Leda & the Swan    

Table of Contents    


Illuminating Manuscripts

About the Author

Novel Thoughts

Leda's Online Library



The Harpsichord

History of Harmony

Johann Sebastian Bach

Man of Genius


Alessandro Scarlatti



A Lecterphile in Florence

Do You Know Florence?


Fine Art

Museo Virtuale

Faces of Leda

Every Vermeer in the World



Illuminating Manuscripts Masthead
Superman: Dr. Lecter As the Humanist Epitome
copyright 2000, by Aaron de Winter
No reader of Thomas Harris' work would deny he invests a great deal of research into his novels, especially the last three that feature Dr. Hannibal Lecter.  And as our picture of the doctor grows in each novel, so does the symbology Harris uses in expanding his character and deepening his horrific persona.

Part of Dr. Lecter's mystique is the fragmentary background story Harris teases us with in Red Dragon, throughout Silence of the Lambs, and to a lesser extent in Hannibal.  We know that Dr. Lecter killed nine people; we know that apparently his last victims were killed in a brief spree of violence and whimsy that led to his arrest ("Lecter was very hot," Will Graham said in Red Dragon); and we know he lost his sister and parents at the age of six.

We know nothing of Dr. Lecter's youth and adolescence, his education, his coming to America, his first murders--perhaps because Harris would rather us come to our own conclusions, perhaps because the back story simply isn't all that important to our understanding of Dr. Lecter's nature.  Although Dr. Lecter insisted to Clarice Starling that "nothing happened to me.  I happened," the death of Mischa is clearly an influence on Dr. Lecter's behavior, an influence he has never been able to break free from.

Whether or not Dr. Lecter would have grown into the cannibalistic connoisseur we know today if Mischa had lived is irrelevant.  Lecter uses Mischa's death, if not as a defense mechanism, than as a justification.  His thoughts are not bound by fear or mercy, any more than Milton's were bound by physics--this quiet rumination is made by Harris shortly before Dr. Lecter murders his guards in Memphis.  Dr. Lecter, lacking remorse, cannot feel guilt for the wickedness he commits.  He can, however, feel pleasure: "All that's left for him is fun," Jack Crawford grates.  In Hannibal the doctor reflects on how his modest predations pale before those of God.  The death of Mischa made Dr. Lecter's evil acceptable in his own mind--he did, in essence, become a law unto himself once his pray went unanswered and his sister wound up in the stool pit.  And as his own law, what better way to mock the creator of typhoid and swans than by committing wickedness of exquisitely depraved proportions?

It is my contention that Dr. Lecter, as a law unto himself, commits murder and cannibalism in a vicious attack on the God who abandoned Mischa and himself.  In his young mind Dr. Lecter made the connection between the loss of his sister and unanswered prayer, an unmovable knot, so to speak, in the matrices of his mind.  Dr. Lecter found blinding white flashes of rage in Starling's mind during his sessions with her in Hannibal, many of them directed against the very real injustices she had suffered in Krendler's hands.  Is it not possible that Dr. Lecter's own memory palace, filled not only with the stench from the oubliettes, contains rooms of white-hot fury?  Fury against the God whose creation he mocks and brutalizes on his whim?

Dr. Lecter's violent attack against God and the moral order perfectly embodies the Renaissance man, as Francis Dolarhyde noted in Red Dragon.  In Dolarhyde's mind Lecter had to look like a dark Renaissance prince.  I believe Harris created Dr. Lecter with this very ideal in mind--Dr. Lecter's ancient and illustrious heritage and his excellent, could one say even imperious tastes, surely call to mind one who was born into and carries himself as royalty.  I will not belabor the point by documenting Dr. Lecter's well-known affinity for the medieval era.  The importance is the ideal: the guiltless superman who rejects God and conscience, who is unbound in his memory palace by the brilliance of his own taste and cunning.  In this sense Dr. Lecter embodies the humanistic dream: a champion who triumphs not simply without but especially without God or law.

From what we know of Dr. Lecter it seems he avoids the orgiastic excesses of the Renaissance, though he does not deny himself other creature comforts.  However, aside from the Renaissance superman, Dr. Lecter does symbolize another self-indulgent archetype.  In this case Harris was far from subtle: Dr. Lecter's pale skin, red eyes, and dark hair instantly call to mind the vampire.  I believe Dr. Lecter's egocentricity, so well-embodied in the Renaissance's embrace of reason and rejection of morality, perfectly coincide with the vicious determination and remorseless violence of the vampire.

Note: when Starling prepares to leave Dr. Lecter for the first time she feels "drained, as though she'd given blood."  When Dr. Lecter taunts Senator Martin in Memphis, he "took a sip of her pain and found it exquisite."  Years later in Hannibal, Martin uses very similar language herself: "He just sucked down my pain."  As a matter of necessity (but also, possibly, as another element of this imagery), Dr. Lecter sucks Starling's wounds clean in Hannibal as they escape from Mason's barn: from her shin and also from her neck.  "Vampires are territorial," Harris writes in Hannibal, adding that the nomadic life held little appeal for the doctor.

During his escape from Memphis, is there any significance in the fact that Dr. Lecter bites Pembry's face, but not Boyle's--and that it is Pembry whose identity Dr. Lecter assumes?  Dr. Lecter did not avoid indirect comparison to himself and the Devil during his lecture on the Inferno when he mentioned the subject of chewing.  And just as Satan, in the depths of hell, is described as having three chewing heads, so does Dr. Lecter bite three victims in the course of the novels he appears in: the nurse mentioned by Dr. Frederick Chilton; Pembry; and Cordell, Mason's nurse.

While there is more to glean from Harris' work, I believe the two central themes of this essay are readily apparent.  Dr. Lecter's rejection of morality and his use of God's apparent wanton cruelty to justify his own brutality were and are cornerstones used by Renaissance men to throw out their creator and live and rule by reason.  Even Dr. Lecter's comparison to his own set of values to God's decrees show the astonishing arrogance typified in Dr. Lecter and those who follow in his footsteps, creating for themselves a memory palace of horrors.  Even in Dr. Lecter's vampirism we see only a natural extension of his self-indulgence and hatred of God.

It is a curiosity that in the film The Silence of the Lambs, as Starling stands in the elevator before seeing Dr. Lecter in Memphis, the guard accompanying her asks a very pertinent question: "Is it true what they say?  He's some kind of vampire?"  Starling's downfall in Hannibal is foreshadowed by her answer.  "I don't have a word for what he is," Starling replies.  This moral shuffling, this reluctance to confront wickedness in the face, is the death knell of any culture.  This weakness crippled Europe and paved the way for the Machiavellian tyranny of the Renaissance.  In our own era the cowardice of magistrates emboldens the wicked.  Hannibal Lecter will indeed triumph if there is never a simple and direct answer to his question: "Am I evil, Office Starling?"



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