The Strangely Distorted, and Weirdly Elongated World of James Bond (Unabridged Version)
By John David EbertÂ
The first James Bond novel, Ian Flemingâ€™sÂ Casino Royale, appeared in 1953, just as the Korean War was coming to an end and the C.I.A. was planning the removal of Mossadegh from office in Iran. Within a few years, the U.S. government would begin sending U-2 spyplanes on reconnaissance missions over Moscow, to which the Russians would respond by imprisoning the entire planet within the orbit of the worldâ€™s first satellite,Â Sputnik. Thus, in the world into which Flemingâ€™s famous character was born, everyone was busy looking over everyone elseâ€™s shoulders. Indeed, Bond himself is essentially an extension of the human eyeball, cut loose from the body and sent roving across the planet to peer through walls and behind closed doors. If the Berlin Wall was Russiaâ€™s response to the Marshall Plan, then the Westâ€™s response to the Berlin Wall was James Bond, a man who specializes in boring through walls.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The job of the artist, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, is to make invisible environments visible â€“ that is, to retrieve environments that have sunken below the threshold of perception because of their very omnipresence â€“ and this is certainly true of the James Bond mythos, which cast an X-ray upon the paranoid environment created by the global surveillance technologies of the Cold War. In the early Sean Connery films, we often see Bond checking into a hotel room, and the first thing he does is to scan the room for signs of electronic surveillance, peering behind lampshades or looking underneath telephones or inside of closets. Prior to the Cold War, such behavior would have been proof of a manâ€™s insanity, butÂ withinÂ the environment structured by the new surveillance technologies, what would previously have been regarded as mental illness is now indicative of the highest mental alertness. Thus Bond, like Nixon after him, is a paranoid, and his behavior anticipates in fiction what will become a reality under the Nixon administration, in which wire-tapping, burglaries, and the Xeroxing of classified documents becomeÂ de rigeurÂ components of government.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Of course, there have always been spies, and so governments have always been paranoid to a degree, but in a world in which theÂ entire planetÂ has come under surveillance with lightspeed technologies, this nervous anxiety is stepped up to a level of intensity bordering on the hysterical. So it is no wonder that gunshots, car chases and explosions compose the fabric of Bondâ€™s everyday life, for his consciousness is perpetually flooded with adrenalin and therefore lodged into a permanent fight or flight modality. Hence, his need for constant sexual gratification is almost his only means of discharging such excess nervous energy.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â But of course, no one could ever actuallyÂ liveÂ the way James Bond does, for he would soon enough collapse into insanity and nervous exhaustion, like the protagonist of Steven Spielbergâ€™sÂ Munich,Â based upon a real life spy story. The Bond mythos, however, is not a portrait study, but rather a caricature drawn large enough to make a point. And the point, it seems to me, is that it isÂ human beingsÂ who shape history, not impersonal institutions and bureaucracies. According to the ancient canon of aesthetics which prevailed up until the discovery of perspectival space in the Renaissance, the largest figures upon a canvas â€“ like the Virgin Mary or Christ â€“ were indicative of those with the most importance attached to them. What is less important â€“ in Medieval art, such things as landscapes and buildings, items which will become the very center of revelation during the later perspectival epoch — is sloughed off as so much background noise. Thus, with James Bond, the development that began in Renaissance art with Bruegel the Elderâ€™s â€œProcession to Calvaryâ€ (1564) — in which three-dimensional visual space has so enveloped the field of awareness that it has swallowed up Christ to the point where he has vanished amongst the crowd and can barely be discerned — has been entirely reversed, for if the Bond character looms so impossibly large, it is because he has stepped outside the containing walls of real, three dimensional space, and into the strangely distorted and weirdly elongated world of the light speed hero.
That Bond is a two-dimensional figure, there can be no doubt. He is one of those lightspeed heroes of our electronic society who are moving so quickly through the system that they have collapsed, like an object approaching light speed, into two-dimensionality. Bond is as flat as a credit card.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â But then the world in which Bond lives and breathes is not the one which you and I inhabit. His world is a resonant, echoing cavern populated by mythological beings disguised as spies, counterspies and assassins. For at lightspeed, the world collapses into the two-dimensionality of mythic archetypes and masked, tribal heroes.Â Â These beings are two-dimensional because their masks have the effect of absorbing the 3D personality of the real human individual. When our children dress up for Halloween, they are instantly vanishing into the ghostly world of tribal man, for their costumes depersonalize them as they disappear into another, flatter dimension. A dimension in which Time as we know it does not exist, but alwaysis, and neverÂ was.
