This time with spoilers. Here.
Yes, I was surprised at how explicit and unironic the patriotism was.
Bond in Hades, a nice conceit! One might add: his eros and his thumos did not find adequate “outlets” there: (fairly) rough sex, followed by sipping-a-Heineken indolence, followed by pointless death-defying drinking games. None of this will satisfy such a soul as James Bond’s. But what came to his rescue? CNN! Our globalized, technologically-knit, world, as covered by Wolf B., bringing the truth of home — England’s burning – home to Bond. Ah, the delicious ironies.
Yes, I forgot about the specifics of the scorpion death defying drinking game. That makes his underworld daring, but not in a way worthy of James Bond. It’s not good enough for Bond’s eros and thumos, but Wolf Blitzer? Too hilarious!
But Carl’s right, the patriotism does seem to be explicit and unironic.
An inconclusive line of observations: the movie’s called Skyfall; Skyfall’s Bond’s ancestral home; his mom and dad are buried there; when it’s brought up by a shrink, he abruptly terminates the session; yet he brings “M” there for the final show-down; Silva is defeated there; but “M” dies there as well; Skyfall (the ancestral home) is destroyed (as is the vehicle-toy he took out of the mothballs to make a clean, undetectable escape). Where does all that leave Bond vis-a-vis Skyfall? Has he come home in some sense? What’s his relationship to his origins now? “M” had said that “orphans make the best agents”. That may indicate that sovereign attachment to Mother England required severing ties with family. But the personal attachment to “M” probably shows that that sort of hyper-patariotic attachment lacks something essential for a human being. “Skyfall” seems to say that a man isn’t whole until he’s returned home and made his peace with his origins. In other words, I think the theme of Bond’s origins is integral both to his character and the plot; it’s much more than trendy psychobabble. Comments?
Paul, damn! You foresaw where I was going with my comments on this movie. I kid! But your remarks regarding the return to home–one’s own–is the key to the movie. It is not psychobabble looking at Bond’s personal troubles as revealing who he is. Rather, Bond’s return to home–what he knows–allows him to defeat that evil which is exceptional in its techno-not-giving-a-damn about specifics. Bond knows his own turf and kith and kin, including the old guy with the beard whose name I can’t remember. Yes, M dies, but as much as Bond loved her, she was caught between the need for the transparency of law and public hearings, and her personal love for the specific James Bond. James Bond and M both recognized that there was a shadow enemy to the particularity that is one’s own.
So, Bond knows instinctively that fighting for one’s homeland requires fighting on one’s turf? It’s certainly more than that there he has a comparative, or competitive, or strategic, advantage. (The string of adjectives was intended to evoke various “modern” or “scientific,” hence inadequate, ways of considering his decision.) The manor-keeper was Albert Finney, a Eumaeus, Odyssey-figure (without the dog, Argos). In your comments, don’t forget to consider the significance of the final confrontation taking place in the family (?) church. Even Silva saw it as “perfect” for the denouement.
I think the characterization of patriotism isn’t unironic but empty, because the writers don’t understand what motivates patriotism because the writers are modern liberals and modern liberalism is a Post-Heroic Worldview.
What I mean by this is that in contrast to a classical western view of the world which, among other things, understands life as a series of obligations, liberalism understands life as a series of rights. A hero motivated by patriotism is a hero motivated by a deep and profound sense of obligation to his nation. This is unintelligible to a modern liberal understanding of things.
So in Skyfall we are treated to the spectacle of learning what really does motivate Mr. Bond, and it turns out, surprise surprise, that it is unresolved childhood issues.
The significance of the fact that on a website such as this that the Trojan Horse like quality of this portrayal of heroism was missed is a little startling to me. We live in an era that sees itself as scientific, but is simultaneously unaware of the fact that its reductive scientism is motivated by a resentment toward anything that dares challenge the omni-competence of the tools of modern reductivism. And so our film makers feel the need to put heroic virtue on the dissection table so that they can prove to the world that there really is no there there.
