The Strangely Distorted and Weirdly Elongated World of James Bond
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 Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh from office in Iran. Within a few years, the U.S. government would begin sending U-2 spy planes on reconnaissance missions over Moscow, to which the Russians would respond by imprisoning the planet within the orbit of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik.
Thus, in the world where Fleming’s famous character was born, everyone was busy looking over everyone else’s shoulders. Indeed, Bond is essentially an extension of the human eye, 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 to rebuild Europe, then Fleming’s response to the Berlin Wall was James Bond, a man who specializes in boring through walls.
As communications theorist Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, the job of the artist is to make invisible environments visible – to retrieve environments that have sunken below the threshold of perception because of their very omnipresence. 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, Bond checks into a hotel room, and the first thing he does is scan the room for signs of electronic surveillance, peering behind lampshades or looking underneath telephones or inside of closets.
Before the Cold War, such behavior would have been proof of a man’s insanity, but within the environment structured by new surveillance technologies, what would previously have been regarded as mental illness was now indicative of the highest mental alertness. Bond, like Richard 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 planet has come under surveillance with lightspeed technologies, this nervous anxiety is stepped up to a level of intensity bordering on the hysterical. It’s no wonder that gunshots, car chases and explosions compose the fabric of Bond’s life, for his consciousness is perpetually flooded with adrenalin and lodged into a permanent state of fight or flight. Hence, his need for constant sexual gratification is almost his only means of discharging excess nervous energy.
Of course, no one could ever actually live the way James Bond does, for he or she would collapse into insanity and nervous exhaustion, like the protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, based on 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: that human beings shape history, not impersonal institutions and bureaucracies.
There can be no doubt that Bond is a two-dimensional figure. He is a hero of our electronic society who moves so quickly through the system that, like an object approaching light speed, he collapses into two-dimensionality.
But then the world in which Bond lives and breathes is not the one you and I inhabit. His world is a resonant, echoing cavern populated by mythological beings disguised as spies, counterspies and assassins. 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 vanish into a dimension in which Time as we know it does not exist, but always is, and never was.
Consider, for instance, the fact that there are never any children in Bond movies, or, with few exceptions, any elderly people (the exceptions are M, his boss; and Q, his weapons specialist). They are the tribal elders whose presence is required, in order to direct Bond’s violence into rational channels. Try as he or she will, the viewer will be lucky indeed to spot the presence of a child in a James Bond film.
In the Bond universe, Time is the enemy. There are no children and there are no old people because the Bond world is not one that admits of the presence of Becoming.
The typical Bond villain is the one consistent exception to the rule that there are no old people. Old age is the villain, and in defeating crippled old men and women time and again, Bond is eliminating Father Time.
There are also no unattractive women in the Bond universe, because to admit the presence of an unattractive woman would be an affront to the realm of Eternal Forms in which Bond lives and breathes.
The Greek philosopher, 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.
Actors who have played Bond most successfully have 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 manikin’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).
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 narratives depend for their existence upon writing. 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 the Jesuit pries and PhD, 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.
The Bond universe, with 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,” yet too “literate” to be truly a product of an oral mentality. Instead, these narratives lie somewhere in between.
The comic book superhero functions like an immune cell designed to protect the modern atheistic metropolis from incursions out of the world of myth and symbol. 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. Bond is, in fact, the first global superhero of popular literature. Any given Bond narrative 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 the entire world for his stage, and so he is intimately linked with the global order brought into being during the Cold War.
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. On the contrary, Bond is himself an antigen working like a virus to attach himself to the cell wall of this or that system in order to disrupt its functioning from within, exactly like a virus does to the cell 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 villain’s stronghold. In Dr. No, for instance, along with his female sidekick, he passes over a threshold into No’s fortress where he soon brings the place down with the usual fire and destruction.
In Casino Royale, he 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 entered inside Le Chiffre’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, where he tortures him almost to death.
Bond, then, is a capitalist virus blown about the globe searching for warm enemy bodies to infect In 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 West’s attempts to launch rockets into space.
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 of You Only Live Twice is marred by a terrible gash; Hugo Drax, the one-eyed villain of Fleming’s novel Moonraker; Scaramanga, the man with three nipples who is the villain of The Man With the Golden Gun; the asthmatic Le Chiffre in Casino Royale; or the weak heart of Mr. Big in Fleming’s novel Live and Let Die 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 the rakshasas 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.
And that world order is the global stage upon which the Bond dramas are played out. The Bond universe of villains is a world of ancient mythic beings disguised as Cold War undesirables who have hijacked new technologies, which they wish to put to ill uses. Bond’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, do not get the upper hand.
And who can say that Bond has really been very successful?
John David Ebert is the author of “Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons: Film as the Mythology of Electronic Society” (Cybereditions, 2005) and “Twilight of the Clockwork God: Conversations on Science & Spirituality at the End of an Age” (Council Oak Books, 1999). He has published numerous articles, essays and interviews in such periodicals as Parabola, Utne Reader, The Antioch Review, Lapis, Alexandria and so forth. He is at work searching for a publisher for his forthcoming “Death and Fame at the Speed of Light: Mythologies of the Electric Media Superstar From Elvis Presley to Princess Diana.” He also shares the website, Cinema Discourse, with John Lobell, which reviews primarily “visionary” movies, i.e. those inspired in some way by mythology. He also has some cool videos on You Tube