After watching Casino Royale again I was contemplating the apparently endlessly enduring appeal of the character of Bond, something that has long puzzled me.  Since High School my love of the Bond Series was a ‘guilty pleasure,’ something that I found enjoyable even while thinking that I ought not to.  I couldn’t place the appeal; it was just there.

Bond represents, in theory, everything Christianity speaks against: wanton sex, violence, alcoholism, sadism, misogyny, imperialism, etc etc.  It occurred to me today that it is precisely in this completely abhorrent nature that the character has his appeal.  The character of James Bond is the cathartic release figure par excellence.  He is, quite directly, a perfect hero for the mass media age.  Let me explain.

Oral and folklore theorists (notably Ong) note that in purely oral cultures epic characters have a number of distinctive features which make them appear simplistic (and even unattractive) to the literate/novelized mind.  They are ‘heavy’ characters: they have few and simple characteristics which they pursue directly; they are larger than life, and act in ways completely inappropriate for normal life.   They are often excessively wanton, especially in terms of violence.  Even the gods act in a similar way (note that in most mythologies the world is created through a series of incestuous unions between the gods and goddess, even in societies which do not condone incest).  This ‘heavy’ nature serves several purposes; 1) it makes them memorable; 2) it makes them suitable for varied (oral) performances; 3) it makes them cathartic.  It is the last point which appeared relevant to me tonight.

The exotic and remarkable stories about heroes and divinities served to reinforce societal mores and norms by allowing their breach in a controlled and distant manner: the norms are broken only by super-human and supernatural beings.  It thus follows that the average listener should not copy the actions so told because they are not Achilles (nor Gilgamesh, nor Rostam), just as it allows them to vicariously enjoy the actions so denied to them.  I don’t think this is exactly the same meaning of ‘cathartic’ that Aristotle intended, but nonetheless it seems to be part and parcel of the oral heroic/mythic tale.  It is the oral equivalent to the modern comedy: upset the normal order in order to reaffirm it at the end, and the order is all the stronger for the virtual upset.

In this light, Bond makes perfect sense: he is everything the post-modern (or maybe post-war) (male) shouldn’t be.  He is misogynistic, racist, imperialist, lives a life of conspicuous waste, spending, and destruction, and takes life at a whim without consequence.   It is everything a man ought not do (and hopefully does not really want to do), but on occasion likes to fantasize partaking a bit of.  This explains its enduring appeal.  (We could go into the mass media as re-instituting a ‘second orality,’ but I think that is unnecessary).  It also explains why, however excellent Craig’s Bond is, he can never replace Connery; indeed, if Connery had not been the first Bond, the whole franchise probably would have failed.  As a director of photography with whom I worked said a long time ago, Connery could be ‘a complete bastard and get away with it.’  He is Bond, because he so successfully carried out the ‘heavy’ nature of the Bond character.

Perhaps this also explains why the films also tend to appeal to men more than women; perhaps women respond to different kinds of ‘heavy’ characters, ones that similarly fill out forbidden roles to females.  I’ll have to defer to the women on that.  Ladies?

 Jason M. Silverman
10 October 2008