Monday, 23 September 2013

I shall use my time: James Bond's philosophy

As I was watching Munro Scott's 1964 interview with Ian Fleming on CBC-TV's Exploration programme the other day, I was reminded of Fleming's strong views on boredom. “Boredom is the worst sin of the human being,” he said. “It's the worst thing that could happen.” This may explain Fleming's peripatetic career and craving for excitement, which he'd find in the gambling rooms, the wartime offices of naval intelligence, or the waters off his coastal home in Jamaica, among other places.

Fleming gave the same abhorrence of boredom to James Bond. When we first meet Bond in From Russia, with Love (chapter 11), he is at his Chelsea home between missions. Bond is thoroughly bored with the prospect of the day ahead in the office, and Fleming tells us that “boredom, and particularly the incredible circumstance of waking up bored, was the only vice Bond utterly condemned.”

Fleming alludes to this view again in Bond's obituary in You Only Live Twice (chapter 21). In an addendum to M's obituary, Mary Goodnight writes about Bond's philosophy: “'I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.'”

It's a great line, and aptly describes the boredom-busting, live-life-to-the-fullest attitude of both Bond and Fleming. It appears, however, that the words aren't Fleming's, but have instead been attributed to American writer, Jack London, best known for his novels, The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906), and are included in a larger statement of what has been described as London's credo:

“I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

While there is some question over the authorship of this passage (only the first line closely matches words known to have been London's, with the rest contended to be journalistic invention), it apparently pre-dates You Only Live Twice, being first published in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1916, then republished in 1956 by Doubleday in an introduction to Tales of Adventure, a collection of London's short stories.

I admit I haven't seen a copy of Tales of Adventure, and certainly not the San Francisco Bulletin, and so I remain a little hesitant about the entire matter. I would prefer to see the words on the page of the 1956 volume before committing myself to a more definite view about their origin and date, so if anyone has a scan of the page in question, then please get in touch.

Assuming the chronology of the passage is correct, it's possible that Fleming saw the lines in the 1956 edition and, rather taken with them, felt that they were appropriate for Bond as well. There is no acknowledgement of source in You Only Live Twice; while the lines beginning, “I shall not waste my days” are presented in quotation, the implication is that the words are Bond's. But if the words aren't London's in any case, what do questions of origin and source matter? Well, that's still up for debate, but there's another question: should we add Jack London's Tales of Adventure to James Bond's library?

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