The Proverbs of Hell 27/39: Antipasto


ANTIPASTO: And so we move to Italian cuisine for seven episodes. Antipasto is the starter course, distinct from the amuse bouche or sakizuki in that it is a heavier dish, often with cold meats, as befits this unusually dense premiere.

BEDELIA DU MAURIER: You no longer have ethical concerns, Hannibal. You have aesthetical ones.
HANNIBAL: Ethics become aesthetics.

I have suggested in the past that my interest in Hannibal is that Hannibal presents a vision of the perfected man. This exchange is central to that contention. I had made an assertion along the same lines as Bedelia’s assessment many times prior to “Antipasto” airing (although its relevance was improved in shooting, where the line changed from “ethical problems”), routinely making the claim that I had abandoned ethics in favor of aesthetics. That said, Hannibal’s retort here is, to my mind, flatly incorrect, suggesting that aesthetics are a degraded (or ascended) version of ethics.

My contention, on the other hand, is that aesthetics are in fact the base form of philosophy from which all other forms follow. Our sense of aesthetic pleasure is fundamental knowledge from which our wider understanding of the world is structured. Even epistemology extends from aesthetics - what we recognize as true is rarely based on logical analysis (though even if it were, rationality is little more than a sense of harmony and balance) but on a notion of truth that is clearly akin to beauty or sublimity.

What is crucial about aesthetic judgment is what Kant describes as the “subjective universal” quality of them. They are, in empirical fact, individual and private judgments. But they are made with a sense of normativity - a belief that others ought to agree with them. (Kant believed that this only applied to beauty and sublimity, as opposed to the agreeable [judgments of visceral pleasure - “this human leg tastes good”] and the good [ethics], but this is wrong in both directions. Our notions of agreeableness are clearly made with at least some normative force, whereas ethics are not nearly as objectively determined as he’d like to think.) It is from this sense of normativity that the faculty of taste - the idea that aesthetics can be cultivated and refined. Which is where the notion of the perfected man comes in. Hannibal’s ontological force comes mostly from the fact that he has better taste than anyone else, both in literally sensory terms and in the sense of refined desires. It is this, for instance, that his ability to manipulate so effectively comes from: he understands what the most exquisite temptations are. Similarly, it is what his astonishing capacity for improvisation is based on. It’s not merely a hyper-intelligence and cleverness, but an immediate instinct for what the most interesting course of action would be.

All of which raises the question of what Hannibal’s aesthetics actually are. Which, helpfully, is much of what this episode is about. We can set aside the myriad of accurate but glib answers. Yes, Hannibal detests rudeness and values the confirmation of his own superiority (his line about being “happy to sing for his supper” is particularly funny), but these are obvious details that don’t do much to reveal the whole. Instead, two major strands of thought present themselves: Hannibal’s academic contributions under the identity of Dr. Fell and, along with the flashbacks to the gradual consumption of Abel Gideon, his murder of Anthony Dimmond.

Let’s begin with the scholarship. His speech to the Studiolo’s primary message is of course to Bedelia - an extended accusation that she has betrayed him. (This makes more sense with an omitted scene in which Dimmond attempts to confront Bedelia - as it stands the accusation has to stand almost entirely on the exchange at dinner that culminates with the “not that kind of party” joke, which feels like a slender reed, not that Hannibal’s judgment has to be righteous here.) But for our purposes what is more interesting are the details Hannibal focuses on - Judas’s bowels falling out, his face being turned upwards to face the branch on which he’s hanging, and the act of chewing. Widen the lens slightly and we get the exhibition of torture implements he’s curating and the Dante sonnet he quotes with the image of heart-eating. A clear motif of both cruelty and carnality emerges here.

But it is worth attending to Hannibal’s actual account of this to Dimmond: “now that ceaseless exposure has calloused us to the lewd and the vulgar, it is instructive to see what still seems wicked to us.” There’s more going on here than the obvious transgressive thrill of juxtaposing barbarism and civilization. That’s there, to be sure, but in Hannibal’s formulation it is the trappings of civilization that have numbed us to the carnal. There is perhaps something to be done with the fact that Hannibal’s choice of words - “the lewd and the vulgar” - points more towards the sexual than the violent, but an argument that Hannibal is prudish in some fundamental ways is going to be fueled more by cheap Freudianism than textual evidence.

But these points are at least close to the mark. Certainly Hannibal is interested in the line between what aspects of carnality civilization accepts and rejects, and in transgressions of that line. More to the point, he is interested in what the liminal space around this line reveals - “instructive” is a key adjective here. There is something in this confrontation with wickedness - with what is cast out as “uncivilized” - that reveals the nature of civilization. (In this regard one is essentially obliged to note that his victims are also chosen because they are, in his eyes, uncivilized. This is the mark of a consistent aesthetic.)

This thread of rejection as a means of clarification brings us nicely to Anthony Dimmond. It is immediately notable that of the two substantive characters introduced this episode it is Dimmond who gets murdered and not Sogliato, whose public humiliation of Hannibal is easily the rudest anyone has ever been to him on the show. Sogliato will get his in a few episodes, but for now he is spared while a character who appears to offer a plausible opportunity for friendship, who never makes any sort of move against Hannibal, and who indeed offers to help him gets brutally dispatched.

