“No evil is greater than anarchy.”
—A Latin Proverb
With author’s fees in eight figures and print runs to match, Thomas Harris’s cannibal is what publishers call a phenomenon. “I should’ve written that!” agonize America’s ambitious housewives on their way to becoming failed writers. “I can’t believe that this is what people want to read,” murmur intellectual snobs on their way to becoming nothing in particular. “Why, it’s actually quite good,” equivocate the rest of Harris’s readers, “and besides, who says that if something’s popular it’s got to be trash? What about the Beatles?” But the initial success, and now the triumphant return, of Dr. Hannibal Lecter is more curious than the debate, familiar as the cover of an airport novel, among turbid envy, impotent snobbery, and placid egalitarianism.
Dr. Lecter psychoanalyzes the people he meets, finds them morally inadequate, and then eats them. The plot having been thus dispensed with, there is now more space to examine what millions of Harris’s fans actually find in his homicidal yarns, and the unexpected truth that is their social and political message.
In the company of my Russian friends, conversations, obsessively and to the exclusion of women and song, are always about Joseph Stalin. We admire Stalin as a kind of Beethoven or Goethe of power, we ponder his Napoleonic deeds and Mephistophelian tricks like musicologists studying an original score, and in so doing we follow and preserve our culture, for so did Pasternak ponder them, and so did Bulgakov, and so did our fathers and grandfathers. Understanding Stalin, to us, is what finding Troy was for Schliemann.
After many years of such discussions, a broad premise has emerged, namely, that every man alive has more enemies than he has friends, with the statistically valid conclusion that, should some great elemental force begin exterminating one’s compatriots at random, there will be fewer people to curse it than to praise its name. Of course, like one’s friends, one’s actual enemies are the palpable extreme in the average person’s field of experience. More to the point, there are a lot of people out there one vaguely dislikes, people who may be richer or more handsome, less educated or more educated, lazier or more industrious, with darker or lighter skin, with a stricter view of the family, with dubious personal habits, with scary guns, with funny wigs, with money in Switzerland. Kill them, and you will make those who dislike them very happy indeed, provided you do the killing fairly, randomly, disinterestedly: Kill them as the plague kills, in a festival of blind pandemic annihilation, and they will bless you as the Scourge of God.
As London was burning in 1666, many onlookers from every class of society, including those who stood to lose most by the fire, were seized by a kind of manic glee at the sight of that wondrous thing, a collective calamity. Each man was willing to exchange his personal fortune for the amalgamated misfortune of the others, many of whom, presumably, he thought he had reason to dislike. Thus did many in Europe welcome the events of 1789 in France, and every turn of the bloody wheel thereafter. Thus did the Russian intelligentsia hail Stalin’s ukase of 1932 “On the Restructuring of Cultural Organizations,” signaling that the time had come to oppress their Bolshevik oppressors, with the words “Christ is risen!”
Americans have not experienced totalitarianism, more wondrous by far than the Great Fire, and I detect its mesmeric gleaming, and hear its elemental roar, in the phenomenally successful offering of Thomas Harris. More distinctly, too, I should add, than in the mountains of books and magazine articles piled up over seven decades by those whom Pravda used to call fellow travelers, representatives of all progressive mankind, and friends of the Soviet Union, and the New York Times still calls writers.
Embracing the totalitarian temptation, with its sweet chaos of hopes and longings centered on human sacrifice, may have been the fashionable thing, the prudent thing, the “done” thing in America, but it never used to mean big bucks. With the advent of Hannibal Lecter, it is for the first time a commercial phenomenon, a seductive invitation to every citizen to take the law, decrepit and morally corrupt, into his own hands (or teeth if more convenient) and kill, or at least torture and maim, anyone he dislikes for whatever reason. Anarchic subjectivity, it turns out, is the stuff of popular dreams, and Brecht’s pirate song is democracy’s millennial anthem.
The phenomenon itself, then, is brand new. But the means employed in its creation are as worn as the grooves of our grandparents’ gramophone records, and therein lies the book’s weakness, if not actually some hope for the country. For the means are, once again, “European culture” as revealed to a bumbling and pompous nerd, an American provincial who appears to know no language save English and thinks decadence and refinement is eating white truffles and using scented soap. If Hannibal had been airbrushed free of these hilariously obvious defects, I wager that its publication would have created a scandal a thousand times more vicious than that of The Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie. Equally, it is only a matter of time before some new Harris—his ear keen enough not to turn to Grove when writing about music, his perfumer’s nose as sure as his Latin, his eye on his Marx, and his feet squarely planted in the heritage of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Spengler, Huysmans, Brecht, Mayakovsky, and the rest of the great European egomaniacs—really gives America what it seems to be longing for.
As it is, what we get is some Freud in paperback, Florence cribbed from a tourist guide, soap from the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, white truffles, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Stephen Hawking on chaos theory, and a ferocious aquarium eel, along with ethnographic impossibilities such as the Italian conversation in which a pickpocket feels insulted when a police officer refers to her infant son as “it.” As any first-year student will confirm, this politically correct piece of psychological nonsense cannot work in Italian for reasons of grammar. Consider this Florentine dialogue, with special attention to its Hollywood cadence:
“Could you find Gnocco?” Pazzi snorted air through his nose. “Senti, get your things together, you can pick up your fake arm at the property room in three months, or sometime next year. The baby will have to go to the foundling hospital. The old woman can call on it there.”
“IT? Call on IT, Commendatore? His name is—” She shook her head, not vsanting to say the child’s name to this man.
And if Harris were to argue that this is a meaningless nuance, that I am nit-picking, I would reply that on such nuances the future of democracy in America has come to depend. Listen, I would say, get your things together, and let me tell you what Stalin used to do with moral subjectivists like you.
[Hannibal, by Thomas Harris (New York: Delacorte) 484 pp., $27.95]