Friday, 24 July 2020

Hannibal Lecter And The Big Individual










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I recently tried watching the series ''Hannibal'' with Mads Makkelson as Hannibal Lecter, I found it strangely boring and dated, even though it was a slick and polished production and followed the guidelines of the Hannibal Lecter mythos well enough.

 It was all there, gore and sophisticated plot lines, a ton of psychology and the settings of suburban America and FBI  offices. But mainly the problem I found is that it belonged to a different time, it was like 90's America had been lifted up and plonked in the 2010's.


 And Hannibal Lecter wasn't even a true creature of the 90's, Red Dragon the book came out in 1981, Silence of the Lambs in 1988. Brian Cox played Lecter in the movie Manhunter in 1986.

 But obviously it was Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in 1991's Silence of the Lambs which launched Lecter as a 90's pop cultural icon.



In the Strauss–Howe generational theory, which they wrote about in their book The Fourth Turning
Gen X is described as:

Nomad (Reactive) generations enter childhood during an Awakening, a time of social ideals and spiritual agendas, when young adults are passionately attacking the established institutional order. Nomads grow up as under-protected children during this Awakening, come of age as alienated, post-Awakening young adults

The Gen X nomad as alienated individual is a hallmark of the 90's. The plastic patriotism of the 80's and Neo-liberal economics had ushered in a focus away from community and shared culture, and toward the individual, it was as somebody else said ''The Century of The Self'' coming to fruition.

 There was no society, there was self interested individuals and there was an economic model to cater to their every whim. Compare David Bowie or Pink Floyd in the 70's contemplating life on Mars or the Dark Side of the Moon to Nirvana, and Kurt Cobain. For Cobain the universe was the self, the universe was the internal life of the individual and how it related to mundane reality.

 And here we see where Dr Hannibal Lecter had a perfect cultural slot just waiting for him to occupy.

 Hannibal Lecter is essentially a vampire or demon built for a world without mysticism, religion or the supernatural. Instead of magical powers he has a massive intellect and willpower. He's a far older human archetype recreated for the secular, material age. Science and reason have been pushed to their absolute limits to bring back the demon, the Nosferatu to satiate the needs of late 20th century American mind, and by default of the western world.

It seems the human mind has a need to recreate this archetypes, the packaging might change, sometimes they appear in religious texts, another time a space Emperor, maybe a reworking of an actual historical figure. In Lecter's case the packaging is science, psychoanalysis and criminality.

Lecter has been endowed with the power to understand the dislocated individuals of the 90's and reveal them to themselves. Instead of a priest, we have psychiatry. There is no spirit, or sin, there's childhood trauma and daddy issues. But everything can be solved if we unravel the mysteries of the inner life.

 And those mysteries will be magnified and enlarged, the mundane becomes epic and grandiose.

 The individual as just an individual creates a continent within themselves. In the book ''Hannibal'' we learn that Lecter himself has created a ''Memory Palace'' where he's stored great works of art and music among which he can wander for weeks on end.

 The list of villains and characters reflect this throughout the whole canon:

Will Grahame is traumatized by his intense sense of empathy with victims

Clarice Starling is traumatized by not being able to save a lamb and is insecure about her trailer park origins

The Red Dragon is tortured by his mother's dominance and his own physical deformities

Buffalo Bill is sent mad because of his confused sexual identity

Lecter himself is the product of WW2 brutality, he was also forced to eat his own sister, and he's an orphan.

Even side characters like Jack Crawford are dissected and dismantled in terms of family and career paths

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And just in case you didn't get the message the characters, especially in Silence of the Lambs, are shot at extreme close-up looking directly into the camera, or rather, toward you.

The individual is everything, a landscape of the self.

 It's common for people to debate individualism and people who defend it as a world view, usually centrists politically, will use the 80's and 90's as examples of where it was more or less achieved. What they call ''identity politics'' hadn't yet really got underway and people weren't as divided as they are now.

