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Hannibal Lecter and the aesthetics of cannibalism

Feb 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 23 • By MICHAEL LONG
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One hesitates to burden entertainment with philosophical baggage. The great majority of moviegoers are wisely after the mindless pleasure of the thing. They don't want Kierkegaard's Either/Or. They want respite from worry, work, and the occasional screaming kid.

Yet some books and movies don't make sense without the baggage, and so it is with the newly released film Hannibal, made from Thomas Harris's novel of the same title. Issued in the spring of 1999, Harris's book was the publishing event of the year. Its forerunner, The Silence of the Lambs, was a well-received thriller that managed the difficult feat of transcending its own genre. And after it was made into an Oscar-winning film, its central character, Hannibal Lecter (brilliantly played by Anthony Hopkins), ascended to the ranks of instantly recognizable cultural phenomena.

It took a decade for Harris to bring forth a sequel, only his fourth book in twenty-five years. Given the popularity of The Silence of the Lambs, the author could have compiled his grocery lists and still sold books, but he did not take any easy way out. Harris, who despite his choice of subject matter writes an elegant prose, delivered an unexpectedly difficult novel, brimming with some of the wildest gore ever found in a mainstream release. The success of the film version of The Silence of the Lambs made a sure thing of the sequel, but Harris seemed to exploit that advantage by making his book hard to love.

In The Silence of the Lambs, a serial murderer is killing young women to skin them and assemble his own "women suit." (The character incorporates elements of real-life Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, a figure whose story has been mined for years by numerous slasher movies.)

The FBI decides that the best chance to catch him is to interview the captured serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, a dapper psychiatrist with an almost otherworldly intellect. His interviewer is an FBI trainee, Clarice Starling. Lecter forces her to make a bargain: her personal remembrances in exchange for leads with which she might catch the killer.

Lecter is revealed to be quite a respectful gentleman, as psychopathic cannibal psychiatrists go: a cross between Tom Wolfe and an automated slaughterhouse. He reserves his violence for those who offend his sense of culture and beauty.

Complementing him, Starling turns out to be of humble background but possessed of an inchoate appreciation for beauty, which Lecter recognizes, enjoys, and exploits. In the end, Starling uses Lecter's insight to catch the killer, and the two assume an ironic relation of personal, mutual respect.

In Hannibal, Lecter is now a fugitive living it up in Florence, serving as curator of an ancient Italian library and indulging his taste less often for human flesh than for art, music, and gourmet food. Meanwhile, Clarice Starling is watching her once-promising FBI career slide into an abyss, courtesy of a scorned, lustful boss and the politically correct proclivities of the system.

On the hunt for Lecter, she realizes that the surest way to catch him is to follow his signal trait, his passion for culture and things beautiful. This study draws out and develops her own spark of taste. As an orphan who has gotten ahead only by following the rules, Starling doesn't take long to see that the pursuit of beauty is a more faithful and timeless occupation than service to the faithless suits who have iced her career.

In the end she rejects the FBI -- and conventional morality itself -- and joins up with Lecter -- not as a killer per se, but as a friend and lover united with her former foe by what she now considers the highest calling: the commitment to beauty. Here she finds constancy greater than human systems offer; here is something that will never fail her because it comes from within.

The book is fantasy, of course. Lecter is preternaturally powerful and brilliant -- his knowledge of Italian history and ancient dialects alone approaches the impossible. He is an expert in everything. He anticipates nearly every move against him; has planned for contingencies seemingly years in advance; is a connoisseur beyond reality of all things elegant. That Lecter and Starling end up as lovers in the end left many readers cold, yet the elevation of art above morality was the message of the book across every single page: Lecter thrives outside conventional morality; Starling grows stifled within it and must join him if she, too, is to thrive.