Consider, for instance, the fact that in James Bond movies, there are never any children or, with few exceptions, any elderly people (the exceptions are M, his boss, and Q, his weapons specialist, but these are the tribal elders whose presence, in order to direct Bondâ€™s violence into rational channels, is required). Try as he will, the viewer will be lucky indeed to spot the presence of a child in a James Bond film. Oh, theyâ€™re there, of course, in some of the background shots. But the fact that one must squint to see them proves my point. And the point is that in the Bond universe, Time is the enemy, just as it was for Plato. There are no children and there are no old people because the Bond world is not one that admits of the presence of Becoming.
Take the typical Bond villain. This is the one consistent exception to the rule that there are no old people, because almost without exception, the Bond villain is an old —Â Â or at least, late middle-aged â€“ man. Old Age, in other words, is the villain in the Bond films, and in defeating crippled old men time and again, Bond is eliminating Father Time from his world. This is also why there are no unattractive women in the Bond universe, because to admit the presence of an ugly woman would be an affront to the realm of Eternal Forms in which Bond lives and breathes. Only beauties are allowed because beautiful women areÂ youngÂ women. Old Age is thus denied once again, along with the imperfections of ugliness. Plato was quite intolerant of imperfections in his ideal realm of the Forms, which he identified with the heavens, while the earth, as in the Christian cosmos, was fallen and corrupt. The Bond films, then, occupy the same universe as that of Platoâ€™s Forms and so in the film version ofÂ MoonrakerÂ we are not surprised to see Bond finally ascend into outer space, for the heavens constitute the Platonistâ€™s ultimate goal.
The world of James Bond is also, to a certain extent, a retrieval of the orally transmitted world of tribal man, in which the hero never dies or, if he does, like Lemminkainen in theKalevalaÂ or the title character of theÂ Mwindo Epic, always returns, like a television show, for next weekâ€™s installment. For the world of tribal man occupies an acoustically resonant space in which the principle of mnemonic repetition takes the place of the written storage of knowledge. Knowledge that does not have a basis for its existence in writing must be stored in the memory through the accentuation of repetitive factors. Hence, the narratives of tribal epics likeÂ Sundiata: an Epic of Old MaliÂ or theÂ Mwindo EpicÂ do not have much in the way of a story line, but are composed of episodic repetitions of events with slight variations. Mwindoâ€™s fight with his father Shemwindo, for instance, is reduplicated in the episode of his fight with Mukiti, the serpent man, and then again later on in the underworld, with Muisa, the god of the dead, and once again at the end with Dragon. Each episode is but a variation on itself, with Mwindo always emerging triumphant. And inÂ Sundiata, the characters are strongly polarized, as they tend to be in the Bond sagas, for one is either on the side of Sundiata — who is attempting to win back his kingdom of Mali — or on the side of his evil magician nemesis Soumarou, who has the disquieting ability to appear and disappear upon the field of battle. There is no in between.
These are some of the many characteristics which the post-literate world of the lightspeed â€“ and hence, electric — hero shares in common with the pre-literate world of tribal man. Acceleration of narrative forms to lightspeed has the paradoxical effect of reversing their protagonists back into mythic, tribal beings with mask-like characteristics. This explains why the actors who have played Bond most successfully are the ones with faces that closely resemble masks: Sean Conneryâ€™s face is capable of only one or two expressions at most; Roger Mooreâ€™s twinkling eyes shine out from behind an otherwise rigid, featureless visage; Pierce Brosnanâ€™s face resembles that of a department store mannikinâ€™s; and Daniel Craigâ€™s chiseled granite features inÂ Casino RoyaleÂ are perhaps the most mask-like of them all. (An actor like Harrison Ford, by contrast, could never have played Bond convincingly, for his face is far too animated with wry grimaces, sarcastic expressions and bemusement). The epithets, furthermore, that are typically assigned to the characters of tribal epics (â€œclever Odysseusâ€; â€œwise Nestorâ€; or Mwindoâ€™s â€œLittle One Just Born He Walkedâ€) as stock formulae of oral mnemonics find their echo in Bondâ€™s characteristic â€œshaken, not stirred,â€ or his self identification as â€œBond. James Bond.â€
However, that the Bond stories share these characteristics with the narratives of pre-literate thought does not mean that they are simply a reversion to oral tradition, for there is a difference between the post-literate mentality of our electronic â€œoralityâ€ and the pre-literate mentality of oral cultures in that post-literate narratives depend for their existence upon writing and bear the traces of its existence within them. They are, for one thing, generally tightly plotted, which is a characteristic not normally found in oral narratives with their rambling, meandering episodes that may or may not add up to what literates would regard as a good story. The first tightly plotted narratives, as Walter Ong has shown, were the product of the Greek theater, and these were narratives controlled by writing, the first such verbal narratives to have their origin in a society that was becoming literate (130). A Westerner who attempts to wade through the many volumes of an orally based Hindu epic like theÂ MahabharataÂ or theÂ RamayanaÂ is in for a surprise, since the Hindus, as a traditionally oral culture, take so many narrative detours from the plots of these epics that it requires them multiple volumes to ever get around to actually telling the main story. Westerners become frustrated with this sort of oral A.D.D. very quickly and so tend to put the volumes aside after only the first one or two of them.
