LARB is cooking up a storm!

For today only, donate $50 or more and get our limited-edition LARB Tea Towel designed by Mads Gobbo.
Tea Towel

James Bond, the Psychopath

By Brian WillemsJanuary 21, 2014

James Bond, the Psychopath

SPECTRE by Laurence Rickels

IN THE OPENING of Ian Fleming’s novel Thunderball (1961), James Bond has a really low opinion of himself: “he was ashamed”; he “despised the face that stared sullenly back at him from the mirror above the wash basin” and he calls himself a “Stupid, ignorant bastard!” all in the breadth of just a few pages. The reason for this self-depreciation is that Bond is bored: “It all came from having nothing to do.”

Both film adaptations of Fleming’s novel begin with a similar sense of boredom. In Thunderball (1965), Bond could easily escape a luxurious château without being seen. However, he engages in the theatrical gestures of throwing tulips on a corpse and waiting in a doorway to be observed by those chasing him in order to make a too-routine mission at least a little bit exciting. Never Say Never Again (1983), a second adaptation of the same story (which came about because one of the co-creators of the original idea sued Fleming and was later granted filming rights), shows Bond completing a routine mission without any such theatricality. The spy breaks into a hacienda and coolly dispatches henchman after henchman. Eventually he finds the woman he is supposed to set free, but as soon as he slits her bonds she stabs him in the stomach. This time Bond has failed to complete his mission: the woman had fallen prey to Stockholm syndrome, and Bond failed to recognize it. No worries, however, as this is just a training exercise, complete with rubber bullets. Consequently Bond is sent to a health clinic to get back into shape, setting off a plot involving a hijacked fighter jet carrying atomic warheads, common to all the versions of the story.

Bond’s problem in Never Say Never Again is that he does not slow down as he did in Thunderball: everything he does is purposeful. If only he had stopped, made a theatrical gesture, waited a second longer to take in the scene, he might have been able to test the reality around him and pick up on a sign that all was not as it seemed. While his excuse is that if it had been a real situation he would have had the adrenaline to heighten his senses, the Bond of Thunderball had a technique to deal with his boredom and thus was able to complete his mission, no matter in how camp a style.

Boredom, especially in the form of accidia (sometimes spelled accidie), is one of the main threads running through SPECTRE, Laurence Rickels’s psychoanalytic reading of Bond and his creator. As a kind of apathy or indifference to life, accidia was identified as a mortal sin, a form of sloth, by St. Thomas Aquinas. As Rickels shows, Fleming foregrounded the seriousness of accidia in his introduction to The Seven Deadly Sins, a collection of essays from 1962 in which each sin is tackled by a different famous writer. Fleming says, “Of all the seven, only Sloth in its extreme form of accidia, which is a form of spiritual suicide and a refusal of joy, [...] has my wholehearted condemnation, perhaps because in moments of despair I have seen its face.” While in Fleming’s Thunderball Bond is “a permanent prey to lassitude,” it is in the beginning of From Russia with Love that the author’s comments on sloth chime in: “Just as, in at least one religion, accidie is the first of the cardinal sins, so boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.”

Yet Bond is not the only character in the 007 pantheon to feel this way. Mr. Big of Live and Let Die tells Bond, “I suffer from boredom. I am prey to what the early Christians called ‘accidie,’ the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no more desires.” In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE, or the messily acronymed SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, also complains of accidia:           

I will make a confession to you, Mister Bond. I have come to suffer from a certain lassitude of mind which I am determined to combat. This comes in part from being a unique genius who is alone in the world, without honour — worse, misunderstood. No doubt much of the root cause of this accidie is physical — liver, kidneys, heart, the usual weak points of the middle-aged. But there has developed in me a certain mental lameness, a disinterest in humanity and its future, an utter boredom with the affairs of mankind.

Thus not only Bond but also his enemies seek escape from the same inactive despair.

The role of accidia in Fleming’s work has received attention before, from Ann Boyd’s use of the seven deadly sins as a reading guide in her 1967 The Devil with James Bond! to Benjamin Pratt’s more recent and perhaps too narrowly market-focused Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and James Bond’s Moral Compass: A Bible Study with James Bond, from 2008. The thing that sets Rickels’s book apart is his focus on how SPECTRE functions as an organization that promises to alleviate this hopelessness. Three initial examples help sort it out. Rickels, in his punning style, shows how in Thunderball, Blofeld

sought to extort great sums of money in exchange for the atomic missiles he had stolen and was prepared to detonate in selective locations. But he was thus also providing work of caution that would have prepared the world to adopt the necessary defensive and preventive measures in the face of inevitable rogue appropriation and deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

Then, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, SPECTRE raises awareness in the same manner by declaring bacteriological war against Britain. In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld sets up a Garden of Death in Japan that is meant to encourage “a lessening of the cultural valorization of suicide as honorable way out.”

