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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, January 28, 2013

RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN FLEMING'S "LIVE AND LET DIE," PART 1



In 1953's CASINO ROYALE the "non-politics" analyzed here dealt with the conflicts between protagonist James Bond and the double agent Vesper Lynd.

The second novel in the series, 1954's LIVE AND LET DIE, has its sexual aspects, but the emphasis is clearly on the matter of race/ethnicity.  Clearly conflicts between ethnic groups have been some of the most politicized-- if not the most-- in human history.  Can one find a "non-political" aspect to this novel?

One avenue is suggested by the continuity between CASINO and LIVE.  To recount the relevant aspects of the first novel:

Bond is sent to undermine the operations of the Frenchman Le Chiffre, whose expensive casino is a cover for his activities as a paymaster for Soviet spies.  Bond knows that Le Chiffre has been skimming from his masters, so 007 works to undermine the gambler's status further by outgambling the Frenchman at the casino tables.  To recover the money Le Chiffre and his men capture Bond and torture him, in particular by battering his genitals.   Bond is accidentally saved by an agent of SMERSH, who arrives and kills the paymaster and his men.  The assassin has no orders to kill Bond but because he knows Bond is a spy for the other side, he uses a knife to carve a letter into Bond's hand, a Cyrillic letter that identifies Bond as a spy. During Bond's recovery the agent worries about losing the ability to make love, but his (apparent) ally Vesper helps him recover that ability.  However, she commits suicide and reveals in a letter that she was a double agent for the other side, leaving Bond emasculated in an emotive rather than a physical sense.

LIVE AND LET DIE mentions neither Le Chiffre's attack on Bond's body nor Vesper's blow to his heart.  However, as if serving as a displacement for these deeper assaults, the early part of the novel does dwell more than a little on the lesser humiliation of "the mark of the spy" inflicted by the anonymous SMERSH killer.  Despite the fact that the killer's intervention saved Bond's life, Bond nurses a grievance against SMERSH, even though plastic surgery has covered over the identifying mark on Bond's hand.  He hopes M will put him on a "trail of revenge."

Bond's next case does oppose him to the interests of the Soviets, at least. To an extent Fleming recycles one aspect of CASINO. Le Chiffre was responsible for distributing money to Soviet agents, and, on a minor note, Le Chiffre also fomented Communist influence in French unions.  Both of these elements become far more important in LIVE.  Bond's opponent "Mister Big" controls a majority of the Negro workers in New York, making him far more of a player in regard to undermining the loyalties of the American underclass-- not that Fleming aspires to any deep analysis of the sociopolitical aspects of the conflict, of course.  In addition to controlling a secret network of subservient minions, Mister Big is also helping funnel money to the Soviet cause by illegally selling gold coins-- acquired from the treasure of the pirate Morgan-- which activity puts Bond on the villain's trail, due to Mister Big's location in the British possession Jamaica.

A Marxist analysis of LIVE AND LET DIE would certainly find fertile ground here.  Fleming barely acknowledges the history of social injustices to black culture, either in America or elsewhere, and instead seizes upon the risible notion that Mister Big maintains power over his acolytes by pretending to be the voodoo death-god Baron Samedi.  I've frequently mocked the extreme oversimplications of many Marxist analyses, but I can hardly deny that in LIVE AND LET DIE Fleming is clearly resorting to the common trope of the "superstitious natives who don't know what's good for them."  In jungle-thrillers ignorant savages are often manipulated by fake witch-doctors.  Mister Big is certainly in that tradition, holding sway over hundreds of minions by pretending to be a voodoo deity-- though with the added fillip of doing so for the furtherance of Communism.

Yet, apart from Fleming's absurd notion of African-Americans of the period being enthralled by voodoo sorcery, Mister Big is a good deal better developed than many white characters, particularly the quickly forgotten Le Chiffre.  If one disincludes the many villains of the aforementioned jungle thrillers, Mister Big may be literature's first "black supervillain," depending on how one defines the term.  His dossier does reveal that he was born in Haiti and is "half Negro and half French," but Fleming does not assert the racial myth seen in many pulp stories, in which "half breed" villains are assumed to possess greater organizational skills because of their "white blood."  Instead, Bond's superior M makes this statement:

"And the negro races are just beginning to throw up geniuses in all professions-scientists, doctors, writers. It's about time they turned out a great criminal."
 
Some modern critics might find the statement condescending.  In contrast I regard it as proof that Fleming, however much he subscribed to some racial myths, saw no reason why the condition of being a "Negro" should keep one from being a "genius," even a genius of crime.

I'll deal more fully with Mister Big's character in Part 2.  But in addition to pointing out that he is a "credit to any race" given the largeness of his criminal ambition, it should be noted that Bond shows no animus to black people or their culture in this novel.  One might argue that Fleming was simply being cautious, aware of the potential controversy of his topic.  Nevertheless, Bond's opposition to Mister Big is based neither in race nor in the politics of Big's Communist masters.  First and foremost, Bond wants a shot at Mister Big as a way of pursuing the aforementioned revenge-trail.
Near the end of Chapter 2, Bond says:

"I like to meet [Mr. Big]... I'd like to meet any member of SMERSH."

I assert that even though LIVE AND LET DIE does incarnate some genuine political content-- which would be its only defining content to a Marxist-- what we have here is a hero looking for a dragon to slay, one who reminds him of earlier dragons who wounded him and then disappeared.  At base one should view this as a manifestation of an archetypal, rather than a political, unconscious. 





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