top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Friendly Fogey

Ian Fleming's Moral Universe

A few years ago I came across The Seven Deadly Sins, a collection of seven essays on the volume’s namesake. Evelyn Waugh contributed the entry on sloth. W.H. Auden contributed the entry on anger. The introduction was written by the mastermind who brought together the entire project: Ian Fleming.

Most are only familiar with Fleming via the Bond films. But Fleming the author was a little more thoughtful than that lens would lead us to believe (emphasis on a little). The author of the Bond books was someone who Christopher Hitchens, Kingsley Amis, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Umberto Eco, and many other literary giants all had at least some (although often strongly qualified) good things to say about.

The first five books paint a very different picture than their cinematic counterparts (I stopped at five because the fifth book, From Russia with Love, is generally considered one of the best). There aren't many gadgets. Bond is charming, but not every other word is a pun or clever quip. He obviously appreciates the finer things, but he does not come off as slick or overly metropolitan. More than once, his suit, car, or luggage is described as "battered" or "old." His hair is “carelessly brushed.” He doesn’t own a television. He isn't Pierce Brosnan, outfitted with the latest clothes, newest toys, and frequenting only the finest establishments. He is more like an Anthony Bourdain. Someone who is obviously well kept, but not flashy; who enjoys bacon, eggs, and black coffee as much as he enjoys extravagant meals; and who turns away nice hotels in his search for something more authentic.

Philip Larkin reviewed the two final Bond stories for The Spectator in 1966, saying "With our minds full of Sean Connery in Technicolor," the books - comparatively speaking - "seem sensitive, civilised, full of shading and nuance." He thought that there is a "moralist Bond" who is "quite incompatible with the strip-cartoon superman of the film versions or of popular belief, but who fits well with Kingsley Amis’s suggestion, in his amusing and pertinent The James Bond Dossier, that Bond is a re-hash of the Byronic hero."

That's a little over the top, but you get the point. Fleming created a moral universe in which Bond was a morally admirable character. Bond was more than someone you wanted to be because of his toys and women. Bond was someone you wanted to be because he was good - at least in Fleming's universe.

One can see the grounding for Bond's moral universe in Fleming's introduction to The Seven Deadly Sins. He writes there that the volume led him “to the dreadful conclusion that in fact all these ancient sins of today, are in fact very close to virtues.”He explains:

“How drab and empty life would be without these sins, and what dull dogs we all would be without a healthy trace of them in our make up! And has not the depiction of these sins and their consequences been the yeast in most great fiction and drama? Could Shakespeare, Voltaire, Balzac, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy have written their masterpieces if humanity had been innocent of these sins? It is almost as if Leonardo, Titian, Rembrandt and Van Gogh had been required to paint without using the primary colors.
The truth, of course, is that generally speaking these Seven Deadly Sins were enumerated by monks for monks, and one can easily see how mischievous and harmful they could be within a monastery.
We do not live in a monastery, but in a great pulsating ant heap, and this brings me back to the moral confusion into which I have been thrown by these essays and which amounts to feeling that there are other and deadlier sins which I would like to see examined by authors of equal calbre in a companion volume to this.
I have made a list of these Seven Deadlier Sins which every reader will no doubt wish to amend, and these are my seven: Avarice, Cruelty, Snobbery, Hypocrisy, Self-righteousness, Moral Cowardice and Malice. If I were to put these modern seven into the scales against the ancient seven I cannot but feel that the weight of the former would bring the brass tray crashing down.
But is this loose thinking? Could it perhaps be argued that if we are free of the ancient seven we shall not fall victim to their modern progeny? I personally do not think so, but it would need better brains than mine and a keener sense of theological morality than I possess to pursue the argument. As a man in the street, I can only express my belief that being possessed of the ancient seven deadly sins one can still go to heaven, whereas to be afflicted by the modern variations can only be a passport to hell."
Despite this preference to for an updated version of the seven deadly sins, Fleming does admit that of the ancient seven, “only Sloth in its extreme form of accidia, which is a form of spiritual suicide and a refusal of joy, so brilliantly examined by Evelyn Waugh, has my wholehearted condemnation, perhaps because in moments of despair I have seen its face.”