One constant in all of these examples is an attempt to read the good and bad elements of SPECTRE together: a threat of annihilation encourages a realistic level of preparedness, an opportunity for taking one’s life in a pleasant setting raises awareness of the role of suicide in Japanese culture (at least from Fleming’s perspective). SPECTRE can thus be said to engage in a kind of haunting: “What SPECTRE asks for tends not to exceed what any ghost, at least according to countless stories and manuals, might be expected to request in the fixated effort to bring something in extended lifetime to closure.” In other words the negative or threatening aspects of SPECTRE are meant to bring about the best in us. This in turn connects Rickels to his main conversational partner, Melanie Klein, and her theory of the integration of good and bad objects.

In her 1940 essay “Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States,” Klein recapitulates and extends a number of key aspects of her work. In brief, she argues, “the child goes through states of mind comparable to the mourning of the adult.” What she calls the “infantile depressive position” comes about at the end of the weaning period, when a child begins to miss the mother’s breast and all of the care and security that it represents. What is important for Rickels’s reading is that the fear of loss that the child experiences is turned into anxiety, when an internalized and idealized “good object” (the breast the child had in the past) is tested against an external “bad object” (the breast the child cannot have in reality). The technique that the child uses to deal with the depressive state caused by the feeling of loss is called “reality testing,” which means a comparison of the good objects of the “internal world” with the external world’s bad ones; it is when both objects are coupled together in “integration” that feelings of depression and loss can be overcome.

Slotting the basic plot points of Thunderball into this structure results in the following: the good object is the West’s sucking at the teat of an idealized sense of security about their atomic weapons; SPECTRE’s role is to wean the West by creating a split between this idealized state and the external “bad object,” which is the realization that security is not so tight — a task they accomplish by stealing two atomic warheads; when the British government performs a “reality test” and finds that their internal sense of security does not match the external threat, they try a number of techniques to bring the internal and external in line, from preparing the payment SPECTRE demands to sending Bond to recover the warheads; once the warheads are recovered the good object/sense of security is restored.

The same structure explains the role of boredom: the good object is a false sense of competence in the job; boredom weans Bond off this feeling by showing how dangerous it is to treat the job as routine; by testing the false sense of confidence with the reality of a potentially failed mission in the real world Bond comes up with a technique to get the adrenaline pumping; once the mission is successful the sense of competence is restored. This pattern is followed in Thunderball, but in Never Say Never Again the mission fails because Bond never takes a reality test.

This schematization is too neat, Rickels admits. “The denizens of SPECTRE are shaken, not stirred,” he writes, meaning that the re-incorporated sense of security at the end is not so neat and tidy as it seems.

Integration, a term and notion that Klein introduced into the lexicon of psychoanalytic theory in her essay on mourning, is not to be confused with or limited to the positive inclusion of elements of opposition and their adaptation to a greater whole. In Klein’s conception, integration pulls up short before the prospect of irretrievable loss and includes this shortfall or incompletion in its structure.

SPECTRE “shakes” not only as the splitter of the good object from the bad, but also by haunting, the technique that allows the integration of the bad object back into the internal world. In other words, SPECTRE is evil in that it causes the loss of an idealized sense of security, but benevolent because it offers reasonable terms in a reasonable time frame for the warheads to be returned. SPECTRE is a kind ghost, making clear its terms for being sent back to the netherworld. What is shaky is that SPECTRE occupies both positions of threat and help.

The dual role SPECTRE plays is the first of many dossiers Rickels opens in his short text. A trained psychotherapist who spent many years as Professor of Comparative Literature and German at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Rickels is now Professor of Art and Theory at the Academy of Fine Arts, Karlsruhe, Germany, and his text not only includes readings of the Bond universe, but also of Hamlet, Goethe, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Carl Schmitt and The Oresteia. Approaching his book with a preloaded tool bag is helpful: while the strength of Rickles’s text is the way in which he unearths SPECTRE as the keystone to the fiction that Fleming wrote, its challenge lies in how Rickels leaves much of the work of putting the pieces together up to the reader, as if encouraging her to work through the struggles of the process of mourning herself.

