The Tribal Cosmology of James Bond
By John David EbertÂ
The first James Bond novel, Ian Fleming’s 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 world’s first satellite, Sputnik. Thus, in the world into which Fleming’s famous character was born, everyone was busy looking over everyone else’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 Russia’s response to the Marshall Plan, then the West’s response to the Berlin Wall was James Bond, a man who specializes in boring through walls.
The job of the artist, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, is to make invisible environments visibleÂ — that is, to retrieve environments that have sunken below the threshold of perception because of their very omnipresenceÂ — 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 man’s insanity, but within 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 become de rigeur components of government.
Of course, there have always been spies, and so governments have always been paranoid to a degree, but in a world in which the entire planet 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 Bond’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.
But of course, no one could ever actually live the way James Bond does, for he would soon enough collapse into insanity and nervous exhaustion, like the protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, 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 is 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 canvasÂ — like the Virgin Mary or ChristÂ — were indicative of those with the most importance attached to them. What isÂ not soÂ importantÂ — 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 Elder’s “Procession to Calvary” (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.
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 always is, and never 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 Bond’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, they’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-agedÂ — 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 are young 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 Plato’s Forms and so in the film version of Moonraker we are not surprised to see Bond finally ascend into outer space, for the heavens constitute the Platonist’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 the Kalevala or the title character of the Mwindo Epic, always returns, like a television show, for next week’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 like Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali or the Mwindo Epic do not have much in the way of a story line, but are composed of episodic repetitions of events with slight variations. Mwindo’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 in 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 lightspeedÂ — 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 Connery’s face is capable of only one or two expressions at most; Roger Moore’s twinkling eyes shine out from behind an otherwise rigid, featureless visage; Pierce Brosnan’s face resembles that of a department store mannikin’s; and Daniel Craig’s chiseled granite features in Casino Royale 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 (“clever Odysseus”; “wise Nestor”; or Mwindo’s “Little One Just Born He Walked”) as stock formulae of oral mnemonics find their echo in Bond’s characteristic “shaken, not stirred,” or his self identification as “Bond. James Bond.”
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 “orality” 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. A Westerner who attempts to wade through the many volumes of an orally based Hindu epic like the Mahabharata or the Ramayana 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 multiple volumes for themÂ 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 “literate,” but yet too “literate” to be truly a product of an oral mentality. Instead, these narratives lie somewhere in between.
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