The Devil with Thick Spectacles: Ian Fleming vs. Modernity

Article by Craig Arthur with permission, originally published in 2007

James Bond was not the first fictional secret agent with a liking for martinis. W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden also drank them. “I move with the times,” Ashenden explains in Maugham’s story ‘His Excellency’.

“To drink a glass of sherry when you can get a dry martini is like taking a stage-coach when you can travel by the Orient Express.”

W. Somerset Maugham’s AshendenIan Fleming’s own short story, Quantum of Solace in ‘For Your Eyes Only owes a great deal to the tale of duty in ‘His Excellency’. Plus, of course, a similar preoccupation with modernity and materialism runs through both the James Bond books and Ashenden. As Fleming liked to claim, he and Maugham were the only two writers who wrote about “what people are really interested in: cards, money, gold and things like that.” Things like that. A thoroughly twentieth century fixation – things. And yet both authors also expressed ambivalence toward the rationalism of modernity.

For all his eponymous spy’s interest in the modern trappings of existence, Somerset Maugham disliked the literary techniques of modernist fiction. Defending the embellishment of his own World War One espionage activities in Ashenden, Maugham complained that fact is a “poor story-teller”; “it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance.” He was critical of modernist authors who considered that fiction should imitate life: “They do not give you a story, they give you the material on which you can invent your own.”

Fleming similarly favoured traditional story-telling techniques, unashamedly creating a fantasy world where there was always a beginning, middle and end, with “heroes who are white, villains who are black and heroines who are a delicate shade of pink” [from the blurb for the 1956 World Books edition of Live and Let Die]. “In fiction, people used to have blood in their veins. Nowadays they have pond water. My books are just out of step. But then again so are all the people who read them . . . uninhibited adolescents of all ages, in trains, aeroplanes and beds.” [the blurb to the Jonathan Cape first edition of Thunderball.]

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier

Fleming’s aesthetic enemy was the stark rationality of architects like Le Corbusier or Erno Goldfinger. Fleming appropriated Goldfinger’s surname for one of his best-known villains, but also in Thrilling Cities he recounts his dislike of Le Corbusier’s ideas:

“Having taken a quick and shuddering look at Corbusier’s flattened human ants’ nest in Marseilles some years ago, and having visited his recent architectural exhibition in England, I had already decided that he and I did not see eye to eye in architectural matters, and I am glad to learn that the Berliners, however anxious to clamber out of their ruins into a new home, are inclined to agree with me. . . . They christened him the ‘Devil with Thick Spectacles’.”

As an architect-friend has pointed out to me, Fleming’s position of despising Le Corbusier puts him in the same group as the Prince of Wales. The intention of architects such as Le Corbusier was to improve people’s quality of living, introducing fresh air and sunlight and setting space free for recreational parkland. It is problematic to link modernist architecture with Totalitarianism. While pushing the technological boundaries by building rockets and planes intended to kill more people than ever in history, the Nazis themselves disowned the Weissenburgsiedlung, with designs by Mies and Corbusier, as oriental Arabic architecture, and embraced instead folk themes and mythical Germanic motifs. The Italian Fascists on the other hand embraced modernism and constructed a large Government centre outside Rome, parts of which are indistinguishable from Le Corbusier’s UN Secretariat Building in New York.

Le Corbusier’s UN Secretariat Building in New York.

UN Secretariat Building in New York

Peter O’Donnell obviously did not share Fleming’s misgivings about Le Corbusier. Modesty Blaise, O’Donnell’s wealthy female partial counterpart to Bond, lived in a luxurious London penthouse “designed by a disciple of Le Corbusier . . . a triumph of simple elegance.” Nevertheless, Fleming felt that the way Le Corbusier’s Modular System treated the human being as “a six-foot cube of flesh and breathing-space and fits him with exquisite economy into steel and concrete cells” was too stark and rational. It would be out of synch with Fleming’s own writing style for him to embrace Le Corbusier. We would be suspicious of a character like Bond if he lived in a Le Corbusier or Erno Goldfinger style tower-block. It would be too functional, too rational, for a double-O agent. The blubbery arms of the soft life would have him round the neck and be slowly strangling him, as Fleming puts in when describing Bond’s malaise in From Russia With Love.