Rickels uses the dual structure of the fictional SPECTRE not only to illuminate why Fleming filled the organization with remnants both of National Socialists and their Jewish victims, but also how Hamlet “is lodged between Catholicism and Protestantism,” how Casper is both spook and friend, and the problems with Klein’s reading of heterosexual coupling as a site of incorporation. Perhaps most poignantly, Rickels closes his book with the 1975 drug overdose of Fleming's son, in which his act of refusal to be integrated into his father’s legacy suggests an open psychic wound lacking closure.

Another approach would be to read SPECTRE both backward and forward in Rickels’s oeuvre. His work on Klein can be read, for example, as a reformulation of what he attempted to do in his first book, Aberrations of Mourning (1988), with Freud’s case studies and the cargo cult. A shorter step back takes us to his previous book, I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick (2010), in which the concept of doubling is read not just in the relation of the subject to its objects but also the reverse: “Dick’s alternate reality of mourning or unmourning as half-life views the deceased and the survivor as always having in common that they both lost each other.” A step forward brings us to the unreleased Germany: A Science Fiction, due sometime in 2014. Both SPECTRE and Germany are published by a new press out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, called Anti-Oedipus, its name taken from the classic book by Deleuze and Guattari. Run by D. Harlan Wilson, a key figure in the Bizzaro fiction genre (along with the likes of Carlton Mellick III and Mykle Hansen), the press focuses on fiction and nonfiction loosely falling into the science fiction genre. As such it is a proper home for a number of Rickels’s current preoccupations.

Germany is both a sequel to I Think I Am and a follow-up to SPECTRE. The text focuses on questions of reparation and integration in regard to the mourning process, with special attention to the German reception of the English school of psychoanalysis, which extends through Winnicott, and includes a turn from psychosis to psychopathy. In Rickels’s reading, psychosis, as a state of removal from reality, is tied to the integration brought about at the end of mourning, while in psychopathy, which involves more of a removal from society than from reality, “the failure to empathize and mourn tests the limits of tolerance.” A resistance to mourning is important in that the subject becomes even more shaken than stirred.

Because of the tendency to resist incorporation in psychopathy, one of the key figures in this line of thought is the child:

The anti-social tendencies in young children, which can, once consolidated and rationalized for secondary gain, spawn the psychopath, symptomatize deprivation in the holding environment prior to the egoic maturity set for mourning, but also at an age old enough to be beyond fateful internalization of this environmental fault line.

However, the delinquent child is not “all bad,” since, according to Winnicott, “the child, whose grounds for stealing or acting destructively are as yet unconscious, signals with each delinquent act both the importance of the environment and the return of hope.” Rickels uses this line of thought to read a wide range of science fiction texts, including The War of the Worlds, 2001, Ender’s Game, La Jetée, and The Terminator. As strange as it may seem, the relationship between psychopathy and hope can also be used to reformulate the difference between the Bonds of the opening scenes of Thunderball and Never Say Never Again.

For Rickels, psychopathy is connected with hope because both involve a removal from expectations: psychopathy from behavior considered sane, hope from the expected integration offered by rituals of mourning. What both of these concepts have to do with Bond is that in Never Say Never Again he fulfills all of the expectations of being a world-class spy and yet fails at his mission, while in Thunderball he resists these expectations with his theatrical gestures, which allows him to complete the mission with time to spare. In the language of Germany the Bond of Thunderball is a figure of hope because he is able to pause long enough to be able to perform a reality test of his environment:

Preserved to this day as the cognate verhoffen in the German language of hunters, hope originally designated the startle response that allows you to consider, in pulling back before a blockage in the intended path, the alternate directions to take within a suddenly altered environment. The moment of hope thus gives pause for thought or reality testing.

Too bad that being a figure of hope also means being a psychopath.


Brian Willems teaches literature and film theory at the University of Split, Croatia. His is most recently the author of Facticty, Poverty and Clones.

LARB Contributor

Brian Willems is Assistant Professor at the University of Split, Croatia, where he teaches literature at the Faculty of Philosophy and film theory at the Arts Academy. He is the author of Hopkins and Heidegger and Facticity, Poverty and Clones: On Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.