Hannibal Lecter: Transhumanist Icon

Originally Published
Sun Jul 31, 2005 at 03:15:14 PM EST

In certain circles you hear the word Transhumanism a lot lately. This is the idea that new technologies will make people so intelligent, powerful, healthy, and long-lived that we will not be merely human any more; we will transcend what is commonly called the "human condition" and become something more like gods.

Of course it's very difficult to imagine what it would be like to become something so much better and different than ourselves. But it's also an old dream of ours, and some of our brightest thinkers have tried to imagine it for us. Come with me on a slightly different reading of a character you've probably already met: One of the most well known and yet clearly transhuman characters in modern literature is Hannibal Lecter, the serial killer who has now appeared in three novels by Thomas Harris.

(Note: In case you are one of the six people left who have never read these books or seen the movies, this review does spoil all the endings.)

Once upon a time there was a newspaper reporter for the Associated Press named Thomas Harris. One day Harris and a couple of friends hatched a cool plan by which terrorists could kill nearly everybody in attendance at the Super Bowl. They decided to dramatize it as a novel, which they started as a group project. But the two friends dropped out and Harris completed the novel alone. Black Sunday was published in 1975. It became quite popular, in part because of Harris' clear descriptive prose and meticulous attention to detail. It was made into a popular movie in 1977.

Harris was bitten by the writing bug. For his next project he decided to write about the FBI's Behavioral Science section, which tries to catch criminals by using psychological profiling to model their behavior and predict what they will do next.

You can say a lot of things about Thomas Harris the writer, but one thing you can't say is that he writes fast. It took him six years to complete the project.

Red Dragon

The villain of Red Dragon is Francis Dolarhyde, better known to the public of his fictional world as the "Tooth Fairy" after one of his favorite weapons. Dolarhyde was born deformed (with a cleft palate) and horrifically abused, not least by being denied the surgery to fix his palate until he became old enough to join the Army.

Dolarhyde is obsessed with William Blake's watercolor The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. He yearns to Become the Dragon, and he pursues this dream in singular fashion. Like any would-be superhero he works out. He creates a distinctive appearance, not by adopting a cape and mask but with tattoos. He makes many sacrifices. Among these are the families that will assist him. He seeks out those those who seem the happiest and best-adjusted, and he murders them horrifically. With bits of mirror placed in their dead eyes they Become the first to see what he will Become, and they draw him ever closer to that final godlike Becoming.

Dolarhyde's nemesis is Will Graham, an FBI Behavioral Sciences agent who comes out of retirement to try and catch Dolarhyde before he can sacrifice another family. Graham has a legendary talent for thinking enough like a serial killer to guess his future moves.

Graham is retired for two reasons. Most obviously, his most famous collar nearly killed him. More ominously, he is afraid of being consumed by his talent. The original tagline for the book (before everything became about Hannibal Lecter) was "Enter the mind of a serial killer... you may never come back." You can still see that tagline on the IMDB page for the 1986 movie Manhunter which was based on Red Dragon.

Graham is lured reluctantly into the hunt for Dolarhyde by his old boss Jack Crawford. Crawford is no superhuman, but is in fact a human at the peak of his form; when he is not an expert he knows where to find one, and he knows what to say to get him back in the game. Crawford does not have the luxury of respecting Graham's desire to stay retired. He has a major problem he can't solve, and so he leans on Graham to go back to doing what he least wants to do.

Lecter is very much a bit player in Red Dragon. A good question would be to ask what he is doing in the story at all. What purpose does he serve? The main conflict is between Dolarhyde and Graham. A secondary conflict is Graham's conflict with the inner demons that make it possible for him to think like a Dolarhyde. There is yet another conflict between both men and sleazy tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds. In another side plot Dolarhyde trips both himself and Graham up when the unexpected affection of the blind woman Reba McClane brings his Becoming to an interesting crisis. It would not seem necessary to complicate the story even more with Lecter.

