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A R T S    &    C U L T U R E
The Whining of the Lambs
Mark Gutierrez • The shrinking of the cannibal shrink
September 1999

The predictable furor over Hannibal's carnivorous pigs, blood-sucking eel, and questionable dinner parties has swelled so loud that it has obscured the one really shocking fact about what was supposed to be the scare novel of the season:

It isn't scary.

The point, author Thomas Harris says, is to "[slap] the clammy flab of our submissive consciousness hard enough to get our attention." Yet the real surprise of this book is neither its violence nor its gore, but the strange new pettiness of its title character-the shrinking of the cannibal shrink. If Hannibal is any indication, it would seem they don't even make anti-heroes like they used to.

From his debut in Red Dragon (1981), Dr. Lecter's appeal was difficult to deny: He was exotic, refined, and brilliant. He had a dry wit (his remark, apropos of a patient he had killed: "Best thing for him really. Therapy wasn't going anywhere"), and he contrived the plausible marriage of implausible extremes: intelligence and savagery, gourmandism and cannibalism. He talked comfortably and well on John Donne, the Goldberg Variations, and recreational flaying. He was even ambidextrous. So eager were we for the Lecter myth to be real that following the release of the 1991 film of The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins was dogged for months by cannibal jokes sincere enough to make him leave dinner unfinished.

Lecter was impressive then, a figure that could honestly frighten us. What happened since? Why does Hannibal's Hannibal seem so... puny? The trouble really began with his escape from custody, one book back. When a guy is so obviously the underdog we don't so much mind sympathizing with him, even if
he does eat people. Once free, however, you cannot be powerful, likable, and evil, but at most any two of the three at a time. Harris could not eliminate Lecter's power or likableness-his fans wouldn't have it. So instead, he
eliminated evil.

"Can you stand to say I'm evil?" Lecter asked us, years ago. "Am I evil?" Back then, much as we liked the man we still knew the answer had to be, of course,
yes. And it is this, and not its new-and-improved ways of killing, that is the real departure of Hannibal:

Henceforth, Harris has declared, "right" and "wrong" are no longer to apply to deeds or persons. It is the only way Hannibal can go on being powerful,
likable-and a cannibal. Harris in fact does precisely what Lecter rebuked a
callow Clarice Starling for doing: giving up morality for behaviorism. The trouble is, once we refuse to acknowledge Lecter-or anything he might do-as evil, he
must cease to be frightening to us. Even Macbeth would no longer be horrifying if murder were just another lifestyle choice. Suddenly, unbelievably, Dr. Lecter
is sending I'm-okay-you're-okay notes to bolster Clarice's self-esteem after a bad day at work-Clarice, whose emotional scars that same Lecter once prodded for the sheer sadistic delight of it. What had been a bang of grand and terrible forces becomes a whimper of cheap psychology, complete with a grateful former patient repeating Lecter's own advice: that it's "all right to be weird." After all, we've seen every other kind of empowerment -ism; why not empowerment cannibalism? Harris even proffers the pathetic sop that Lecter's murders may all along have been altruistic. This is intensely depressing. Sure, we may have had a guilty fondness for a flesh-eating psychiatrist in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. But at least we didn't try to pretend he was Florence Nightingale. Harris wants us not to condemn Lecter, thinking his story will be more shocking that way. But he is only able to keep the doctor impressive when he borrows trappings from a world where deeds can still be significant enough—and, hence, frightening enough—to be condemned. One of the few times the new Lecter attains his former stature is when he is taken for Satan by gypsies, one of whom even hurries to wash her baby's eyes in holy water in case they might have looked upon the dark angel's face. But Satan is invoked only once or twice, and for the rest we really are in Lecter's world, where you are judged not as good or evil but as interesting or uninteresting. Lecter assures one woman, for instance, that he always thought her to be "more interesting, more... capable" than her brother. The brother had repeatedly sexually assaulted her; but his fault here lies not in being a rapist, but in being uninteresting. (Incredibly, the woman seems to agree.)

