Any arrival of an alien, out-of-the-ordinary phenomenon is greeted with a peculiar curiosity gushing out of ogling human eyes, making a quick distinction between Self and Other (anything deemed non-relatable). As a by-product of this curiosity, a certain judgment is passed where every non-normal attribution displayed by the Other somehow rows them further away from our boat of Humanness. Humans are bound to draw a chunky boundary between the self and the Other, especially when it comes to neurodivergence. ‘Neurodivergence’ means neurological (emotional, cognitive, behavioral) differences in the way some brains naturally function, referring to individuals with ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity Disorder), on the Autism spectrum, Dyslexia, Tourette’s, etc. Funnily, when making a distinction between Psychopaths (defined as cognition, behavior, and experiences differing from social norms and quite similar to Neurodivergence) and Normalcy, the human mind is equally intrigued by psychopaths (the very recent romanticizing of Jeffrey Dahmer, for example). This curiosity is quite relatable as I recall my first impressions of Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one of the top psychiatrists in Baltimore. He has a penchant for clients displaying killer instincts which he tries fine-tuning like he is the conductor and his clients are instrumental in delivering a tear-jerking (blood-squirting) performance. Highly intelligent, narcissistic, anti-social, and enigmatic, Hannibal is renowned for his numerous, critically acclaimed research papers on Antisocial personalities and Psychopathology, distinguishing him from his peers. When he is not donning his elite human suit, in his free time, he is the most sought-after serial killer, ‘The Chesapeake Ripper’. Ripping out a particular organ off his victims (decided by the nature of their ‘rudeness’), he hunts in sounders of three – seeing his victims as ‘pigs’ that need to be slaughtered, for they are low-lives. They must be eliminated when Hannibal decides to play God. The irony of being a Psychopath who is a Psychiatrist – a hunter of pigs who has fine taste in Art and a man moved to tears by Opera Music who sees mentally ill patients as experiments – is delivered quite believably, balancing the line between insanity and beauty, by Thomas Harris (the original creator of Hannibal) and Bryan Fuller (creator of Hannibal the TV show, based on Harris’s books).
Tracing Hannibal through his royal Italian roots, Thomas Harris attributes the enigmatic aura surrounding Hannibal to his need for finesse. Under tragic circumstances, Hannibal was forced to eat his beloved sister in a stew cooked by the Nazis, who usurped his family when he was only eight years of age. He avenges his sister with his first kill – the Nazis who murdered her – by eating their cheeks in his 18th year, with his tongue (literally) in their cheeks. Even Freud, in his famous, Interpretation of Dreams, describes the symbolism of the appearance of cheeks in a dream as “your personal growth has taken away the power of others to hurt you”, which is beautifully played onto by Harris.
In Bryan Fuller’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal 2013-15), we see him sketching sculptured bodices of Roman Gods against structured Architectural wonders with eerie ease, suited in his tastefully ironed, three-piece plaid suit, paired with the most ornate of ties and not a single hair out of place. Fuller’s attention to Hannibal’s eccentric yet intense aesthetic subtly contrasts Hannibal with his peers on the show. His free-flowing, almost instinctual ability to understand anyone and everyone he meets could be because Hannibal is a linguist fluent in eight languages. Yet, his ability to empathize ends in manipulation. Personally, lovers of literature are difficult to perceive as apathetic. Watching Hannibal manipulate poor Bedelia du Maurier (his fellow psychiatrist) into killing one of her patients just because he wanted to push the limits of her vulnerability made me feel like you can never map the limits of the human mind.
A mannered psychopath, Hannibal tugs at the right neurons of the readers’ minds, making the distinction between normalcy and psychopathology almost unrecognizable. As William Horman has said, “Manners maketh Man”, Hannibal is all manners. With a penchant for the Arts, Literature, and Languages, it becomes impossible to perceive him as anything less than a scholar, especially because his intelligence enables him to put on a facade without fear. Adding a sublime undertone to Hannibal is his keen sense of smell, often associated with connoisseurs and predators. The significance of Hannibal’s choice of victims, particularly the organs he chooses to harvest from them, is indicative of his devilish take on ‘poetic justice’. Be it convincing Mason Verger to eat his own face or “forgiving” Will Graham by attempting to eat his brain, Hannibal has his way of making death seem like a poetic performance, where the way his victims meet their end has to look justified. He is the orchestrator and the audience at the same time.
To any psychopath, death is not ‘wrong’ or a criminal act. To Hannibal Lecter, he is playing God himself when he absolves all “pigs” – people he deems “rude” and unworthy of living civilized human lives. He says, “Killing must feel good to God too – he does it all the time, and are we not created in his image?” to Will Graham, his patient, and FBI profiler when the latter is toying with his newfound affinity towards killing.
Hannibal’s eccentric clothing makes him stand out the way a Michelangelo classic would in a Salvador Dali-themed art gallery. Planted against his red and white-looking curtains in his counseling room, the crescendo of Hannibal’s character reaches its peak when he realizes that as much as he wants to toy with Will Graham’s sanity, he is drawn to the understanding that they share. It reaches the extent that he falls in love with him, session by session, post which all his crime scenes start displaying hints he wants Will to catch up on or crimes he commits specifically for Will’s ‘welfare’. Fuller does a brilliant job of depicting a psychopathic predator’s love for taking an elegant, insane, yet beautiful form, one murder scene at a time.
Hannibal crafts his crime scenes as if they are his Art installations, his Odes to Death. There is a particular crime scene in Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal wherein Hannibal thinly slices Dr. Beverly Katz, the forensic expert working with the FBI, who comes very close to uncovering Hannibal’s true identity. He puts her sliced body up in thin glass panels in the manner she had studied biological samples throughout her career and puts them up for display in a science museum. If there is one thing Hannibal loves more than killing for “poetic justice”, it is symbolism in the display of his crime scenes. Further, a judge Hannibal deems unworthy of deciding on Will’s trial is found in his own courtroom, impaled on a stand holding the scales of Justice, one scale holding up his brain and the other his heart. Hannibal even goes to the extent of pulling down the judge’s scalp skin to cover his eyes, for Justice is, after all, blind.
Ultimately, Hannibal is a predator with, what we would call in psychological terms, ‘Aesthetic Needs’ ranking pretty low in his Hierarchy of Needs. He doesn’t kill for any ulterior motive but does it simply because that’s who he is. The juxtaposition of all the sublime pastels of his Artistic Needs, when pasted against the dark mattes of his Predatory Instincts, creates a poetically complex Hannibal Lecter who you fear only because his personality lures you in.
I have learned that you can always see reflections of the artist in whatever art they create. Thomas Harris must have had some very intriguing experiences to have crafted such a cult favorite psychopathic icon named Hannibal Lecter. Of course, there isn’t much material available on Harris’s personal life because he maintains a very private life with a “general aura of mystery, going so far as to not participate in interviews. All the media knows about him is that he considers writing to be a form of torture. It is a statement I am sure Hannibal Lecter would have made if he were hiding undercover as a writer.