Volume XIII, Number 2, Fall 2017

"Cannibal Aesthetics – Hannibal Lecter and the Monstrosity of Genius" by Márió Z. Nemes

Márió Z. Nemes is an assistant professor of aesthetics and philosophy at the ELTE Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, Budapest, Hungary. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy in 2014. He has been awarded various scholarships to study, to work and to research abroad (Universität Wien, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Akademie Schloss Solitude Stuttgart). Márió Z. Nemes has published numerous theoretical and poetry books in Hungarian, German, and Slovakian. His academic research focuses on anthropological aesthetics, post-human theories, contemporary literature and visual arts. He is also a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berlin-Budapest-Leipzig based Technologie und das Unheimliche (www.technologieunddasunheimliche.com/) para-academic cultural theory fanzine and independent publishing project. E-mail:

In the second half of the nineteenth century, as a consequence of a renewed political focus on psychiatry, the interpretation of certain individuals, groups and historical processes came to be dominated by a so-called “psychiatric discriminative” discursive logic. (see Foucault 2003) The goal of this interdisciplinary regulative technology was the political-anthropological surveillance of social space, whereas the nineteenth-century humanist view of what it means to be human had come to be formed through a variety of exclusionary mechanisms, centered upon a relatively restrictive definition of health and wellbeing. The operation of this discursive system of exclusion – whose material aspects we must not forget – was characterized by this double structure: processes of normalization went hand in hand with processes of pathologization. The construction of normality was achieved to the detriment of “extraordinary subjects” (Ausnahmesubjekt), as those personality types deemed incompatible with bourgeois notions of sobriety, frugality and uprightness were stigmatized through medical, anthropological and criminological means. (Lukas 365-366) Extraordinary subjects were represented as wild, passionate and/or unstable. In the eyes of the contemporary Biedermeier behavioral ideal, they were completely animalistic beings who had to be controlled, domesticated or, in the interest of social hygiene, eradicated.

Social Darwinism purported to justify psychiatric discrimination with the idea of “degeneration”, which served as a useful socio-pathological reinterpretation of prior cultural discourses relating to decadence. (Weingast 58-65) Being the Romantic that he was, the young Georg Lukács vigorously defended the deheroization of extraordinary individuals: “the sentimental softness, generating as it does pathological explanations (…) considers the evil person to be more natural – it is only natural that all greatness becomes pathological in the eyes of such an outlook.” (442) Lukács interprets exceptionality in the context of Romantic aesthetics, and accuses petit bourgeois notions of health of attempting to disenchant the threatening otherness of genius by treating genius as a negative borderline condition while removing the aura of the cult of genius, whose irrationalism was treated as an anomaly by nineteenth-century positivist anthropological approaches.

The “unusual” health of the artist-as-genius comes to be classified as an illness, atavism and/or degeneration, which entails that, as distinct from the eighteenth-century’s German humanist aesthetic tradition, artistic greatness becomes separated from artistic self-emancipation or human excellence. As a result, the genius attains a subterranean, subconscious quality and is connected with the realm of the animalistic and the demonic. The relationship between human nature and genius becomes ever more problematic as the century progresses; the genius gravitates ever closer to the world of the insane, the criminal and the primitive: in a word, the realm of all those marginalized groups who represent an animal counter-nature as distinct from the territory of the Northwestern European, white, heterosexual Human.

The anthropological machinery that constructed this counter-human nature transforms into a theatrological Machine, while, as opposed to the medieval construal of monstrosity, here the emphasis is not on morality but criminal-psychological categorization:

And will not this natural individual be quite paradoxical, since he ignores the natural development of interest? He is unaware of the necessary tendency of interest and that the supreme point of his interest is to accept the game of collective interests. Is he not a natural individual who brings with him the old man of the forests with all the fundamental presocial archaisms and who is, at the same time, an unnatural individual? In short, is not the criminal precisely nature against nature? Is this not the monster? (Foucault 91)

We may observe the inscription of discourses pertaining to animality into contemporary technologies of control and epistemology in Cesare Lombroso’s criminal-anthropological work, in whose methodological approach we can identify a mixing of the anthropologist’s and the hunter’s perspective. Of particular note is the way Lombroso emphasizes the hermeneutical importance of “traces”: the identification and capture of the “prey” is achieved through interpretation of bodily traces and characteristics – including negotiations between the body and its environment. Another important similarity between the Lombroso-style criminal anthropologist and the hunter is that neither maintains the bodily integrity of the prey. While the hunter cuts up the animal for processing and trophy-collecting, the nineteenth-century positivist social scientist uses physiognomical ideas to disorganize the subject of his investigation. As Lombroso emphasizes, it is important to dismember individual lives into a network of atavistic signs, in the context of a methodological preparation that serves as a preliminary step towards actual dismemberment, such as in the case of tattooed criminals who were skinned and whose skins were displayed in scientific venues of the time. (Becker 169-170) For the explorer of degeneration, the criminal and the decadent artist are the prize trophy, whose animalization entails their hybridization: “From the perspective of atavism, the difference between the instinctively cruel acts of animals, plants, and criminals is very small”, writes Lombroso (223), highlighting the danger that the degenerate type could undermine the hierarchy of the human race, for atavistic violence in society threatens to derail linear human progress.