To drive this point home, try juxtaposing Skyfall’s narrative arc of Bond, to that of Virgil’s narrative arc of Aenis. They are exact reversals of eachother. In the Aenid, the hero overcomes the trauma of the loss of his city by obeying his calling to sail to Italy and found a greater nation soon to become Rome. In Skyfall’s portrayal of Bond, a national hero is pycho-analytically deconstructed to reveal that his national heroism is simply the product of unresolved issues having to deal with the loss of his home. Virgil inspires, the makers of Skyfall reduces.
As a postscript I just note that it is no coincidence that Dench’s M dies to be replaced by Feinnes’ M. Bond has gone back to his childhood and is on the therapeutic mend! He’s resolved his mommy issues, and now it’s time to deal with his daddy issues.
I enjoyed Skyfall, but I have no illusions as to the meaning of its treatment of heroism, and for that matter what it reveals about the infanitilization of our times.
Pseudo, I’m away and on my phone, but your analysis minimizes bonds character development in last third. He (unlike Silvia) stands up for the defense of orderly civil life and personal love. It is Silvia who takes a reductions approach to bond.
There is also line somewhere in the film that connects Bond’s or M’s patriotism to “England.” Not, mind you, to “Britain.” A live issue these days with serious talk of Scotland splitting off. I’ll say more when I see it again and determine who says this line and in what context.
Skyfall is only just coming to a theater near me. My husband can hardly wait to see it. What you guys, especially John, have written makes me eager to see it, too. We reviewed Quantum of Solace last weekend.
My memories of reading Ian Fleming in my thirties are somewhat sketchy, but I recall (from nearly 30 years back, mind) thinking Fleming had a whole lot more depth than the movies of 007 that I had seen (not all). Does anyone read the books anymore and know what relation these new movies have to the books or stories?
I enjoyed the film and the posts so far. The conflict between tradition and innovation is explicit in the film. That the crisis is resolved at the “old places”–the home and the church –suggests that the film makers want tradition to triumph or at least reappear, despite their modern/liberal sensibilities. That said, the home is obliterated as is the “traditional” bond vehicle, suggesting that the desire to go home again and recapture a lost tradition may be quite difficult, if not impossible. A very PoMoCon film, in that regard, it seems.
Thank you , pseudo, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet. (Btw: I find your comments regularly on point, and constantly stimulating.) How shall we proceed? How to adjudicate the different interpretations? Would it be unkind to assert that you seem to have an interpretive grid that you bring to the material and apply, which influences, if not determines, your “take’ on the concern for origins, not to mention the presentation of England and patriotism in the movie? (Your grid reminds me of MacIntyre, bad liberalism versus all the good stuff.) Would it be wrongheaded to suggest that any comparison with the Aeneid probably will be invidious? But why make the Aeneid normative? While it is true that full-of-itself imperial England taught Virgil in public schools and sought to form dutiful colonial masters, we’re not in that period or mindset anymore, and that English patriotism must adapt and change; that, perhaps, patriotism itself isn’t adequately characterized solely by “duty” anymore? Even Tocqueville recognized that modern democratic patriotism was more reflective, more self-conscious, than the older versions or understandings. Isn’t it worth while, as Pete said in his felicitous formulation, to be attached to a country that values an orderly civil society (in the face of anonymous and arbitrary terrorist attacks) and the possibility of personal love? (A quick qualifier: I personally don’t believe that a defense of civil society and personal love is adequate to understand the nation-state, much less political life. I’m not E. M. Forster!) Any way, how would you proceed in adjudicating between our interpretations? Is there no text, but only interpretation?
I suppose the best way to proceed would be in good Socratic fashion and define what we’re debating about.
Firstly, I’m not accusing the writers of psychobabble, but of misplaced psychological reductionism, by which I mean the attempt to understand something, in this case Bond’s heroism, by assuming it to be entirely the ephemera of some psychological need produced from the man’s traumatic past.
I would suggest that there are two problems that the movie Skyfall was attempting to answer in its own dramatic way.
1. How can a modern nation state such as England defend itself against those who would destroy it without virtues such as courage and patriotism that are so out of fashion in the modern world.
The movie’s answer is it can’t.
2. Therefore, what are these qualities such as courage and patriotism and how can they be found/developed for the sake of the country?
