Sensitive nonsense

Changing art without regard to historical context or an artist’s intent isn’t sensitive, it’s culturally corrosive.

Photo credit: MGM/20th Century Fox via CC BY 2.0 DEED

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Casino Royale, the novel in which Ian Fleming introduced the world to his most famous creation: 007, James Bond. New editions of the books are being published to mark the event, and readers will find the following note: “A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.”

Sensitivity readers — people hired by publishers to check for supposedly offensive content, misrepresentation, stereotypes, and bias on issues such as race, religion, and sexual orientation — have removed various racial descriptors and epithets and, in America, sex scenes have been toned down. There is something in these rewrites to satisfy the woke and social conservatives alike.

The Bond novels contain much to jar a modern reader. Take one example: There was an old wives’ tale in Britain that homosexual men couldn’t whistle. In The Man with the Golden Gun, Bond is told that his target, the assassin Francisco Scaramanga, is believed to have “homosexual tendencies” and one way he identifies his quarry is by his inability to whistle. Fleming’s books are, arguably, more transgressive of contemporary mores now than they were in 1953 when the New Statesman dismissed Casino Royale as a confection of “sex, snobbery and sadism.”

Indeed, “Bond is not a hero, nor is he depicted as being very likable or admirable,” as Fleming himself wrote. “He is a Secret Service Agent. He’s not a bad man, but he is ruthless and self-indulgent. He enjoys the fight — he also enjoys the prizes.”

Fleming knew such men from personal experience. He had been a spy during World War II, working for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division. He was involved in planning Operation Goldeneye, sabotage operations in Spain if Franco had allied with Hitler, and helped run two intelligence units: 30 Assault Unit and T-Force. The former, Fleming wrote in a 1942 memo, would “accompany forward troops when a port or naval installation is being attacked and, if the attack is successful, their duty is to capture documents, cyphers.” The latter was the operational arm of a joint Anglo-American mission to secure German scientific and industrial technology in the final stages of the war.

Bond, Fleming explained, “was a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.” These were men like Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale, a bon viveur who headed MI6’s station in Paris, drove an armor-plated Rolls-Royce, dressed in handmade suits and Cartier cufflinks, and played a key role in cracking the Enigma code; Forest Yeo-Thomas, who parachuted multiple times into occupied France where he was captured and tortured by the Gestapo before escaping and killing an enemy agent; or Duane Hudson, who spent much of the war behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia where he survived assassination attempts and recruited a network of agents to blow up Axis shipping — he blew up an Italian ship single-handed.

These men were often ill-suited to civilian life, and Fleming painted Bond similarly. At the end of Moonraker, with the country saved and the villain dispatched, Bond meets his female accomplice, Gala Brand, for what he assumes will be a “dirty weekend.” Instead, she thanks him politely for all the excitement, points out her fiancé, and says goodbye.

And now what? wondered Bond. He shrugged his shoulders to shift the pain of failure — the pain of failure that is so much greater than the pleasure of success. The exit line. He must get out of these two young lives and take his cold heart elsewhere. There must be no regrets. No false sentiment. He must play the role which she expected of him. The tough man of the world. The secret agent. The man who was only a silhouette[…]

Such are the kinds of men who parachute into occupied Europe to wage war single-handedly, and it is those men and their world that Fleming sought to depict. Such men and such a world is not likely to make for “sensitive” reading. Whatever bowdlerized things are being released, they are no longer Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

Fleming assumed his audience was mature enough to accept a protagonist who was not a hero. A man who, for all his flaws, was necessary in certain situations and better, at least, than the man on the other side. The sanitization of the Bond novels raises questions about the sinister tampering with the art of the past, but it also raises questions about our own maturity as publishers and readers. Can we only accept as heroes the lifeless ciphers of pseudo-socialist pseudo-realism, shorn of flaws and bereft of depth? It is no longer enough that “Popeye” Doyle foils the drug dealers in The French Connection, he must refrain from using offensive language while doing so, as Disney decided with another recent bowdlerizing. “In fiction people used to have blood in their veins,” Fleming once wrote. “Nowadays they have pond water. My books are just out of step. But then so are all the people who read them.”

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