The Proverbs of Hell 1/39: Apértif


APERTIF: A pre-dinner drink to whet the appetite. In this case, it is an expansion of the Garret Jacob Hobbs case, which, in Red Dragon, is essentially presented as a precursor to a precursor, the case Will worked before Hannibal.

WILL GRAHAM: I shoot Mr. Marlow twice, severing jugulars and carotids with near surgical precision. He will die watching me take what is his away from him. This is my design.

The idiosyncratic “design” sets up the show’s defining perversity: the idea of murder as something that is aestheticized. Significantly, it is Will who introduces this term, whereas Hannibal’s only murder of the episode is Cassie Boyle, which he commits as a pastiche of Garret Jacob Hobbs’s murders. So the two characters begin as doubly opposed. On one level, Hannibal is the creator in that he commits art murders, whereas Will, as the detective interpreting those murders, is the critic. On the other hand, it is Will who is presented as the imaginative figure, whereas Hannibal is reduced to a responsive role, reinterpreting other people’s murders.

It is also worth highlighting what, precisely, the design of the initial murder was. It is not the precision of the kill shot - the technical acumen with which Mr. Marlow’s death is executed. Rather, it is the psychological configuration he wishes to bring about that is the design. There is obviously a degree of megalomania here - a desire towards the demiurgic. But there’s also a healthy dose of a good old-fashioned Ballardian “make the external landscape match the internal one” to it. Regardless, the important takeaway is that murder is about far more than mere meat.

The pendulum is extrapolated from a throwaway line in Red Dragon. It immediately serves to introduce the fractured narrative space of Hannibal, simultaneously dividing space, time, and reality, all in multiple senses.

JACK CRAWFORD: Where do you fall on the spectrum?

WILL GRAHAM: My horse is hitched to a post closer to Aspergers and Autistics than narcissists and sociopaths.

Positioning Will as on the autism spectrum is an interesting move with regards to his stated skill at empathy. In practice the show plays more than a little fast and loose with what exactly it is that Will does, and its resemblance to empathy as conventionally understood is tenuous. Nevertheless, given the common myth of neuroatypical people lacking in empathy, putting Will on the spectrum has to be taken as one of the show’s more charming conceits.

(In practice, neuroatypical people are good at understanding other neuroatypical people, just as neurotypical people are good at understanding other neurotypical people. The construction of empathy as something that only counts when it’s neurotypical serves a disturbing double purpose, both tacitly establishing that neuroatypical people don’t really count as human and routinely being trotted out as a justification for precisely that belief.)

ALANA BLOOM: Normally I wouldn’t even broach this, but what do you think one of Will’s strongest drives is?

JACK CRAWFORD: Fear. He deals with huge amounts of fear. Comes with imagination.

ALANA BLOOM: It’s the price of imagination.

Within the slipperiness of exactly what Will does, the show’s oscillation between framing it as empathy and imagination is the most interesting. On the surface these are two very different things: empathy is perceptual, imagination creative. The division is readily healed by consulting William Blake on the subject of imagination. For Blake, imagination is a faculty to be added to perception. Indeed, it is the fact of man’s imagination that creates abstraction and order over the dead-eyed, vegetative world of nature. Imagination is thus more real than mere perception - a higher order of the cosmos.

Within the context of Hannibal, this distinction adds an unsettling light to what Will does. If the empathy that he brings to crime scenes is an act of imagination then the resulting sense of design must belong to Will, not the killers themselves. Will creates a higher structure out of the tortured meat before him, and this structure proves more real and more powerful than the killing on its own. On a basic level this can be read as a crude and obvious comment about the relationship between art and audiences, but it has many other implications that are both more interesting and more disturbing.

Blake, for what it’s worth, suffered from what he described as a “nervous fear,” which appears to have been the source for his oft-cited cantankerousness.

HANNIBAL: What he has is pure empathy. And projection. He can assume your point of view, or mine -- and maybe some other points of view that scare him. It’s an uncomfortable gift, Jack. Perception’s a tool that’s pointed on both ends.

The binaries of perception/imagination and critic/artist are getting quite a workout at this point, and beginning their inexorable slide towards glorious oversignification. The line is taken from Red Dragon, although it’s part of Bloom and Crawford’s conversation there. Moving it to Hannibal changes its valences, although it’s still basically a “the abyss gazes also” reworking. Coming from Hannibal, however, renders the nature of the abyss entirely explicit. What Hannibal, for his part, fails to realize is that consumption is also pointed on both ends.

