“A decade’s absence makes the hearts of America grow fonder.” What is this fascination of Americans with Jason Bourne – a tormented assassin created by novelist Robert Ludlum as the protagonist in a series of novels and subsequent film adaptations?
The vast popularity of the Bourne series, a cut-throat CIA agent who has all but forgotten who he is and what his missions are after some nasty incidents in his past, speaks to a political prowess otherwise hidden in the appeal of the visibly tormented assassin, now portrayed by Matt Damon and directed by Paul Greengrass, and returning to the top of the domestic box office as Jason Bourne.
As a super spy, Bourne is the exact opposite of his British counterpart, James Bond, and thus, soon after the rise of the Jason Bourne franchise, comparisons between the two super ninjas were bound to happen.
It was Matt Damon himself who initially began a cogent comparison between Bond and Bourne. “I like Bourne better than Bond,” he says. “Bourne has today’s values; Bond has the values of the 1960s … whereas Jason Bourne is a serial monogamist – and he’s tortured by the things he’s done and feels empathy and compassion for other people.”
Imperialist left and right?
“Why Bourne is better than Bond?” asked a recent article in GQ, to which it offered a simple response: “James Bond is a right-wing imperialist but Jason Bourne is a thorn to his masters’ foot. Isn’t that worth cheering?”
If we are – as it was correctly pointed out – to think of Bond as “a right-wing imperialist”, to what extent is Bourne really “a thorn to his masters’ foot”? Does he not represent a different kind of imperialist?
Jo Ellison of the Financial Times gets to the heart of the Bourne character with her erudite swooning over the boy, oblivious to the politics he serves.
She prefers Bourne to Bond: “Why the pedant will always beat the poseur,” she quips. “He still makes me swoon. It’s incurable … I adore Bourne for his geeky pragmatism.”
That “geeky pragmatism” is not just Bourne’s. It’s the political disorder he serves willy-nilly.
To compare them, Bond is calm and confident, Bourne is pensive and tormented, confused, serving the CIA despite himself, by forcing it to test its finest espionage wherewithal, fight its inner weaknesses, project a moral rectitude as it goes about the business of making the world safe for predatory capitalism.
The British liberal imperialism became normative to its age as its American successor became typically amnesiac and neurotic, an extension of the delusional neurosis it considers its 'manifest destiny'.
Bond knows what he wants and goes and gets it with power, poise and panache, while being habitually protected by his boss and having his “Bond girl” on the side.
Bourne has no clue what he is doing; he just knows that his boss wants to kill him. His survival instinct is definitive to the system he serves, the surest firewall to its enduring success. He has done his fair share of murdering, and is now giving the system a sense of moral superiority too.
Bond is old-school British imperialism with liberal pomp and gadgetry ceremony. Bourne is new-school American imperialism, inconspicuous and discreet to the point of self-forgetfulness.
He is the personification of American empire, having its cake and eating it too, ruling the world with a Protestant ethic while saving its spirit of capitalism, with moral austerity informing his killer instincts.
The best description of Bourne is by A O Scott of The New York Times – that he is an “amnesiac assassin”. With that, Scott gives the best description of Bourne as the supreme simulacrum of US imperialism, without knowing it: “A man who runs on pure survival instinct as he tries to figure out who is after him and why…” This is George W Bush and his neo-con cabal, neurotically suspicious of a world they scarcely understand.
Imperialism normative and neurotic
Bond and Bourne come together to complement the manner in which two imperial warriors upgrade their medieval antecedents as the knights of two successively globalised empires during the first (British) and the second (American) half of the 20th century.
The British liberal imperialism became normative to its age as its American successor became typically amnesiac and neurotic, an extension of the delusional neurosis it considers its “manifest destiny”.
Bourne’s phobic demeanour typifies the proverbial American “exceptionalism” in which there is a neurotic tension between the fact of the global reach of its military might and the delusion of its mom-and-apple-pie, folkloric “exceptionalism”.
Bourne cannot remember anything precisely, the same way as successive US administrations systemically reinvent their imperial reach with a short memory. The massive surveillance apparatus that Edward Snowden tells us about sustains its suspicious neurosis while the world only exacerbates its pathological amnesia.
The internal conflict of Bourne thus stages the ascetic ethics of his shabby demeanour, staging his state-of-the-art cut-throat killer instinct, his fancy martial art techniques, and the massive electronic gadgetry that is outfoxed by him.
Thus the “reluctant” superpower embodies all its characteristics in its most talented agent who must ostensibly oppose it in order truly to serve it better.
Compared with him, Bond is a gaudy archival type from the antebellum period, when the first waves of decolonisation and its unresolved consequences had given him a comic disposition to safeguard the world for British antiquarianism.
The assumption that with Daniel Craig Bond was upgraded is a joke. Bond was always a tongue-in-cheek character and his boozing, womanising, gadget-testing theatrics part of his 1960s frivolity that was best captured by the young Sean Connery. With Craig that whole purpose collapses miserably to give Bond a tragic depth that turned him from frivolous to ridiculous.
Bourne is a trained assassin, serving the system that has crafted him and is second nature to him.
His immediate bosses are all corrupt and he outwits them all – and as he fights the good fight his boyish innocence translates into a false moral rectitude for an otherwise deeply amoral imperium that at the end of every “election” cycle will only offer the world the horror of a Hillary Clinton if it wishes to be saved from the nightmare of its Donald Trump.
By the next election cycle, Bourne, as the rest of his generation, cannot remember one from the other.
Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.