Psychopaths, Aesthetes, and Gourmands: What Hannibal Has to Teach Us about Consuming Art
by John McAteer
Hannibal Lecter once killed a flautist from the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra. He then fed the victim’s pancreas to the Philharmonic’s board of directors at a dinner party he was hosting. The flautist, Benjamin Raspail, had been one of Dr. Lecter’s psychiatric patients. In the novel The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal tells Clarice Starling that he killed Raspail for “whining” too much during therapy (p. 54). In the 2002 film version of Red Dragon it is implied that Hannibal killed Raspail for being a bad musician.
The interpretation of Hannibal’s motive has evolved as the story has been told and re-told. Every version of the story agrees that Hannibal is a gourmet cook, well known for his culinary connoisseurship. He made an amuse-bouche from Raspail’s pancreas—what chefs call the “sweetbreads.” But is Hannibal a psychopath who kills people simply for being annoying? Or an extreme aesthete so committed to high culture and good manners that he kills those who fail to live up to his exacting standards? And which would be worse?
When novelist Thomas Harris invented Hannibal Lecter, he based his character on real-life serial killers he had become aware of during his career as a crime journalist. But criminologists like to point out that real life serial killers do not act like Hannibal. For example, one recent academic article concluded that real-life serial killers tend to have lower verbal IQ scores, in contrast to the highly intelligent and hyper-verbal Dr. Lecter.[ Delisi, M., Vaughn, M. G., Beaver, K. M., & Wright, J. P. (2010). The Hannibal Lecter myth: Psychopathy and verbal intelligence in the MacArthur violence risk assessment study. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 32(2), 169-177. ]
One of the most obvious ways fictional serial killers differ from real ones is their method of killing and disposing of bodies. In the world of Thomas Harris’s novels, serial killers treat their murders like art. For example, the Tooth Fairy calls his murders “My Work. My Becoming. My Art.” (Red Dragon, p.173). He opens the eyes of his dead victims so they can “watch” him like an “audience” at a “performance” (Red Dragon, p. 29). In the TV series Hannibal, the idea of homicidal art is pushed even further. One killer cuts his victims’ throats and plays their vocal chords like a cello (Episode 1.8). Another builds a totem pole from human heads (Episode 1.9). And, in perhaps the most striking “artwork,” one killer creates an enormous three-dimensional “mural” using dead bodies of varying skin colors (Episode 2.1).
In real life there have been cases of cannibalism and killers who kept body parts as “trophies”. Perhaps the most famous case was Ed Gein, the inspiration for several of Hollywood’s most memorable murders, including Norman Bates in Psycho, Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. According to one especially vivid account of Gein,
On moonlit evenings, he would prance around his farm wearing a real female mask, a vest of skin complete with female breasts, and women’s panties filled with vaginas in an attempt to recreate the form and presence of his dead mother.[ James Alan Fox and Jack Levin. Extreme Killing, Third ed. (Sage, 2015), p. 4]
There is an element of performance here, but this is a long way from homicidal art. Gein was motivated by psychological drives, not artistic ones.
Thomas Harris’s original homicidal artist on the other hand, is interested in the aesthetic dimension of his murders. The Tooth Fairy films his murders and watches them again and again at home, partly for sexual gratification but also in order to critique his performance. Watching the film, he judges his performance harshly:
Even at the height of his pleasure he was sorry to see that in the film’s ensuing scene he lost all his grace and elegance of motion, rooting piglike with his bottom turned carelessly to the camera. There were no dramatic pauses, no sense of pace or climax, just brutish frenzy. (p. 83)
The Tooth Fairy aspires to the kind of cultivation attained by Hannibal Lecter whose “pulse never got over eighty-five” while murdering a nurse, “even when he tore out her tongue” (p. 67). Though there are many homicidal artists in the world Thomas Harris imagines, Hannibal remains unique. He is more intelligent, more cultured, than others. While the Tooth Fairy or Buffalo Bill might have some sort of twisted aesthetic predilection, Hannibal Lecter actually seems to have good taste. He has a genuine appreciation for Bach and Italian architecture and fine wine. He is a classic “aesthete.”
