An Interview By: Wesley Britton
James Bond: Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.
Q: That’s putting it mildly, 007.
(Roger Moore and Desmond Llewelyn in For Your Eyes Only, 1981)
As Ian Fleming’s Centenary Year came to its close, James Bond fans could look back over a year rich in new 007 lore–a new film, new radio adaptations, new novels, new memoirs, new editions of the original classics. Along the way, we saw new appreciations of Fleming, his major creation, and a stream of new critiques of what it all meant over the years.
Then, in November 2008, a new book appeared that couldn’t be more jaw-dropping in its premise. The title, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and James Bond’s Moral Compass: A Bible Study with James Bond (David Crumm Media) by Benjamin Pratt staked out as incredulous a concept as anyone could imagine. The “sex, snobbery, and sadism” of the Bond books as a means to explore Holy Scriptures? True, seeing 007 as a modern day St. George tackling updated incarnations of medieval evil is no startling development; for one example, no less an authority than John Cork observed in his 1995 “Ian Fleming: Literary Style and Legacy,” “Fleming’s villains provide the author with great opportunity to explore larger themes. Through the grand schemes of Mr. Big, Sir Hugo Drax, Goldfinger, Dr. No, and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Fleming wages a literary battles with the deadly sins. Sloth, vengeance, greed, and snobbery are but some of the dragons Bond must battle in human form.”
Still, drawing literary parallels is one matter, but making a direct connection between Fleming himself and his 007 books as intentional parables of Christian theology is another. To his credit, Benjamin Pratt finds an appropriate touchstone to link these notions in the 1962 volume, The Seven Deadly Sins, an anthology Fleming conceived. Some of England’s finest writers contributed essays on their sin of Choice preceded by Fleming’s own foreword. Building on what he found in this collection, Pratt explored the word choice, character descriptions, and story lines to demonstrate that Fleming, at the very least, integrated these Biblical concepts into his literary mix.
Even so, the picture of church groups pouring over Casino Royale to probe spiritual values doesn’t easily square with anyone’s image of 007, even if we discount, as Pratt does, the cinematic versions of the saga. The reviews, so far, are mixed–from those reading Bond for the first time due to Pratt’s study to the other end of the spectrum, long-time Fleming lovers who see the whole idea as a pathetic stretch exploiting the name of James Bond to promote an agenda wildly remote from anything Fleming imagined. While we can’t ask Ian Fleming what he’d say on this matter, we can ask Benjamin Pratt how he crafted his controversial book. In December 2008, I asked him a series of questions about how his book came to be–here are his responses:
An Interview With Benjamin Pratt
In your book, you speculate that Ian Fleming might not have chosen the name James Bond after the ornithologist, but rather from the first sentence of the Epistle of James. What lead you to this notion?
007’s adventure tales are laced with symbolic names. The list is long but a few of the most obvious are Dr. No, Auric Goldfinger, Tiffany Case and Hugo Drax (Drache). I kept looking for a symbolic understanding of the name James Bond. My gut never trusted the notion that James Bond came from Bond Street or from the ornithologist. I was jolted when I read one particular translation of the opening line of the Letter of James, ‘James, a bond servant.’ (James 1:1) When I discovered that Fleming’s list of deadlier sins was in the Letter of James, I was even more convinced there was a connection. James Bond’s character fits the nature of a dedicated servant’s, as well as the key description of a person of faith in the Letter of James: “I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18).The capstone for the theory is found in Bond’s signature each time he writes a resignation letter to M…”I am Sir, Your Obedient Servant.”
You discussed the Fleming books as modern parables regarding the 7 Deadly Sins–and connect this idea with a little known book Fleming contributed to. Can you describe this book and how it relates to the Bond novels?
While on the editorial staff of the Sunday Times, Ian Fleming suggested they commission a fresh series of essays on the Seven Deadlier Sins. The series was successfully published with all but one of Fleming’s suggested authors penning the essays. In 1961, Fleming had his first heart attack. In 1962, he arranged to publish the series from the Sunday Times in book form as The Seven Deadly Sins. Fleming wrote the Foreword to this work in which he took responsibility for the idea of the series as well as the publication of the book. He also declared boldly that the traditional seven deadly sins (pride, envy, anger, sloth [accidie], covetousness, gluttony and lust) would no longer keep one out of heaven. He proposed seven deadlier sins that would definitely get one into Hell: Avarice, Cruelty, Snobbery, Hypocrisy, Self-righteousness, Moral Cowardice and Malice. Each of these deadlier sins, along with accidie, is personified by the evil dragons that James Bond (a.k.a., St. George) is out to slay. The code is cracked: James Bond, 007, is out to kill the seven deadlier sins!
