Cancer and Cannibalism, Typhoid and Swans

One of my favorite things about “Coquilles” is that we’re introduced to Jack Crawford’s wife, Bella. An absolutely necessary character who plays out a complex individual narrative and who humanizes an increasingly unsympathetic Jack, Bella’s first scene also involves some of my favorite dialogue of the first season.

Bella: Would I be a horrible guest if I skipped this course?

Hannibal: Too rich?

B: Too cruel.

H: The first and worst sign of sociopathic behavior: cruelty to animals.

Jack: That doesn’t apply in the kitchen.

H: I have no taste for animal cruelty, which is why I employ an ethical butcher.

B: An ethical butcher? Be kind to animals and then eat them?

H: I’m afraid I insist on it. No need for unnecessary suffering. Human emotions are a gift from our animal ancestors. Cruelty is a gift man has given himself. 

It’s a whopper of a line. It begs more than one question, including who does Hannibal see as human, and who as animal? How does Hannibal feel about cruelty to animals versus cruelty to people? Does Hannibal consider himself cruel? Does he consider himself human, animal, or other?

It’s that last line of questioning I want to follow, but before I dig deeper, I want to talk about another piece of writing that comes to mind with this conversation. In 1896, Mark Twain wrote an essay titled “The Lowest Animal.” In the essay, Twain insists that he must

renounce my allegiance to the Darwinian theory of the Ascent of Man from the Lower Animals; since it now seems plain to me that that theory ought to be vacated in favor of a new and truer one, this new and truer one to be named the Descent of Man from the Higher Animals.

Which is to say, Twain feels animals are superior to people. His essay goes on to outline a variety of reasons why, including animals’ lack of morality, religion, and sense of indecency. His comments on religion and morality are the most inciting to me, and the most neatly tied to Hannibal. According to Twain,

Man is the Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion, several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. He has made a graveyard of the globe in trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven…The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out, in the Hereafter. I wonder why? It seems questionable taste.

Twain was Presbyterian, and he did believe in God. But like Hannibal, he held an ample skepticism of God and the way religions organized around God and Christ interpreted his image and acted in his name. It makes me think again of Hannibal’s conversation with Will about church collapses and how killing must feel good to God (discussed more in “A Good Cannibal is Hard to Find”), and I think too of another conversation about God held between Will and Hannibal in the season two episode, “Shiizakana.” 

Will: What do you think about when you think about killing?

Hannibal: I think about God.

W: Good and evil?

H: Good and evil has nothing to do with God.

Hannibal adds to that sentiment that he collects church collapses (the second time he’s mentioned such a thing). He mentions that dozens of people were recently killed in Sicily. Then asks, “Was that evil? Was that God? If he’s up there, he just loves it.” Then he says one of my favorite lines from the show in its entirety:

It reveals, not necessarily the exact same sentiment shared by Twain in “The Lowest Animal” but a similar notion that violence in and of itself is outside of moral purview. Twain argues that violence without a sense of morality isn’t deplorable, but that once humanity’s problem of “The Moral Sense” comes into play, things get ugly. Here’s Twain again:

I find this Defect [in man] to be the Moral Sense. He is the only animal that has it. It is the secret of his degradation. It is the quality, which enables him to do wrong. It has no other office. It is incapable of performing any other function. It could never have been intended to perform any other. Without it, man could do no wrong. He would rise at once to the level of the Higher Animals.

Twain goes on to specifically compare the disease of rabies to the Moral Sense, arguing that rabies is terrible, but that it drives people to violence only through sickness. The Moral Sense, on the other hand, enables man to do wrong in innumerable ways beyond the scope of illness. This “Primal Curse” gives humans “the ability to distinguish good from evil; and with it, necessarily, the ability to do evil; for there can be no evil act without the presence of consciousness of it in the doer of it.” He talks earlier in the essay about the cat who toys with the mouse. This might be seen as cruel, but Twain argues it isn’t because the cat doesn’t realize it’s causing any pain. Humans, on the other hand, cause pain intentionally and without the excuse of an illness like rabies to do it. Like Hannibal says, “Cruelty is a gift man has given himself.”

I know we’re already running long with this post, but there’s a few more things I think I’d be silly not to talk about while on the subject of humanity, morality, and cruelty. While Fuller has often couched the idea in a need for realism, both Mikkelsen and Fuller have talked about Hannibal as being the Devil/Lucifer/Satan. Hannibal has toyed with magical realism in a few ways, but the idea that Hannibal Lecter may be preternatural in some form is certainly one of them. I mention this because it’s hard to have conversations around the morality in Hannibal without wondering if Hannibal isn’t a character himself outside of those moral boundaries. 

I’ve argued that Hannibal sees his own actions as mirrors of God in the past. He suspects “killing must feel good to God,” he insists that God loves the death of his followers, and he says to Will that both destruction and beauty come from the same heavenly place. That suggests to me that for Hannibal, evil isn’t a relevant concept. Like Twain seems to believe, evil is a uniquely human idea, and Hannibal arguably exists outside the scope of traditional humanity. There is no morality, just action and reaction. And God has no investment either way. Hannibal is not immoral, but amoral. The rules of morality don’t even apply.

I wanted to talk about this because there’s another exchange in “Coquilles” that I find incredibly important. It comes, once again, from an interaction between Bella Crawford and Hannibal. She’s in Hannibal’s office, talking about the cancer Hannibal sniffed out earlier in the episode. Hannibal says she seems more betrayed by her husband than her body. Bella replies she isn’t betrayed by Jack, “And there’s no point in being mad at cancer for being cancer….Cancer isn’t cruel. Tiny cell wanders off from my liver, gets lost, find its way into my lung where it’s just trying to do its job and…grow a liver.”

I think this is a really fascinating metaphor for Hannibal Lecter himself, and this is what I’ve been anxious to close on. Cancer is neither moral nor immoral, good nor evil. Like Hannibal. It’s an action and a reaction–there is no Moral Sense so there is no moral failing. It’s a result of some biological imperative twisting itself into a situation it wasn’t meant for, and wreaking a sort of unbothered havoc. And in this way, I think Hannibal is cancer to the other characters in the series. He’s someone (or something) who does what he feels he should be doing, acting in his nature, a nature potentially ordained by God, and certainly–if nothing else–reinforced by God’s own amorality. Typhoid and swans, after all.

1 thought on “Cancer and Cannibalism, Typhoid and Swans

  1. Pingback: William et le Cannibale | Read the Rude

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