In my essay, I seek to shed new light on nineteenth-century discourses relating to genius, through a creative reinterpretation of the figure of Hannibal Lecter. Thomas Harris’ character resonates in many ways with the general context of pathological and animalistic decadent genius. Lecter’s popcultural importance was established primarily by Anthony Hopkins’ performance in the The Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme), but the popularity of the franchise became ever greater thanks to later adaptations (Hannibal (2001, dir. Ridley Scott), Red Dragon (2002, dir. Brett Ratner), Hannibal Rising (2007, dir. Peter Webber) and Bryan Fullers TV-series (2013-2015)). The character of the cannibal psychiatrist also feeds into the serial killer culture of the 1980s, which, according to Mark Seltzer, may be attributed to the cultural-economic transition of the time, when violence was mediatized by new mass communication technologies. In a critical theoretical light, the serial nature of serial killers may be interpreted as one symptom of a more general mechanization of culture (the emergence of a “machine culture”), whose deindividualizing and dehumanizing movement destroys bodily integrity and transforms bodily flesh into another commodity. (Baello-Allué 9) This leads us to the process of “meatifying”, the anthropological side of Reaganite free market neoliberal consumer culture, represented by such legendary fictional cannibals as Patrick Bateman or Hannibal Lecter, as well as real-life cannibals like Jeffrey Dahmer. (see Brown 190)

Beyond the concrete social context we must also examine this issue from a genre perspective. Sonia Baelo-Allué in her essay, “The Aesthetics of Serial Killing”, writes of the serial killer genre as constituting a fusion of Gothic horror and the detective story style. (8) Serial killer narratives have a tendency to combine a chaotic experience of the world and the trope of the grand villain with the rational detective aspect culled from the crime story genre, generating a hybridity whose aesthetic enjoyability is only heightened by the seriality of the crime in question. The figure of the Gothic grand villain was formed in a complex cultural historical intersection in which Sturm und Drang and “Black Romanticism” (to quote Mario Praz’s expression) mixed with decadent Satanism – although many surrealist avant-garde heroes, like Maldoror or Fantomas, may also be interpreted as constituting products of this cultural trans-fertilization. The grand villain is a monster that originates from the Foucauldian moral monster, and is typically characterized by bodily abnormalities and/or pseudo-human biological traits, but whose otherness is nevertheless directly attributable to the autonomous, uncontrollable monstrosity of his actions.

This becoming-autonomous entails a lack of transparency, for the acts of the grand villain cannot be decoded into everyday rationality, which would otherwise be of use in social life. According to Foucault, the moral monster is always political, always transgressing social contractual boundaries, while deriving the right to this transgression from within his own extraordinary nature, in a word: from “nothing.” In the gesture of the serial killer there is something sovereign, for the excessiveness of serial killing explodes the banality of the everyday in the most destructive manner possible, resulting in a sublime experience that evokes raw ‘evental’ power. The grand villain has a certain diabolical greatness, which is also a submergence within untamed natural powers: such extraordinary individuals connect the superhuman and the subhuman within a sadomasochistic chiasm. Serial killers embody the power of the elemental. Such a non-Kantian subversive interpretation of the sublime may be found in Thomas De Quincey’s essays, which are of importance in this regard because De Quincey contemplated the actions of several contemporary serial killers (William Burke and William Hare) in an explicitly aesthetic manner. (Baello-Allué 10)

As a result of his movements that traverse the boundaries between human and nonhuman, nature and society, the grand villain achieves a monstrous sovereignty. The unnerving power of Hannibal Lecter’s character resides in the fact that he is capable of controlling the various circulations among the various regions of existence, as well as autonomously observing the playground of his own humanity and inhumanity. This dual movement of self-transcendence may also be observed in the decadent subject, for decadence and Gothic anthropology also intersect with one another. In Baudelaire, for instance, we find human nature defined in the manner of a centrifugal movement of interference. One movement strives “upward”, toward God, this is the “transascendent” movement, while the other dives into the depths, toward the Satanic and the animalistic, this latter variant being the term “transdescendent movement.” Simultaneously the interference of these movements can only remain human if we accept the paternalistic theological complex that overcodes the conditio humana. (Sartre 37) Baudelaire’s anthropology is a Satanic cult of renewed youthfulness, connecting sado-masochistically with the schizophrenic love and hatred of a transcendent, cruel Father. From this perspective, the figure of Lecter is closer to Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, the decadent protagonist of A rebours, for the kind of self-transcending aestheticism sought after by Lecter cannot be easily decoded along moral and/or theological lines. (Sartre 28.)

