Wednesday, February 6, 2013

RACIAL NON-POLITICS IN FLEMING'S "LIVE AND LET DIE," PART 2



At the end of Part 1 I wrote:

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. 


To be sure, there are no explicit mentions of dragons in LIVE AND LET DIE.  However, Mister Big, in addition to being foregrounded as a major nemesis for Bond—one who announces his advent to the reader by personally overseeing the first assassination attempt on the British agent— can be read as the mythic incarnation of a dragon. European dragon-myths usually picture dragons as either guarding vast treasures or requiring maidens to be sacrificed to them. Mister Big fulfills both roles.
 
I’ve mentioned earlier that Mister Big’s scheme is a more romanticized version of Le Chiffre’s mundane paymaster-duties.  Thanks to Mister Big's ties to the Caribbean, the villain has gained access to the fabulous treasure of Captain Morgan, which Big smuggles into America through working-class proxies.

This dragon, in fact, has both a treasure and a maiden.  After the failure of the assassination attempt—largely an attempt to scare Bond off—Bond and his FBI ally Felix Leiter are abducted by Big’s goons.  While Leiter is sequestered elsewhere, Bond meets not only Mister Big, but also Solitaire, Big's “psychic reader.”  Mister Big believes in her powers, though the novel never decisively shows more than circumstantial evidence of Solitaire’s psychic abilities.  As soon as Bond and Solitaire meet, electricity passes between them.  Mister Big senses the attraction, and punishes both of them.  First Big lashes Solitaire across the shoulders with a small whip.  Then he orders his goon Tee Hee to break Bond’s little finger.
 

Solitaire’s punishment carries a minor vibe of the black slave turning the tables on a former white master (Solitaire’s family were Caribbean colonials).  Bond’s injury is more complex.  First, the injury to a finger can be interpreted as an injury to the phallus, which certainly applies to the specific situation, where Bond is caught desiring another man’s possession.  It’s also interesting that the prior novel CASINO ROYALE dealt with the explicit torture of Bond’s genitals—though purely as an act of torture, not having anything to do with any sexual transgression.  As noted in Part 1, nowhere in LIVE does Bond recall either his torture by Le Chiffre or his betrayal by Vesper Lynd.  However, as if to substitute for these painful memories, he does obsess about the injury a SMERSH agent dealt to his hand.  Now, as if in mimicry, this Haitian-born SMERSH servant also visits violence on one of Bond’s hands.  Later, when Solitaire escapes Big and joins Bond on a train, there’s explicit mention of Bond’s inability to “perform” with the virgin girl due to his injured hand.
 

In contrast to Le Chiffre, who is just a cog in the Communist machine, Mister Big-- who becomes known to all by this cognomen because his three initials fortuitiously spell out "big"--is the heart of a formidable spy network.  This network is comprised of dozens-- perhaps hundreds-- of lower-class black workers who make excellent spies because of what Ralph Ellison might call their "invisibility." Fleming also stresses Big's imposing size and endows him with the uncanny-trope I've called "freakish flesh," because Big is repeatedly described as having "grey-black flesh" and a "football-shaped" head.  Big is repeatedly seen as a world-beater: one British agent remarks that he's glad the Americans are stuck with him.  
 
I've called Big a "supervillain" earlier, though this has nothing to do with the sort of super-science gimmicks one sees in the Bond movies.  Neither Big nor Bond display much in the way of gimmicks here-- Bond uses steel-toed shoes once or twice, while Big has a desk with a gun built into it.  Big’s claim to supervillain-hood is his ability to convince Negroes from New York to Jamaica that he Big is the voodoo god of death, Baron Samedi.  This also renders him an "uncanny" figure in terms of my trope “phantasmal figurations.”  Big also professes a quasi-Nietzschean philosophy, to make it clear that though he speaks of “black emancipation” once, he’s actually a “wolf”out to shear as many “sheep” as possible, regardless of their color.

But it’s the beasts of the sea, not the land, with which Big is most frequently associated.  Joseph Fontenrose's 1959 myth-study PYTHON exhaustively catalogues many instances in which dragon-like beings are associated with both the sea and with death.  With the exception of one specific Fleming-metaphor—which I’ll address shortly—there’s no way to determine whether or not Fleming made any conscious identification between the dragonish actions of his villain—both hoarding a treasure and guarding a maiden—and said villain’s closeness to the sea.
 
