Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The self-created monster

Although the great psychodrama Silence of the Lambs has enjoyed tremendous popularity and acclaim, many viewers have overlooked its most provocative insight: Hannibal Lecter, though a fearsome killer, is not truly crazy. This is a radical interpretation, I admit. The conventional view is that he can't help being the way he is. As Roger Ebert writes, Hannibal "bears comparison...with such other movie monsters as Nosferatu, Frankenstein (especially in Bride of Frankenstein), King Kong and Norman Bates. They have two things in common: They behave according to their natures, and they are misunderstood. Nothing that these monsters do is 'evil' in any conventional moral sense, because they lack any moral sense. They are hard-wired to do what they do. They have no choice."

I believe that this interpretation is mistaken. But I admit that there is superficial evidence to support it. There is no doubt that all the characters in the movie, aside from Hannibal himself, consider Hannibal crazy. That's why he's in an institution for the criminally insane. That's why Anthony Hopkins, on the DVD, describes Lecter as a good man trapped in a madman's body. Who am I to disagree with the actor who brought the character to life?

But I have observed that people tend to apply the word "madman" indiscriminately to anyone whose actions fall outside the boundaries of civilized behavior. Only in that sense is Hannibal "mad"; by any other criteria, he exhibits none of the usual signs of madness. He is not delusional in the least, and he has full control over his behavior. Everything he does is a carefully considered choice, based on a personal value system that permits him to perform grisly acts when he believes the circumstances justify it.

Dr. Chilton describes Hannibal as "a monster, a pure psychopath," but Hannibal in many ways does not fit the traditional definition of a psychopath. According to the diagnostic manual DSM-IV-TR, a person must exhibit three or more of the following behaviors to be classified as a psychopath:
(1) failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviors as indicated by repeatedly performing acts that are grounds for arrest
(2) deceitfulness, as indicated by repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for personal profit or pleasure
(3) impulsivity or failure to plan ahead
(4) irritability and aggressiveness, as indicated by repeated physical fights or assaults
(5) reckless disregard for safety of self or others
(6) consistent irresponsibility, as indicated by repeated failure to sustain consistent work behavior or honor financial obligations
(7) lack of remorse, as indicated by being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another
Hannibal clearly is not reckless, irresponsible, or impulsive. His lack of impulsivity is notable, since the usual image of a psychopath is someone who lives in the present and doesn't think ahead. Hannibal seems to have everything intricately planned--including his escape, which he carries out while listening to classical music as if he had outlined the attack to the exact key.

One might assume that he's deceitful, but actually he lies only once in the entire movie, when he deliberately gives the FBI incorrect information about the name and whereabouts of the serial killer on the loose. Yet he does this in retaliation after he is lied to, hardly an indication of habitual lying. On the contrary, most of the time he uses his brutal honesty as a weapon, to wound others.

That leaves three categories that arguably apply to Hannibal: "failure to conform to social norms," "irritability and aggressiveness," and "lack of remorse." If those three traits truly describe Hannibal, then he may qualify as a psychopath. However, there is a good case for saying that he doesn't fit the second category. While he is certainly aggressive, I wouldn't describe him as irritable. His aggression is not haphazard but methodical. Whatever drives him, it isn't anger or rage. He is willing to hurt or kill those who stand in his way, but there is usually an element of moral judgment in his choice of victims. He tells Clarice that he has no intentions of coming after her, because "the world is more interesting with you in it." He has firmly held beliefs about how people ought to behave, and they influence his decisions on how to act. For example, when he causes Miggs's death, Dr. Chilton claims that Hannibal did it "to amuse himself," but Hannibal has his own explanation: "Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me." That is an ethical belief he repeatedly follows throughout the film.

What about his cannibalism? Doesn't this greatly undermine my argument? How could any sane man eat people? But there's nothing compulsive about his behavior. He performs no elaborate rituals along the lines of any standard serial killer. His cannibalism seems to reflect, rather, his contempt for much of the human race. He doesn't value human life, but he is capable of being kind to those he feels have earned his respect, like Clarice.

Hannibal is neither a psychopath nor a madman. Then how, you might ask, can we explain his monstrous behavior? Here is a telling exchange from the novel:
"You can't reduce me to a set of influences. You've given up good and evil for behaviorism...nothing is ever anybody's fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I'm evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?"

"I think you've been destructive. For me it's the same thing."

"Evil's just destructive? Then storms are evil, if it's that simple." (p. 19)
Hannibal here is criticizing both the psychiatric profession and society as a whole. There is a common temptation to explain all human behavior in terms of mental states. We seek to distance ourselves from our horror by labeling anyone who commits horrifying crimes as "sick," as though that person is somehow the product of forces beyond his control rather than someone who has made a conscious choice to be the way he is. Hannibal Lecter represents our worst nightmare, a living proof that brutality and rationality do not necessarily conflict.


Sami said...

Whoa. This was very interesting. It reminds me of what one of my social studies teachers said about Hannibal, that he was greatest example of a dark humanism. I don't agree with that label very much but I understood what he meant. Hannibal didn't have any morality, he made his own. His morality was disturbing to say the least but he stuck to his morals throughout the books and movies.

Kylopod said...

Yes, and he has many good qualities, which contrast sharply with the negative qualities of some of the supposedly "good" characters. For example, he treats Clarice much more kindly and respectfully than either Dr. Chilton (a real creep) or Jack Crawford do. We have a feeling that he would never harm her even if he had a chance. He is emotionally sadistic, though.

Baal Habos said...

Ah. Silence of the Lambs. I remember that fondly. I never saw the movie, but read the book as Books on Tape. I.e listening to it in my car. I remember vividly the scene with the ambulance. I was driving on a dark lonely road at the time. I was so frightened, I stopped to car to make sure I had no uninvited guests in the back seat!

Greg said...

Good post; I think you are right. Lechter has a God complex, his moral system has a different set of rules....