In each chapter of your book, you choose one Bond novel as an example of one mortal sin or another. For hypocrisy, you used Diamonds are Forever. Why?
Diamonds are Forever describes the passion for perfect diamonds as akin to the passion for ostentatious perfection that drives hypocrisy. Hypocrisy pretends through play-like acting that the imperfect is either not there at all, or, at least, beneath the other’s gaze and obscured by glistening, jewel-bedecked beauty.
Fleming’s tale is based on the Greek root of hypocrisy, hupokrinein, a word generally translated as pretending or theatrical. The word refers to acting a part in a play. Appropriately, the structure of Diamonds are Forever is the closest Fleming gets to classic drama.
Fleming brilliantly portrays the Spangled Mob’s hypocrisy. The first element is their pretense of respectability. Living under the alias Rufus B. Saye, Jack Spang pretends to lead a respectable life as the elegant owner and manager of the House of Diamonds. He is a model citizen, so elevated in respectability that he only appears in two scenes of this entire drama. He is literally and figuratively above the dirt of life.
Bond finally meets the most prominent Las Vegas member of the gangland aristocracy, Seraffimo Spang, a playboy with a funny, symbolic name and theatrical hobbies. He’s crazy about the Old West and has bought an entire ghost town outside Las Vegas. Naturally, Bond is invited to Spectreville and engages in a bar room brawl that surpasses anything in Hollywood B Westerns. The brawl even ends with Spang shouting “Cut!” At that moment, Bond is once again face to face with an enemy who mirrors the most extreme version of Bond’s own evil: theatrical hypocrisy. There stands Seraffimo Spang, dressed in full Western costume, black boots with silver spurs, leather chaps emblazoned with silver, and long-barreled pistols with ivory butts draped in holsters on each thigh.
Diamonds are forever! So is hypocrisy!
Hugo Drax in Moonraker is a perfect example of self-righteousness–but you also note Bond battles not only with such villains, but darkness within himself. Does this connect with your points on making moral choices, as between love and duty in the Fleming novels?
Yes, at the core, each Bond tale reflects choices between moral courage and moral cowardice. This is not only reflected in the characters James Bond pursues, but in Bond, as well. When he is true to his duty and mission, his choices are morally courageous. But, like most of us, he gets world-weary (accidie) and he fails to stay true to course. He becomes self-righteous, hypocritical, snobbish, and cruel or lust driven, his most infamous moral struggle. He is constantly battling the inner spiritual and moral war, as well as the war with the deadly demons he pursues.
Ian Fleming, James Bond, and 007’s Deadly Sins
‘Yes, at the core, each Bond tale reflects choices between moral courage and moral cowardice. This is not only reflected in the characters James Bond pursues, but in Bond, as well. When he is true to his duty and mission, his choices are morally courageous. He becomes self-righteous, hypocritical, snobbish, and cruel or lust driven, his most infamous moral struggle. He is constantly battling the inner spiritual and moral war, as well as the war with the deadly demons he pursues.’
I was surprised to see you picked From Russia with Love for your chapter on violence–I guess that’s because You Only Live Twice has so much more. I was even more surprised to read that Fleming was so non-violent himself, unable to kill a target on a training mission. So why were the Bond books so full of violence?
John Fishman, a colleague of Fleming’s for 20 years, said Ian liked to say that people only have the right to kill what they will eat–and nothing more. In my book, I report personal Fleming stories that reflect this admonition, as well as a similar statement in his short story, “The Hildebrand Rarity”. You mention the story I tell at length in which Fleming backed out of a training assignment in which he was required to fire a loaded weapon at a person known for his ability to dodge the bullet. I, too, was initially surprised by these stories until I put them in the context of Fleming’s personal life. Ian lost his father on the battlefront of WWI when he was not quite nine, and his brother in WWII. He knew the consequences of violence. So why were the Bond books so full of violence?