The Bond universe, with all its weird properties of temporal negation and spatial distortion, is the product of a complex culture in which writing, orality and electronics have all been superimposed upon one another to create narrative forms that are too distinctly oral to be labeled â€œliterate,â€ but yet too â€œliterateâ€ to be truly a product of an oral mentality. Instead, these narratives lie somewhere in between.
That the Bond universe is an essentially acoustic world governed by the principles of reverberation and resonance is also confirmed by a study of the morphology of the typical Bond narrative. After reading a number of the Ian Fleming novels, or watching a handful of the movies, it becomes rather easy to see that they are almost invariably rehearsals of the same pattern reiterated tirelessly with formulaic repetition from film to film (or novel to novel, as the case may be). And what is this basic morphology?
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â With few variations, the pattern typically manifests itself in the following way:
a)Â Â Â Â Â After an action-filled prologue, Bond is summoned to a meeting with an irritable M, who is always on the verge of firing him, but decides to send him on a mission anyway (in the later Bond movies with Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, this scene begins to drift further on into the film, usually after the first half hour or so);
b)Â Â Â Â Bond sets out on the mission, and almost immediately ends up in a mano a mano fight with an eccentric henchman;
c)Â Â Â Â Â At some point within the filmâ€™s first third, he meets his female sidekick (sometimes his nemesis), who usually has a silly name (â€œPussy Galore,â€ â€œSolitaire,â€ â€œGood Night,â€ â€œOnnatop;â€ etc.) and with whom he is destined to sleep, but not to commit emotionally, for to commit emotionally to a woman would be a concession to the real 3D world in which the soul falls and becomes caught in the antagonistic pleasure of erotic entanglements;
d)Â Â Â Â Bond soon encounters the villain, who is almost alwaysÂ an old manÂ who has designed some kind of a mechanical or electronicÂ systemÂ with which he intends to subvert world order;
e)Â Â Â Â Â This evil old man usually has a colorful sidekick / henchman: a dwarf (The Man With the Golden Gun); a giant with steel jaws (The Spy Who Loved Me); a hat-throwing assassin (Goldfinger); a tall, black Amazonian woman (A View to a Kill) etc. This henchman is Bondâ€™s primary nemesis throughout the course of each particular film;
f)Â Â Â Â Â The narrative concludes with a showdown at the evil old manâ€™s Fortress of Solitude, which is invariably located in some remote, bizarre, or out of the way place, such as in an extinct volcano (You Only Live Twice); on a remote island (Dr. NoÂ andÂ The Man With the Golden Gun); in the middle of the ocean (The Spy Who Loved Me); at the top of a mountain (On Her Majestyâ€™s Secret ServiceÂ andÂ For Your Eyes Only); in the jungles of Cuba (Goldeneye); etc. (The Living DaylightsÂ is notable for containing only a vestigial echo of this sequence in the rather brief scene which occursÂ afterÂ the filmâ€™s climax, in which Bond fights with the arms dealer named Whitaker inside of his private mansion).
g)Â Â Â Â Â During this final showdown, Bondâ€™s female sidekick is taken captive, or else has already been taken captive earlier in the narrative, and now Bond must rescue her;
h)Â Â Â Â The Fortress of Solitude is destroyed, usually by explosions, and the evil old man killed;
i)Â Â Â Â Â Â In the filmâ€™s coda, Bond ends up making love with his female sidekick, which is the last we ever see of her because she never returns in any of the sequels.