HANNIBAL: I’m very careful about what I put into my body. Which means I end up preparing most meals myself. A little protein scramble to start the day. Some eggs, some sausage.

WILL GRAHAM: It’s delicious. Thank you.

It’s conveyed entirely through Mads Mikkelsen’s acting, but Hannibal is clearly tricking Will into eating the leftovers of Cassie Boyle’s lung. This is remarkable both for Hannibal’s ability to make a lung sausage that can pretend to be normal breakfast sausage and because it marks the point where Hannibal begins his colonization of Will’s psyche; it’s no coincidence that this is the scene where he confidently declares that Will will eventually find him interesting. The theme of Hannibal making people unknowingly eat his victims, and of this being a form of power for Hannibal, will recur throughout the series.

Note, however, that Will’s understanding as a form of imagination constructed within, as Hannibal puts it, “the bone arena of your skull” is just as much a form of consumption as Hannibal’s lung sausage. Like Hannibal, Will makes those he defeats into a part of himself. They become captured by his imagination, imprisoned in one of the forts he builds in his mind just as much as they are in the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.

WILL GRAHAM: I don’t think the Shrike killed that girl in the field.

HANNIBAL: The devil is in the details. What didn’t your copycat do to the girl in the field? What gave it away?

WILL GRAHAM: Everything. It’s like he had to show me a negative so I could see the positive. That crime scene was practically gift-wrapped.

The fact that Hobbs’s murders can be turned inside out such that the tableau of Cassie Boyle’s body evokes Hannibal’s contempt and not Hobbs’s love gives an unsettling degree of validation to Hobbs’s love in the first place. The show is largely willing to own up to this - future episodes will operate under the assumption that he did, at least, genuinely love Abigail. There is a certain agnosticism on whether this love particularly matters - Hobbs is consistently treated as a somewhat crude monster. If anything, his capacity for love makes him pathetic in a way that Will and Hannibal are not. Nevertheless, the idea that killing and eating eight people can be an expression of love is something the series goes out of its way to take seriously. 

The “negative image” is understood primarily on the level of Will’s imaginative design. Although Lecter departs from Hobbs’s methodology in only taking the lungs to eat, the picture he paints, to use Will’s phrase, is studiously similar to Hobbs, in a manner that is at least a partial departure for Hannibal, whose tableaus are usually tailored to the victim. Where it takes on an inverse relationship with Hobbs is on the imaginative level. It is also, however, true on a literal and pragmatic level: instead of the absence of body there’s a presence. (Note that Elise Nichols is similarly a negative image, and is the springboard for Will’s other major imaginative leap.)

HANNIBAL: You don’t know me and I suspect we’ll never meet. This is a courtesy call. Listen very carefully. Are you listening?


HANNIBAL: They know.

Hannibal’s decision to tip off Hobbs is presented as a sort of motiveless mischief, and it’s certainly the case that Hannibal often acts out of little more than his own sense of amusement. Certainly he never espouses on his motivations. His primary goal seems to be to put Will in a situation where he takes a life, and he succeeds at this. (Note the precision with which his prediction that they’ll never meet comes true, with Hannibal striding into the kitchen right as Hobbs dies.) But there is also a sense of domination over Hobbs. Hannibal never gets to eat him, and so this fleeting contact through which his fate is sealed will have to do, Hobbs remaining merely an ingredient in Hannibal’s preparation of Will as opposed to someone Hannibal will get the pleasure of consuming.


James Mullins 2 months, 4 weeks ago

Have you seen Manhunter and what do you think of it?

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Philip Sandifer 2 months, 4 weeks ago

I watched the first 20 minutes or so, but wasn't in the mood and never went back to it. I'd considered doing a thorough review of the literature so that I could be all tricksily intertextual with these, but decided against it/didn't get around to it, and am instead running on ebook versions of the Harris novels and the iBooks search function for that sort of thing.

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James Mullins 2 months, 4 weeks ago

It's one of my personal favourite films. I love how like Graham and Dollarhyde in the film imagination of the audience is used as horror much like Fincher's Seven. But fair game to you. I know people who don't like it either. Thanks for your response, Dr. Phil!