The movie answers this by using Bond and his heroism as its subject for dramatic analysis.
This latter point was dramatized to good effect when Mallory asked Bond point blank why Bond didn’t take advantage of his situation and stay dead to the agency and retire undisturbed for the rest of his life. In my opinion the remainder of the film is an answer to that question.
The obvious classical parallel here, and one which I think is informing a lot of contributors observations on this thread, is Odysseus. Like Odysseus, Bond was effectively on a sort of desert island with a sort of Calypso. Why did Odysseus finally decide to return to his home? He missed his wife and worried about his family. But why did Bond leave his Calypso? Why did he return home?
Here is where I think my explanation differs from John’s and Pete’s among others, and I think where our debate could be made with the greatest degree of focus and clarity.
My take is this: The movie wants us to believe that Bond is projecting his unfulfilled need for the parents that were taken from him, by projecting that need on to M in particular and, by implication, to the country England. In other words Bond left his Calypso for the same reason as Odysseus did: “family”. But this is family in quotes, because M and England are not family but surrogates that filled the emotional vacuum left by the loss of his family. This is in essence the psychoanalytical substitute for the real thing. When M remarks toward the end of the film that orphans make the best agents she was essentially saying that England will find its courage and patriotism in those who, like Bond, lost their parents and so must fill it by other means. M hopes it will be England.
The reason why I argue that the writer’s psychological reductionism is misplaced in this case is because if Heroism can simply be explained as a phenomena of some traumatic past, then heroism does not exist as such. The premise of heroism, at least as understood in the classic sense, is that the hero embodies some conception of virtue, and the hero’s story is essentially the occasion by which those virtues are dramatized. Virtue is only virtue if it is chosen, ergo, if Bond’s ‘virtues’ are simply the product of acting out childhood trauma, it’s not virtue and he’s not a hero properly understood.
And this is why I use the Aenid as my counter example. Unlike Odyssues, the problem Virgil was trying to deal with was, what does a good Roman Hero look like? Note here that this is different than what Homer was doing in Odysseus since Odysseus’ motives were limited to family. In the Aenid the motives of the hero are dealt with as they relate to an actual nation state, Rome. So, as you may recall, Aenis had his own Calypso moment in Carthage while in the arms of Dido. And why did Aenis leave his Dido? Answer: the shame of not fulfilling his obligation to his ancestors, his fellow Trojan citizens and his descendants. The key pre-modern words here are SHAME and OBLIGATION. Qualities that are nowhere to be seen Mendes’ Bond.
So let’s begin with that and see where things go.
Pseudoplotinus, the entire problem with your mode of analysis is that it takes Silva’s view of Bond as the whole (or most important) truth. Everything from the middle of the movie on is dedicated to refuting this view. The whole point of the scene that includes the Tennyson quote is that Bond is acting not out of an unfulfilled emotional need, but for defense of country and personal love (which are very conveniently threatened in the same place.) Bond doesn’t give into Silva’s despair at the thought of being a disposable pawn of state and M. He was able to get past what amounted to an order for his own death because he recognizes that he and his feelings are not the only thing that matters or even what matters most. He is willing to sacrifice himself with eyes open because he sees these things as valuable in themselves. For the life of me, I don’t see how you don’t see obligation in Bond as he is presented in this movie.
Dear Pseudo- , good stuff; very learned and stimulating, as always. Among other things, I’m intrigued by your focus on heroism (although at this point I can’t find it in myself to agree that it’s the right focus. Courage and patriotism, yes, heroism, not so sure.) By my (highly imperfect) lights, your focus confirms my hypothesis that you have a grid you’re applying, which both illumines and (again, by my lights) occludes. To speak with the directness with which you distinguish yourself: I don’t take pre-Christian heroism as the norm of heroism. I don’t believe that Virgil or Homer did either. Have you read Arlene Saxenhouse on the Aeneid? Or John Alvis on Virgil and Homer (The Plan of Zeus)? Arlene nicely shows that the price of heroism ACCORDING TO VIRGIL is depersonalization. Pietas comes at the cost of humanitas. And do we have to argue that Homer presents Achilles in a most ambiguous way? (Alvis nicely shows that the god-like/god-aspiring Achilles finally reconnects with his — and common – humanity, when Priam comes to him at night to beg for the body of his son. There the common lot and fate of “the mortals” dawns brightly and brings him to reconsider and recover from his overweening metis. The fact that he allows others to take precedence at Patrocles’ funeral games is very significant in this regard.)