Like his aesthetically refined hero, the Toothy Fairy loves fine art—he listens to Handel (p. 97) and finds inspiration in the paintings of William Blake (p. 81)—but the act of murder reduces him to the frenzy of an uncultured brute. He aspired to more: “with experience, he hoped he could maintain some aesthetic distance even in the most intimate moments” (p. 83).
Going the Distance
Aesthetic distance is a concept first introduced by psychologist Edward Bullough in the early twentieth century. Bullough points out that the same object can be experienced differently, depending on the psychological attitude we bring to it. For example, in ordinary circumstances—say, while traveling—foggy weather produces annoyance, anxiety, or even fear. If you just want to get on with the business of practical affairs, fog can get in your way. But if you are able to set aside any practical goals you have and just look at the fog itself, it can be seen as beautiful. He uses the metaphor of taking up a critical “distance” from the object.
Thus, in the fog, the transformation by Distance is produced in the first instance by putting the phenomenon, so to speak, out of gear with our practical, actual self; by allowing it to stand outside the context of our personal needs and ends—in short, by looking at it “objectively,” as it has often been called, by permitting only such reactions on our part as emphasize the “objective” features of the experience.[ Edward Bullough, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology 5, no. 2 (1912): 89.]
Bullough argues that to properly experience an artwork we must find the right balance between the objective and subjective experience of the artwork. We must be neither over-distanced nor under-distanced.
Horror films like Hannibal provide a good example of how this works. If we are unable to distance ourselves from the image of Hannibal cutting open a still-living person’s skull and then feeding the victim his own brain (sautéed with black truffles, of course), then we will be so horrified and disgusted that we will be unable to continue watching the film. If, on the other hand, we over-distance ourselves from the scene, we may be too objective, too cold, and not experience the horror at all. We might be thinking about whether it is physiologically possible to feed someone his own brain, or about how the filmmakers were able to achieve the special effect. The key to the appropriate aesthetic experience is to get caught up enough in the film to feel the horror without being sent running from the theater.
Arguably, one element of aesthetic distance is empathy. If a viewer or reader is to appreciate the horror of Hannibal’s murders, he or she must empathize with the victims. Someone who doesn’t have feelings of concern for the suffering of the victims won’t be able to have the appropriate aesthetic response. For this reason, it is tempting to think that psychopaths are incapable of aesthetic experience insofar as they lack empathy for others.
Indeed, there is some evidence that real life psychopaths tend to have an underdeveloped aesthetic sensitivity. For example in one of the first clinical studies of psychopathy, psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley discussed a patient who was unmoved by art.
It is impossible for him to take even a slight interest in the tragedy or joy of the striving of humanity as presented in serious literature or art. He is also indifferent to all these matters in life itself. Beauty and ugliness, except in a very superficial sense, goodness, evil, love, horror, and humor have no actual meaning, no power to move him.[ Cleckley, Hervey. The Mask of Sanity, Fifth ed. (private printing, 1988), p. 40. ]
Cleckley’s patient fits the clinical definition of a psychopath. The terms “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used somewhat interchangeably in the mass media. The technical psychiatric term for this condition is Antisocial Personality Disorder. According to the DSM-V (a standard classification system used by mental health professionals), the diagnostic criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder include a lack of empathy which manifests as callousness: “Lack of concern for feelings or problems of others; lack of guilt or remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one’s actions on others.”
It is important to notice here that lack of empathy only means the psychopath lacks concern for others, not that they can’t understand their feelings. This fits with Thomas Harris’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter. In Red Dragon, Frederick Chilton says Hannibal is a “pure sociopath” (p. 67). Will Graham disagrees. Will says psychologists only call Hannibal a sociopath “because they don’t know what else to call him” (p. 62). Will does point out that Hannibal “has no remorse or guilt at all,” but adds that “he’s not insensitive.” In other words, Hannibal has empathy but not a conscience.