When Cary Wolfe analyses The Silence of the Lambs from a “speciesist” perspective, he delineates a fourfold “species grid”, four territories that form the object of modern humanist anthropocentric ideological application. (Wolfe 101-102) The first field is that of “animalized animals”, the territory of the natural, albeit sacrificeable nonhuman Other. The second field is that of humanized animals, those domesticated animals that have gone through some process of anthropomorphization, thereby ascending from the sacrificial regime. Such beings are no longer placeholders for human life, but are integrated into the defensive zone of the oikos, along the lines of the master-slave dichotomy. “Animalized humans” on the other hand, constitute yet another field, which is particularly problematic from an anthropotechnical and biopolitical perspective, for it gives place for practices of domination and subjugation, such as psychiatric discrimination or racial oppression, legitimated by biodeterministic ideological rationalizations. The fourth and final field is the category of “humanized humans”, which matches with the Western essentialist view of the human, that “Human with a capital H” which serves as the subject of Western political praxis. Humanized humans are autonomous, individualistic, heterosexual, Western European white males who have purportedly left behind their animal ancestry, thanks to the redemptive potential of culture.

In this scheme the two extreme poles (animalized animals and humanized humans) are the most fictional, for such “pure” categories compose the strongly binary logic of the racial matrix, predicated as it is upon maintaining purity by dumping impure categories into the intermediate fields. Within the context of Wolfe’s model, Lecter’s subversive potential resides in his performance of a double impossibility: Lecter presents himself simultaneously as an animalized animal and a humanized human. Wolfe, with some help from Žižek, argues that the irrational figure of the cannibal psychiatrist reveals the ambiguity of the Enlightenment and psychoanalysis as a post-Enlightenment project, for Lecter may be interpreted as a monstrous subject who provides a fanciful “missing link” between nature and culture. (Wolfe 108) These two impossibilities (pure nature and pure culture) cannot be synthesized successfully, for this would destroy the very imperative of purity and the project of teleological modernity. This is why Lecter is so dangerous for the anthropological machine of humanism, for he represents a phantom-like counter-machine, a clone that is even more “perfect” than the original bourgeois subject, experimenting as he does with the “assimilation” of mutually incompatible oppositions.

In the The Silence of the Lambs Lecter’s extraordinary nature is ceaselessly emphasized: Dr. Chilton (the bureaucratic psychiatrist who is Lecter’s keeper and tormentor) comments to Starling early on that Lecter is a “monster,” a “rare example of the species” of pure psychopath, the “only one in captivity.” (Wolfe 102) Dr. Chilton’s comment contains a typical example of the ambivalent ideal of subversive purity, which is in reality a radical form of impurity. This “criminal” and “pathological” energy must be separated, excluded from the system of everyday life, although it seemingly cannot be destroyed, for the exhibition of the monster and the spectacular pleasure this produces constitutes an irresistible allure for trophy-hunting criminal anthropology. There is also an epistemological desire operating here, one that undoubtedly animates the key question of the Hannibal films: what can we learn about the limits of our own humanity from a xenohuman creature, from an absolute Other, who, paradoxically, seems more accultured and more human than us? Is Lecter, through his bizarre twisting of the humanist Bildung-ideal, capable of teaching us something about self-knowledge and self-enjoyment? This latter question in particular is an unsettling one.

Wolfe notes that the The Silence of the Lambs is haunted by the discourse of animality and plays with the Freudian notion of the “totem.” Which totem belongs to which character? Hannibal Lecter’s totem could very well be the elephant of Hannibal, the Carthaginian warlord with whom he shares his name. Such a solution would reveal a parasitical relation to classical erudition, but an even more interesting relation may be observed through the etymology of the latin word “lector.” Lector means “reader”. The logic of animalization is reversed once it is revealed as an animating force, for Dr. Lecter, who uses human beings in the manner of animals, is himself affected by an original trauma – or, to be more exact, a preformed trauma, while psychoanalysis is deconstructed through the conflation of psychiatric hermeneutics with cannibalism. This demonic ambiguity is heightened by the multiplication of etymological possibilities, for, as Wolfe reminds us, the German word “Lechter” means “licker.” Among the etymological strata we find a metaphorical tension, in which intellectual and sensual levels infect one another through a process of “mutual cannibalization.”

