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Psychology : Applied

The Spectre of Memory: Psychoanalysing Bond

Bond is not really a man for the analytic couch – he has little time for self-reflection, what with all that running around the whole time dodging bullets and dispatching some of his own. This may indeed be a bonus in his line of work – too much introspection can be dangerous for a double-o. In reference to his incapacity to stop and look inward, there is a revealing moment in Spectre when Bond and Madeleine Swann are on the train (and we know what Freud had to say about trains…) and she asks Bond if he ever stops. He claims that he doesn’t.  “What would happen if you did stop?” She asks. “I don’t know,” is his response. He’s not scared of much, but he’s frightened to stop and look inward. Spoilers follow. When we stop for self-analysis, we do stop to look in, and looking in can be difficult as it gives us an opportunity to gaze upon our psychic and emotional wounds, and Bond has a lot of them. Perhaps this is why we find him with a rather different kind of woman in this film, Madeleine Swann, not only a psychologist, but a woman whose character is designed to provoke memory. The underlying device structure, surprisingly for a Bond film, is straight out of Proust, an author beloved by psychoanalysts because of the way he talks about memory:

That Proustian Moment

If you think I’m pushing things by finding Proust in Bond, here is my evidence. The most famous passage in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past involves a small French cake called a Madeleine, and the first book of Remembrance of Things Past is entitled Swann’s Way, the main protagonist being Charles Swann. What is the name of Spectre’s key character? Madeleine Swann. Early on in Swann’s Way, the narrator tastes a madeleine cake dipped in tea, and the combination of taste, texture and smell pulls memories from his childhood straight out of his unconsciousness into consciousness. Perhaps for the first time ever, a review of a James Bond film will quote from Proust:

No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

From the opening credits of Spectre we have a Proustian sensibilty of dreamlike images that are Bond’s own (or at least Daniel Craig’s Bond) memories. These memories of M (see my previous review of Skyfall here: M Stands for Mother), Vesper, Silva, and others. These memories are what makes Bond who he is, what provokes the search for Madeleine, and ultimately his race not only save her, but to enable him to face his memories, and to conquer them too.

Memory and the Repetition Compulsion

The film opens in Mexico City on the Día de los Muertos, the “Day of the Dead” in which the dead ancestors are remembered. The idea is that by remembering the ancestors (an act accompanied by engaging with their photographs, favourite foods, etc.) they will be amenable to the prayers of the living and aided in their pursuit of happy and fulfilled lives. In essence, it is an appeal to memory made real. Bond finds himself in Mexico City due to a final post-mortem request from M – both a request to prevent the overtaking of the world’s intelligence services by the evil Spectre, but also to enable Bond to finally find out his origins, and finally, the architect of his unhappiness.

In psychoanalysis, the architect of your unhappiness are the unconscious memories that continue to direct the choices in your life without your consciously knowing it. This is known as the “repetition compulsion”.

While previous Craig Bonds have focused solidly on his hopelessness, particularly following the loss of Vesper in Casino Royale, Spectre offers us something new, a little bit of hope (and thankfully not too much in the Hollywood style). Bond, by not looking inwards, is doomed to continue his dangerous lifestyle (this is of course a good thing for movie-watchers, if not so much for himself). His first meeting with Dr. Swann in her role as a psychologist, forces him to, at least briefly, look inward. In this assessment session, we learn of the difficult childhoods of both protagonists – and the desires of both to hide from their memories. The force of the plot has different ideas, enforcing them both to confront rather than hide from memory.

As the story moves onward, we find that the ingrained choices each has been forced to make because of their repressed memories begin to shift:

  1.  When, on the train with Madeleine (trains again), she orders a dirty martini. “I’ll have one too” says Bond. Perhaps, for the first time ever, opting out of his “shaken-not stirred”. It’s a small concession, perhaps, but indicates the larger ones to follow.

  1. Swann hates guns, but she picks up a gun to protect Bond. When they begin to fall for each other, Swann opts out. Presumably she does this because she contains, more so than Bond, the capacity to look inward. She knows that by being with Bond she would, in a sense, be marrying her father: a cold-blooded assassin. Rather than compulsively repeat this in classical Oedipal fashion, she backs out.

  2.  Later, Bond has the opportunity to assassinate his nemesis, Blofeld, the architect of his unhappiness: the man, the anti-Bond, who has systematically killed off all of the potential for love in Bond’s life. The usual Bond, given this opportunity, would have finished the deed. But this Bond, who has tasted Madeleine, chooses not to. She, on the other hand, witnesses his act of Grace, and they walk off together into the darkness. This Bond gets his Vesper.


ng, Repeating, and Working Through

Often, we repeat before we remember, and ultimately, hopefully we work things through so we can make different choices. This is the point of psychoanalysis. In Freud’s paper, which shares the title of this subsection, he states that:

“We have learnt that the patient repeats instead of remembering, and repeats under the conditions of resistance.” 

While Madeleine bears a lot of the responsibility for Bond’s remembering by way of fostering his love for her, there are also others who sent him along this trajectory. Most notoriously but no longer present, is M, who sends him on the task in the first place, but secondly, in a role that might be described as “evil psychoanalyst” is Blofeld who is paradoxically the architect of his misery while at the same time the sadistic designer of his psychological and emotional resolution.

The entire film is themed with motifs of openness and hiding. The profusion of glass with the illusion of transparency and the frequency with which blinds and drapes are pulled to obscure the views. The new Joint Intelligence Service is the perfect example of this since it is all about making transparent the activities of others, while obscuring the evil activities it is planning itself. Contrast this to the blown out MI5 building which is inscrutable from the outside.


In the final scenes, Bond is led to this building where, in rather forceful fashion he is confronted by his past (all the images of the important characters in the Craig/Bond universe) while at the same time being forced to free the Madeleine, who is the only character who offers him hope. He also confronts Bloefeld, who, in his extreme sadism, had tried yet again to erase the memory of Bond’s current love from his brain – to physical and painful effect.

Any psychoanalysis is painful, though most are fortunately not as painful as Bond’s. Yet througout this film Bond is ultimately subjected to a kind of psychoanalysis where he is forced to confront his past and the pain embedded within it, in order to be able to choose something different in his present. This Bond, may be the most human Bond yet. Why? Because he has been forced to reflect; rather than being an object of habit and behaviour, he becomes a full subject in his own right, free to make choices. Or, in the words of Freud, free “to love and to work”. He already had work nailed. Now it’s time to love (again).

In the end, he will exchange physical risk for emotional risk – and for him, this will be the hardest risk of all.



More on the psychodynamics of online life in my book,

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