“The East that makes you want to wipe your fingers on your coat-tails.”
(Chapter Fourteen: Darko Kerim,
From Russia, with Love, Fleming, I. 1957.)
A Manichean ideology is defined as one which breaks down the world into black or white, good or evil- viewing the world in a binary opposition of two conflicting sides. Umberto Eco, in his essay The Narrative Structure in Ian Fleming, published in 1966, evaluates this ideology, in relation to the Ian Fleming novels featuring James Bond. He considers the James Bond novels to be following this belief, that comes from Mani, an apostle from around 240 CE Mesopotamia, who taught it as a religion based on what is now called dualism. The line quoted above proves interesting to keep in mind when analysing Eco’s essay in context of Ian Fleming’s work.
Eco claims, in the essay taken from The Bond Affair, 1966, that Bond does not himself consider Britain superior to other (Eastern) races and that he is not anti-Communist. He instead follows the popular norm, seen in his ceasing to “identify the wicked with Russia as soon as the international situation rendered Russia less menacing according to the general opinion.” This can be compared to a later essay by critic Robert Bernard, Their Aim is World Domination, 1980, where he gives the same justification for Christie’s latent racism in early, pre-detective fiction works, claiming her stereotypes were in keeping with the general sentiments of her time and thus a reflection of society. This mitigation seems as much a pretence as Eco’s does to several critics (such as Dilip K. Basu) who are more censorious of Fleming.
However, Fleming’s acknowledgement of African races is called profuse by Eco and this suggests a forced political correctness in Fleming’s works despite Eco’s defence of him. Fleming allowing his Jewish villain a note of guilt as opposed to the other ‘bad’ characters is also highly suspect, and seems to be a declaration of Fleming’s new lack of blind prejudice against an ‘inferior’ race. Eco however, does not believe so and feels that this reflects that the views expressed are not Fleming’s own but merely a “reaction to popular demand.” Eco goes on to explain Fleming’s use of archetypes proven traditionally successful, and relying upon the “secure and universal principles.” He considers the stock characters to personify the Manichean dichotomy of black and white, using each stereotype to highlight the other.
These are seen to be manifesting in the juxtaposition between different characters, such as Bond and M., Bond and the villain, the villain and the woman, the woman and Bond, and so on. This shows his faith in Fleming’s having studied social trends and simply reflected them in his writing. Robert Bernard holds a contradictory opinion, believing that Agatha Christie’s earlier prejudice (in her ‘thriller’ novels) was a response to general opinion but Ian Fleming’s racist overtones are inexcusable because they are anachronistic; they exist in his novels despite no remaining indication of biased feelings in the environment. This is in direct contrast to Eco’s views, who believes the social milieu of the time to be the exonerating quality of the James Bond novels.
Eco also explains a clash of personal luxury and discomfort in distinguishing ‘the Free World’ from the Soviet Union. In From Russia, with Love, Grant is shown to live in a villa with no bathroom, as a comment on Soviet backwardness, in contrast with the world’s modern ways. Tatiana Romanova, a corporal in Soviet Army Intelligence, is also shown living in an apartment of “square boxes with a […] single electric light and a share of the central bathrooms and lavatories.” James Bond is, however, described to be living in comfort in London with a Scottish housekeeper, the word “big” repeated frequently to emphasise the more ‘civilised’ and lavish lifestyle of the West.
Fleming’s racialism is put sensitively by Eco, whether he deserves this tact or not. He claims that the books are Manichean in an objective manner, portraying the world in conflicting shades of distinct black and white, without any actual discrimination on Fleming’s part. Further, he maintains that the views expressed are not Fleming’s own- that he is only pandering to what people know and expect, and what will add to their reading experience (as, for instance, a nurse may suggest a monster to be Black in order to frighten children, despite not themselves finding Black people to be fearsome). However, this is not a justifiable defence in the opinion of many critics, such as Michael Denning, who considers this a violation of Fleming’s “responsibility as a writer: not to his readers, but to his work.” (Licensed to Look, 1987.) The actor Daniel Craig, who has portrayed the role of James Bond in four Bond films, himself simultaneously discredits and justifies Fleming’s work,
“Let’s not forget, Bond is a misogynist. We’ve surrounded him with very strong women who have put him in his place.”