The totemization of the lector is the drawing of an extreme boundary, that of the humanized human, for we thereby introduce the classical – humanist – Bildungsburger, whose Enlightenment anthropology raises up the human from the animal kingdom, in particular through the monopoly of rational thought and language, within the context of a speciesist matrix. Lechter, on the other hand, transcends toward his totem, for the reader is confronted with a licker, who threatens to open up the reader to unlimited woundedness and a disgusting unification. On a dramaturgical level this is observable in the deconstruction of standard crime drama motifs, for the intellectual genius Lecter appropriates the role of detective, while the consumption of the detective, in a literal and metaphorical sense, continually haunts the hygienic workings of the species-matrix. In The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon Lecter’s appropriation of the rational project of investigation and criminal anthropological casting is indirect, for the investigations are not directed primarily at Lecter himself. Nevertheless, this segregation of narrative levels only serves to strengthen our belief in Lecter’s intellectual extraordinariness, for he fulfills the role of a kind of oracle, which also intensifies his relation with his totem. The reader must now migrate to the place of the sacred, which serves as the seat of the Master Reader.

Bryan Fuller’s adaptation, while conserving the spatial poetics of near-sacred exceptionality – Lecter’s office and kitchen as heterotopia – also explores the motif of crime drama-deconstruction, for it reveals the perspective of a detective searching for himself. This theme, in itself, is not exceptional among (post)modern crime genres, but in Lecter’s case it is peculiar, for Lecter, as opposed to standard serial killers, does not have a fixed method, protocol or ritual of killing his victims. Several identities – constructed or imitated – mix together, breeding series whose parrallelism and heterogeneity derails the identity-based logic of the investigation. A similar deconstructive freedom may be identified in Bruce A. Evans’ Mr. Brooks (2007), but the serial killer enacted by Kevin Costner views his own history as a process of development, while the variability of the various masks used by Lecter holds no promise of an authentic identity.

The production of mutually contradictory series can be interpreted through opacity, mimicry or the obstruction of the rational order of things. However, in all his actions we also find that Lecter is not only a masterful intellectual reader of himself and others but also a sensual genius who reads in the manner of licking, chewing and biting. There is something very specific in monstrous exceptionality, but this is not the mechanical aping of some code but rather the despotic practice of an aesthetic ideology. This aesthetic ideology is the program of total aestheticism, in which species matrices are destabilized, for the logocentric culture of humanized humans is hybridized with the sensual energy of animality.

This ideology has a cultural-historical background that deserves mention, which also connects us back to the fundamental ambiguity of the Enlightenment, to that paradoxical moment when Hegel’s art-philosophical lectures attempted to restrict the remit of aesthetics to that of the sensual while excluding those components from sensuality that were not intellectual enough. This leads to Hegel’s absurd proposition that only two “theoretical senses”, vision and hearing, may be accepted as legitimate sources of aesthetic judgment, to the detriment of the sense of smell, taste, and touch. (Seregi 12) The nineteenth century’s aesthetico-ideological boundaries are exemplified by the relation of Hegel’s posteriors to his scheme, in particular those experiments that attempted to extend the realm of the beautiful through the reinterpretation of counter-qualities (sublime, ugly, grotesque, etc.). In this conflicted cultural space the attempt to win back the complexity of sensuality was one of the most important fronts, in which context decadence attains a great variety of meanings.

The decadent dandy, the aesthete par excellence, is exemplified by Huysman’s Des Esseintes, who lives in a villa near Paris, and constructs an “aesthetic laboratory.” The interior of the house, the furniture, the colors and variegated forms all afford the stimulation of the young man’s aesthetic sense. Des Esseintes’s ideology is aestheticist in the sense that the sphere of his aesthetic enjoyment is totalized, for the world serving as his environment is completely recomposed (from which there may be derived a striving for a more complete, heterotopological interiority, in which there are, optimally, no “non-aesthetic” stimuli), while his body also becomes an Enjoyment Machine, in which all senses are integrated into the operation of the aesthetic laboratory. This strategy is hypersynesthetic, which mixes the various senses while also increasing exponentially the amount of stimuli the body is exposed to. It is especially pertinent that most of this proceeds on the non-theoretical levels of sense excluded by Hegel. According to Bettina L. Knapp, the young prince’s aesthetics is accompanied by a morbid elitism, in which smell, taste and touch become over-refined. (Knapp 204)

