Empathy for the rebel

Jason disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece:  vase figure in Vatican Museum
Jason, disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece: vase figure in Vatican Museum

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.
Orion Books, 2004 (1980).

I’m not a violent person. I grew up watching American TV serials where the Lone Ranger shot revolvers out of baddies’ hands (who then merely had a sprained wrist to nurse) or comedies such as The Three Stooges which — like a Tom and Jerry cartoon — allowed the victims to recover with a shake of the head after a potentially life-threatening concussion to the brainbox department. Violence was depicted, the consequences papered over. I was uncomfortable with it, but that was all that was on offer.

These days, as it has been for several decades now, violence is more graphic in entertainment media, whether films, comics or video games. Not just villains are hurt but innocent bystanders and targeted victims. The alarm is raised every so often about how the consumption of this vicariously experienced violence without appreciation of the consequences stunts one’s capacity to exhibit empathy and how it can encourage sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies.

I mention this not to stir up more argument and controversy but to contextualise my normal avoidance of thrillers in whatever form.

© C A Lovegrove

However, I was drawn to The Bourne identity not just because I’d been persuaded to watch the 2002 film adaptation but because of reading an impressive graphic novel: in Watchmen violence is a given, doled out by villains and vigilantes alike. And yet I found the latter a thoughtful novel which, rather than revelling in gratuitous aggression, tried to ask deep and pertinent questions about its nature and apparent justification. Did Ludlum’s 1980 novel also posit similar questions?

A mysterious stranger is discovered floating in the Mediterranean off Marseilles, the victim of violence. Though nursed back to physical health over a period of six months he suffers from mental disorientation: he has almost total amnesia over who or what he is or why he is in this part of the world. As he tries to regain his memory clues to his past surface by way of instinctive actions, headaches and isolated words and images. His journey to recover his identity takes him via Zurich and Paris to New York; he comes into contact with a number of individuals who might or might not prove trustworthy; and he exhibits a degree of empathy which might be seen as surprising in one who recognises he might well be a notorious assassin.

Robert Ludlum, who died in 2001, is too well-known as a thriller writer for me to expand on his biography other than to say that his experiences as a US Marine, followed by a spell as actor and theatre producer, add authority to his descriptions of covert operations, his understanding of character motivation and his plotting. Apparently suffering a short spell of amnesia himself was yet another personal experience to draw on, and we mustn’t forget the turbulent seventies when several terrorist atrocities made headlines around the world, suggesting that clandestine organisations with apparently different political objectives were prepared to link up to achieve their aims.

The Bourne Identity and Ludlum’s other novels are set against this background, invoking a rather different atmosphere from that of the Bond novels of Ian Fleming, who had died in 1964 at the height of the Cold War. (And let’s not forget it’s often suggested that Jason Bourne’s initials may’ve been a riposte to Fleming’s antihero.)

The amnesiac’s search for his lost identity leads him to the name Jason Bourne. On several levels this is an interesting choice of name, as good writers rarely settle on characters’ names at random: the Greek hero Jason was also on a quest, so the forename is very appropriate; the surname Bourne is related to bourne, meaning a stream, also appropriate not just because Jason is fished out of the waters of the Med but because he is, in a sense, baptised into a new life. This idea of baptism is underlined by Jason’s being treated by Dr Washburn who, in a sense, ministers at Jason’s rebirth. And Ludlum may well have had the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale in mind, a tale which has a parallel in the hero Jason’s being regurgitated by the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece at Colchis.

Jason is no amoral antihero: like a chivalrous knight he avoids collateral damage and rescues damsels in distress. In this case the damsel is the Canadian economist Marie St Jacques, but she proves to be no less able than Bourne, playing the role of sorceress Medea to Jason’s Greek hero. In Apollonius of Rhodes’ version of the Argonaut tale Medea is abandoned by Jason, and several times this looks to be the likely fate of Marie.