I don’t say the foregoing to convince you, only to indicate that I don’t share your baseline; for me heroism is a problem, not a given, nor is it a yardstick, or cudgel, to invoke from the past to beat modern human beings over the head and shoulders. (To be sure, Rousseau was a past-master at this exercise, but even he acknowledged that the issues were much more complex and ambiguous.)
But my main reservation is that your grid doesn’t jibe with what I see in the characterizations and action, in the visuals and the dialogue, of the actual movie. To take your two heroic criteria: isn’t Bond ashamed of appearing weak when he runs through the battery of tests, physical, technical (i.e, shooting), and psychological? Remember how he slumped in pain and exhaustion when his examiners had left? He had been “keeping a stiff upper lip” at great effort and cost. I know you will retort: that’s not the type of shame I have in mind, actually it just shows a vain man. Perhaps, but perhaps not. In any event, one needs to argue for the sovereignty or normatively of the type of shame you prefer, rather than simply assume and apply it. We live after antiquity, after Christianity and after liberalism: one doesn’t have to be a “modern” or a relativist to think that heroism itself has been modified by them, that its forms and even substance would need reconsideration. Aurel Kolnai has some fine reflections on this theme.
As for obligation, why did Bond return to London? As I said earlier, he saw what had happened to the home office on tv and he felt obliged; in fact, he made a choice: return and resume the battle. The specifics of that pull and that choice remain to be explored, but it seems to me that more than what you’ve suggested is arguably present and operative in his soul. In this connection, while I did something analogous to what I say you’re doing, that is, I brought in the foreign terms eros and thumos to characterize what dissatisfied Bond while on the island paradise, I think that all of us need to recognize that he had a soul, and that it is not reduced in the actual movie to resolving deceased parent issues. The latter are clearly, unavoidable there (I think he would be less-than-human if they weren’t), but Bond’s soul is bigger than (even unself-conscious) “I miss my mommy,” or “I felt abandoned, therefore I joined MI6.” Positive goods, positive reasons, claim and move him. I continue to like Pete’s formulation, the goods of an orderly civil society — wasn’t England the inventor of civil society? — and the possibility of personal love. (Likewise, my earlier stated reservations stand as well.) Aren’t both symbolized in the old, ugly, and tarnished Union Jack bulldog bequeathed to Bond by “M”?
Well I see my attempt at keeping this discussion focused has failed utterly.
Pete, I apologize if my previous post was poorly put. I’ll just respond to your last point by saying that what I believe you are seeing as Obligation in Bond’s actions I believe the writers suggest are actions motivated by a man who has identified M and MI6 as surrogates for the parents he lost. And so while one could describe his behavior as motivated by obligation, that obligation itself is motivated by the primordial psychoanalytic notion of M, MI6 and England as surrogates to the parents Bond lost. The ultimate cause, then, is a psychological condition, not patriotic obligation.
I come to this conclusion independent of the Silva plotline based on the writers exploration into Bond’s past as an orphan, repeated references to the idea that the relationship between M and Bond is more maternal than professional, M’s own comment toward the end of the film that orphans make the best agents, and since you mention Silva, the fact that Silva is intended as a kind of evil twin of Bond, and whose child like bitterness toward M as the mother figure that betrays him is intended to represent something similar in Bond, albeit more distorted than what Bond has with M. I do agree that Bond learns something about himself as a result of his tangle with Silva, likely because he saw in Silva what he could easily become, but, in my opinion, this is all built on the writer’s fundamental conceit which is Bond as an orphan attempting to fill the parental void.
Paul, I appreciate your previous post, I’ll just respond to your point that I am forcing a psychoanalytical analysis where it is not necessary by referring you to the reasons I’ve listed in the paragraph above. You’re certainly free to impute to the Bond character a soul and a will that is untouched by the writers psychoanalytical project in this movie, I just find that to be a strenuously selective interpretation in light of what I think are obvious signs left by the writers as to the nature of their intentions.
