Books April 2006

Bottoms Up

Ian Fleming, the man behind James Bond, was a sadist, a narcissist, and an all-around repressed pervert. But he also saw past the confines of the Cold War
I want to suggest that the anal anxiety of Diamonds is primarily important not as a textbook illustration of the Rat Man's particular obsessions, but as a surface trace of a deeper phenomenon. I'd like to argue that the Bond universe is premised on a certain obsessive-compulsive logic, but a logic that can more profitably be understood as Althusserian and ideological rather than as simply Freudian and psychological, a logic that is less about regression to infantile sexuality than about the hopes and anxieties spawned by postwar culture.

—Dennis W. Allen, 'Alimentary, Dr. Leiter': Anal Anxiety in Diamonds Are Forever"

The above is excerpted from the essay collection Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007, which was also the name of a symposium held at Indiana University in 2003. Bloomington, of all places, is the repository of the bulk of Fleming's books and papers. These, according to an excellent biography by Andrew Lycett, include State of Excitement, Fleming's only unpublished work—disappointingly enough, an account of a trip he made to Kuwait in 1960. (The book failed to meet with the approval of the Kuwait Oil Company, which had commissioned it but did not care for its tone. So it is not the case that Fleming invariably romanticized British post-colonialism.)

Now consider this:

The point of Felix Leiter, such a nonentity as a piece of characterization, is that he, the American, takes orders from Bond, the Britisher, and that Bond is constantly doing better than he, showing himself, not braver or more devoted, but smarter, wilier, tougher, more resourceful—the incarnation of little old England with her quiet ways and shoestring budget wiping the eye of great big global-tentacled multi-billion-dollar-appropriating America.

—Kingsley Amis, The James Bond Dossier

I cannot think of anyone more likely to have ridiculed a "postmodern" conference on the work of Fleming and the semiotics of Bond than the author of this passage. Yet it seems that even Amis felt that Fleming's novels could not be taken at face value. Bond's triumph over Leiter in Diamonds—he tells him where to look inside a corpse for hidden stones—is perhaps an instance of British "guts" rather than British anality. Bond himself is almost always described, and describes himself, as "English," but in the premature Times obituary that is printed in the late-bloomer You Only Live Twice, he is described as having had a Scottish father and a Swiss mother and thus cannot be said to be English at all. Still, there is no doubt that the CIA man Leiter is made from indigestible cardboard—a sort of Jamesian foil for Bond's superior sophistication. (My own very small contribution to Bond studies has been to point out that "Leiter" was the family name of the rich American woman who married Lord Curzon, in the great age of matrimonial alliances between Churchills, Vanderbilts, and Astors, thus helping to secure his fortune and her position in society.) Other than that, Felix Leiter can indeed be read as a sort of signifier or cipher.

And "cipher" is the nom de guerre of Le Chiffre, the numbers-man racketeer of the French Communist Party and perhaps the most odiously sadistic of Fleming's villains. He features in the first of the published Bond books, Casino Royale, which is the only one that has not been made into a "serious" film. A farcical and noncanonical version of it was made starring Peter Sellers and David Niven, which causes one to reflect upon what might have happened had Fleming got his way and secured Niven instead of Sean Connery as the original Bond. (Role selection was not Fleming's strong suit; he invited Noël Coward, his neighbor in Jamaica, to take the part of Dr. No—picture it if you will.) Now it seems that a fresh Casino Royale will be made, and the new casting will give us Daniel Craig as Bond. You may have caught Mr. Craig playing a hopelessly sinister and useless South African Jew in Steven Spielberg's laughable Munich ("the ownly blid thit mitters to mee is Jewish blid"). We are, so to speak, back where we started.

My own adolescence coincided perfectly with the emergence of the somehow brilliantly named Ursula Andress from the foaming Jamaican breakers, in Dr. No. (Fleming gave stupid mock monikers to many of his cock-fodder heroines, from Pussy Galore to Kissy Suzuki, but Ursula Andress is a natural porn name if ever I've struck one.) One noted various things about Andress, from the knife belt around her waist to the blade hanging against her thigh, and then feverishly consulted the original text, only to discover that it adhered to a constant theme and also awarded her a boy's rear end. Concerning this decision, Coward wrote to Fleming, "I know that we are all becoming progressively more broad-minded nowadays but really, old chap, what could you have been thinking of?"

Anyway, for the first time in my life I had found a book that everybody else, including my pustular contemporaries, had also read. And this was very handy for the give-and-take of textual criticism. Today, however, I can be virtually certain that most Americans below a certain age know of Fleming solely, or chiefly, through the movies. It is under this guise only that the product has been bonded for universal export.

People like to condescend to the brand-name snobbery and Savile Row (or Bond Street) affectation, but these are only the outward show of two of the books' most important elements. When Fleming started to publish his stories, Britain was only just emerging from a long period of postwar austerity and uniformity, and it was beginning to be possible to emphasize luxury and style again without having a bad conscience. This development was somewhat identified with the return of the British Conservatives to power, and helped enable Fleming to be more frankly Churchillian and pro-imperial than would have been possible a few years previously.

The second element, namely a distinctive blend of fine leather, good tailoring, and club-land confidence, was of huge importance in appealing to American Anglophilia—perhaps most especially the sort of Anglophilia that had led the United States to clone the Office of Strategic Services, and later the CIA, from the British MI5 and MI6. Fleming himself had played a supporting part in this process, visiting wartime Washington for the British Naval Intelligence Division and writing a lengthy memo on the ways in which London could be of help to "the Cousins." He was to pay another call in 1960, to meet John F. Kennedy and discuss a number of demented schemes for the elimination of Fidel Castro. (In 1961, Life magazine printed the boy president's list of "top ten" books, with From Russia With Love coming in at No. 9; we have paid dearly for this juvenile taste.) In the interim, however, British imperialism had come to a humiliating halt at Suez in 1956, as a direct consequence of President Eisenhower's refusal to support the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Fleming had every reason to take this personally: the British prime minister at the time, Sir Anthony Eden, had gone at least temporarily insane and been forced to take a long rest—which he did at Goldeneye, Fleming's private Jamaican retreat.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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