 
 
 

Most of those associations seem rooted in mundane realities.  Big’s treasure is a pirate treasure, originally culled by pirates from their raids on ocean-going ships.  In order to smuggle the illegal tender into the United States, Big builds up a business that engages in the shipping of rare fish—including some fish so poisonous that customs officials will not examine them closely.  When Bond and Leiter seek out Big’s concern, Leiter is caught alone and is fed to a shark in a tank—a grisly fate omitted from the film of LIVE AND LET DIE but recycled for a later Bond-film, LICENSE TO KILL.  Leiter survives the ordeal, but his suffering intensifies Bond's desire to bring Big down, far beyond the agent's comparatively mild and nearly business-like wish to discomfit SMERSH.  Bond investigates the Florida worm-and-bait factory Big uses for his smuggling activities and wins a literal shootout with the very henchman who maimed Leiter.  Bond makes sure that the biter gets bit by feeding the henchman to a shark in a tank, possibly the same one that tore up Leiter.
 
Later 007 pursues Big to Jamaica, and the agent takes a prolonged period to train himself in the ways of snorkeling with the help of a black Jamaican ally named Quarrel.  Bond’s underwater training allows him to plant a time bomb aboard Mister Big’s boat, but he himself is taken prisoner.  Big, having also re-captured the traitorous Solitaire, wishes to execute 007 and the woman together. But instead of performing the sort of voodoo sacrifice a reader might expect-- especially given how much detail Fleming devotes to this exotic religion-- Big decides that the best way to kill his enemies is to drag them to death behind his boat.  Thus the local sharks and barracuda-- creatures who have become emblems of Big's voodoo rites-- will finish them off.  However, before Bond and Solitaire meet their end as fish-food, 007's time bomb destroys the boat, freeing the heroine and his lady.  Big survives the explosion but meets the demise he meant for his nemesis; the figurative dragon of the sea is devoured by the real monsters of the vasty deep.
 

I mentioned one interesting metaphor that suggests that Fleming had some knowledge, conscious or not, of his mythic material.  The same concern that deals in rare fish also deals in supplies of “worms and bait,” and the business’ name is “Ouroboros.” Bond provides the only definition given of the name: he calls Ouroboros as “the Great Worm of mythology.”  Presumably Fleming felt he had to say “worm” rather than the dragon’s ancestor the snake, given that he was dealing with a worm-and-bait factory.
 
In point of fact, though, most references I've seen speak of Ouroboros not as a worm, but as a snake-- or a dragon!-- with its tail in its mouth, like so:
 
 
 
 
 
Fleming takes this mythic wordplay even further, for the name of the henchman who manages the worm-and-bait factory-- as well as the one who almost kills Leiter and duels with Bond-- is "the Robber," which Bond and Leiter realize is merely a distortion of the name "Ouroboros."
 
Fleming doesn't devote much detail to any of Mister Big's colorfully named henchmen.  The henchman called "Whisper," who functions in the novel as a communications expert, has his whispery voice explained as the result of having lost a lung to tuberculosis, but aside from that he gets no more biographical background than the aforementioned Tee Hee.  Therefore it's not unusual that Fleming doesn't give the reader any biographical background on "the Robber," and allows the agents' explanation of his nickname to go unchallenged. 
 
Still, I'd argue that in mythic terms the Robber is to Mister Big as one of Vishnu's avatars is to Vishnu: a lesser expression of the main 'deity." Though the Robber is an expert marksman, he goes out of his way to punish Leiter by consigning him to the teeth of a sea-beast, just as Big tries to execute Bond and Solitaire by feeding them to the Jamaican sea-life.  Both men, having used or tried to use ocean-creatures for their executioners, are later devoured by the same creatures. 
 
And finally, they would both seem to be products of racial admixture. The Robber is the only Big-henchman not explicitly identified as Negro, though Fleming doesn't supply the same racial breakdown on him that the author does with the main villain.  However, the Robber's skin-color is described as “yellowish-beige.” Perhaps Fleming only meant that the character was "sallow."  However, in a novel so strongly about race, it's equally possible that Fleming meant the Rober to be a “high yellow,” meaning either a light-skinned Negro or a hybrid.  It's possible that this detail was inserted purely for verisimilitude, for in 1954 Fleming may have believed, correctly or not, that a person of color could not have overseen the operation of a major concern like Big's warehouse-- unless that person of color were able to “pass” as white so as to avoid raising the eyebrows of local white authorities.  It's also interesting that both characters are described as mixes of colors: "yellowish-beige" for the Robber, "grey-black" for Mister Big.
  
        In Part 3 I'll discuss in part those aspects of Fleming's novel that some might see, rightly or wrongly, as entirely political, though even here, I intend to show that things are not always what they seem.

 

No comments: