Monday, January 29, 2007

Defining Our Terms

As an addendum to my last post, I'm including some terms and their definitions for us to ponder.

I've been thinking hard about Steve's question: "where does Harris place evil, on the throne of biology, or deep inside some flaw in the human heart?" And I believe Harris is actually trying to distinguish between two thrones--biology and anatomy. One being the study of systems, the other a study of parts.

Here's what the OED has to say.

biology: The study of human life and character. Obs.; or The science of physical life; the division of physical science which deals with organized beings or animals and plants, their morphology, physiology, origin, and distribution.

anatomy: The process, subjects, and products of dissection of the body;

a. A body (or part of one) anatomized or dissected, so as to show the position and structure of the organs. b. A body or ‘subject’ for dissection. Obs.; A model of the body, showing the parts discovered in dissection.

I realize this appears to be a fine-line distinction; but we need to make it (or figure out to what degree Harris makes it). What's at stake is Harris's degree of responsibility in clarifying where a seat of evil might be in his series. If the Hannibal novels are about a biology of evil, then we can legitimately look for systems, causalities, and situations where contingent terms like "justice" and "punishment" make sense. If the novels are about biology, then we can say, "Hannibal kills all those Nazis because they killed his sister, and because they are Nazis, and the killings are therefore justified." And by making his sister's killers Nazis in the first place, isn't Harris moving toward that kind of interpretation? Who doesn't want those Nazis to receive their comeuppance, in the form of a bloodbath administered by none other than Hannibal Lecter? It's sweet justice.

The only problem is that Harris appears to be less interested in biology than anatomy, i.e., the simple baring of parts consitutive of a system. He gives us a young Hannibal without connecting him to the current Hannibal; he gives us a house of meticulously constructed memories that, at times, behaves independent of its maker; a postwar Hannibal who is plagued by nightmares about his sister's death, and yet is able to return to the scene of her murder and bury the remains with clinical detachment; he shows us killing after killing, but of legitimate "bad guys" who we don't mind seeing killed anyway; and in the background, we have the swan figure, whose aggression appears out of nowhere, connected to nothing but its own nature, its own genomes and neurons.

If the series privileges anatomy over biology, then Harris doesn't have to resolve any of these discrepancies. He simply has to show us the parts, label them, and put them on the table for us to examine. Instead of working out a complete ideology of evil to govern the series, Harris follows Hannibal down widely divergent avenues of thought and behavior. No doubt this is liberating for a writer, and makes for excitement at the moment of composition. But in the finished product--which, after all, is a series of finished products--having competing ideologies of evil makes for confusion, not dynamism.

What do you think? Blog on.

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