Erno Goldfinger at Trellick Tower, in West London

Erno Goldfinger at Trellick Tower, in West London – DailyMail

Len Deighton’s 1975 novel, Yesterday’s SpyIndeed, Len Deighton uses such an incongruity to raise alarm bells about his character Steve Champion who occupies just such a flat in Deighton’s 1975 novel, Yesterday’s Spy.

“It was a large gloomy apartment. The wallpaper and paintwork were in good condition and so was the cheap carpeting, but there were no pictures, no books, no ornaments, no personal touches. ‘A machine for living in,’ said Dawlish. ‘Le Corbusier at his purest,’ I said, anxious to show that I could recognize a cultural quote when I heard one.”

We know immediately that Champion – a thinly-veiled carbon-copy of an aging Bond, yesterday’s spy adrift in the increasingly corporate world of 1970s’ espionage – would not be contented with an existence in such an urban environment; we suspect immediately that he has sold out to his nation’s enemies.

Above all, what Fleming objected to in the case of Le Corbusier or Erno Goldfinger, was their “mono-maniacal attachment to their own vision of the world“, as journalist John Chester phrases it, describing the similarities between the fictional Auric Goldfinger and his real life namesake. Le Corbusier hated New York city. He intended the open expanse of ground surrounding the United Nations Secretariat and General Assembly buildings as a partial antidote to the congestion of Manhattan’s crowded grid of 12 avenues and 155 streets. Fleming himself also felt that post-war New York was losing its heart. But his complaint was that of a romantic, lamenting the passage of time:

“Steel and concrete, aluminium and copper sheeting for the new buildings, have smothered the brownstone streets that had so much warmth in the old day.” [Thrilling Cities, chapter VII].

For Le Corbusier, however, New York was an affront to his modernist’s sense of order – neither modern nor orderly enough. With typical Bond villain-like megalomania, he famously desired to wipe Manhattan off the map, proposing to replace it with his stark, functional Ville Radieuse, the Radiant City (echoes of which can be found in Stromberg’s plan to wipe out civilisation, beginning with New York and Moscow, and create his own undersea equivalent of the Ville Radieuse in the movie The Spy Who Loved Me.)

Ville Radieuse

Ville Radieuse

Ian Fleming’s Thrilling Cities 1964.The plots of many of the Bond novels reflect Fleming’s paranoia about men with such grand designs. The plot of the novel Moonraker, for instance, reflected Fleming’s paranoia about German World War Two scientists using their knowledge to launch a nuclear rocket into the heart of London in the same way, in recent years, the American and British have feared Iran or North Korea possessing the capability to launch weapons of mass destruction or passing on the technology to terrorist factions. He shares this fear in the same chapter of Thrilling Cities where he expresses his dislike of Le Corbusier.

With a whine of thousands of horsepower, behind a mass of brilliant machinery (brain-children of Krupp, Siemens, Zeiss and all the others) the tip of a gigantic rocket emerges above the surrounding young green trees. . . . First there is a thin trickle of steam from the rocket exhausts and then a great belch of flame, and slowly, very slowly, the rocket climbs off its underground launching pad. And then it is on its way.”

Fleming is extremely paranoid about the fallibility of technology in the wrong hands or the way irrational human actions interfere with the operation of rational technology. While the airliner James Bond is on board flies through a storm in the Caribbean, in Live and Let Die, Fleming writes:

“You are linked to the ground mechanic’s careless fingers in Nassau just as you are linked to the weak head of the little man in the family saloon who mistakes the red light for the green and meets you head-on for the first and last time, as you are motoring home from some private sin.”

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, where the super-efficient HAL 9000 computer begins killing off the crew members of the Jupiter mission, would probably have appealed to Fleming. That famous scene in 2001 where Kubrick’s primordial ape hefts the bone into the air at the dawn of mankind and the film jump-cuts across the millennia to a shot of a spacecraft in orbit, reminds us – through the visual symmetry been the white spaceship and the bone – that such technologically advanced creations are still equivalent to primitive bone tools wielded by ape-like mammals and that space travel is a folly of man. 2001 and Moonraker and the other Ian Fleming novels offer a Daliesque conquest of the irrational, where paranoia about technological modernity is given a crutch of reality.

monkeyAs if revealing the workings of his imagination, Fleming compares the domed, concrete installation housing the rocket with which Hugo Drax plans to wipe London off the map in Moonraker to a Salvador Dali painting: “A Dali desert landscape on which three objets trouvés reposed at carefully calculated random.” Even though Fleming’s intention was to entertain while Dali’s was to shock, his fiction mirrors Dali’s surrealist art in that it involves paranoia and above all dreamlike fantasy, transforming Cold War espionage into an irrational fairy tale of glamour, sex and danger. James Bond’s world is as detached from real life espionage as New York is from the rationality of Ville Radieuse.

