Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Of Ian Fleming and Thorstein Veblen

The James Bond series is often criticized for representing outmoded, backward attitudes. Contemporary politics being what they are, most critics seem to concentrate on gender, for example, rather than class. However, the books are quite striking in that respect, in ways that go well beyond Bond's much-noted snobbery. Indeed, rereading Ian Fleming's novels I found myself time and again thinking of Thorstein Veblen's classic The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Veblen's analysis posits that in an earlier era cultures the world over passed through a phase where two different factors converged. One was an unsettled and highly violent existence--where hunting big game was a significant economic activity, warfare between groups was constant, or both--placing a high premium on "exploit"--aggression, cunning, force. The other was the attainment of a certain minimum level of individualism, status differentiation and sense of property for meaningful social inequality to exist among the adult male members of the group.

The result of this convergence was that those who successfully displayed the qualities of exploit--who could display prizes from successful hunts or military campaigns testifying to their personal "prowess" (e.g. their knack for violence and trickery)--were honored as individuals. This led to a broader habit of equating wealth in goods with prowess, while the display of such wealth, with that prowess it implied, was regarded as honorable (in fact, the essence of honor), while becoming the core around which a great deal of cultural practice developed. Among them were conspicuous consumption and the conspicuous leisure associated with it, which had such expressions as forms of sport, religious observance and social etiquette which, being financially costly and very time-consuming, demand plenty of both; a penchant for useless archaisms (cults of antiquity, the centrality of a study of dead languages to an education); the notion that it is natural for those living by prowess (a warrior class) to rule over and live well at the expense of the humbler types living by diligent drudgery by working on inanimate nature with their hands (like the slaves who grow the food, prey to the predators on top); and respect for long association with these forms of privilege and their associated markers (like aristocratic titles).

All this, of course, remained in more settled, "quasi-peaceable," times, and in fact developed in "higher barbarian" cultures like that of Medieval Europe, where the tone was set by a titled, landowning warrior class, simultaneously greedy and impecunious, acquisitive and un-industrious, which jousted, built grand cathedrals, practiced "courtly" manners and liked to style itself after ancient Greece and Rome (as their serfs toiled). Moreover, even after feudalism passed from the scene, the idea persisted, if in changed form, to find expression in such things as sprawling golf courses where caddies carry the clubs, in "church clothes," in shrimp forks and the use of titles like "Sir" and "Madam" and Classical learning in the schools long after it had become less education than ornament.1

And indeed, the novels of Ian Fleming--most assuredly, a scion of a conservative, leisure class family with "Sirs" for great-grandfathers and a public school education--are shot through and through with such assumptions. Moreover, rather than being incidental to the tales, they are quite fundamental to them, accounting for many features that long familiarity with the character has caused us to take for granted--not least, why Bond should be regarded as quite so special an agent. Certainly he has an undeniable physical daring and toughness, and an assortment of skills (he is an exceptional gunman, card-player, swimmer, etc.) that prove handy on his missions. He also has a way with women that enables him, quite frankly, to use them. Yet, it is all rather a far cry from the ridiculous batteries of skills with which writers commonly equip their Gary Stus. He lacks anything that might be considered significant in the way of technical knowledge. His linguistic talents are also limited enough that often he does not speak the language of the country to which he is sent, or the enemy he must combat. (The Bond of the novels, at any rate, has no Russian.) And when it comes to investigations, he is no Sherlock Holmes. (Indeed, on the "heroic secret-agent scale" he struck Kingsley Amis as pretty average.)

What really distinguishes Bond is the idea that underlying all his real talents is an intrinsic, generalized prowess transcending any one skill (or its lack); an ability to come out on top when those special, prowess-revealing traits--aggression, cunning, force--are what count most. Of course, a close reading of the tales can make that prowess seem ambiguous. Time and again Bond screws up, and pays the price for it. Often others rescue him, sometimes those who might least be expected to do so--his first adventure ending with a SMERSH agent shooting Le Chiffre before he can kill Bond off, and cutting a distinguishing mark into Bond's palm for the purposes of later identification. This might be thought more good luck than anything else. Yet, as Veblen notes, this package of ideas contains a "belief in luck," such that being "lucky" is a personal virtue.

And at any rate, adherents to the leisure class ethos have not been much given to critical, rational discernment of material practicalities and chains of causality, happy to treat eventual success as the only proof that counts.

This accent on such prowess in the Bond adventures, which is conceived as specially belonging to a gentleman-sportsman--and especially, a British gentleman-sportsman like Bond--is why even the more lavishly supplied American CIA need 007's help on a regular basis.2 The Felix Leiters, after all, just can't cut it by themselves--as Leiter's fate in Live and Let Die makes clear, and the Soviets make clear again in From Russia with Love, where they are nearly effusive in paying tribute to that special, indefinable something that enables the British do so much more in this field with so much less than the richer Americans.

