Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Protestant Playboy

I have a terrible weakness for James Bond books. I have read them all despite the fact that they are all essentially the same. I put it down to nostalgia. The only piece of popular culture that was really celebrated (- allowed actually - if you want to have a clue what my upbringing was like think Victorian Dad in Viz.) in our family was James Bond. It was one of the few areas of consensus in a household otherwise riven with bad tempered intolerance.

As a child I loved James Bond. I waited diligently and obsessively for the rare occasions one of the films would be on TV (in a pre VHS era that basically meant Christmas and possibly Easter, how fabulously austere and pious that sounds now). My elder brother had a James Bond Scaletrix track which I coveted. My Dad had the books which had covers featuring semi-naked women and long projectiles and contained references to breasts. But mostly it was the ritual of sitting down together to watch the films that I recall. The comparative peace that ensued as a result is a large part of my fondness for them. Even now they induce in me a strange beatific calm, a completely reliable form of escapism.

All this despite the fact that I find the worldview of their author fairly unpleasant. The books (much more clearly than the films) reveal Ian Fleming’s mindset and by extension a whole generation similar to him. Like Fleming, the books are compelling and repulsive in roughly equal measure. “Sex, sadism and snobbery”, said Paul Johnson about them famously and as a summation, it’s hard to beat.

Anthony Burgess once wrote a pithy introduction to the novels which dealt with their inescapably 1950’s quality. This lies not simply in the lists of consumer products and fashions, or even in the jet set glamour they offered to ration era Britain, but in a more fundamentally political sense. James Bond is a creature of the 1950’s, the fag end of imperialism and Victorian values. The films place him in the 1960’s and ‘70’s (and beyond) but this is not Bond's era. Crucially he was never cool or hip. He was pre-counter culture, and pre-rock’n’roll. There are hints of this in the films; in Goldfinger he admits tellingly to hating The Beatles.

Bond’s politics and worldview are a hangover from an earlier era. Although he is a pleasure seeker, he is emphatically not a hedonist. Bond’s pleasures are rewards for hard work and the performance of duty. The concept of duty is critical to his character and to the difference between him and the social revolutions that came after. In Goldfinger again, Bond is trailing the eponymous villain across the Swiss alps. A beautiful woman drives by in a soft top sports car. As they do. Bond’s urge to give chase, literally and metaphorically, is checked by his sense of duty. “Discipline, 007, discipline”, he mutters to himself.

In the book, Fleming imagines an entire love affair that could have occurred after Bond caught up with the girl. They would meet, have lunch and drive lazily down through Italy and fall in love. But Bond gives up this little daydream because he has a job to do. Work comes first.

Unfortunately this work involves killing people. Bond is unwaveringly loyal to the enforcement of a particular world order. He is an intensely ideological animal. In Fleming’s pre-war politics unpleasant personal habits and predilections can be brushed aside if one follows one’s duty. Crucially, morality and ethics are not assumed to lie within the private actions of individuals, but in the public adherence to a prevailing ideology.

The enforcement of abstract rules or external codes of behaviour always has the capacity to mask cruelty by removing one from the contingency of one’s actions. It's easy to behave badly in the name of 'doing the right thing'. What is interesting about James Bond and his enduring popularity is the archaic nature of his ideology.

Heroes usually have an element of rebelliousness about them, a certain nobility in their resistance to oppression or evil. Bond has none of this. The villains are cartoon lunatics whose threat is far too ludicrous for us to believe in. No, it is clear what James Bond is really fighting. The only odd thing is the support that he continues to generate. Not least from myself.


Nicolas said...

as a twenty three year old american, i can emphatically say i looked forward to watching bond marathons every thanksgiving and christmas from grade school through high school. most of my film buff friends scoff at my simple interest in bond films (though i admittedly haven’t had a big desire to see the last couple pierce brosnan episodes.) bond has been a bit of a guilty pleasure for me for many of the same reasons you highlighted. it’s amusing how settings change but plots always stay the same.

nic the intern

Charles Holland said...

Thanks Nic the intern. For me they have zero interest as action films, or even as conventional films at all really. It's the repetition and reassuring familiarity almost that makes them, plus the period interest of the either the '60's Sean Connery ones or the '70's Roger Moore ones. Post those two I have to feign interest!

BTW you might enjoy this:

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