Far from lacking empathy, Hannibal is quite sensitive to the feelings and perspectives of others. This is one reason he is attracted to Will Graham. “The reason you caught me is that we’re just alike,” he tells Will in the novel Red Dragon (p. 73). In the 2001 movie version he specifies: Will and Hannibal are alike because they both have a talent for “imagination,” an uncanny ability to get inside other people’s heads. Hannibal understands what others are thinking and feeling—he simply doesn’t care. Likewise a survey of real life psychological case studies reveals that, instead of an empathy deficit, the true mark of a psychopath seems to be their “inability to take an interest in anything that does not serve, directly or indirectly, to satisfy some desire.”[ Heidi Maibom and James Harold. “Without Taste: Psychopaths and the Appreciation of Art,” La Nouvelle Revue Française d’Esthétique 6 (2010): 71-84]
Can Psychopaths Have Aesthetic Experiences?
Philosophers Heidi Maibom and James Harold hypothesize that the psychopath’s pathological egocentrism would yield an inability to achieve aesthetic distance. Remember Bullough’s theory that we must set aside our “personal needs and ends” and attend to the “objective features” of the artwork. In other words, aesthetic distance means engaging with the art object as an end in itself, not as a means to satisfy your own subjective desires. If you only value an artwork because it is worth a lot of money or depicts a sexually arousing figure, then you are not appreciating the work aesthetically. You are treating the object as a means to achieving an external good (money or sexual gratification).
Maibom and Harold assume that psychopaths treat everything as a means to external goods, and so can engage neither persons nor artworks as ends in themselves. Remember the clinical definition of a psychopath involves a lack of empathetic concern for others. The DSM-V links this to “egocentrism” and “self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure” as well as “manipulativeness” and the desire to “control others.” This is certainly true of Hannibal Lecter who is fond of discussing the “power” that God feels when he “kills” people through natural disasters. Hannibal clearly takes great pleasure not only in killing but in toying with people. In the TV series, Hannibal, Will Graham says Hannibal wound him up like a top and set him spinning “to see what I would do” (Episode 1.13). In Maibom and Harold’s terms, Hannibal treats Will as a mere means to Hannibal’s egocentric pleasure.
There is something right about this interpretation. Perhaps it explains why most psychopaths can’t achieve aesthetic distance. For example, the Tooth Fairy is too caught up in his own egocentric sexual and homicidal desires to create objective beauty. But Hannibal doesn’t seem to fit this explanation. If it is impossible for a psychopath to appreciate art, then Hannibal shouldn’t be able to appreciate Bach and Italian architecture.
What this hypothesis fails to take into account is that it is compatible with aesthetic distance for a viewer to engage with an artwork instrumentally as a means to her own aesthetic pleasure. Sure, for it to be genuinely aesthetic pleasure, such instrumental aesthetic engagement would require a certain kind of psychic distancing (setting aside such practical interests as desire for money, sex, or other goods external to the art object), but aesthetic distancing does not require setting aside the desire for the pleasure that can result from the contemplation of art itself. The whole point of aesthetic distance is to enable us to achieve just that sort of pleasure!
Therefore, since the psychopath doesn’t necessarily lack any cognitive skill, and since aesthetic distancing doesn’t necessarily require abstracting from egoistic desire, then the psychopath should, in principle, be capable of aesthetic appreciation. There is no reason Hannibal Lecter could not exist in real life.
From Consuming Art to Consuming People
On the other hand, this account does entail that psychopaths are incapable of experiencing the value of an object for its own sake. While they can be sensitive to the object’s aesthetic properties, they cannot judge that it is good for the object to exist apart from their own experience of it. They wouldn’t care if anyone else ever got to experience the object—unless, of course, the psychopath somehow got pleasure from other people’s aesthetic experience, as for example if sharing an artwork with someone led them to praise the psychopath’s good aesthetic taste. But in that case the psychopath is still treating the artwork—indeed, the other person, too—as a means to his own pleasure.
This explains why psychopaths would lack ethical sensitivity, since ethics does require non-instrumental valuing of persons. Furthermore, this account means that psychopaths treat art like food—something to be consumed for pleasure—which in turn suggests that if a psychopath took an aesthetic interest in people, he would treat them, too, as objects to be consumed for pleasure. “Hannibal the Cannibal” is simply the logical extreme of this line of thought.