Fleming is as explicit, and rather more profuse, in his revisitation of the theme in You Only Live Twice. M sends Bond to Japan, a country with which he is completely unfamiliar, not because he has any special qualification to secure the desired intelligence-sharing agreement, but because he has previously displayed a "knack" (ill-defined but taken very seriously) of completing difficult assignments that makes him suited to the "impossible" job. And when he does arrive in Japan, Tanaka offers him very particular terms for getting the agreement--his assassinating Shatterhand, which is not a mere quid pro quo, but a test of the prowess of the British elite that Bond represents, on the theory that his accomplishing the goal set for him would prove his people worthy allies. It is a spectacularly irrational basis for making such an arrangement--but perfectly in line with the "theory of the leisure class."

In the leisure class scheme of things, Bond's penchant for luxury is not a contradiction of this quality, but a complement to it, his prowess (and the resources it wins him) equally manifest in his cultivation and indulgence of expensive tastes--and also his begrudging such indulgences to lesser folk. Reading Thunderball it seemed to me appalling that Bond resented his cab driver's making twenty pounds a week. Yet, from this standpoint it is only natural that a gentleman-of-war such as himself should drive a Bentley and eat caviar, while the cabbie doing his little task should "know his place."

The "leisure class theory" also accounts for many of the odder features of the nearly ritualistic formula of the Bond plots, which can be regarded as not just an occasion for displays of prowess, but as an elaborate contest matching Bond's prowess against that of his enemy in ways broader, deeper, more varied and more complex than a straightforward, head-on violent collision. Bond engages the enemy in games, and tends to win--specifically those games with which he is familiar as a gentleman (baccarat in Casino Royale, golf in Goldfinger).3 The games, moreover, tend to accentuate his prowess by giving him a chance to triumph even when the enemy--a man of considerable prowess himself as testified by his wealth, rule over many subordinates, ruthlessness, etc.--cheats. And of course, what happens in the game of cards or golf is a prelude to deadlier sorts of gameplay between them, as Bond goes about unraveling their secrets and disrupting their plans with the same skill he used to win at the gaming table or on the golf course--an endeavor partaking of both hunting and war.

Of course, Bond is apt to end up the enemy's prisoner at some point, but in captivity the villain will have a chat with him going past a mere interrogation, perhaps even going so far as to have him over for dinner (as Dr. No does). In the course of it the villain is likely to reveal something of his plans--a reflection of the monstrous vanity without which they would never have concocted their scheme, but also out of a desire to impress this particular prisoner, who may be in their power now but is also the formidable opponent who offered such challenge to them, and whose prowess they must accordingly admit. It is also an occasion for hero and villain to display the subtler forms of their prowess yet again in the consumption of luxurious food and drink, in a display of wide interests, and mastery of the art of conversation--with the display becoming especially competitive as they match wits.

Afterward, they continue the contest on different terms. Instead of simply disposing of Bond in a straightforward and relatively foolproof manner, they subject him to yet another game--a gauntlet of tortures, an elaborate death-trap. The device is yet another conspicuous display of their leisure and wealth (they had the time to think this up, the money to pay for it), as well as a test of their ingenuity against Bond's. They may intend to kill Bond, rather than test him, but the point is that the devices give him a chance to prove himself the superior man by escaping the trap. And when he gets away, it typically leads to Bond's smashing their plans, the final, triumphant move in the game.3

This view of Bond's significance and Bond's adventures, this idea of the gentleman-sportsman engaged in these games for the fate of the world, and winning the contest because he is such a natural at games (and because, however formidable the enemy, they are no match for a British gentleman-sportsman), seems eccentric as anything but symbolism or fantasy--a reminder that Ian Fleming built his series on ideas already dated in his time, and which seem the more so six decades on. Of course, that is not to say that leisure class attitudes have vanished from the world. Far from it. Indeed, with the world's broad turn toward anti-egalitarianism, irrationality, tradition, much of the package unsurprisingly seems more rather than less of a cultural presence (in the worship of wealth and celebrity, for example). Still, that presence often seems superficial, fragile, confused, even forced. And this particular, ostentatiously aristocratic expression of it is a tougher sell than it used to be.

1. Veblen contends, among other things, that in line with the mobility and anonymity of modern, urban life, the stress on conspicuous leisure has weakened in favor of conspicuous consumption more effective at advertising one's status to strangers. He also notes that the ethos has weakened and overt expression of it become less acceptable in a more practical, "technocratic" modern world, such that the exaltation of leisure is more apt to be subtly concealed behind superficially useful activities; but also that the blurring of class lines has led to these values filtering further down the social ladder.
2. Fleming's antecedent H.C. McNeile made the value of the gentleman-sportsman background explicit in the first of his Bulldog Drummond novels, declaring "the combination of the two . . . an unbeatable production."
3. While they were not a significant part of the Fleming novels, this also goes for the gadgetry that has come to be associated with the character. These are, of course, created by a technical acumen far outside Bond's ken. Yet, from this standpoint the possession of such a gadget is in an important way the possession of that technical prowess--and that he has acquired it is yet another, if less direct, testament to his own prowess. (This is, of course, in stark contrast to the idea that the gadgets reduce Bond to a button-pushing mediocrity.)

"The Name is Skywalker, Luke Skywalker."
Review: The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on James Bond

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