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Austin Loomis 2 months, 4 weeks ago

If the empathy that he brings to crime scenes is an act of imagination then the resulting sense of design must belong to Will, not the killers themselves. Will creates a higher structure out of the tortured meat before him, and this structure proves more real and more powerful than the killing on its own.

At the risk of spoiling your design: "Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose."

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Sean Dillon 2 months, 4 weeks ago

Rebuttal: "I think everything that happens in the vicinity of a murder has some significance: the flight of birds, the shape of the clouds, the positions of the stars, items discarded by passerby. Nothing can be overlooked. If I find a match, I have to know where it was made and from what tree it's wood was taken. Nothing happens in a vacuum. When things are isolated, they lose their meaning."

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bombasticus 2 months, 4 weeks ago

"I made it all up and it all came true anyway. That's the funny part."

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Sean Dillon 2 months, 4 weeks ago

Nice Start. I look forward to the themes and interests driving the blog slightly mad much like the show's themes drove it slightly mad. The Blake set at the end is just going to be amazing.

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Sean Dillon 2 months, 4 weeks ago

Ellaboration: This blog series, not the blog as a whole. Sort of like going from Brief Treatise style analysis to The Three Doctors post like work.

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Kyle Edwards 2 months, 4 weeks ago

Not to be that guy, but...

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Lauri Franzon 2 months, 4 weeks ago


And noe to actually read the text...

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Aina Kos 2 months, 3 weeks ago

I was just embarking on a Hannibal rewatch and my Google feed recommend your article out of the blue, as it does. Could not be more thrilled. This is the kind of close reading and analysis I've been craving since the show aired, and I kind of want to roll around in this delicious literary dissection. Definitely went hunting for more—loved this paired with your "Meat is Murder" (and True Detective needs to be a necessary re-re-rewatch too).

[empathy is perceptual, imagination creative]

And boy don't they know it. Or Hannibal does. Will as well, or he comes to understand it. This is a series where death of the author is literal, and only a few are capable enough to kill. And artists make some of the best critics. Will's "empathy" lends him an intrinsic capacity to see ("See?") that Hannibal recognises in some way, and so commenses the sculpting of circumstances, psychology, and chemistry to coerce/encourage participation. Hannibal is preparing Will for consumption, which also remakes Will to consume. "consumption is also pointed at both ends" is one of my favorite lines here.

[If the empathy that he brings to crime scenes is an act of imagination then the resulting sense of design must belong to Will, not the killers themselves]

Essentially this. This is the truth Will is forced to face, that Hannibal wrenches out of him. We see Hannibal take an interest in cultivating the aesthetic in others, yet Will is the special one, the only one who can, as it were, gaze back. And what established (narcissistic, sadist, cannibal) artist doesn't I want, deep down, to be truly understood and consumed in turn.

Anyway, thanks for giving me some thoughts. Loved them. You've my attention and readership!

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mr_mond 2 months, 3 weeks ago

“If the empathy that he brings to crime scenes is an act of imagination then the resulting sense of design must belong to Will, not the killers themselves”

This, along with the following conclusion that therefore Will is capable of acts of cruelty equal to the murders he investigates, is an aspect of the show I’m most struggling with, mostly because it doesn’t really correspond with my experience. Now, I’m not a super-profiler, but, if we accept that the murders Will investigates are texts, I can reach to my own interactions with fiction. Very often when encountering depictions or descriptions, or even mentions of violence, my mind immediately starts imagining all the fear and suffering the victim must have gone through, causing me a considerable distress. It’s a little like intrusive thoughts, only where those seem to be born out of nothing, here they are planted by a text. If Will goes through something similar, I find it hard to accept that he would be capable of cruelty – because he can feel on a quite visceral level the distress that suffering causes.

Maybe I’m thinking about it wrong, though – I will openly admit that I have no knowledge of psychology, so maybe what I’m describing is a process other than empathy. Or is the difference that Will gets into the headspace of a murderer, not a victim?

Either way, I feel like the show is fearing empathy – the implication seems to be that if you are capable of understanding a deplorable act, of imagining the motives for it, you must condone it.

But of course the whole world of the show is created by the satanic demiurge (an interesting conflation of the two usually opposing roles), Hannibal – so maybe it’s just something that he would like to be true.

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