Now, the mystery here is why, after over forty-five years of watching the same film with the same basic storyline, audiences areÂ stillÂ willing to pay to see the latest James Bond film (as of this writing, the most recent entry was theÂ veryÂ successfulÂ Casino Royale). This is surely unique in the annals of film history, for there is no other example of a single character who becomes the protagonist of a movie every other year for over four decades. This means that there is a psychological significance to the Bond Formula, since everyone who goes to see a James Bond film knowsÂ exactlyÂ what theyâ€™re going to get, and yet they still go anyway.
Now, myth is an inherently conserving force. It acts within the psyche as a kind of crystal which keeps its form while weathering change. Within the field of culture as a whole, the function of myth is to stabilize a society against the disintegrative effects that are wreaked upon it by technological transformations (at least, that is its functionÂ nowadays). And to watch all twenty Bond films in chronological order is to review a catalogue of the unfolding of technological inventions over the latter half of the twentieth century. But as the new machines keep coming, Bond just takes them up into his metabolism and assimilates them through the pure act of mythic repetition. That is to say, the very repetition of hisÂ actionsÂ while the technological environment around him is constantly changing is the whole appeal of the Bond films (albeit unconsciously) to the audiences that keep going back for more. The Bond films provide the public with an example of the constancy and stability of a mythic structure that is capable of withstanding the disruptive effects of the impact of new technologies. While the outer world around Bond changes, Bond himself does not.
The message, then, to the viewer is: you must not let yourself be intimidated by these gadgets, for they cannot affect the essential stability of your humanity. So the public keeps going to see these films because they are curious about how good old Bond â€“ his age kept perpetually the same by casting him anew every decade or so — will respond toÂ thisÂ yearâ€™s gadgets.
The Bond stories, as I have said, are all about how the human individual â€“ greatly magnified to emphasize his importance (witness the opening fight sequence ofÂ Casino Royale, in which a backdrop of huge construction machinery is somehow dwarfed by the intensity of the man to man combat) retains his humanity in a world in which that very humanity is constantly threatened by the Machine. Bond willÂ notÂ capitulate to the Machine: this is the point of his confrontation with the old man villain who has mastered some technological system with which he threatens the world.
Instead, he has metabolized the Machine, for in the films, he literally absorbs machinery into his body. Time after time, we witness his escape from one tight squeeze after the next due to some tiny gadget or device which seems to emerge spontaneously from his very anatomy: in the heel of a boot, he finds some electronic component, or his watch contains a laser, or an innocuous pen is used as a bomb, etc. Bond, then, is a mythic being who has made the Machine serveÂ himÂ and not the other way around. He uses machines as extensions of his own anatomy and does not allow them to interfere with the functioning of his personality â€“ such as it is.
Bond isÂ largerÂ than the Megamachine.
In my bookÂ Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons, I pointed out that the comicbook superhero functions like an immune cell designed to protect the modern atheistic metropolis from incursions out of the world of myth and symbol (Ebert 147-48). The noir hero, likewise, from Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade protects a particular metropolis from attacks by mythical beings. With James Bond, however, we are not dealing with any sort of immune system at all, for Bond, unlike those other heroes, is not tied to any specific city, not even London, despite his working for the British Secret Service. For Bond is, in fact,Â the first global superhero of popular literature. Any given Bond narrative, that is to say, can be set now in Japan, now in Germany or India, Hong Kong or Las Vegas. He is thus the first pop hero to presuppose theÂ entire worldÂ for his stage, and so he is intimately linked with the global order brought into being during the Cold War.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The character of James Bond, then, is no immune cell defending one country against another, or a single city from the attacks of mythic beings, for on the contrary,Â Bond is himself an antigenÂ working like a virus to attach himself to the cell wall of this or that system in order to disrupt its functioningÂ from within, exactly like a virus does to the cell that it destroys. Bond is forever puncturing the cell walls of enemy systems and causing them to become sick or ill. In the climax of one narrative after the next, we see him penetrating the interior of the villainâ€™s stronghold: inÂ Dr. No, for instance, — the first of the movies (1962) — he passes, together with his female sidekick, over a threshold into Noâ€™s fortress where he soon brings the place down with the usual fire and destruction. In Flemingâ€™s novelÂ Casino Royale, Bond is given the assignment of humiliating the KGB operative Le Chiffre at a game of cards inside a Monte Carlo-like resort. He enters into this resort and, after beating the asthmatic Le Chiffre at cards, causes him to sweat, as though he had actually enteredÂ insideÂ Le Chiffreâ€™s body and given him a fever. But Le Chiffre, in an allergic reaction, as it were, expels Bond from his body and has him taken captive, bound and gagged, to his mansion where he tortures him almost to death. At the climax of the movieÂ For Your Eyes Only, we witness Bond scaling the precipitous cliff wall of a monastery within which the villain has taken up residence, and into which Bond enters and destroys the fortress with explosives.