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"James Bond, the Pyschopath" (LARB)

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Posted 24 January 2014 - 09:02 PM

A piece from the Los Angeles Review of Books. Lousy, untrue title, but the book under review (Spectre, by Laurence Rickels) sounds rather interesting. Here's the first three-quarters of the review (before it get bogged down in shrink-lingo):


In the opening of Ian Fleming’s novel Thunderball (1961), James Bond has a really low opinion of himself: “he was ashamed”; he “despised the face that stared sullenly back at him from the mirror above the wash basin” and he calls himself a “Stupid, ignorant bastard!” all in the breadth of just a few pages. The reason for this self-depreciation is that Bond is bored: “It all came from having nothing to do.”

Both film adaptations of Fleming’s novel begin with a similar sense of boredom. In Thunderball (1965), Bond could easily escape a luxurious château without being seen. However, he engages in the theatrical gestures of throwing tulips on a corpse and waiting in a doorway to be observed by those chasing him in order to make a too-routine mission at least a little bit exciting. Never Say Never Again (1983), a second adaptation of the same story (which came about because one of the co-creators of the original idea sued Fleming and was later granted filming rights), shows Bond completing a routine mission without any such theatricality. The spy breaks into a hacienda and coolly dispatches henchman after henchman. Eventually he finds the woman he is supposed to set free, but as soon as he slits her bonds she stabs him in the stomach. This time Bond has failed to complete his mission: the woman had fallen prey to Stockholm syndrome, and Bond failed to recognize it. No worries, however, as this is just a training exercise, complete with rubber bullets. Consequently Bond is sent to a health clinic to get back into shape, setting off a plot involving a hijacked fighter jet carrying atomic warheads, common to all the versions of the story.

Bond’s problem in Never Say Never Again is that he does not slow down as he did in Thunderball: everything he does is purposeful. If only he had stopped, made a theatrical gesture, waited a second longer to take in the scene, he might have been able to test the reality around him and pick up on a sign that all was not as it seemed. While his excuse is that if it had been a real situation he would have had the adrenaline to heighten his senses, the Bond of Thunderball had a technique to deal with his boredom and thus was able to complete his mission, no matter in how camp a style.

Boredom, especially in the form of accidia (sometimes spelled accidie), is one of the main threads running through SPECTRE, Laurence Rickels’s psychoanalytic reading of Bond and his creator. As a kind of apathy or indifference to life, accidia was identified as a mortal sin, a form of sloth, by St. Thomas Aquinas. As Rickels shows, Fleming foregrounded the seriousness of accidia in his introduction to The Seven Deadly Sins, a collection of essays from 1962 in which each sin is tackled by a different famous writer. Fleming says, “Of all the seven, only Sloth in its extreme form of accidia, which is a form of spiritual suicide and a refusal of joy, [...] has my wholehearted condemnation, perhaps because in moments of despair I have seen its face.” While in Fleming’s Thunderball Bond is “a permanent prey to lassitude,” it is in the beginning of From Russia with Love that the author’s comments on sloth chime in: “Just as, in at least one religion, accidie is the first of the cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.”

Yet Bond is not the only character in the 007 pantheon to feel this way. Mr. Big of Live and Let Die tells Bond, “I suffer from boredom. I am prey to what the early Christians called ‘accidie,’ the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no more desires.” In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE, or the messily acronymed SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, also complains of accidia:           

        I will make a confession to you, Mister Bond. I have come to suffer from a certain lassitude of mind which I am determined to          combat. This comes in part from being a unique genius who is alone in the world, without honour — worse, misunderstood. No doubt much of the root cause of this accidie is physical — liver, kidneys, heart, the usual weak points of the middle-aged. But there has developed in me a certain mental lameness, a disinterest in humanity and its future, an utter boredom with the affairs of mankind.

Thus not only Bond but also his enemies seek escape from the same inactive despair.

The role of accidia in Fleming’s work has received attention before, from Ann Boyd’s use of the seven deadly sins as a reading guide in her 1967 The Devil with James Bond! to Benjamin Pratt’s more recent and perhaps too narrowly market-focused Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and James Bond’s Moral Compass: A Bible Study with James Bond, from 2008. The thing that sets Rickels’s book apart is his focus on how SPECTRE functions as an organization that promises to alleviate this hopelessness. Three initial examples help sort it out. Rickels, in his punning style, shows how in Thunderball, Blofeld

   sought to extort great sums of money in exchange for the atomic missiles he had stolen and was prepared to detonate in selective locations. But he was thus also providing work of caution that would have prepared the world to adopt the necessary defensive and preventive measures in the face of inevitable rogue appropriation and deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

Then, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, SPECTRE raises awareness in the same manner by declaring bacteriological war against Britain. In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld sets up a Garden of Death in Japan that is meant to encourage “a lessening of the cultural valorization of suicide as honorable way out.”

One constant in all of these examples is an attempt to read the good and bad elements of SPECTRE together: a threat of annihilation encourages a realistic level of preparedness, an opportunity for taking one’s life in a pleasant setting raises awareness of the role of suicide in Japanese culture (at least from Fleming’s perspective). SPECTRE can thus be said to engage in a kind of haunting: “What SPECTRE asks for tends not to exceed what any ghost, at least according to countless stories and manuals, might be expected to request in the fixated effort to bring something in extended lifetime to closure.” In other words the negative or threatening aspects of SPECTRE are meant to bring about the best in us.


So, interesting but slightly barmy, like so many other books on Bond, including Ann Boyd's fascinating tome, which I indeed to discuss at greater length one day (you can read it here). On other interesting bit from the review: "Perhaps most poignantly, Rickels closes his book with the 1975 drug overdose of Fleming's son, in which his act of refusal to be integrated into his father’s legacy suggests an open psychic wound lacking closure." Since I am at work on an article about Caspar, based mostly on Ann Fleming's letters, I will be ordering Rickels's book.