Unemotional characters of genre fiction


When everyone around him is a potential (or real) enemy, the secret agent must be detached, unemotional, dispassionately observant – in a word, cool. This is his legacy from the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective. This posture is necessary because his survival depends upon his constant [-p.76], accurate evaluation of all around him, people and events. In that respect the spy is what many of us want to be; in that respect we participate in the action of the story. Puzzle-solving, code-deciphering, and character-analyzing are the modes of his survival.” (pp.75-76)

“The secret agent may be acting out our fantasies in his sexual adventures as well. This aspect has been thoroughly discussed and needs no supplement here: most spies have a compelling way with beautiful women, at least since the 1950s. Their occupations make our fantasies complete: the agency will not allow attachments or emotional involvements of any kind, and so the spy is not only free to love and leave, he is under national security orders to do so. Le Carré has reminded us, in his fiction, that even spies can have families, though for the most part his operatives are bound to their London offices. Greene’s confidential agent was once married, but that was long ago and in another country; now, her haunting memory hinders his action. Bond tries marriage once and pays for it when the opposition murders his bride. It is much better, espionage fiction tells us, to remain detached. If you love a woman, you will get hurt.
If the fictional spy expresses (predominantly male) sexual impulses, he also is a medium for expressing our noblest aspirations. In his loneliness, his isolation, there is also the opportunity for heroism, manifested as self-possession, inner [-p.77] strength, the courage to do what he feels is right and to make such decisions while removed from societal pressures. There are no Joneses to emulate in his milieu. Thoreau would approve.” (pp.76-77)

“The spy novel also enables us, as spectators, to purge and then obliterate the worst that is in us. Movie ads often describe the spy’ls life as one of ‘cheating, lying, and stealing’: in what sphere of the psyche is that quite attractive? In what sphere of our psyches do we want to be free to break any of the rules we wish, as it is convenient, and never be held accountable? The spy can do just that because he is invisible, because he is an alien body in his host society. He moves horizontally to intrude into the lives of others, but his own life is structured vertically. We want to be a part of that life, perhaps even to live that life, but in one sense only: we realize that we cannot really lie, steal, and kill, that we are not really like that.” (p.78)

“We have always had spies, but only recently have we made them our heroes. Their time has come round at last because it is our times that see in their work a part of our own desires and our fears. The spy novel, ostensibly so restricted in its possibilities, allows us to pierce deeply into ourselves, where the possibilities are infinite.” (p.78)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg (1987) The Spy Story. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s