The Death of Aestheticism
Our discussion has revealed something interesting about the relationship between art and ethics. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said that “Aesthetics and ethics are one.”[ Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Notebooks, 1914-1916, 2nd ed., translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 77] But this chapter has shown that to be false. Someone could be good at one but not the other. But it also implies that they are not entirely unrelated, either. The tradition of aestheticism argued that morality was entirely irrelevant to art. For example arch-aestheticist Oscar Wilde once wrote, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”[ Wild, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Dover, 1993), p. vii.] According to this view, all that matters to art appreciation is beauty of form. The logical extreme of aestheticism turns out to be homicidal art.
For example, the Muralist from the Hannibal TV series arranges his victims’ bodies into an artwork, using their skin color to create an abstract pattern almost resembling the rose window of a gothic cathedral. With enough aesthetic distance, an objective viewer could see a kind of true beauty in this macabre mural. And if aestheticism is true, then this would be an entirely appropriate way of engaging with this scene. There could be no objection to homicidal art as art. One could certainly object that an artwork made out of dead bodies is immoral, but, from a purely aesthetic point of view, it could still be a rewarding aesthetic experience and hence a great work of art.
Our discussion of artistic distance shows that things are not as simple as aestheticism believes. The aesthetic point of view does not in fact silence all the demands of morality. Sometimes our attempts both to respect an artwork and humanity as ends in themselves genuinely conflict. In those cases morality trumps pure aestheticism. We ought not take up a purely aesthetic point of view toward dead bodies.
In terms of aesthetic distance, we might say that anyone who is able to experience dead bodies as beautiful is necessarily over-distanced. To see why, consider that the Muralist’s artwork is essentially a sculpture made from human bodies, just as other sculptures are made from marble or bronze. From this point of view, we see that the material is not irrelevant to the artwork. Materials are commonly listed on museum and gallery walls, precisely because they are relevant to the interpretation of the work. Thus it would in fact be a mistake to disregard the bodies and appreciate only the form of the work. The materials matter. Anyone whose aesthetic attitude fails to take into account the materials at all is over-distanced from the work.
Ironically, I think Hannibal would agree. For him, the fact that the works (or meals) are made from human bodies is the whole point. And knowing them to be human flesh actually adds to the pleasure of consuming them. But he’s a psychopath. A normal person would be incapable of taking aesthetic pleasure in the death of another human being. So we can say that Hannibal’s moral deficit actually does turn out to be an aesthetic deficit in cases of homicidal art. He finds some art beautiful that he ought not enjoy—art that is bad from both a moral and aesthetic point of view.
It might seem perverse to learn how to consume art from a psychotic aesthete. But anyone who advises us to “eat the rude”[ A phrase from the 1999 novel Hannibal (p. 94), used in the 2001 movie Hannibal and the 2013-14 TV series Hannibal.] is bound to have something interesting to say about the relationship between ethics, aesthetics, and gastronomy.
1) Delisi, M., Vaughn, M. G., Beaver, K. M., & Wright, J. P. (2010). The Hannibal Lecter myth: Psychopathy and verbal intelligence in the MacArthur violence risk assessment study. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 32(2), 169-177.
2) James Alan Fox and Jack Levin. Extreme Killing, Third ed. (Sage, 2015), p. 4
3) Edward Bullough, “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and an Aesthetic Principle,” British Journal of Psychology 5, no. 2 (1912): 89
4) Cleckley, Hervey. The Mask of Sanity, Fifth ed. (private printing, 1988), p. 40.
5) Heidi Maibom and James Harold. “Without Taste: Psychopaths and the Appreciation of Art,” La Nouvelle Revue Française d’Esthétique 6 (2010): 71-84
6) Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Notebooks, 1914-1916, 2nd ed., translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 77
7) Wild, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Dover, 1993), p. vii.
8) A phrase from the 1999 novel Hannibal (p. 94), used in the 2001 movie Hannibal and the 2013-14 TV series Hannibal.