Written by Jord Schaap
The lightened face of his Omega Seamaster reported him that it was almost past midnight. James Bond lied on the field bed in his bedroom, smoked a cigarette and reflected on last night. But above all, he thought on what he was going to do tomorrow. Bitter, Bond realized that his professionalism and his patriotism were only hiding a cold reality: his profession as undertaker’s man on her majesty’s secret service. In the name of justice, all villains to the sword! But what was he in fact different than a villain?
What was he different than a professional killer, a grave-digger? He also didn’t regret the bullets he had driven through the bodies of his victims. Bond laughed sour for the comparison: undertaker’s man. He had walked into the trap, rolled into it and never managed to climb out. What could he do else than make the best of it? For there was no choice, it was kill or get killed.
Well, they could all go to hell, the politicians who talked stilted about defending justice and fighting for democracy. At night they could sit safe and warm in their apartments, and kept no notion of how filthy that was: fighting for democracy. But he would do the dirty work, otherwise the real villains would do it.
Bond rose from the creaking bed and opened the door of the wooden wardrobe next to it. He found two glasses and a bottle of James Crow whiskey. He poured one of them full for three fourths, and emptied it at one draught. He tasted the satisfying, warming taste of the alcohol in his stomach. Grim, Bond turned, pulled out his cigarette on the window-sill with a rough gesture and walked towards his bed again.
A few moments later James Bond felt in a deep sleep. But it wasn’t an innocent sleep he slept. Bond’s sleep was as empty as his life seemed to him tonight: battered like the war-beaten landscape. The mask, with the many scars as only indication of vulnerability, slept, and became in its coldness almost one with the chilly landscape which surrounded the sleeper.
The Nature of Evil
Just before his death in 1964, Ian Fleming granted a reporter from the Daily Express a look in his 128 page notebook, containing ideas and brain-waves on his writings. The pages contained plot ideas, names for possible villains, and even detailed descriptions of food to be used for exquisite meals in future James Bond adventures.
The reporter also catched a glimpse of a Bulgarian expression that Fleming wrote down, probably in order to use it as the title of a future story or chapter. The expression read: “My Enemy’s Enemy (is my friend)”. Like many of Fleming’s novel and chapter titles, this one is also typical for the author’s preoccupation with expressions focusing on the identification of good, evil, life, and death.
This preoccupation proceeds from a key question which Fleming repeatedly poses in his novels: the question about the identity of the hero and of the villain, the question about what is right and what is wrong. The essence of the morality of James Bond has to do with the question about who is the hero and who is the villain, it’s about enemies and friends. Fleming introduces this topic already in his first novel, by mouth of James Bond: is there any difference between Bond and the villains he fights? What if Saint George, fighting the dragon, turns out to be just as bad as the dragon itself?
“You see,” he said, […] “when one’s young, it seems very easy to distinguish between right and wrong, but as one gets older it becomes more difficult. At school it’s easy to pick out one’s own villains and heroes and one grows up wanting to be a hero and kill the villains.” […] “Now,” he looked up again at Mathis, “that’s all very fine. The hero kills two villains, but when the hero Le Chiffre starts to kill the villain Bond […] you see the other side of the medal. The villains and heroes get all mixed up.” […] “Now in order to tell the difference between good and evil, we have manufactured two images representing the deepest black and the purest white – and we call them God and the Devil. […] God is a clear image, you can see every hair on His beard. But the Devil. What does he look like?”
Casino Royale, 1953
Bond fights his villains with their own filthy weapons, and that’s what’s bothering him through his whole career. It’s killed or get killed, instead of live and let live, and in order to survive one has to be prepared to enter the deepest black as well as the purest white.
In many ways, the whole James Bond phenomenon is revolving around this very notion; the question of morals, divided into a black side and a white side, like a game of chess. The first part of White Knight focused on this symbolical approach to the Bond series in general; this second instalment will examine how the relationship between James Bond and the Villain forms the context of his adventures, and especially how different notions of good and bad disturb that relationship.
Tell Me Who Your Enemy Is
The first part of the White Knight-series already introduced the binary oppositions which define the world of Bond, as defined by semiotician Umberto Eco. Eco stated that the Bond series focused on three major characters (Bond, the Villain, and the Woman) and that these three characters were confronted with a whole series of polar relationships, like “Love versus Death”, “Luxury versus Discomfort”, “Perversion versus Innocence”, and “Excess versus Moderation”.
Whilst “Love versus Death” seems to have more to do with the relationship between Bond and the Woman – to be examined in the last instalment of this three-part series – the other three oppositions distinguished by Eco are directly connected with the opposition Bond – Villain. But, following Fleming’s theme of moral questions, I’d like to add one more important opposition to these three: “Black vs. White” – good vs. evil, with a lot of grey in between. Thus, we get four important relationships, constituting the identity of Bond and the Villain:
- Luxury – Discomfort
- Excess versus Moderation
- Perversion versus Innocence
- Black – White
Because Black and White in the world of Bond often becomes a mess of grey, Fleming uses the first three oppositions to remember us about who is the hero, and who is the villain. Especially the identification of the Villain goes by way of these oppositions: the Bond villain is always a rich pervert, cheating at games and surrounded by excessive luxury. Auric Goldfinger for instance, is one of the richest men in the world, who likes to drive around in a car armoured with gold – but he still cheats on canasta and golf when he can win a thousand more pounds. And, next to their enormous wealth and luxury, the Bond villains are always megalomaniac:
“You were lucky, Mr. Bond. Stay away from Auric Goldfinger. He’s a very powerful man. If Mr. Goldfinger wanted to crush you, he’d only have to turn himself in his sleep to do so.”