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Bond, then, is a capitalist virus blown about the globe, sent searching for warm enemy bodies to infect. And the villains within whose bodies he finds himself lodged, moreover, are often beings and characters out of ancient myth. InÂ Dr. No, for instance, we are presented with a villain who has a pair of mechanical hands and whose goal is the creation of a special type of radioactive device which will disrupt electronic operations, specifically, the Westâ€™s attempts to launch rockets into space. In Hindu mythology, likewise, theÂ asurasÂ andÂ rakshasasÂ are forever attempting to sabotage the priestly performance of the fire sacrifice that enables theÂ brahminsÂ to ascend into the heavens and commune with the gods. Indeed, the description of the demon king Ravana that we find in theÂ RamayanaÂ could apply just as well to Dr. No: â€œA breaker of laws he would violate the wives of other men, and use any unearthly weapon to obstruct the sacrificeâ€ (Valmiki 191).Â Â In theÂ Shatapatha Brahmana, we find theÂ asurasÂ attempting to build their own ladder to heaven by creating a duplicate copy of a fire altar, piling brick upon brick up toward the sky, but the god Indra disrupts this activity by pulling out the central brick and causing the whole thing to collapse.Â Â Indraâ€™s role here is essentially the same as Bondâ€™s vis a vis the villains that he fights, for he, too, is a monster slayer like Rama or Thor or Zeus, who has traded in his thunderbolt for a Walther PPK (Q, the man who supplies him with all his weapons, corresponds to the blacksmith divinity who normally creates the dragon slayerâ€™s thunderbolts and tridents: thus Koshar wa Hasis, who makes the thunderbolts for Baal in Canaanite myth; or the Kyklopes who manufacture Zeusâ€™s thunderbolts during his war against the Titans; or the smith god Tvastr who makes Indraâ€™sÂ vajraÂ for him).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â In the Sean Connery film,Â You Only Live Twice, the terrorist organization known as SPECTRE is busy launching rockets from a dormant volcano in Japan and using them to kidnap both Russian and American satellites from orbit. SPECTREâ€™s resentment of the reigning world powers here parallels that of the Titans in Hesiodâ€™sÂ Theogony, in which the Titans are the resentful earth children sent by Mother Gaia to block Zeus from ascending to the top of Mount Olympus in order to consolidate his rule.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â And, as is typical of so many pop culture narratives, the villains in the Bond stories often exhibit deformities which mark them unmistakably as members of the underworld powers: the mechanical hands, already mentioned, of Dr. No; Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE, whose face in the celluloid version ofÂ You Only Live TwiceÂ is marred by a terrible gash; Hugo Drax, the one-eyed villain of Flemingâ€™s novelÂ Moonraker; Scaramanga, the man with three nipples who is the villain ofÂ The Man With the Golden Gun; the asthmatic Le Chiffre inÂ Casino Royale; or the weak heart of Mr. Big in Flemingâ€™s novelÂ Live and Let DieÂ which causes his black skin to take on a gray pallor. Such villains are close analogues of the Titans of Greek myth, or the Fomorii of Irish legend, or theÂ rakshasasÂ of Hindu theology, all of whom are invariably deformed in some way: one-armed, one-handed, multiple-armed, one-eyed, etc. This marks them as essentially chaotic beings inimical to the smooth functioning of the world order.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â And that world order is the global stage upon which the Bond dramas are played out. Thus, the Bond universe of villains is a world of ancient mythic beings disguised as Cold War undesirables who have hi-jacked new technologies which they wish to put to ill uses. Bondâ€™s job as an ancient dragon-slaying hero recast as a Cold warrior is to make sure that the machines which have turned their users into villains by transforming them into mere servomechanisms do not get the upper hand.
adam a. says
“For Bond is, in fact, the first global superhero of popular literature.”
Really? What about Doc Samson, the Shadow, etc.
Also, having just seen the most recent Bond film, I would be interested in your reading of how it scrambles Bond’s role as a capitalist antigen and seems to be more of exception of the rule of the film’s usual patterns.
Fantastic piece. As an additional question: where would you see the cultural place of recent spy movie franchises such as the Bourne trilogy?
John David Ebert says
I’d have to go back and rewatch the Bourne movies and give the matter some thought. If I ever do that, I’ll let you know what I think.