The answer, I believe, is that Lecter is an example of the state of perfection to which Dolarhyde aspires and which Graham fears. Lecter is the embodiment of what both men are capable of Becoming. Lecter respects Graham but has contempt for him because he will not Become what he could ultimately be. Lecter likes Dolarhyde (his "Pilgrim") because he demonstrates potential, recognizes Lecter as the ideal to which he aspires, and is working hard to realize that ideal. Lecter corresponds with Dolarhyde giving him encouragement and advice.

Although Graham prevails, stopping Dolarhyde, he is again nearly destroyed by his triumph. He retires again, this time for good, as we can tell because he is only mentioned twice in passing in Silence of the Lambs and not at all in Hannibal. He has succeeded in not Becoming, and his success takes him right out of the continuing story.

Silence of the Lambs

Working at his usual feverish pace, Harris managed to complete the sequel to Red Dragon in a mere seven years. Silence of the Lambs came out in 1988. The book itself was a major hit, and is for good reason considered one of the classics of its genre.

In many ways SOTL is a twisted mirror image of Red Dragon. Instead of seasoned veteran Will Graham, we have plucky neophyte Clarice Starling. Like Graham, Starling is put on her case by Jack Crawford. Most likely he would rather have again recruited Will Graham, but Will is now really out of the picture. Instead Crawford sends Starling to see Lecter, sensing that her relative guilelessness might tempt the monster to drop them all a morsel of Clue about their new nemesis.

This villain is one Jame Gumb, another victim of horrific child abuse who like Francis Dolarhyde inherits a big house and a monstrous appetite from his abuser. Unlike Dolarhyde, who sought to Become something other than himself, Gumb seems just fine with himself; it is his victims who Become. In his lighter moments he enjoys hunting them down in his huge pitch-dark basement with the slight advantages of night vision goggles and a gun. When he is finished with them he poses their bodies in obscene tableaux, and stuffs moth chrysalis into their throats to symbolize their transformation. Unlike Dolarhyde, Gumb does not seem inclined to risk danger to himself.

We are told that Gumb "thinks" he is a transsexual, but isn't really—a plot point that helps the FBI locate him. Instead of Becoming a girl, he decides to make himself a girl suit out of the skin of real girls. This takes tremendous skill, which Gumb has painstakingly acquired by study and trial and error. And it takes raw material, which is how he comes to the attention of the FBI.

Harris seems to have given a great deal more thought to the character of Hannibal Lecter this time; he is still a relatively minor actor, but we are given more details about him and of course his escape forms a dark backdrop to the otherwise triumphant ending. Barney, the orderly who earns Lecter's respect by respecting Lecter, did not appear in Red Dragon. Nor did we hear much about Lecter's actual crimes in the original book. Harris shows us Lecter in much the same way the original Alien movie showed us the monster; only a bit at a time, and we're never sure how much of it is hidden out of our sight.

Lecter does not respect Gumb as he respected Dolarhyde; he cheerfully sells Gumb out for his own personal advantage and minor amusement. Of Gumb as his patient Dr. Lecter tells Senator Martin, "He said he wanted help to stop but actually he just wanted to schmooze about it. To rap." In other words, Gumb wasn't Becoming anything. This makes him uninteresting to Lecter.

So what does Lecter see in Starling? At first he helps her simply because another inmate flings semen at her; this reflects badly on Lecter's hospitality. Simple etiquette demands that he offer up something to compensate for such rudeness. (Later, he talks the inmate into swallowing his tongue, casually killing him as if by remote control; his weapon is nothing more than his terribly complete understanding of other—one might say lesser—people.)

Lecter continues to help Starling because he finds her interesting. Despite her obviously poor upbringing he recognizes in her an uncultivated aptitude. Within the "well-scrubbed hustling little rube" with her "good bag and cheap shoes" is a person who might Become something more than she is. Lecter directs his energy not so much toward helping Starling catch Gumb as toward helping Starling improve herself.

