Sunday, January 20, 2013

SEXUAL NON-POLITICS IN FLEMING'S "CASINO ROYALE"

In RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN DJANGO UNLEASHED, I emphasized the need to evaluate art outside the bounds of "political" considerations, be they on the side of "liberation" or "oppression." Of course I've been stumping for this sort of non-politicized thinking since I started this blog, and one of my most frequent targets has been ultraliberal Alan Moore.  In STALKING THE SYMBOLIC SNIPE I took issue with his condemnation of Ian Fleming's James Bond in this offhand comment:

“…we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond’s psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women.”

While I conceded that James Bond's creator was something of a chauvinist, I cited four or five examples that did not support Moore's rash claim.  However, as I occasionally reread the Fleming Bond novels for the purpose of comparing them to the film adaptations, I finally decided to reread the first in the series, 1953's CASINO ROYALE.  Surely even Alan Moore, no matter how little he thinks of Fleming, would concede that whatever "psychological makeup" appears in Bond would come forth in full force in the novel of the hero's "birth."

The plot of CASINO ROYALE, as many have observed, is much more naturalistic than one beheld in the 1960s films.  There are no gimmicks of any kind in the novel, aside from a reference to some anonymous character killing himself by devouring a poisonous coat-button.  The villain Le Chiffre has nothing unusual about him: he's simply the paymaster for a Soviet spy-organization.  Because British intelligence determines that he's dipped into the Soviet till for his own expenditures, Bond is sent to LeChiffre's casino in Royale-es-Eaux in order to "break" the paymaster's bank and thus disrupt the entire operation. Bond is unfortunately saddled with a female agent, Vesper Lynd, and his internal thoughts make quite clear that he sees women as a liability in the espionage game.

Halfway through the novel, Bond seems to be proven right.  After Bond wins a fortune from LeChiffre's casino, Vesper apparently falls for a ruse and is captured by LeChiffre's men.  One might expect that, given the thoughts he's expressed up to that point, James Bond would simply leave Vesper to her fate.  Instead, betraying a Galahad-like mentality, he drives after the abductors and crashes his car into theirs.  The ploy fails: the paymaster and his men take both Bond and Vesper to a secluded hideout.  Bond is tortured for the location of his winnings.  He bravely holds out, but the only thing that saves him is the Soviets have been investigating LeChiffre's thefts.  A SMERSH agent kills LeChiffre and his men, sparing Bond simply because the assassin has no orders to execute anyone else.  Bond and Vesper are later rescued by Bond's allies.

At this point one might think that Bond's polemic against female agents has been justified.  During the weeks following his recovery from his tortures, however, Bond softens toward Vesper, and even tells her that a male agent might have fallen for the same trick.  They become intimate and fall in love, though Vesper seems antsy about any future commitment.  Bond considers for the first time taking the marital plunge.

However, Vesper's appearance as a helpless "damsel in distress" is revealed as a deceit; she's working for  SMERSH, who insert her into Bond's mission in order to betray him at a critical time, which she does.  However, because she has fallen in love with him, and knows that SMERSH will blow her cover in due time, Vesper commits suicide.  She leaves behind a suicide note explaining her true role.  In reaction to both her betrayal and her death, Bond re-dedicates himself to his mission against evil, and seems to dismiss Vesper's importance in his life as he speaks the final words of the novel, "The bitch is dead now."

Now, the question becomes: does this scenario prove Moore's contention, that Bond displays an "utter hatred and contempt for women?"  Certainly devotees of Political Correctness would not appreciate his comments early in the novel, to the effect that women muck up the profession with their tendency toward emotionality.  Yet this attitude does not seem to evolve so much from Bond as an individual as from Bond as a male in a male profession.  We know next to nothing about Bond's personal history; in this novel, Bond is defined by his devotion to his job-- and in that sense, his chauvinistic attitude denotes a standard male resistance to feminine intrusion, rather than something unique to Bond's own "psychological makeup."     

But the denouement is telling in that Bond's chauvinism is not supported by the narrative.  Not only does he risk his life to rescue her, he falls in love with her as a result of her long association with him during his recovery.  Fleming even remarks, speaking narrator-fashion, that tough men like Bond have a penchant to fall into the opposing mode of sentimentality.

One aspect of Bond's chauvinism is validated: in Vesper's suicide note she reveals that SMERSH was able to control her because they had her lover confined in a Soviet prison, and made her cooperation the price of keeping him alive.  Thus, in a sense she is governed by her emotions, though not in the way Bond means when he makes that observation.  Vesper's emotions also cause her to fall in love with Bond for his genuine heroic qualities, so that she both forsakes her condemned lover and her own life under the thumb of SMERSH.  Her suicide, while convenient from the standpoint of keeping Bond devoted to his crusade, also denotes a strength of character not unlike that of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

And what of the last words of the novel?  A political consciousness would see this as support for Moore's contention.  I would argue, rather, that Bond's words are an attempt to distance himself from the painful reality that the woman he loved was both an enemy spy and the lover of another man, not to mention the reality of her death.  Again, Political Correctness cannot read between the lines; cannot grant that a man might speak ill of women as a group as a way of shielding himself from such pain..  But it should be obvious that the things James Bond says are not always covalent with the things his creator means.



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