In Frank Herbert’s Dune universe, the Gom Jabbar was a standard-issue aristocrat-on-aristocrat assassination device. The weapon consisted of a poisoned needle attached to a thimble-like housing that rested on one’s fingertip, easy enough to flick into a person’s neck should you want to alter the power structure of the great houses.
The Bene Gesserit, a powerful order of women with great political influence and extra-human capabilities, adapted the Gom Jabbar for a different purpose. They used the device to test the humanity of an individual—to find out, by their standards, whether you were advanced being or ruled by animal instincts.
If given the Gom Jabbar test, the Reverend Mother (sort of a Bene Gesserit big shot) would have you place your hand inside a pain box with a single opening. She would then place the Gom Jabbar needle against the skin of your neck—without piercing—so you would know it was there.
Having no foreknowledge of the box’s capabilities, you would feel the sensation of increasing heat. This would elevate incrementally to full-on furnace-level burning. Flesh scorching right off the bones (if you lasted that long). The pain was achieved by nerve induction—no actual heat involved and no damage to your hand—but you wouldn’t know this at the time.
If you pulled your hand from the box before she gave you permission, she killed you with the Gom Jabbar. The test was simple—would the human in you be capable of overruling your animal instinct for pain avoidance? Could your capacity for reason—which understood the consequences of failure—dominate your physical needs?
Hell of a test. I guess it replaces the SATs sometime between now and the year 10,191.
When Dune landed in my life sometime around late middle school, the Gom Jabbar test captivated captivated me instantly. It is the very first scene of the novel, and I had great fun speculating on how I would fare against the challenge. In reality, I think I’d be dead before the box got to easy-bake-oven temperature, but my optimistic younger self was sure I’d be “human” enough to pass.
Dune has remained a favorite—THE favorite, I’d say—but it wasn’t until my 30s that I began to see the Gom Jabbar test popping up in my own life. I take a version of it over and over again, every single day. Sometimes I pass, but failure is far more common.
Food is my number one Gom Jabbar, the ever-present poisoned needle at my neck. It has always been a pleasure—no less so now—but when I hit my 30s, it gained a sinister, self-destructive edge. Even as an adult, I have the palate of a ten-year-old, forever craving simple sugary goop and pizzas and all things fried. Healthy, this is not.
Yesterday in the grocery store, I passed a display of half-price key lime pies. Stared at them for a solid two minutes. My hand was in the box, the heat rising, the needle against my skin.
I don’t even like pie that much. Absolutely nothing in my rational mind wanted one of them—quite the opposite.
Bought one anyway.
My number two Gom Jabbar is distraction via smartphone. We all know the research. Giving up the present moment for a hit of dopamine-inducing novel information, no matter how inconsequential, hurts us.
But I do it. Not always—I go through periods of human-like resistance—but the phone (so far) always wins.
I take these two Gom Jabbar tests voluntarily many times each day, every day, every week, every year. And those are just the big ones…
I should clarify that I don’t find value in Herbert’s Gom Jabbar test in any literal sense. They call it science fiction for a reason. But the idea gives context to a question I never stop asking myself. How much of my behavior derives from human reason and how much from uncontrollable animal instinct?
By now, you will have thought but Walker, humans ARE animals. You’re right. Fortunately, we can be both, sometimes existing on a higher plane and sometimes ruled by animal instincts, without anyone judging us too harshly.
And yet…I think it would be wonderful to have the mysterious representative of a powerful intergalactic order show up and place a “meta-cyanide” needle against my neck every time I was about to scarf down an entire pizza.
Reverend Mother: The test is simple, young (old) McKnight. This Gom Jabbar kills only animals.
Walker: You suggest I am an animal?
Reverend Mother: Let us say I suggest you may be human. If you eat all of this large pepperoni-mushrooms-black olives pizza tonight, you die. Eat only a sensible amount, and you live.
Walker: What’s a sensible amount?
Reverend Mother: Three slices.
Walker: Three? Are you kidding?
Reverend Mother: Silence!
So what’s your Gom Jabbar test? Or tests? Most of us lucky enough to live in societies of plenty—and to experience the easy access to food and technology contained therein—have similar ones. In this sense, these daily Gom Jabbars are a blessing. I am well aware that such battles are their own form of privilege.
I suspect you are tested with the same food and smartphone Gom Jabbars like I am (hopefully to a lesser degree). I’m lucky to have been spared the alcohol one, though I don’t think serious chemical addictions qualify for this sci-fi willpower-related discussion.
Any strange Gom Jabbars you want to share? Do you feel the compulsion to cuddle feral cats even though your “human” capacity for reason knows the consequences? Have you developed a taste for strange mushrooms plucked straight from the forest floor? Do you love the taste of honey, but only if scooped from the live honeycomb with your bare hands?
I will leave you with this: in all your battles with bad habits, compulsive temptations, and passive self-destruction, may you be forever judged human.
*I am old, so when choosing pictures, I went for Lynch’s much-maligned 80s film adaptation and his bald (for some reason) Reverend Mothers. Consider it tongue-in-cheek. David Villeneuve is now helming a new film adaptation of Dune, so maybe I’ll update this when that appears.