 And there is some truth to that, but individualism is often viewed through a libertarian lens and we get images of cowboys with a rifle ruggedly tracking over prairies. The archetype of the businessman who has little need of the support of the government or wider society and so on.

In actual fact even when attained briefly the individualism of 80's and 90's was deeply self obsessed, introverted and narcissistic.

 Traditional western values had dwindled and the new orthodoxy had not yet kicked in, so for a short time people were left to indulge themselves, but what the centrists also have correct, is that ideology was not as intrusive as it is now.

But that wasn't a norm of any kind. What is referred to as the glory days of individualism and civic nationalism was really just the limbo people inhabited between the end of implicit Christianity and ethno-centrism and the birth of what was to replace it.

 The Century of the self and Neo-Liberal economics had pandered to people on an individual basis, not an ideological one, for now at least, the collectivists had been beaten back. Each human was a unique set of experiences with their own internal monologues and their own personal memory palaces, this is what substituted ideology, the ideologues had been trumped.



 Hadn't they?

As Generation X sat laughing at Frasier, and glorying in the deconstruction of traditional norms in Friends the ideologues had been hard at work. 90's comedy ( I know) was essentially the inversion of Lecter, Frasier was also a psychiatrist and the trivial was again magnified and blown up to epic proportions of the absurd, these comedies were described as ''shows about nothing''.

Watching TV shows about nothing went hand in hand with forming identities based on trivialities. Why not form your entire identity on a pop band, movie franchise or the fact you liked video games? if you wanted to be rebellious then perhaps grunge music.

 These individualistic identities were all manufactured by the system, but...

 What if the memory palace could be replicated out in the real world? What if the various pathologies, insecurities and traumas society had inflicted upon the individual could be externalized and then constructed in a politicized form?

 What if instead of navel gazing and isolation you could select from a set of prepackaged identity groups and decide which one catered to you?

As just individuals they were powerless, but now they would have the opportunity to join others like themselves in solidarity. The difference is this wasn't generated internally but externally, it wasn't individualistic but ideological.

The system, the culture, would offer the identity up for you, like choosing food from a buffet you could have a hodge podge of anyting you liked and claim to be an individual while acting as a group

The Big Individual had been shattered and replaced with archetypes.

Clarice Starling would now be a feminist, lesbian archetype struggling in a world dominated by the white patriarchy.

Buffalo Bill....well that one is obvious

The internet is now awash with subcultures railing against ''identity politics'' invading their cultural zones. So-called Gamer-Gate is usually seen as the start of it before it spread into Hollywood.

 But the real crux of the problem is that the culture encouraged people to form identities around nothing important, because that's what the brand of individualism of the 80's and 90's was all about. And worse still is that these people began to think this was a natural state of affairs which should be defended.

Oliver Stone in is controversial bloodbath Natural Born Killers, made the point that the nihilism and sadism consumed by Generation X via television was going to reveal itself in real life.The hollowness would have to be filled by something, that it may well be the gore and violence on TV was a good contender, not least because it actually did inspire the Columbine Killers.


 Today humans are like ants to be massacred or saved for no real purpose.

 Hannibal Lecter was intriguing because he could dissect and explain the individual to themselves, all their fears and motivations, he was outside of any ideology. But in a world in which people can pick and choose their identities and fears from an external source he's no longer needed. The all knowing evil is the system itself.


As a Gen Xer  I not only got to live out the stereotype of aimlessly wandering about in search of meaning, but also got a front seat to the full transition. The introspective individual unbound by societal norms and moral codes looking for answers by obsessing over yourself, then from a distance I saw the rise of nerd culture and people celebrating their individuality by negating it within video games.

 It's a story of people getting smaller and less interesting, the biggest horrors of the last few years like Bird Box and A Quiet Place feature humans battling against the unseen, a world laid waste by forces who prey upon normal human activity, whether making noise or just seeing.

 If the internal memory palace was confused and self indulgent, the the external memory palace is nightmare, unseen and unknowable forces impose itself on small and terrified people.

We're all down in Buffalo Bill's pit now...



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