When, freshly tutored by Dr. Lecter, Clarice at last confronts her arch-enemy in one of Hannibal's final scenes, the accusation she levels is not that he is a
pettifogging tyrant ready to sacrifice innocent lives for political ambition. No, the most damning thing she can think of is that he is "an oaf." Oafishness in fact plays a key role in this book: it is the new One Deadly Sin. It also relates to another of Hannibal's recurring themes, namely, that people are intensely annoying. On the trail of mercenary kidnappers, Clarice will be confronted with a series of Bad Samaritans and bureaucratic incompetents so exaggerated as to defy belief. Nearly every character with even a trace of human decency is either killed off or abandoned; and those who aren't, like to eat people. The world, evidently, is really pretty awful.

Still, it must be okay for Clarice to hang up her badge: evil, after all, has ceased to exist. We're to forget the old big words-sin, virtue, responsibility-and just tot up style points instead. The things the amoral aesthete offers—cabochon
emeralds, "exquisite" silk dinner gowns, evenings at the opera—are surely to be preferred over anything so banal as justice. The Clarice of the end of Hannibal
may no longer be the Clarice of Silence, who judged herself "with all the mercy of the dungeon scales at Threave." But at least now she's blonde. The paradox is that, devoted only to pretty things, Lecter and Clarice become not beautiful but only insipid. Their courtship has the sartorial perfection of a cheap romance-complete with Starling waking in a room plentifully stocked with jewels, flowers, and a complete wardrobe of the finest silks and cashmeres.
There is even a besotted Lecter primed with cliches:

"If I saw you every day, forever, I would remember this time." 

Good news, casting directors: If Sir Anthony Hopkins doesn't want to be in the movie, maybe Fabio will take the part. Harris used to understand subtleties of character, and could win our sympathy even for monsters, as he does most wrenchingly in Red Dragon. Here, however, he evidently has realized that there are only two kinds of people in the world—the pleasant, and the unpleasant. In Hannibal, the key to sorting the two out is smell: thus the unfortunate but basically acceptable sister of the villain will be congratulated on her lemony liniment, and Lecter's taste in ointments and perfumes is, as ever, beyond reproach.

However, should you be so unlucky as to number among the unappealing, you might very well end up-like the villain's Sardinian henchman-with a "malodorous head." 

The "bad" guys do gross things, like reenacting crucifixions for Idi Amin, and drinking martinis made with the tears of inner-city children, and violating FDA food-quality standards. The "good" guys do clever things, like going to the opera, and eating people. Characters we are meant to dislike are compared to
unappealing animals, such as donkeys and hyenas. And the nose-picking chauvinist Paul Krendler even manages the improbable feat of possessing both "the ears of a hyena" and "the shoulders of a chicken." Even the figure the book was supposed to be about—Dr. Lecter—suffers in the end. He was believable, somehow, in Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs, and despite the unlikelihood of all we were told (that his I.Q. went off the map, that he was beyond psychological testing, that he could not be understood by mortal
man), we could still believe that all of his traits existed in one person. But in Hannibal, not only his nature but even his actions begin to contradict each
other in crazy ways. He can dispose effortlessly of any number of bounty hunters on his track-but he can't eat airline food even to safeguard his freedom. He kept so quiet through eight years' imprisonment that his voice rasped for lack of use-but suddenly he is having panic attacks so severe that every couple of
days in this book he begins screaming uncontrollably.

Mario Puzo proved that a good popular novel could be written in which the good guys are all, technically, bad guys. But Harris's task is harder, for unlike that of The Godfather, the story of Hannibal Lecter cannot be about the conflicts of human loyalties (since he has none), or the inescapable bondage of evil (since bondage would imply servitude, and Lecter serves none). Dr. Lecter doesn't need other people; indeed, he doesn't need much of anything. His real literary fault is that he is too free to convincingly sustain a plot. Fear requires need, but Lecter is immune to both. He needs nothing, and so stands to lose nothing, and so really can fear nothing. And it is precisely his freedom from desire that keeps us from being scared when we are asked to look at the world from his moral framework. Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs—whose
characters were anything but free—could traffic in fear and glory. Hannibal's rejection of desire means that it can be about nothing deeper than resentment:
Krendler resenting attractive women; Starling resenting unattractive men; Lecter resenting God. By giving all value to taste, Hannibal has left none for passion. Nothing important is at stake in this book. In Hannibal's world the worst thing that could happen to you is not that you could be killed or raped, but
that you could be "uninteresting." And that isn't scary. It's just uninteresting.

—Mark Gutierrez is a sophomore in Davenport College
 

   
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