As to the matter of the grid I may be applying in these posts, I’ll just share that I think the ancients and the medievalists had a better handle on the formation of human character than us moderns. Our fetish with personal liberation blinds us to the fact that we are habitually imitative creatures, and that our character is often the product of the stories we learn and the tales we are taught. If you were an ancient Greek you learned what it meant to be an ancient Greek by reading Homer, or perhaps Pindar, and Aeschylus, among others, the Romans had Virgil, and on it goes. We have what… George Lucas???
If you ever have a chance see if you can get your hands on a book by Gary Wills called John Wayne’s America. It came out in the 90’s and essentially it was about, not the actor, but the cinematic persona which defined a generation, if not many generations, of what it meant to be a man. I remember after reading the book watching a film with Wayne in it and being gobsmacked when I realized my dad walked just like John Wayne. As it turned out my dad, as many men in his generation, was a huge consumer of all things John Wayne and I realized that even he was emulating what was dramatized in those Ford films.
So I don’t see this discussion as simply about a movie, but about the sort of products from our popular culture that, like it or not, are helping form the sensibilities of the generations that consume it.
My admittedly jaundiced view of the modern liberal project itself simply comes from reading the usual suspects, Voegelin, Strauss, et al. However, I can recommend a more empirical treatment of the corrosive effects of the modern liberal project in French philosopher Chantal Del Sol’s terrific book Icarus Fallen which essentially critiques the effects of a post-idealistic liberalism on the European culture. I hope and pray ISI publishers print a second addition where Ms. Del Sol can add a chapter that includes her thoughts on the same matter regarding our United States. It would seem especially timely after this recent election.
Now, since I see Mr. Carl Scott’s sudden prolific contributions on this blog will soon force this thread off the front page, I’ll wait for John’s next installment before posting anything further.
Pseudo- , good summary of the facts pointing your direction. We’ll agree to disagree on how to combine them with other facts in the movie.
As it happens, we’re both Delsol fans. Take a look at the comments section of Peter Lawler’s post on Brooks’ possibilities column for some serendipitous evidence. As you’ll discover, both Peter and Carl are fans as well. Given the sometimes ME character of this site, perhaps I can be forgiven for saying that I’ve translated one of her books (available at ISI), Unjust Justice, and, more importantly, that she’s a friend. You’ll be happy to learn that she’s a wonderful human being: woman, wife, mother (6 kids, including an adoptive Cambodian refugee), and an extraordinarily productive writer and lucid and courageous thinker.
I certainly agree with you on the importance of stories and popular culture in character formation. Hence the importance of discussions such as the foregoing. (We political scientists also tend to bring in other factors as well, such as old notions like “the regime,” as well as law and Supreme Court decisions.)
John P’s post added yet new dimensions to the discussion. While he may be a bit tired of discussing/analyzing the movie, I’m looking forward to seeing it again. This exercise of criticism has done what criticism should do: return us with fresh eyes and whetted appetite to the original. Thanks for your contributions.
“Pete, I apologize if my previous post was poorly put. I’ll just respond to your last point by saying that what I believe you are seeing as Obligation in Bond’s actions I believe the writers suggest are actions motivated by a man who has identified M and MI6 as surrogates for the parents he lost.”
The problem with this point of view is that it assumes that Bond’s motivations are what Silva says they are (or rather only what Silva says they are.) But that doesn’t seem true. Bond is able to accept that M is not his mother and that she was doing her duty (obligation) when she ordered him killed, just as he was doing his duty (obligation) when he came back from the “dead.” It is Silva who calls her “mother”, but Bond is able to love her while recognizing that she is not his mother. Bond is also able to stand up for his society both in its prosaic (the subway – and remember the British subway bombings), and its Parliamentary form. It is partly Bond’s ability to see nuances in relationships, along with his ability to maintain a critical distance from his own traumas that separate him from Silva (who obsesses about his – immense- suffering), and that is what makes both his patriotism and his ability to build a nontoxic kind of love endure the strains of the plot.
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