07 Dec 1936 --- Surrealist Salvador Dali stands on the deck of the S.S. Normandie as it docks in New York City. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

07 Dec 1936 — Surrealist Salvador Dali stands on the deck of the S.S. Normandie as it docks in New York City. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Salvador Dali, unlike Le Corbusier, loved New York. Upon his arrival there in 1935, Dali was disconcerted to find that the supposedly modern, rational city of Manhattan skyscrapers was as surreal and irrational as any of his own artistic creations. (“New York: why, why did you create my statue long ago, long before I was born?”) Dali stepped into an elevator in a Manhattan skyscraper and was confronted by a copy of a painting by El Greco hung from heavily ornamented authentic, probably fifteenth century Spanish red velvets strips. Waking in his hotel room, he heard not the sounds of traffic and urban congestion but rather the roar of lions in Central Park Zoo, as if he was nowhere near the city, let alone one as bustling as New York. Contemplating skyscrapers on Park Avenue, he observed that a

“fierce anti-modernism manifested itself in the most spectacular fashion, beginning with the very facade. A crew of workers armed with implements projecting black smoke that whistled like apocalyptic dragons was in the act of patining the outer walls of the building in order to ‘age’ this excessively new skyscraper by means of that blackish smoke characteristic of the old houses of Paris. In Paris, on the other hand, the modern architects a la Le Corbusier were racking their brains to find new and flashy, utterly anti-Parisian materials, so as to imitate the supposed ‘modern sparkle’ of New York. . . .”

Dali compared those Manhattan skyscrapers to the two figures from Francois Millet’s painting L’Angelus: “Each evening the skyscrapers of New York assume the anthropomorphic shapes of multiple gigantic Millet’s L’Angeluses . . . motionless and ready to perform the sexual act. . . .” Rather like Domino inventing the life story of the sailor on a packet of Players cigarettes in Thunderball, a young Salvador Dali concocted a story about Millet’s painting.

Francois Millet's painting L'Angelus

Francois Millet’s painting L’Angelus

The picture depicts the banal scene of a man and woman standing in a barren field, saying a prayer of thanksgiving at sundown. Staring at a reproduction of the work from his school desk, Dali convinced himself that the painting disguised evidence of sexual desire between its two immobile figures. In later life he ultimately gave a crutch of reality to this conjecture by rearranging elements of L’Angelus in his own painting, to include the sexual content he imagined hidden or missing from Millet’s original and hence achieving a ‘conquest of the irrational.’

The Angelus | Salvador Dalí | 1935

The Angelus | Salvador Dalí | 1935

Andre Breton, author of the surrealist manifesto, said that this conquest of the irrational proved the “omnipotence of desire . . . surrealism’s only act of faith.” Otherwise known as the paranoid-critical method, it is equivalent to Fleming’s villains, such as Hugo Drax or Auric Goldfinger, cheating at bridge and canasta when they were unhappy with the prospect of losing. It is the same thing as Brad Whitaker rewriting American Civil War history with his war-gaming soldiers in the movie version of The Living Daylights, or Drax’s cinematic incarnation reconstructing Louis XIV’s Palace at Versailles in the Californian desert in the movie version of Moonraker. These aspects of James Bond villains’ fictional activities correspond to the paranoid-critical method.

More importantly, Fleming’s plots themselves achieve a Dali-esque conquest of the irrational. They give his paranoia about modernity a crutch of reality.

Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest operates in this same manner. The movie echoes the alienation Fleming felt when confronted by Le Corbusier’s rationalism. A tiny insignificant Cary Grant is glimpsed fleeing from the UN building in New York, dwarfed by an aerial shot of the towering, glass-sided slab of Le Corbusier’s Secretariat tower. For Grant’s character, Roger Thornhill, the rational world has suddenly gone mad. Mistaken for a non-existent secret agent and on the run from a murder at the United Nations he did not commit, his plight is similar to that of Arthur Rowe, the central character in Graham Greene’s novel The Ministry of Fear. After stumbling into the world of espionage after innocently guessing both the true and false weight of a cake at a church fete, Rowe feels “directed, controlled, moulded, by some agency with a surrealist imagination.”

Roger Thornhill's taxi pulls up outside the U.N.

Roger Thornhill’s taxi pulls up outside the U.N.

In North By Northwest, nobody believes Thornhill. When he takes the police and his mother back to the Townsend mansion where he was taken after being kidnapped by spies the previous evening, every trace of evidence of his ordeal has been removed. (The same narrative device appears in two Bond movies, both directed by Lewis Gilbert. In You Only Live Twice the damage from the fight night before has been repaired and the body of the dead Sumo wrestler has been removed when Bond returns to the offices of Osato Chemicals the next day; in Moonraker when he takes M and the Minister of Defence, back to the nerve gas laboratory where he watched two scientists die of affixation, the whole laboratory is gone, the building decontaminated, and replaced by Drax’s opulent office). It is as if Don Quixote’s Enchanter has been at work, directing, controlling, moulding with his surrealist imagination – turning armies into sheep.

Dr. No - Illustration by George Almond

Dr. No – Illustration by George Almond – Courtesy of

According to Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said that “we do not feel horror because we are threatened by a sphinx; we dream of a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel.” Both Don Quixote’s Enchanter and Ian Fleming’s villains perform this function, providing the crutch of reality for his paranoiac imagination. Ian Fleming’s imaginative ability to create larger-than-life and fantastical plots, turning a marsh buggy – a jeep fitted with enormous balloon tyres – from a Caribbean swamp holiday into Dr No’s mechanical dragon or grafting Drax’s Moonraker installation onto the tranquil landscape of rural Kent, is the same mental process to Don Quixote’s creation of giants from windmills.

In the James Bond novels we feel the Enchanter-like omnipotence of Fleming’s villains trying to exert an influence over events, as they cheat at card games or golf and try to manipulate international geopolitics – to reshape reality according to their surrealist imaginations, via the paranoid-critical method.

‘If you fail at the large things it means you have not large ambitions. . . . Give me a fulcrum and I will move the world – but only if the desire to move the world is there,” Dr No proclaims. And Julius No even looks like Dali. “There was something Daliesque about the eyebrows, which were fine and black and sharply upswept as if they had been painted on as make-up for a conjurer.”

But also, of course, Fleming himself is the Enchanter. He is the agency with a surrealist imagination, using narrative structure to direct, control and mould the reader. That narrative structure is deceptively simple. Fleming’s plotting is made to appear like an old-fashioned picaresque-style narrative, as employed by Cervantes, Defoe or Henry Fielding back when people [in fiction] used to have blood in their veins. Events in Fleming’s plots often occur via coincidence and chance meetings, giving the impression that we are dealing purely with story rather than a plot and hence drawing the reader into events in such a way that coincidences read like epiphanies and making the conquest of the irrational more palpable.

To do any differently would be like travelling by stage-coach instead of the Orient Express, as Ashenden would say. Or drinking a glass of sherry when you could be drinking a medium-dry vodka martini with a twist of lemon peel – shaken not stirred.

Incidental Intelligence

Craig ArthurCraig Arthur’s first Bond experience was seeing “The Spy Who Loved Me” in the theatre in 1977, starting a 37 year obsession with the movies and Ian Fleming novels. He studied English Literature at the University of Otago.

Craig was also a New Zealand location consultant for spy writer Charles Cumming and his mentor is Owen Marshall – one of New Zealand’s greatest writers.

He lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Learn more about Le Corbusier

One thought on “The Devil with Thick Spectacles: Ian Fleming vs. Modernity

  1. Great site! I’m stunned by your erudition about and fascination with Fleming, as I am fascinated by him at many levels. What wonderful connections you make between Fleming, Maugham, Hitchcock, Dali, Coleridge and Borges. Not to mention so many others, it’s all wonderfully expressed, thank you.

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