The Spectre of Accidia: Bond and Fleming’s Greatest Foe

The Seven Deadly SinsWhile working for The Sunday Times, Ian Fleming came up with the idea to have a variety of esteemed writers to write about The Seven Deadly Sins, with each choosing the sin of their choice. This never materialized while Fleming was working there, but in 1962 the idea flowered and The Seven Deadly Sins was published featuring contributions from many eminent writers including Patrick Leigh-Fermor, W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, and Cyril Connolly.

Fleming would write the foreword, in which he declared that the traditional seven deadly sins – Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth or ‘Accidie’, Covetousness, Gluttony and Lust – were no longer sufficient. Fleming argued that the original deadly sins were manufactured by monks for monks, and since we no longer live like them, Fleming decided that we needed new sins for the modern age. And yet, Fleming knew full well the timelessness of sin, and for added emphasis cited Voltaire in his preface: “what dull dogs we would be without a healthy trace of many of them in our make up”.

2009030013One the original sins that Fleming did take seriously however was sloth; and though it’s hard to believe that a man like Ian Fleming, who lived a thrilling life, could have suffered from such a malady, it’s clear there was a struggle, some of which came out in many of his books. As he said in his introduction to The Seven Deadly Sins:

sloth, certainly in my case lurks in the wings.” And “only sloth in its extreme form of accidia, which is a form of spiritual suicide and a refusal of joy, so brilliantly examined by Evelyn Waugh, has my wholehearted condemnation, perhaps because in moments of despair I have seen its face.” 

It was fitting then that Waugh should have been handed the responsibility of addressing sloth in The Seven Deadly Sins, since he had observed Fleming at close range in the company of his good friend Ann Fleming. He also warned of a more sinister accidia called “pigrita” or “plain slackness”, which if spreads as a mass-cultural malaise which leads to “no time to read or cook or even dress well. We expect quality but are too lazy to man services; too few teachers, nurses and prison wardens.” He could have been talking about life in 2015.

But where does Ian’s slothfulness come from and when did it strike? Journalist John Lanchester argued that Fleming’s boredom was perhaps the result of being from a particular social background and being of a war generation, with similarities to the ennui of his contemporaries:

Illustration by George Almond

Illustration by George Almond – Courtesy of http://www.007magazine.com

There’s no mystery where the Bond books get their air of dyspepsia, ennui and fatigue. Fleming lived as hard as his hero, one of whose central preoccupations is a determination ‘not to waste my days in trying to prolong them’. The boredom was partly a generational thing. Evelyn Waugh, b. 1903; Graham Greene, b. 1904; Cyril Connolly, b. 1903; Ian Fleming, b. 1908.

These Englishmen came from a similar class background, and had writing careers which, from the outside at least, seemed characterised by brilliant success. They also had parallel lives as spies, soldiers, shaggers and men of action (or in Connolly’s case, of inaction so spectacular that it, too, seems like a form of action).

But all of them suffered from a desperate, crippling, lifelong fear of boredom.

Accidia was not merely a boogeyman in Fleming’s private life. It stalked his books, especially the later Bond novels of the Blofeld trilogy era. But even as far back as Live and Let Die, we hear Mr. Big telling Bond. “I suffer from boredom. I am prey to what the early Christians called ‘accidie,’ the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no more desires.” 

As early as Moonraker, Fleming began to question how many more Bond books he had in him, and by his fourth novel, boredom strikes Bond. In Chapter 11 of From Russia, With Love, which is dubbed the “The Soft Life”, Bond wakes up (eerily on August 12th — Fleming’s death and Caspar’s birthday) “thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead,” which Fleming describes as  the only one of the cardinal sins that Bond “utterly condemned.” Yet at this stage, Bond is not tired of the job; he just needs a good mission to get the juices flowing again. As Bond quotes to himself: ”Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make bored.”

James Bond Accidie

Illustration by George Almond – Courtesy of http://www.007magazine.com

The Blofeld TrilogyFleming had a difficult time writing Thunderball. He had initially written it with a view towards a film treatment, and after a storied falling out with collaborator Kevin McClory, he re-wrote it as a novel. By his own admission, he found parts of Thunderball extremely tedious, and in a letter to Richard Chopping, he described it as “It is immensely long, immensely dull and only your jacket can save it!”Thunderball opens with Bond abasing himself: “he was ashamed”; he “despised the face that stared sullenly back at him from the mirror above the wash basin”. Bond even goes so far as to call himself a: “Stupid, ignorant bastard!” At the root of this is boredom again, or as Bond describes it: “It all came from having nothing to do.” 