Fleming was writing parables about Evil People (CR) to portray the moral contour of our time and our prevailing sins and temptations. Violence is a huge component of our moral landscape.
The 007 tales are laced with violence, cruelty and malice offering me many options to illustrate the theme. From Russia with Love was chosen for two distinct reasons. The first ten chapters of From Russia with Love portray the systematic, disciplined cruelty of the agents of Hell as they plan to slay Bond with ignominy. Bond, as a prescient symbol of America on 9/11, awakened bored, plagued with accidie and inattentive as the enemy prepared a full scale attack. The second reason I chose From Russia with Love is the brilliant portrayal of malice in the description of Rosa Klebb’s method of torturing victims. Rosa, in the chapter “The Beautiful Lure” would coo like a loving mother over her victim as she applied another torture. Read the passage and shiver.
Yes, Goldfinger would be my pick for representing avarice. How about the Bond phenomena as a whole, as commercial as any pop mythology?
Yes, there is little question that Goldfinger personifies avarice. After all, the movie’s theme song says he is Midas, the man with the golden touch.
Countless Bond fans were born after Fleming died in 1964 and they know Bond only through the movies. The pop side of Bond took him in directions that diverge from the novels and readers won’t find my analysis played out in the movies. I want my book to reflect my deep admiration for Ian Fleming’s creativity, which I believe can only be understood from his novels. My book is published in Ian Fleming’s centenary year, and I hope it pays tribute to a skilled, though troubled, soul.
The snobbery of the Bond books–as you discuss for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service–has long been discussed, but I’ve never seen it connected to gay rights. Can you explain this connection?
Fleming wanted his readers to squirm as they were confronted by the temptation of snobbery. He wanted readers really to wrestle with contemporary problems people were facing, like the class system that still was so potent in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. In my book, I want to challenge readers to wrestle with an issue that’s contemporary in their own lives. The gay rights debate is highly emotional today, so thinking about the potential of snobbery in that debate is a good way to help readers update what Fleming was describing in terms of class snobbery from an earlier era.
I think one of your best discussions is on accidie, or world-weariness. Many times in the books, Bond is full of torpor when he’s not on a mission. You used Live and Let Die to demonstrate your points–can you share a few?
Certainly. Accidie is a word Fleming used in most of his books and is a central concern, not only in his life, but in the lives of millions of people today. I explain this in much more depth in the book, but using novels as an example, here are a few ways I see accidie as a potent temptation:
No. 1: Mr. Big’s confession of his motives:
“Mister 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.” (Live and Let Die)
No. 2: Blofeld as Shatterhand delivers the ultimate apologia for accidie.
“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.” (You Only Live Twice)
No. 3: Bond, a man of war, awakens without a mission and his spirit is declining.
“Just as, in at least one religion, ‘accidie’ is the first of the cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstances of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.” (From Russia with Love) Compare this statement to Fleming’s description of himself in the Foreword he wrote for The Seven Deadly Sins. “Of all the seven, only Sloth in its extreme form of ‘accidie,’ 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.” (ix)
Your book is designed for use with Bible study, either individually or in groups. What would other readers take away from your study?
Fleming reflected on Biblical truths, but he also drew on wisdom from many sources just as I do. Two billion people around the world call themselves Christian and look to the Bible as their primary spiritual source, so exploring Fleming’s reflections on these biblical themes potentially holds an important connection for a third of the people living today. But the wisdom here is broader than the Bible, something that Fleming himself understood. The authors who wrote the essays for his collection on sins for the Times came from many backgrounds. I know that many Fleming and Bond fans will find my book interesting because I offer a unique perspective on the reasons the tales were written. I show that Fleming, often considered a literary light weight, was in fact a writer with a serious purpose. I believe he has written the first narrative treatments on the deadly sins in centuries.
Since the book’s launch, we’ve heard, for example, from Jewish and Muslim readers who are interested in it. Muslims, of course, have great respect for the Bible as a holy book. And we’ve heard from discussion-group leaders as far away as Panama and New Zealand that they are hearing from young people of many different backgrounds who simply are interested in exploring these connections between their spiritual lives and a hero whose adventures we all keep following year after year.