by James Parer and Pankaj Mishrajan)
Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, James Parker and Pankaj Mishra discuss why certain literary characters never seem to die.
By James Parker
So we’re doomed, then, to reboots of reboots of ‘Columbo,’ drifting ever farther from the source like a damaged battle cruiser in space?
Not to get too portentous about it, but this question for me points like a flaming golden arrow to a much larger question, which has to do with the health of our collective imagination. That is, are we caught in a diminishing loop of derivative creativity, some kind of stranglehold of the secondhand? Have we wandered deeper into Eliot’s Waste Land — the fragmented panoramas, the “heap of broken images,” only now with more zombies — than the poet himself could have foreseen? Can it be that our highest form of cultural expression is the YouTube mash-up?
“The originators, the exuberant men, are extinct,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1957, “and in their place subsists and modestly flourishes a generation notable for elegance and variety of contrivance.” We do not have Tolkien, in other words: We have J. J. Abrams. Or Steven Moffat, lead writer of “Doctor Who” since 2009 and co-creator (if that’s the right word) of the new BBC/Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes. Nothing against Abrams and Moffat; they’re both clearly brilliant — zanily gifted reorganizers and rewirers of material. “Elegance and variety of contrivance,” yes indeed, by the bucketload. My point is that the material, for the most part, is not theirs. They work in tropes, memes, brands, jingles, known quantities, canned reactions, market-tested flavors, whatever you want to call them. The cultural critic Simon Reynolds has named this phenomenon “retromania”: He published a fascinating book about it in 2011. Tolkien, too, was of course drawing on his sources, his own scholarly vaults of inspiration, his Kalevalas and Nibelungenlieds and all that. But he was closer to the root, to the first fictive impulse. Which makes “The Lord of the Rings” a rather juicier and more self-sustaining “subcreation” — to use Tolkien’s terminology — than, say, “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
We shouldn’t discount the commercial factor here: the enormous built-in timidity of the culture industry, which will always be happier with a remake than a new thing. Once you’ve assembled a hero, a hero that works, you should keep using him. Those weird ‘70s movies about nobody in particular, with bad lighting and sort of a bummed-out feel at the end — who wants to watch them anymore? And there’s something to be said, I suppose, for reinvestigating the great fictional characters — for casting a cold postmodern or post-Freudian eye on fussy little Poirot, or druggy Holmes, or numbed-out Bond. We’re no wiser than their authors, but we are, in a sense, older — or at least we have a more developed set of preoccupations. We seem to enjoy locating (or inventing) the wounds of our heroes. We have to give them something, a niggle, a neurosis, some baggage of private pain. Bond goes all stubbly and alcoholic in “Skyfall”; Willy Wonka had an evil dentist father in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Who can touch the deep sorrow of Wolverine? And so on.
So we’re doomed, then? To etiolation, flimsification, more superheroes, reboots of reboots of “Columbo,” drifting ever farther from the source like a damaged battle cruiser in space? Not entirely. Impoverished as we are in this flattened-out, open-source age, we can take credit for at least two great and durable additions to the primary stock, two fully imagined novelties: Jason Bourne and Tony Soprano. Actually, let’s make that three: the Terminator. Four, even: SpongeBob SquarePants! Five: Nurse Jackie. See what I mean? The imagination coins these characters unstoppably. We just have to get out of its way.
James Parker is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and has written for Slate, The Boston Globe and Arthur magazine. He was a staff writer at The Boston Phoenix and in 2008 won a Deems Taylor Award for music criticism from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
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By Pankaj Mishra
Non-Western markets matter too much now for 007 to be able to fulfill neo-imperialist fantasies of power and dominatio
Marx once pointed out that “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice”: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” He was referring to the discrepancy between the original Napoleon Bonaparte and the wannabe Napoleon III. You can guess what he would have said of our culture of remakes.
Neither the doggedly literalist Sherlock Holmes of Guy Ritchie’s films nor the BBC’s strenuously contemporized version escapes a touch of camp. This is largely because they don’t engage with the original myth of Holmes — one that addressed particular psychological and emotional needs within his ultrarational culture. To readers trapped in secular Victorian certainties about science and reason, Holmes’s suave imaginative logic made their iron cage of modernity look attractive. “Depend upon it,” he insisted, “there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.” Not surprisingly, the visionary empiricism of this truly international figure also electrified many aspiring geeks in India, China and Turkey who were struggling to reconcile the “two cultures” of science and the romantic imagination.
Ian Fleming’s James Bond, on the other hand, was a product of Britain’s post-imperial bleakness. Outwitting menacingly acronymed conspirators in warm countries, Bond stoked a fantasy of national potency and significance at a time when, as Dean Acheson remarked, Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. (Appropriately, the Conservative prime minister Anthony Eden recuperated at Fleming’s Caribbean villa after the Suez disgrace of 1956.)
Shorn of their historical context, sequels and remakes today seem no more than rebranding exercises in an age of socioeconomic crisis, widespread uncertainty and creative stasis. Unlike most novelists, those refurbishing James Bond or Philip Marlowe can count on a ready-made store of readerly understanding and good will. As they do with the numerous renderings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata in India and Indonesia, audiences respond to familiarity spiced with the right measure of novelty and strangeness. Such tickling of the mass unconscious can be remunerativetoo: Unfocused nostalgia has a powerful lure in postindustrial cultures that seem to have a recurrent present but few clear traces of the past nor an avid anticipation of the future.
Naming the recent remakes of Bond in his witty book “The Man Who Saved Britain,” Simon Winder blurts out, “I’m sorry: I just can’t go on it’s all so terrible. They’re roughly the same, come out at irregular intervals and tend to have the word ‘Die’ in the title.” The increasingly pained-looking Bond played by Daniel Craig seems to concur.
Britain is geopolitically too insignificant, and non-Western markets — as well as political sensitivities — matter too much now for 007 to be able to fulfill neo-imperialist fantasies of power and domination. The artless seducer of women with names like Pussy Galore and Octopussy, a man who once charmingly hoped for sex to have “the sweet tang of rape,” also risks driving away a crucial demographic from the theaters. It is surely a sign of the times that in “Skyfall” a non-misogynist Bond retreats to his family estate in secession-minded Scotland, improbably preoccupied with a childhood trauma after what seems to have been a wholly unexamined life.
“Relax. You need to relax!” the film’s villain taunts him. In the age of Jason Bourne, the C.I.A.'s intriguingly mislaid human drone, and Edward Snowden, Bond does look ready for a long sabbatical. Fans need not despair, however. William Boyd’s Graham Greene-reading Bond in the novel “Solo” hints that recycled myth can occasionally construct a fresh relationship with history. Assigned to protect the interests of oil companies in a nasty West African civil war in 1969, Bond appears to himself as “insubstantial and weak,” even “unmanned”: a fleeting glimpse of the commonplace, everyday tragedy of life — disappointment, failure and decay — that might suit remakes better than thickly costumed farce.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books, including “The Romantics: A Novel,” which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and “From the Ruins of Empire,” a finalist for the Orwell and Lionel Gelber Prizes in 2013. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and contributes essays on politics and literature to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian of London and The London Review of Books.