Accidia (or acedia) is usually described as an extreme sorrow or boredom, such that one loses all desires and joy. Thomas Aquinas describes it “as an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man's mind, that he wants to do nothing.” Evelyn Waugh explained Aquinas’ view by calling it “sadness in the face of spiritual good.”

Interestingly enough, this sin makes recurring appearances, both implicitly and explicitly in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels. In Live and Let Die, Mr. Big confides to Bond that he “suffers from boredom.” He explains, “I am prey to what the early Christians call ‘accidie’, the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no more desires.” In From Russia with Love, we meet Bond “disgusted to find that he was thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead. Just as in at least one religion, accidie is the first of cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.” Accidie is explicitly referenced again at least once more in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

In From Russia with Love we see Bond’s - and Fleming’s - solution for acedia: “Kick oneself out of it.” The capacity to go on kicking is what makes one morally admirable. From Russia with Love presents the evil yet drab Russians - who live in uniformed box apartments and quell their desires in the name of the state - put up against the underfunded but big-hearted men of the British secret service. In the end, the English win not because they have superior gadgetry or funding (i.e., not because of the more sophisticated material advancements produced by capitalism in contrast to communism), but rather because they simply have a bigger appetite for life and adventure. They are willing to walk into an obvious trap to “see the game through.” Consider also that the two heroes, Bond and Kerim Bey, are aggressively sexual (an understatement) while the novel’s antagonist, Donovan Grant, is described as asexual.

This is hedonism, but hedonism with a purpose. Bond’s proclivity for expensive meals and women is his rebuke to the spiritual lethargy of modernity that is imposed by communism and creeping in modern capitalism. Fleming paints his moral universe with sharp contrasts. The White Knights of England against the Black Knights of Russia or of organized crime. In the words of Umberto Eco, Fleming is Manichean in that “his is the static, inherent dogmatic conservatism of fairy tales and myths, which transmit an elementary wisdom, constructed and communicated by a simple play of light and shade, by indisputable archetypes which do not permit critical distinction.” In other words, Fleming works with types. We can see this even in the naming of his characters. For instance, he is often derided as sexist for populating his books with stock females named “Pussy Galore” and “Kissy Suzuki.” The name may evoke a certain adolescent conception of women, but for these characters, as in any good fairy tale, that is the whole point. If a woman is diamond smuggler she is named Tiffany Case. A Korean henchman is Oddjob. A villain obsessed with gold is Goldfinger. Etc, etc, etc.

Bond is of course a womanizer by 1953 standards. But it's difficult to describe Bond's attitude towards relationships as casual by 2017 standards. In fact, he has a tendency to fall in love. The death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale haunts Bond throughout the following novels. Bond doesn't set off to seduce Tatiana Romanova in From Russia with Love until it is established that Tiffany Case, his love from the previous book, left him for an American diplomat. Moonraker ends with Bond watching his love interest walk away into the arms of her fiance while he resigns himself to getting “out of these two young lives” to “take his cold heart elsewhere.”

Perhaps it's because we now have the benefit of reading the novels some seventy years further into the sexual revolution, but the books no longer scandalize. Fleming is obviously a hedonist and a sadist, but the sex is not the most pronounced aspect of either of these tendencies. When it comes to indulging, Fleming spends more time describing Bond's extravagant meals than he ever spends describing a woman. And as regards sadism, Fleming spends goes into greater detail on what happens in torture cells than on what happens in the bedroom.

The usual commentary on Fleming is that his work can be written off as sexist, racist, sadist, imperialist, reactionary, and even perverted. All of that is true, but it misses the point by failing to see where Fleming missed the point. Bond is a modern man in rebellion against modernity. A position that should be easy enough to empathize with. But as a modern man his rebellion is limited, and, in the end, cruel and perverse. He thinks the only way out of despair - or boredom - is action: food, sex, travel, and adventure. But according to Aquinas, the opposite of acedia, or sloth, is charity. Love. Love, because love is what we do when inspired by the good, and sloth (acedia) is what we do when we sorrow in the face of good. Aquinas says “the proper effect of charity is joy in God, as stated above, while sloth is sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good.” Love is the opposite of sloth because love inspires action and joy.

Contra Fleming, you can’t kick your way out of despair. You can only love your way out.

bottom of page