In On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond has lost enthusiasm for his work and drafts his resignation, which is caused in part by being exhausted over his fruitless efforts to track down Blofeld. He has thoughts of settling down when he meets the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, who later becomes Tracy Bond. Her father tells Bond that Tracy’s child from a former marriage had tragically died of spinal meningitis, leaving her at the mercy of a certain sin: “She seemed in the grip of some melancholy, some form of spiritual accidie, that made life, on her own admission, no longer worth living.” It is worth noting that Ian and Ann Fleming also lost a child during Ann’s pregnancy.

Blofeld also suffers from the curse of accidie in OHMSS: “No doubt much of the root cause of this accidie is physical — liver, kidneys, heart, the usual weak points of the middle-aged. But there has developed in me a certain mental lameness, a disinterest in humanity and its future, an utter boredom with the affairs of mankind.” He manages to struggle one though, and had the last word by killing Tracy — Bond’s one true love.

Bond’s love of Tracy had provided a cure to his initial accidie, but after Tracy’s death, Bond goes to pieces. In Fleming’s next book, You Only Live Twice, Bond is deeply depressed and on the verge of spiritual suicide. Sir James Molony diagnoses him as suffering from shock and guilt stemming from Tracy’s death; that “all his zest had gone. That he was not interested in his job any more, or even his life.” Never the sentimental type, M goes for tough love and sends Bond on a hopeless mission to Japan. As it turns out, a chance encounter with Blofeld and the prospect of revenge are the smelling salts that snap him out of despondence. Ann Boyd picked up on this and used The Seven Deadly Sins as a reading guide in her excellent 1967 The Devil with James Bond!As she puts it, Blofeld “appears in his Castle of Death as a modern version of Giant Despair and proceeds to deliver the ultimate apologia for Sloth:”

Blofeld - You Only Live Twice

Blofeld in front of his ‘Castle of Death’ – Illustration by George Almond – Courtesy of http://www.007magazine.com

Ian FlemingThe short story Octopussy, perhaps more than any of his stories, reflects Fleming’s own middle-aged listlessness. Its protagonist is not Bond but Dexter Smythe, a retired Army Major who is roughly the same age as Fleming was when he wrote the story. Major Smythe has heart problems and a penchant for snorkeling along the reefs on the north shore of Jamaica. In this way, Smythe reflects his own “spiritual accidie” and “tropical sloth”.

If Fleming had saved Bond (and to a smaller degree Major Smythe) one last time from the spectre of accidie, then he himself still faced an uphill battle, which was borne out when he sat down to write The Man with the Golden Gun. Bond seems to have triumphed over accidie in TMWTGG, whereas Fleming seems to have succumbed to it and to the health problems brought on by the method he tried using to combat accidie–living it up (which calls to mind Darko’s wish for his tombstone to read “This man died from living too much“).

Unlike Fleming himself, James Bond was not of this world, and when compared to his fictional contemporaries, Bond comes across like an everlasting St. George with boundless energy and an unbelievable ability to surmount the odds time and time again. Bond is always given a fresh start, and despite many challenges, always slays the Dragon. Meanwhile, Fleming, who was all too human, succumbed to the twin attack of accidie and “the iron crab.” The battle against accidie continues today with the modern Western dragons of our age: political apathy, cultural inertia, and civic indifference.

Who knows? Maybe a new Bond novel could do us, and its writer, some good.

Postscript

Based on his cool views on the original sins in his introduction, Fleming proposed seven deadlier sins more worthy of a passport to Hell, which were: Avarice, Cruelty, Snobbery, Hypocrisy, Self-Righteousness, Moral Cowardice, and Malice.’ All of these were the lifeblood of his Bond villains and we will take a closer look at these in a future series.

Incidental Intelligence

An interview with Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and James Bond’s Moral Compass: A Bible Study

Read Brian Willems on SPECTRE

Was Ian Fleming’s ‘Octopussy’ Autobiographical?

Prints of George Almond’s work can be purchased at  – www.007magazine.com

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