Why do I dwell on this novel’s possible classical allusions? Well, principally because there are the obvious references to a mysterious operation called Medusa, which supposedly operated in the jungles of the Far East, though rightly the creature (whose gaze literally was petrifying) is connected with another Greek hero, Perseus.* Meanwhile, poor Jason seems to be constantly assailed by other assassins, who spring up rather like the warriors of Medea’s father Aeëtes of Colchis, created after Jason has to sow the teeth of another dragon in a field; in the myth Jason defeats them by distracting them with a clever ruse involving a precious stone.

Jason’s links turn out to be with an undercover US organisation called Treadstone, but his most dangerous adversary is the infamous terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal. Carlos is a real person, his given name Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, who at the time of writing is still alive and in prison in France. Introducing a non-fictional character into the storyline for me detracts from the novel’s credibility, and the 2002 film wisely chose to drop this narrative thread (along with much of the plot). Drawing Carlos and Jason together in an extended Biblical motif of rival brothers also to me seems a little heavy-handed though I do admit it’s ingenious; and while the climax of the whole cat-and-mouse game allows for one aspect of Jason’s quest to continue in a sequel, answers to Jason’s search for identity are largely resolved so that he, and we, are at last allowed some closure. Those answers involve brothers too, though not the murderous kind represented by Cain and Abel.

I end, as I started, by mentioning violence. Ludlum maintains an old-fashioned stance, at odds with what we know of clandestine warriors. Bourne has a humanitarian instinct to preserve life wherever possible, and to only injure and kill when his opponents have no compunction in maiming or assassinating him. But Ludlum also maintains a contradictory admiration for Jason’s vigilante leanings, as when Bourne feels no regret whenever deceiving or stealing from those he judges to be rather less than innocent in their dealings.

That very concept — that the ends justify the means — is one that, along with many others, I remain profoundly uncomfortable with. But it does make for a wonderfully engrossing page-turner.

Gorgon's head on Athena's shield, from pediment of Roman temple to Sulis Minerva, Bath
Gorgon’s head on Athena’s shield, from pediment of Roman temple to Sulis Minerva, Bath

* And yet note that Jason’s patron Athena, as pictured on that vase in the Vatican Museum shown above, was always pictured wearing the head of Medusa on her armour and on her shield, an apotropaic device to ward off all opposition. Even as a moustachioed and bearded female (as on the Roman temple in Bath) the face is designed to shock and stupefy. Medusa is, directly or indirectly it seems to me, connected to both Jasons.

Repost of a review (slightly edited) first published here 13th September 2013

10 thoughts on “Empathy for the rebel

  1. I rather subscribe to the view that the ends of meanies are justified. so I enjoy the ungodly being smitten.
    It does seem a strange choice to bring in an actual living person as an adversary of a fictional hero. How was the disclaimer worded on the reverse of the title page?


    1. No disclaimer at all about “Any resemblance to any persons living or dead…” but this was 1980 and I don’t know when those started to be the norm. Just as I don’t know why the wording “The author has asserted their right to be identified…” sometimes appears but often doesn’t.

      “Ends of meanies…” Very good. I must remember that. And claim it as my own some time.


    1. What does Phil think about the possible classical allusions? Is it just hooey or is there something in it? Anyway, glad you appreciate it — do you think us musicians with all our classical training are predestined to analyse compositions in whatever medium to within an inch of their existence?!


  2. I have read this one but ages ago, but I certainly hadn’t thought in terms of the Greek parallels which I will bear in mind if I ever get to a reread. Re ends justifying means, it is something that does now make me more uncomfortable than earlier–perhaps one who metes out violence and brutality deserves it being done to them, but if it is someone on the side of ‘right’ delivering that justice, ‘right’ is being no better than ‘wrong’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure I’d want to reread it, but maybe I would try the sequels.

      As for the ‘might is right’ and ‘ends justifying means’ approach, it’s interesting that Le Guin’s City of Illusions gets her protagonist considering the moral ramifications of these and ultimately rejecting them, though he is at a couple of times compromised and regrets his actions. Le Guin’s Daoism definitely starts coming to the fore in these early SF novels.


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