Of Hannibal and House

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.

Thomas Harris, one of literature’s greatest contributors, created a character who transcends the written word, who lives beyond film, who, in the imagination of the masses, has assumed an existence that surpasses definability and embraces interpretation.

Harris has never given an interview. His novels have become prolific without the assistance of personal publicity, which merely emphasises the legend that is Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ Lecter. Cinema and Anthony Hopkins gave Hannibal Lecter to the world… and so was birthed an icon of popular culture. In retaliation to the world’s appropriation of the infamous flesh eating serial killer Harris, wielding the weapon of authorial right, reclaimed his brain-child in a sequel so horrific, so ferocious, so unacceptable… and so utterly genius. Hannibal provides insight into Lecter’s predatory nature; it offers a psychological reason for his evil, and simultaneously ‘busts the myth’ of a man made supernatural by the plethora of literary sources that inform his being. Lecter is Satan, Serpent, Beast, Monster and Vampire – a compound of evil. And yet the Doctor, in Hannibal, is shown to be fallible, susceptible to the context of his life. A victim of vile predation, Hannibal Lecter becomes the vilest of all predators.

In his novels, Thomas Harris attempts to establish a connection between the criminal and those who place themselves in the opposing category. Harris uses Clarice Starling to suggest that forces of good have within them possibilities of harm; just as “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry”, so too do their best intentions. Lecter and Clarice, although initially on polar sides of the moral spectrum, are hunters in common… and ultimately Starling succumbs to the long arm of evil that is offered by a drooling Lecter. In Hannibal, Clarice becomes Lecter’s lover, turning murderer and cannibal. This ending was so unpalatable to a euphemistically peeved reading majority that director Ridley Scott’s filmic interpretation paints Clarice Starling in a far more favourable light – her descent into the abyss of moral decay is avoided and so Harris’s acute social commentary undermined. Although Clarice’s moral demise was a shock to most, it was elegantly forecast. Her predatory nature, the same nature that forms the essence of the human species, succumbs to an evil that is provoked and nurtured by Hannibal Lecter during the course of Silence of the Lambs.

There are many references that allude to Clarice’s impending psychological disintegration but none so poignant as this: when looking into Frederica Bimmel’s closet, Clarice suddenly realises what Jame Gumb is doing with the girls he is abducting, she has a moment of ecstasy, “Starling put her head back, closed her eyes for one second. Problem-solving is hunting; it is savage pleasure and we are born to it.” In Hannibal Rinaldo Pazzi has the same realisation when he catches ‘Il Mostro’ by making the connection with Botticelli’s Primavera: “In that moment when the connection is made, in that synaptic spasm of completion when the thought drives through the red fuse, is our keenest pleasure. Rinaldo Passi had had the best moment of his life.”

Written by David Sexton, In The Strange World Of Thomas Harris says of Thomas Harris “Harris offers his readers the pleasures of problem-solving and making connections, of hunting. He takes pleasure himself in discovering these patterns and then making a world of them. Truly, he is a thriller writer.”

And then there is Gregory House…

… completely other in context but utterly the same in psychology.

Like Hannibal and Clarice, Gregory House is a predator; a hunter. He prays on illness. Hunts the solution. Prizes the puzzle above all else. And House’s diagnostic obsession is by no means altruistic in nature. His ‘search for the cause’ is motivated by an entirely selfish desire to satiate a need… the same need that is identified by  Harris through Hannibal, Clarice and Pazzi. The manifestation of said need is relative to the individual – solving the case, diagnosing the illness, killing and eating the socially defunct – but the nature of that need is the very same. It evokes “savage pleasure” and is brutal in its implementation. For House, Life is no matter; being right is all that matters. Solving the problem is paramount. Repeating those ‘best moments’ is a driving force.

House, like Lecter, has been invented with a Holmes-inspired genius that provides an impenetrably accurate insight into the character of the human condition. House, a self-proclaimed misanthropist, detests weakness (in its relative conceptualisation) as does Hannibal. To both men, people are mere players in a vastly unfair game called Life – death is part of the game and is a mere trifle. Breaking the rules, spitting on social constructs; it’s all just part of the game. Anything is acceptable if it satiates the need to solve the problem.

Both House and Hannibal, although unrivalled in their intellect, are made fallible by their experiences. In Hannibal, the reader learns that Lecter’s four-year-old sister Mischa was cannibalised by a band of deserters in the Lithuanian countryside during World War II. House has daddy issues and a leg that stabs chronic pain through his receptors every second of every day. Hannibal’s medicates with human flesh, House medicates with Vicodin. Life staged its game, and two fearsome competitors were forged. Hannibal Lecter’s vice appears to be more of an incumbency on the rest of society but don’t let House fool you; he may not eat people but he is just as capable of destroying lives in the name of satiating the need. He is not only addicted to Vicodin but is addicted to diagnosing the illness – it makes him a great doctor but also one that is consistently volatile. House’s need destroys his personal life to such an extent that his professional life is at stake – and it is his professional life, a tangible symbol of his exceptional mind, that gives House his worth. Only able to practice medicine within the confines of a specialised environment comprised of a select few who will tolerate his obnoxious brilliance, House destroys the very fragile perimeters of this construct. In the name of the need. To satiate the need. Ironically, House requires this construct in order to practice medicine, to solve the puzzle. He is ultimately the architect of his own demise.

Hannibal Lecter arguably destroys his construct (that which allows him to operate, to kill) by being caught. But the Doctor lives largely in his mind and merely bides his time… he will escape. He does escape.

Will House? Pazzi did not. Nor did Clarice.

Comparing House and Hannibal is almost not the point. The two men are different and similar in many aspects. What is most relevant is that the two characters represent the human condition; they are extreme examples of man’s insatiable desire to understand and to solve that which it cannot. These men are warnings as well as illustrations. They are characterisations of society and its members. They are reflections of that which is in us all. And it is disturbing. Deeply disturbing.

Reference: “In The Strange World Of Thomas Harris”, David Sexton, 2001