Monday, January 15, 2007

The Biology of Evil

Blacks swans on the black water of a castle moat. There are two children there, a brother and a sister. The Alpha swan approaches across the water, and begins to threaten them. His wings are thrown out menacingly, an angry hiss projects his hostility. This is a threat gesture.

The sister, being younger, is frightened. Her older brother stands his ground, as his father has taught him the trick. He throws his own arms wide, and grabs the branches of a nearby willow tree, shaking them. The alpha swan retreats, knowing that the boy’s wings are larger.

This scene unfolds near the very beginning of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Rising, the 4th book in what has now become a series of narratives with Hannibal as the only common thread. There is no morality in this scene, only etiology. The boy is Hannibal Lecter at his childhood home of Lecter castle. Some might anthropomorphize the swan, but not Hannibal, and by extension, Harris. The swan’s behavior is simply an extension of his nature, and his nature is physical – genomes expressed in neurons and tendencies.

The stakes are clear from the outset: 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?

These are some of the oldest literary questions out there, and approaching them inside the framework of the crime procedural has long been Harris’s project. So, I would like to begin with a couple of questions of my own: Is Hannibal Rising literature? Is it a stronger book than Hannibal, or has the franchise gone off the tracks? If HR does rise to highly debatable standard of Literature with a capital L, does is accomplish its project? To use the meter-stick of philosophic pragmatism, is Hannibal Rising a useful inquiry into the nature of evil? Does it work?

Any book that begins with a quote from Philip Larkin has literary ambitions, and this is consistent with Harris body of work. Compared to the first three books, Rising seems to be almost frothy and light in the density of its prose and cultural references. This is deliberate, Harris is not a man that does anything by mistake. The simple phrasing and unornamented language at the beginning of the book are there to evoke the skeletal nature of childhood memories. But I’m not sure how effective it is.

After all, the book begins in Hannibal’s memory palace, an idea fully developed Hannibal – and the passage suggests that despite the vastness and grandeur of the Palace, it is not a space that Hannibal is completely in control of. This is a fascinating conceit, and unfortunately it’s a conceit that seems to be abandoned within the first five pages of the novel. Throughout the book, I found myself wondering about what the adult Hannibal thought of all this, or if the action of the novel was in some way unrecoverable for him. If that’s the case, I can’t help but feel we need more of that tension inside the narrative itself.

The book begins with a move that suggests the narrative being enacted, remembered into being. If Hannibal is recalling the action of the book, then where is the tension between his adult perspective and his younger alterego? And if he is not remembering it into being, then who is the authorial voice? Why begin with this memory house evocation of the muse? The interplay of the two points of view seems to me to be a huge missed opportunity. If the younger Hannibal is born into the world with an innate sense of good and evil, of morality and empathy, does Hannibal the Elder look back on those years with a sense of loss? Or does he shake his noble head at the naiveté of his younger self, much the way I am shaking my head at my use of question marks in this essay?

More to come – I want to talk about the class issues that Hannibal seems to express, and what the trendline of Hannibal’s evolution as a character seems to point towards.

Also, I still want to tackle the most important question – where does Harris place evil, on the throne of biology, or deep inside some flaw in the human heart?

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