After the Silence I

At this point I would like to speculate that Harris may have had a plan for the third book which isn't what he ended up writing. Harris had now given us a grizzled veteran who had almost turned himself into a serial killer himself and a plucky ingenue who really had no idea what she was getting into. My guess is that the next story was originally to be of a third detective who would do what Graham feared—who would Become like Lecter in the process of bringing Lecter down.

I don't think this was his plan for Starling because at the end of SOTL her story has achieved a satisfying closure; Harris could have left her alone with the lambs quieted and her fame protecting her from the likes of the loathsome Krendler and nobody would have complained.

After the Silence II

While SOTL was enormously popular by suspense novel standards, the whole project Became something on the order of Elvis, Zeppelin, and Stephen King with the production of the 1991 movie. Jodie Foster gave an amazingly convincing performance as the awkward but hard-working Starling, and Anthony Hopkins set the world on fire with his portrayal of Lecter.

I did not personally find Hopkins' portrayal of Lecter as enthralling as most people did; I actually thought Brian Cox's portrayal of Lecter in Manhunter came closer to what Harris had written. But the audience spoke, and Harris actually wrote Lecter more to the Hopkins specification in the third novel, just as he kept Starling at the center of the story.

And let us not forget that Harris kept writing on schedule. It took eleven years for him to write the third book, which is one reason I suspect there was a midcourse correction when the movie came out.

Hannibal I: Lecter

Hannibal came out in 1999. It was one of the most anticipated releases in the history of modern fiction, and a huge number of Harris' fans hated it.

Hannibal suffers in comparison to its predecessors in part because Harris is no longer able to hide the monster in the shadows, making us wonder exactly what he looks like. He has to tell us. So it's a little like the difference between the original Alien and Predator movies and the fusion sequel AVP; a Lecter with a back story and motivations and vulnerabilities just isn't as scary as Hannibal the Mysterious Cannibal.

In SOTL Lecter instructs Starling to ask of her villain: "What does he do, this man you want?" Her lesson is that he doesn't kill, he covets; killing is just a means to the end of making his girl suit. Likewise, Lecter is no simple killer. Suppose we ask the same question of him?

Lecter's senses are extraordinarily sensitive; he can learn your life story from the aftershave you haven't used in three days. He can smell the chemical that induces schizophrenia. He can be annoyed by this sensitivity; the odor of a waiter's watchband distracts him from his carefully chosen wine. In the midst of a dramatic escape he takes time to put unguent on a small fabric burn he has received. But he can also turn this sensitivity off at will; he betrays no emotion and conducts himself calmly as preparations are made to feed him, alive, to a herd of pigs.

Lecter has perfect memory and is extensively versed in many fields of knowledge. He knows many languages. He can rapidly pick up skills requiring manual dexterity that most of us would need considerable practice to duplicate. He is physically healthy and strong. He always has enough money to fund his expensive tastes. We are told explicitly that he doesn't do anything as crass as kill people for their money; he has received gifts and bequests from people who find him charming, and he followed through with sensible investments.

Lecter is not quite the Nietzschian Superman for one reason: He does not divert his feelings and emotions. In fact, he arranges to feel and experience the world much more exquisitely than most of us can. He could turn those feelings off, and he does when it suits him; but he appears to find the world more interesting when it is filled with sensations.

And, of course, he kills people and eats them. What's up with that?

Lecter was an intense boy who frightened everyone except his sister and his nurse. Overtaken by war, his family was killed and his sister was eaten by soldiers who had herded her and Hannibal and and other children together for sustenance in the bleak closing years of World War II. It is hinted that Lecter may have helped to eat his sister without realizing what the food was at the time. It is clear that the soldiers would have eventually eaten Hannibal too, except that in some unspoken way the six year old boy managed to overcome the situation. (Harris' upcoming fourth book will apparently shed some more light on this part of his life.)

