Brain Food

How Hannibal Lecter Gets Inside Our Heads

"This is like the Second Coming," said a bookstore spokesman quoted in Publishers Weekly. He was talking about Thomas Harris's Hannibal, the long-awaited return of Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, last seen preparing to have an old friend for dinner in Harris's 1988 bestseller The Silence of the Lambs.

Antichrist superstar? The comparison is apt. At a historical moment when the public imagination is captured by antiheroes, from real-life serial killers to prefab bogeymen like Marilyn Manson, Lecter looms large, so much so that Anthony Hopkins, who played Lecter in Jonathan Demme's 1991 movie of Silence, was reportedly so disturbed that kids thought the serial cannibal was way cool that he said he'd never play him again.

Why do we love him? To begin, the kids are right. He's cool, in the same way that Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat is: He has all the best lines, great bone structure, an I.Q. measureless to man, Draculian dominion over wild animals (in Hannibal, feral pigs obey his commands), is "size for size . . . as strong as an ant," drives a supercharged black Jaguar, is richer than God, and gets the babe. Coolest of all, his pulse doesn't top 85, even when he's tearing out your tongue and eating it.

More profound, Hannibal Lecter is a Gothic antihero for Gothic times. He offers a skeleton key for unlocking the true nature of our age of tabloid frenzies and talk-show pathologies, serial killers and the women who love them. Only the Gothic, with its images of madness and depravity, excess and grotesquerie, is adequate to the task of making myth— and meaning— of everyday life in an Age of Unreason. Its vocabulary, as Richard Davenport-Hines points out in Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin, is "peculiarly suited to moments when human experience reaches the limits of intelligibility."

Hannibal plumbs the abyssal dark beyond those limits. It's seven years after Silence, and Lecter has been "going to and fro in the Earth and walking up and down in it" in the best Satanic fashion since his escape from jail. Soon, FBI agent Clarice Starling is on his trail. Also on the doctor's scent is one of Lecter's victims, a Francis Bacon painting come to life named Mason Verger, "noseless and lipless, with no soft tissue on his face . . . all teeth, like a creature of the deep, deep ocean." Verger has arranged a last supper for Lecter, in the company of a herd of man-eating pigs; a sleazebag snuff-film maker provides the appetizer ("snarling and squealing, two boars pulling at his face got his jaw off and divided it like a wishbone"). As the story unfolds, we bear stunned witness to the transformation of Clarice Starling from true-blue Special Agent into the Bride of Frankenstein.

Neo-Gothic novels like Hannibal are horror stories we tell ourselves in order to live in the nervous '90s, a schizoid time (like all centuries' ends) torn between the New Economy and age-old hostilities, overnight millionaires and maquiladora workers, corporate branding and carpet bombing, moral crusaders and fans of mass murderers— the giddy wipeout of what is both the most violent century on record and, as Don DeLillo often reminds us, the most filmed.

A truly postmodern monster, Lecter is a media bogeyman, an alt.culture celebrity: "The Dr. Hannibal Lecter!" an s/m devotee exclaims. "I wanted that mask of yours so badly for our club in Baltimore." He plays to the camera, punctuating his most unspeakable acts with sitcom one-liners. "All we ask is that you keep an open mind," he cracks, removing the top of Deputy Assistant Inspector General Krendler's skull. Duct-taped to his dinner chair and anesthetized, the lawyer merely looks up when Lecter removes a few slices from his prefrontal lobes. "Quickly [Lecter] sautéd the slices until they were just brown on each side. 'Smells great!' Krendler said. Dr. Lecter placed the browned brains on broad croutons. . . . 'How is it?' Krendler asked, speaking immoderately loud, as persons with lobotomies are prone to do."

Delicious as it is, this is the Stephen King moment when the novel loses its moral bearings. Lecter is the center of metaphysical gravity in Harris's world, and when he slips into his campy, Martha Stewart lesson in well-mannered cannibalism, we know that the world he stands staunchly against— the postmodern era, with its meandering moral compass and its tabloid tackiness— has won.

Lecter's elemental evil, an inscrutable force of nature in Silence, is explained away with a childhood trauma. "You can't reduce me to a set of influences," he taunted Starling, but that's precisely what Harris does in Hannibal. Behaviorism has the last laugh.

The diminution of Lecter's moral stature is signaled by the reduction of his Mephistophelean superiority to a serial shopper's "taste for rarified things": an 18th-century Flemish harpsichord from Sotheby's, an upscale picnic basket from Hammacher Schlemmer. As the novel progresses, he looks more and more like an old-money version of Patrick Bateman, the nouveau-riche, Budget Gourmet cannibal in Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

Lecter struck a sympathetic chord, in Silence, because he appealed to our craving for black or white absolutes in an ever more relative, moral cosmos. In The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, Andrew Delbanco argues that science and secular humanism have "unnamed evil," robbed us of our moral vocabulary, and left us speechless "in the most brutal century in human history." Nonetheless, he says, we yearn for "a world in which evil can still be recognized, have meaning, and require a response."

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