(Red Bulletin, October, 2015.)
He can thus be seen to share Eco’s perspective to the novels, finding the character of Bond to be despicable but interpreting it as narratorial intent; while Eco sees it as irony, Craig finds it to be required in order for Bond to be showed down or ‘put in his place,’ as it were.
Umberto Eco, in 1962, introduced the concept of The Open Work, through his essay of the same name, Opera Aperta, in which he argues that literary texts are fields, rather than strings, of meaning, and are open, internally dynamic as well as psychologically engaging. (Roland Barthes also discusses this in his 1968 essay, The Death of the Author.) This semiotic concept is applied by him to Fleming’s work in this context, as he believes it is open for interpretation. Where a reader may find prejudice or malice, another may note a tone of satirical jest, supplying an entirely new connotation. This is similar to what Darko Suvin expresses in his later essay On Teaching Science Fiction Critically, 1979, where he claims that “a text is constituted and characterised by what it excludes as well as by what it includes.” He explains this through science fiction, where he writes of a text that deals with a planet with a matriarchy and a blue sun. While reading this, one would be aware that they are reading a text about a planet that does not have a patriarchy, and does not have a yellow sun. Through the absences, a reader must understand and access what the writer attempts to express. Eco in this manner finds Fleming’s writing to be heavily and exaggeratedly ironic. His Soviet antagonists in From Russia, with Love are so overemphasised in their evil nature that it becomes improbable and impossible to take them seriously. He thus hopes to allow multiple or mediated interpretation by the readers (what Eco calls ‘intentio lectoris,’ or ‘intention of the reader’) in contrast to a closed text that leads the reader to one intended inference.
Despite allowing this benefit of the doubt to Fleming, Eco notes that he himself declares that most “of the background to this story is accurate,” in the preface to the novel. Eco feels that his irony and exposing of society only works if taken as true, as though it is intended by the writer; if this is not so, the text becomes a satire, which has a less strong effect. Thus Eco posits that Fleming is not a Fascist or a realist, but a cynic devising tales for his audience to interpret as they choose. He takes this further, according to Eco, by suggesting an incorrigible image of several characters from the start. He names the villain Red Grant (From Russia, with Love) because he works for money (thought to be a Communist and thus ‘Red’ preoccupation); In Goldfinger, OddJob is the name assigned to a peculiar contract killer and the character Auric Goldfinger is obsessed with gold; and of course Bond is to evoke luxurious images of Bond Street or Treasury Bonds, despite the claim of his having a common appearance and name. These ideas contradict a quote from Fleming himself however, as he had once confessed that he hoped to “take the story along so fast that nobody would notice the idiosyncrasies.”
Dilip K. Basu also disagrees with this perspective in his Introduction: From Russia, with Love,
“Eco mentions that Fleming ceased to identify the wicked with Russia at some late stage. This, for Eco is also proof that the author reacted purely to popular demand. I […] feel compelled to point out [that] Fleming’s Bond books are invariably anti-Russia or anti-communism, with little exception. Castro or East Germany as enemies in a couple of short stories are also fundamentally anti-Russia. His last four novels involve Russia-opposition. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service includes long passages of Russia-bashing and You Only Die Twice ends with Bond’s mission against Russia.”
He goes on to quote instances from Thunderball, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Moonraker, mentioning even Nazi references in Bond novels. He is thus able to offer, for an ‘open reading’ (or a ‘close reading,’ as is done in Marxist criticism), contrasting points of view to those of Umberto Eco.
In summation, Eco justifies Fleming’s use of the Manichean ideology and credits it for having led to the wide success of the Bond novels. He feels that this, as well as the work being an ‘open’ one, allow his novels to appeal to a wider audience so that it is left up to them to construe what they will. A sophisticated or broad-minded reader can see distinctions that a biased one may not, and is capable of “applaud[ing] in Fleming the cultured man, whom they recognise as one of themselves.”