“You have a very vivid way of expressing yourself.”
Also evil masterminds like Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Doctor No know to strike the right tone when it comes to describing the way they see themselves:
“I see you are also a man who knows what he wants. […] Don’t you also think that these things always go the same? That when one desires something, one gets it in the end? That is my experience.”
“When it counts for the small things, yes.”
“When you fail to succeed in getting larger things, your ambitions don’t reach far enough.”
Doctor No, 1958.
Bond […] said, “I suppose you know you’re both mad as hatters.”
“So was Frederick the Great, so was Nietzsche, so was Van Gogh. We are in good, in illustrious company, Mister Bond. On the other hand, what are you? You’re a common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places.”
You Only Live Twice, 1964.
Of course one can say that James Bond is also someone that likes to revolve himself in a world of luxury; and his sexual habits, his attitude towards women, and his longing for danger and risico are all qualities of his character that are often excessive and perverse. In this way, the polar extremities “luxury”, “excess” and “perversion” aren’t reserved solely for the Villain, but can also count for James Bond. But here again, a question of morals is the factor that discerns Bond from his evil adversaries.
Bond does like luxury, and does like to pay attention to things like food and wealth in an excessive way, but does that without losing perspective; for him, these things are only a welcome diversion from his harsh, cold profession. In an emphatic way, they are the only things that give his surreal life a semblance of normality and humanity. But when it comes to the point, Bond’s morals make him realize that these things are only exchangeable externals – miles away from the reality of Bond’s profession, that comes down to kill or get killed. Whilst for the Villain, luxury and perversion aren’t just toys: for the Villain, these are the things he derives his identity from.
Bond thought: I’ve asked for a lump of easy living, the rich man’s living. And do I like it? How do I feel about cramming like a swine, and having to listen to such remarks? The idea ever to have such a meal again, or to have any meal together with Mr. Du Pont again, brought him suddenly into revolt. […] It was the puritan in him that resisted.
And I’ll Tell You Who You Are
When we return to the polar opposition between good and bad, Black and White, and its influence on the relationship between Bond and the Villain, we already concluded that here also the question of morals plays an important, if not an essential role. Because just like the way Bond’s puritanesque morals distinguish him from the Villain in the valuation of things like luxury and wealth, his morals save him also from becoming a real villain.
During his whole career, Bond has one nightmare: becoming as bad as the villains he fights. Because, as the piece of fiction that introduced this article also pointed out, in many ways Bond isn’t more than his opponents: a executioner on her majesty’s secret service. A grave-digger. An undertaker’s man. Bond knows that very well, and he also knows that motives like patriotism only cover up the harsh reality:
“Of course,” he added, as Mathis started to expostulate, “patriotism comes along and makes it seem fairly all right, but this country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date. […] History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep on changing parts.”
Casino Royale, 1953
On the other hand, Bond tries to smooth over his deeds every now and then:
It had been kill or get killed. Anyway, people were killing people all the time, all over the world. […] How many people, for instance, were involved in manufacturing H-bombs, from the miners who mined the uranium to the shareholders who owned the mining shares?
But the fact that Bond thinks about these questions, and sees the perspective – the fact that he kills only people who deserve to die – is again the factor that distinguishes him from the Villain. It’s ethics, or more specific: the fact that James Bond constantly doubts his morals.
But then again, what can he do else? Bond clearly has walked into the trap, and never managed to climb out. In the beginning he is still the professional secret agent, managing to separate his private life – his friends, his women – from his constant fight against Evil. But during his career, he becomes more and more trapped between Black and White: whilst Bond can still rationalize about the nature of Evil in Casino Royale, in You Only Live Twice – the third book of the Blofeld-trilogy and the last real Fleming novel – Bond got already personally involved to such an extent that he literally loses his mind. His wife got killed, and his morals, and the misleading blankets of luxury, women and wealth don’t seem to save him anymore, as Ernst Stavro Blofeld points out at the end of the story:
Having done what you are told to do, out of some mistaken idea of duty or patriotism, you satisfy your brutish instincts with alcohol, nicotine and sex while waiting to be dispatched on the next misbegotten foray. Twice before, your Chief has sent you to do battle with me, Mister Bond, and, by a combination of luck and brute force, you were successful in destroying two projects of my genius. You and your government would categorize these projects as crimes against humanity […] But try and summon such wits as you possess, Mister Bond, and see them in a realistic light.”
You Only Live Twice, 1964.
You only live twice, indeed. It’s the third time that finishes the morals of James Bond. But immortal as Bond’s inventor and the character’s popularity made him, he can’t do nothing but to pick himself up, and wait for a new mission. Because for him, it’s too late to make choices.
James Bond picked up the Walther. Breathing loud he aimed the weapon once again on his enemy. The fight took away all doubts. His fingers curved themselves on the trigger, and after three dull claps life flowed out of his adversary. Stunned, Bond left the room, that was now a room of death. Once outside he took a deep breath. There was no choice anymore. There never had been.
The morning sun made that the shadow of the man who was slowly walking away from the old manor in the Kosovarian hills produced capricious shapes on the rocks along the dusty path. It was the shade of the man who lived as an anonymous silhouette – the man who came, brought death notice and left, like an undertaker’s man. Bond catched the silver cigarette-lighter which he had held in his pocket all the time, and lit a cigarette. The flickering flame of the Ronson-lighter rushed fire in it. He inhaled deep, and firmly blew the smoke out. There was no choice, no road back, only a road ahead.
Well, there just had to be, he thought.
Jord Schaap © 2002