The lad who may have avenged his eaten sister had the aptitude to Become something more than human, but it was the incident with the soldiers and the eaten sister that forced him to start the process. Harris implies that at this point Lecter didn't possess any of the other talents that will come to define him, but it appears that the experience would inspire him to embark on a lifelong self-improvement project.

Lecter does not dine at random; as Starling says in his defense, "he only eats the rude." Lecter's method isn't simply to remove annoying things from his environment, but to turn them into something pleasant. Thus, the flutist who can't carry a tune leaves the orchestra to become a fine meal for his friends. We might argue that Lecter's methods are a bit excessive; but Starling makes another observation about him which is critical: "He won't deny himself."

Hannibal Lecter recognizes that he is no longer merely human; he is something more like a god, and it is his right to indulge those urges he finds amusing regardless of what mere humans think.

Hannibal II: Mason Verger

With Lecter's power so fully exposed Harris needed to give him a worthy opponent. It's obvious that any straight-up conflict between Lecter and Starling would end up with Starling munchies being served. Besides, if Starling is to Become (which is the only way to thematically complete the trilogy) then she must be forced into alignment with Lecter. So she can't provide the major conflict.

Thus we meet Mason Verger, another of Hannibal's victims. Lecter let Verger live instead of killing him because—you see this coming, right?—it was more amusing. Verger is paralyzed and has no face, but he is also fantastically wealthy and cruel. Verger lays expensive, intricate plans to get Lecter before the cops do, and exact his revenge by feeding Lecter alive to specially bred pigs. Meanwhile he amuses himself with smaller cruelties. He affects to run a camp for impoverished children at his estate, but his real purpose is to torment them. When they cry, his staff bring him martinis salted with their tears.

Many readers found Verger "over the top," like a comic book villain. But Lecter is already something of a comic book superhero, so where else is he to find a worthy challenge? Verger's money buys him everything his ruined body cannot provide: Loyal helpers willing to abuse children and commit murder for him, police, government officials, even Starling's boss at the FBI, and not least of all his own sister.

Before Lecter breaks his neck Verger shows no tendency to inspire awe; he plays with cruelty and he plays sex games and he plays with people, but that's all he really does. He plays. Lecter forces him to Become something greater, a dark sinister directed force. By paralyzing him and stealing his face Lecter turns him from a petty sex fiend and Eurotrash wanna-be into a creature worthy of, well, being on the cover of a comic book.

But Verger can never be the equal of Lecter. One telling passage occurs as final preparations are being made to feed the captured Lecter to the pigs; Verger wonders consciously what he will do for amusement once he has dealt with Lecter. The obvious answer is that he will be a bit empty. For all his power and focus Mason never has learned to create his own sense of purpose. Lecter, of course, has; and this is the source of much of his power.

Hannibal III: Starling

In order to bring Starling back into the story Harris has to begin by destroying her. This is a consistent theme; Becoming is painful, even agonizing, because before you can Become something new, the thing you were Before must be destroyed. Harris begins to feed Starling into the meat grinder on page one as a routine bust goes horrifically wrong. Starling is forced to gun down a woman carrying a baby, and things go rapidly downhill from there.

By the time we reach the novel's climax Starling is stripped of her job, her authority, and her gun in a situation where it is understood by all that the murderous Lecter might be snooping around her. Her one remaining advocate, good old Jack Crawford, is weakened by the loss of his wife and a heart attack. Clarice is left with nothing but her wits and the fact that Lecter likes her.

Nevertheless, many of her fans reject her final turning; "How could she do it?" they ask in unison. And it's a good question. The answer, as it turns out, was right there on the cover of the first edition of Red Dragon: Enter the mind of a serial killer, and you may never come back. Graham enters Lecter's mind through his killing urges, but Starling enters through the more hospitable doorway of his taste.

Early on in Hannibal Starling muses that the catalogs and fashion magazines she is collecting to flesh out her understanding of Lecter's taste are a kind of pornography, which she has always denied herself. In Lecter's care she is no longer merely reading the pornography; he lets her experience fine things. This is the first element of her seduction.