As Liz Baessler smartly points out, Dimmond is a visual mirror of Will, which is key to understanding what’s going on here. The episode, after all, is structured around Will’s absence, as Abel Gideon points out (although the fact that Dancy, Dhavermas, and Fishburne are all in the credits does kind of take the suspense out of the whole “reintroduce one character per episode” game). And Hannibal does not just murder Dimmond, he takes his body across Italy, folds it into a heart, and puts it in a place he knows will attract Will’s attention. To stick with the familiar series theme, Hannibal kills Dimmond to transform him into Will.

Baessler suggests that the main reason Dimmond dies is because Hannibal needs to terrorize Bedelia following her attempted departure, but this seems strained to me. For one thing, it fails to explain the heart. When Will Graham is involved, looking for secondary motivations for Hannibal is mostly a mistake. Yes, obviously Hannibal does need to teach Bedelia a lesson, and Dimmond provides a useful occasion for his delightfully cruel “observing or participating” bit, but when transforming Dimmond into Will Graham is on the table, showing up his erstwhile psychiatrist is surely a secondary benefit.

But is Dimmond’s inadequacy really just that he’s not Will? It’s not that this isn’t sufficient, but it leaves Dimmond as an oddly underwhelming sort of fellow. He is admittedly a one episode throwaway character, but he makes enough of an impression in the course of it that it seems to beg for something more substantial than him having to die because he’s a failed Will, not least because he offers Hannibal exactly what Will did not by seeming to just accept his murdering of the Fells and offering the hand of friendship.

But let’s return to our theme of contrast and opposites. For all that Hannibal tarries in the liminal space between civilization and wickedness, he depends on the fact that the distinction is clear. Or, to put it another way, Hannibal finds sharp contrasts instructive. Mirrors and doubles, on the other hand, have no real use to him. In this regard, Fuller’s Hannibal departs from Harris’s. In Hannibal (which the first half of season three adapts with a level of fidelity that makes tagging “this is from the books” going forward silly), Hannibal attempts to reshape Clarice into a new version of Mischa. Contrast this with Hannibal’s treatment of Abigail, where his affection for her is clearly motivated by his memories of Mischa, but he does not cast Abigail as a mirror of her, instead allowing her an identity of her own.

And so Dimmond’s death comes down to the fact that he is too similar to Will to be instructive. He cannot reveal any path forward for Hannibal, and so instead sends him down a destructive path backwards, reinstigating his dance with Will in a way that is going to be his downfall. His cruelty to Bedelia is a first step towards this - a rejection of the settled world he’s constructed for himself.

What is Hannibal’s aesthetic, then? Will Graham, of course.


mx_mond 1 year, 1 month ago

What a fantastic choice of photo.

This is the post I’ve been waiting for from the start, so it seems like a good place to say: thank you for this project.

Watching this episode, I thought Hannibal kills Dimmond because his rudeness betrays him as not-Will (“I'm here to help you untwist... to our mutual benefit” seems to me as blackmail, and that is both something that Hannibal would find rude and something that I don’t think Will would do), but the depths you uncover lurking behind that decision are both accurate and much more meaningful than that.

I don’t think Hannibal is a necessarily a prude, but I do think he is to a large extent uninterested in sex (which I guess is why I was so unnerved by Alana having sex with him: I was imagining him as cold, distanced, observing with curiosity, even while (probably) simulating passion; allowing himself to be kissed by her, but keeping his eyes open, never losing himself) – because as he says, sex is something that we have been to a large extent desensitized about.

What seems wicked, then, and what Hannibal seems to demonstrate, is cruelty and murder on which our world is resting – but only when we are made aware of it. We are perfectly content to eat animal meat even when we cry over deaths of our pets; we maintain blissful ignorance over the cost of our current standard of living that capitalism inflicts on other, unseen parts of the world. That’s what his whole modus operandi boils down to, I think: “You were praising my cooking, but all of a sudden it’s not okay, because the meat was human?”

It’s interesting to me how this episode implicates the viewer as well. We have been content to watch Hannibal’s elaborate tableaus, but the acts of murder itself have been largely spared us (aside from Franklin and Tobias, I think). Now, like Bedelia, we are observing the slow agony of a man. Or are we participating as well?

One final note: Hannibal puts the heart on three swords, evoking the image of the tarot Three of Swords, a card which symbolises (among other things) heartbreak. What a beautiful, economical way of showing us how he feels.

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Sabina 1 year, 1 month ago

Have also been waiting for the start of the third-season write ups! Thank you for this series.

I've thought that both Hannibal and Will internally conflate ethics with aesthetics (or, as you posit here, everyone does), and that this is why Hannibal never actually tries to suppress or redirect Will's "judgment" -- he reads Will's ethics as aesthetics, finds them coherent and enjoys their expression even if they're not his. He doesn't need Will to stop thinking of people in terms of "bad" and "good" anymore than an atheist needs Michelangelo to lose his religion in order to enjoy the paintings.

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