthy of it?” Having killed God leaves an empty space, an existential vacuum that needs to be refilled. And so, Nietzsche argues, it is us, who killed God, who need to refill this vacuum we created.

Correspondingly, Tyler wants Jack to sacrifice his old value structure, his own “father”, to be free and… be a father himself. This equals to “saving the father from the belly of the whale”, as Jordan Peterson points out, using an image from the Italian fairy tale Pinocchio. After Pinocchio had spent some time on the Island of Pleasures and, consequently, turned into a jackass, he managed to save himself and returns to his father’s home. But when he arrives, he discovers that his father, Geppetto, is not there. So he goes out seeking for him. And this means, symbolically, that Pinocchio’s problems will not be solved at his father’s house. It means that he needs to develop a higher consciousness, a higher state of being to solve his problem. Just like Nietzsche explains that after having killed God we need to become Gods ourselves, Jack needs to give up the current societal value structure to create a new one on his own. And in all 3 cases it is the darkest deed that necessitates the individual to do so: for Nietzsche it is God’s death, for Pinocchio it means to save his father from the belly of the whale, for Paul to confront his own mortality – while Tyler also needs to confront his own mortality, but also to “lose everything to be free to do anything”.

Being “God’s unwanted children” is the pathological dimension of Fight Club. Dune does not have that. Quite the opposite, Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, loves his son. This fatherly love is beautifully portrayed in the scene where Paul, afraid of not being able to fulfil his father’s expectations, asks him:

“What if I’m not the future of House Atreides?”

“Then you will be everything I ever needed you to be. My son.”

This is no accident. House Atreides is depicted as the virtuous noble house par excellence. Their credo is: “There is no call we do not answer, there is no faith that we betray.” House Atreides is the representation of the King-archetype, which entails virtues like truthfulness, integrity, nobility, duty, courage, and honor. We see its counterpart in Game of Thrones’ Eddard Stark, who is equally a paragon of virtue exactly like Duke Leto Atreides. Just like Leto’s virtuousness leads to his doom, since it raises the emperor’s jealousy, so also Eddard Stark’s virtuousness leads to his own tragic fate.

But there is a little twist in the story of Paul Atreides. For Paul to rise to power and fulfil the prophecy he needed first the betrayal of House Atreides to happen – in which course the Duke, Paul’s father, dies. So also Paul Atreides needed to sacrifice his father to ascend the Golden Lion Throne and become the emperor of the known universe. Yet, it wasn’t Paul who sacrificed him, but the order of the Bene Gesserit, who were silently complicit in Leto Atreides’ death. Still, it is Paul’s task to rescue his father from the belly of the whale, or restore House Atreides after coming close to extinction.

Becoming: the Kwisatz Haderach and Tyler Durden

As we can see, the similarities between both scenes are not only external, but substantially intrinsic. Both protagonists, Paul Atreides and Jack, share the same test. They both are to endure pain in their right hand to confront themselves with their own mortality. For both heroes the test is an initiation rite that opens the door into developing their higher selves.

The original Dune-novel was published in 1965 and is a canon of modern science fiction literature. It has had a great impact on many authors and filmmakers like George Lucas, James Cameron and Joe M. Straczynski, inspiring them to adopt plots, scenes and characters for their own stories. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club manages to transform Dune’s Gom Jabbar-scene in an original way that is coherent with its whole story. Seeing how substantial the implications on the Chemical Burn-scene are for the rest of the plot, it is highly likely that it was the spark to ignite Palahniuk’s idea for the novel. It is always inspiring to see how great art advances not through falsification, but through progressive imitation. Seeing what Denis Villeneuve managed to realize with his new Dune-adaptation, we can be truly excited to see its impact unfold on the future of cinema.

2 thoughts on “The burning hand in Dune’s “Gom Jabbar”- and in Fight Club’s “Chemical Burn”-scene

  1. Very interesting parallels. Tyler also urges Jack to “Let go!” while in a moving vehicle (much like the vision of Jamis and voices advise Paul to let go while in the ornithopter).

    1. Hello Mimi,

      that is a great parallel you’re pointing out. As I haven’t read the Dune novels (yet), I don’t know what exactly the voice talking to Paul is. But it seems like both Tyler and the voice talking to Paul are calling them to fulfill their higher selves.

      What do you think?

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