Lecter uses drugs and psychotherapeutic techniques to weaken the memories that are holding her in the world of mortals, her love for her father and the lambs screaming at slaughter. He actually digs up her father's bones and confronts her with them, forcing her to create a sense of closure over his death. This is the second element of her seduction.

Finally Lecter confronts Starling with the man who has worked so diligently to ruin her mortal life, and prepares to feed her the very quivering brain which has architected her destruction. By the time she realizes that Krendler is about to be killed on her behalf she is just far gone enough to want to see what Lecter will make of him. Krendler himself, drugged and about to have his brain eaten hot out of his skull, recognizes that something is wrong:

"Who are you anyway?" Krendler said. "You're not Starling. You've got the spot on your face but you're not Starling."
Minutes later, as Starling tests the bits of Krendler's prefrontal lobe that Lecter has expertly prepared for her, the conversation continues:
"How is it?" Krendler asked, once again behind the flowers and speaking immoderately loud, as persons with lobotomies are prone to do.

"Really excellent," Starling said. "I've never had caper berries before."

As if she dines on the brains of her enemies all the time. But in all of this Starling may just be displaying a drug-induced passivity; the real turning point occurs when she utters one of the single best lines I have ever read in any novel:
"See if I sound like Oliver Twist when I ask for MORE!"
So Lecter has pulled it off; Clarice Starling has Become ... what? Perhaps not a killer like Lecter, but someone who shares his tastes and certainly will not complain when he indulges his urges. As Harris finishes the story with a portrait of the life Hannibal and Clarice have together, there is a sense of familiarity. And so it is; the picture Harris paints, with words instead of watercolors, is none other than The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun. Harris has distracted us with stories about would-be Dragons, but in Clarice we see the Becoming of the Woman Clothed with the Sun. She is no killing Dragon but a godlike creature nonetheless, and a worthy companion for a godlike creature such as Lecter.

Hollywood Fails It

All of the movies took shortcuts, some more damaging than others. In the SOTL movie Clarice tries to save one lamb and fails; in the book she tries to save a blind horse which is doomed to slaughter, and she succeeds. Hannah the horse lives out her days giving kids rides at the orphanage where she goes after the farm. This is an important distinction; her early experience is one of saving the victim instead of just being crushed by circumstances.

The later Red Dragon movie with Hopkins as Lecter and Ed Norton as Graham borrowed heavily from SOTL, which didn't exist when Manhunter was filmed, in order to give Lecter a bigger role. And bearing in mind the original tagline, I'm supposed to believe that Ed Norton is in serious danger of turning into ... Naaaaah. The danger of Graham's Becoming was much more palpable in Manhunter, where Graham and Lecter were physically and expressively similar.

Jodie Foster took one look at the ending of Hannibal and picked up her toys and went home. Fair enough; Ridley Scott found another actress who looked enough like her to work as a stunt double ... then he fucked up the ending anyway. Gary Oldman's Mason Verger doesn't frighten, his fascinating sister Margot and her odd friendship with Barney are gone, but most of all Clarice does not Become. We are left only with a muddled depiction of twisted affection that accomplishes nothing for anybody.

Transhumanism Defined

To be Transhuman is to be something other than human. Just as we might expect a machine intelligence to seem alien to us and to consider us alien, we might also consider such humans who transcend their humanity to be as different.

The usual answer to this from would-be Transhumanists is that, if Transhumans are going to have all the talents and abilities, they are going to have the advantage in any war. Join up or find yourself on the losing side.

But Harris shows us a view of Transhumanism so revolting that one might expect the entire human race to rise up en masse and divert every effort to stamping it out if it should ever become more than an occasional curiosity. While most would-be Transhumanists probably do not plan on becoming cannibals, the whole point is that you really can't plan at all on what a transhuman being would think is an appropriate way to treat traditional humans. Even if that potential transhuman being is the one that was once you. Just ask Clarice Starling.

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