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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Monday, June 16, 2008

"If you could be any character in literature, who would you choose?"

"If you could be any character in literature, who would you choose?" Given that I write about books for a (hardscrabble) living, I could see that she expected me to name some obvious literary heavyweight, such as Odysseus, Prince Genji, or Huckleberry Finn — all of whom flashed through my mind as good answers. Instead I paused for a moment, put on my most sardonic look, and huskily whispered into the microphone, "Bond, James Bond." It brought down the house.

Of course, people thought I was kidding. And, of course, I wasn't.

Having just read Devil May Care, by the novelist Sebastian Faulks "writing as Ian Fleming," and recently enjoyed Casino Royale, Bond's latest cinematic adventure, I don't see any reason to change my answer. It is a truth universally, if seldom publicly, acknowledged that virtually every American male, from puberty onward, would love to be 007. He's got the best toys, attracts gorgeous women, and wins at every game, be it golf, baccarat, or — in Devil May Care — tennis. Such (arguably) shallow benefits might be sufficient to explain part of Bond's appeal. But there's something even more primordial to his mythic glamour.

What, after all, is a man's deepest wish? Freud talked about "honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women" — and Bond certainly encompasses all those. Still, that libidinal litany can be boiled down to a single desire, half hidden in the shadowy reaches of the male psyche and more clearly delineated in world mythology: As Joseph Campbell would say, men long to be heroes. No doubt about it. And yet I think the masculine ego also hungers for something a bit more noirish, if you will. At least some of the time, guys want to be thought of as … dangerous. While it's gratifying to be called a hard-working professional or a good provider, those admirable traits don't make our hearts beat quicker. By contrast, to overhear oneself described as "a man not to be trifled with" — that's quite another matter.

Our institutions, as Foucault used to remind us, are designed to instill order and discipline, to create team players and salarymen, to compel our unruly hearts to abide by timetables and deadlines. But what man dreams of being safe and respectable, or, God forbid, prudent? No wonder women fall for outlaws. Surely the most distinctive if subtle thrill in all of James Bond occurs near the opening of the film of Live and Let Die. As the secret agent boards a plane bound for New York, we see the clairvoyant Solitaire methodically turning over one tarot card after another. As she places each down on the table, she speaks a single emotionless phrase. "A man comes … he travels quickly … he comes over water … he will oppose." And then, after the briefest of pauses: "He brings violence and destruction."

Indeed, he does, for the cards never lie. Bond famously possesses a license to kill, but in some ways he also embodies license itself, the spirit of anarchy and transgression. No rules apply to 007. He lives beyond good and evil, outside the confining strictures of the biblical commandments. Like the medieval figure called Vice or the Renaissance Lord of Misrule, James Bond turns the world upside down. He sounds an "everlasting no" to the smugly arrogant and powerful, cocks a snook, as the British say, at those full of messianic ardor and contempt for ordinary human beings. In a Bond book or film, the megalomaniac mastermind — Blofeld, Rosa Klebb, Hugo Drax — always comes up with the perfect plan, carefully worked out to the last detail. Said evil mastermind also possesses expert henchmen, a high-tech lair, and seemingly infinite resources. World domination or world destruction is just within his (or sometimes her) grasp. The countdown has started; nothing can go wrong.

But that pesky and strangely persistent British agent keeps popping up to cause a bit of bother. Only when it's too late do Goldfinger or Mr. Big or Dr. No realize that Bond isn't just an operative of MI6; he is Siva, destroyer of worlds, bringer of chaos. At the end of a Bond movie, the impregnable fortress is in ruins, the beautiful plan in tatters, the invincible villains all dead.

While he may thus act like a scourge of God, Bond hardly looks like a Tamerlane or Conan. The first words we think of when we describe James Bond — at least the 007 of the films — are suave, debonair, cosmopolitan. All those are shorthand for Bond's supreme personal characteristic, what Renaissance courtiers always aspired to exemplify: sprezzatura. That is the ability to perform even the most difficult task with flair, grace, and nonchalance, without getting a wrinkle in your clothes or working up a sweat. Bond not only is cool, he always looks cool, at ease in his skin, at home in the world. Whatever his surroundings, he's the best-dressed guy in the room.

Again, the innate urbanity and smoothness is certainly emphasized in the films, which clearly aim mainly for spectacle, the visually dazzling. While American action-movie heroes tend to be grungy (think of Bruce Willis in the Die Hard series), Bond is consistently elegant, conserv-atively dressed in beautifully cut suits. Little wonder that David Niven — the very exemplar of British savoir-faire — was considered for the original screen role. Significantly, when asked once to explain the appeal of his books, Ian Fleming first mentioned his use of luxury brand names. The secret agent's casual shirts weren't just cotton, they were Sea Island cotton. Thus began the promotion of high-end products by their association with Bond. You can actually own the stuff that dreams are made of. Right now you can buy, from Turnbull & Asser, expensive replicas of the evening shirt and tie worn by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Till recently, Pierce Brosnan regularly appeared in magazine advertisements for Omega watches. Long ago, an Aston Martin became every boy's fantasy car after 007 drove one in Goldfinger.

Bond is, in fact, a connoisseur in the largest sense: He is one who knows. The omnicompetent 007 can handle himself with utter confidence in a casino or on a golf course, at a shooting range or on a ski slope. He can drive a tank or fly an airplane or bet all his chips on the turn of a card and win. In Bond's world, the hotels are always five star, the Bollinger properly chilled, and the bespoke suits created on Jermyn Street or in Italy by Brioni.

Of course, the Bond women are also a connoisseur's choice. Like the spy who loves them, they are more than just seductive; they look as if they had just emerged from the sea, perfect in every way, eroticism incarnate. One after another, though, each gladly accepts her role as what the French call "le repos du guerrier" — the warrior's rest. Bond's sexual electricity is such that even a lesbian like Pussy Galore (in Goldfinger) inevitably ends up in his bed. A woman I know, trying to explain the visceral attractiveness of the first actor to play Bond, put it this way: Most men are boys; Sean Connery is a man.

Bond, then, is utterly glamorous, but not just in the usual urbane, film-star mode. He is also glamorous in the old connotation of delusively alluring, not to be trusted, a false enchantment that hides a trap. In a heartbeat, Bond can switch from rakish playboy to Rambo; alternately, he can strip off a frogman's suit to reveal a white dinner jacket underneath. Fleming's hero is always more than he appears to be.
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