Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Biology of Becoming

Well, Steve has done most of the hard work already. In his last post, he distills the major questions that readers should ask, not only of Hannibal Rising, but of the whole series. Like Steve, I am primarily concerned with the system of evil that Harris establishes and develops over time (and by "system," I may very well be looking for a companion term like "ideology," since the concept of evil increasingly seems to function for Hannibal's character as a system of self-representation--more on this later).

But wait. You may be asking, who cares? What should we expect from a novel like Hannibal Rising, a "fun read" that you can pick up in any airport giftshop, and which already has been made into a feature film? Shouldn't we just be satisfied with having the bejeezus scared out of us, and not ask popular fiction to answer these fundamental human questions? The only response I have to this is, that's what a writer like Harris gets for doing such a damned fascinating job of establishing an ideology of evil in the first two movements of this epic, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. I agree with Steve that these two works get as close as any novel does to Literature with a capital L, because it's here that Harris engages most provocatively with the nature of evil instead of merely tending to his franchise.

In those works, Hannibal's evil has no origin, no evolution. It emerges whole and unapologetic from the blackness of nature itself. Hannibal is a ruthless force. He kills people and eats the remains. The ghoulish nods he makes to civility--the fava beans, the chianti--place him at the same "table" as Stoker's Dracula, another distinctly originless force of evil who wears the cloaks and top hats of the social elite but who is most comfortable as wolf, bat, or swamp fog. In the first two novels, Hannibal is lethal as a wolf, or a deadly virus, or any other predatory force you can name. He will kill you with a very sharp knife and he will eat you. He will never stop doing this. Why he does so--this the wrong question to ask, and that's why Dr. Frederick Chilton is set up as Hannibal's most foolish jailer in Harris's early work. In my first readings of the Hannibal series, it was passages like the following, from Red Dragon, that most clearly outlined this point. Chilton says to Graham:

"He's impenetrable. To sophisticated about the tests for them to register anything. Edwards, Fabre, even Dr. Bloom himself had a crack at him. I have their notes. He was an enigma to them too. It's impossible, of course, to tell what he's holding back or whether he understands more than he'll say."

Later, Graham observes:

"Dr. Lecter seldom holds his head upright. He tilts it as he asks a question, as though he were screwing an auger of curiosity into your face."

In Hannibal's hands, curiosity--a gift of human intelligence--is just another "auger" or tool for violence. Chilton's tests are no match for that kind of energy. Hannibal is a constantly moving target, re-calibrating his attacks in order to most effectively manipulate the emotions of his victims, jailers, and observers. Unlike the serial killers that Graham and Clarice track through the first two novels, Hannibal's actions do not derive from an identifiable pathology that then drives subsequent violence. He didn't start that way--he just started, or starts. And the point at which he begins is different every time--Hannibal gets to work exactly where he needs to, where his victims are weakest. He says it best in Lambs: "It is on the plank of mood that we proceed." Swish.

So by book 4 of this saga, I think we should be able to see more of this system (or ideology, or architecture) & witness it functioning with some consistency. We should be able to answer the questions in Steve's worthy list, which I repeat here:

Are monsters made, or are they simply born that way? Is evil simply a name that humans, as social mammals, give to profoundly antisocial behavior? Is there a moral architecture for violence? When does it graduate from self-defense to more abstract enactments, like justice? Is all “justice” really just murder with societal approval. Is there room for moral relativity in the universe of one human causing the deliberate, or even indeliberate, suffering of another? If the swan is just expressing its nature in its aggression, what of human nature’s relationship to violence?

As of the first two novels, I believe that Harris contends that while some monsters are made, the really deadly ones are "born that way." Thus, there may not be a moral architecture for someone like Hannibal--just an empty memory palace that is eventually filled with deeds. When we start looking for an origin story, for some node in Hannibal's psyche that explains his brutal behavior, we become like Chilton, foolishly assuming that all evil is within our human understanding and ability to control. And (I'm showing my hand here) I think it's a harder position to maintain--and therefore a more interesting one--to allow for a world where evil isn't bound to causality, to morals, to justice, but to nature itself.

OK, those are my first moves in this argument. I want to compose another post that talks about the second two books, and how the system of evil changes. Like Steve, I think Harris neglects the connections between the various Hannibals he creates (old and young Hannibal, yes, but also the palette of now-Hannibals that take the stage over the whole series), and this is to the detriment of the fascinating architecture of evil that he successfully establishes in the first two novels.

Also, I'd like to know what you think. Are there items, quotes, or passages that you feel should be cited here? Blog on.

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