Lecter’s decadent aesthetics also contains a proliferation of non-theoretical sensual experiences, but in his case animality and delicacy are augmented by a strange erotism. As opposed to the reader, there is the licker, whose sense of smell is far more developed than the eyesight of others. (Wolfe 109) This hyper-smelling capability does not belong merely to the beast within, the animalistic aspect, for it is also an important marker of the overly humanized connoisseur-type. Every sign is in flux, moving between the two vertical extremes of the speciesist fourfold. This colorful vortex of double impossibility, composed with artistic flair by Lecter, also represents a more active relation to the world, as opposed to Des Esseintes’s aesthetic escapism, for in Lecter’s case the sensual genius is covered over by the intellectual genius. The sovereignty of the grand villain vouches for the autonomy of the Lecterian world-level.

The most important area of the sensual genius’s aestheticism must surely be that of taste, whose first, anti-Hegelian legitimation was written by Jean Anthelme Brillet-Savarin, entitled Physiologie du goût (1825). According to this important work of gastronomical philosophy and French aesthetic culture, taste has a fundamental role in the system of human senses, because it connects aesthetic construction – in another word, Bildung – with the health of the individual and the maintenance of biological reproduction. (Seregi 13) Even in Huysmans’ novel, written decades after Brillat-Savarin’s work, we may detect a kind of oversaturation of taste, but we may also detect such a gastrophilosophical strand in Marco Ferreri’s famous The Grand Bouffe (1973), in which bourgeois characters eat themselves to death while reading sentences from Brillet-Savarin’s book. However, it is Hannibal Lecter who exploits the French gastronomical tradition to the maximum, for he – in the sense of Frederic Jameson’s nominalism (Wolfe 120) – demetaphorizes the most famous French gastronomical bon mot, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.”

Eating in general may be interpreted as an ever more formalized civilization spiral, which attempts to manufacture from the “otherness” of cannibalistic consumption a distance from such barbarities. We accept the Other as a guest, while consuming animals that serve to substitute the flesh of this very guest. (Bahr 225) Yet beneath the ever more refined layers of substitutive forms there still resides the aroma of human flesh. Lecter’s cannibal aesthetics is a kind of obscene archeology, which breaks down the civilizational spiral, enacting a deculturation while also conserving and/or intensifying the formal wealth of the spiral – hyperculturation – , bringing to the surface all that which humanistic aesthetics sought to suppress. The most interesting example of this process is the concluding scene of the 2001 film Hannibal, in which the guest is accepted to the table while also eating pieces of himself. It is on this basis that Jennifer Brown claims that the representational history of cannibal figures traverses colonial exoticism, signifying rural degeneration toward the urban power centers, to the point where the cannibalistic truth of Western culture may be uncovered in Hannibal Lecter’s personage (Brown 14).



In Bryan Fuller’s serial adaptation, the genius’s sensual cannibal aesthetics take center stage. While in the films the artistic world of the serial killer is more or less counterpointed by the stylized film-language of a construed everydayness, here the rational world of criminal investigation is interrupted by Will Graham, the FBI’s primary medium and expert, and his psychotic collapse into a surreal world of visions, hallucinations and daydreams. We have the feeling that Lecter is not only diverting the investigation in an intellectual sense but also, more sinisterly, through his psychological manipulation of Will, aesthetically occupying the territory. The aestheticist laboratory consumes its own environment, whose new center of gravity becomes Lecter’s kitchen. According to Brillet-Savarin, each dining table is surrounded by a scopic desire, whose focus is not merely the food to be consumed, but also the body of the Other, whose interior operation we may potentially observe. Scopic desire stimulates the body of the Other, which becomes a painting glowing from within, bathed in a mellow light. While eating conversation serves to enframe this glowing, emanating as it does from bodily interiority, so as to prevent the conoisseur from feeling giddy and collapsing into the desubjectifying event of enjoyment (Barthes 242).

During the course of Lecter’s cannibalistic feasts the viewer is also enraptured by a scopic desire, penetrating below the sentient levels of the Other’s corporeality. Licking can easily become biting. So as to aesthetically counteract this violent potentiality, we must strengthen the inner light. This is where hyperaesthesia comes in, which rushes bodies, materials and forms, and their illuminations, into stylistic exaltation. “Appetite is memory and hallucination”, writes Roland Barthes (254), a phantasm that must nevertheless be staged in a structured manner, as enacted in Lecter’s gastronomical theatre, where the sensual explosion produced by cannibalism is rationally reconserved by the framing achieved by the intellectual genius. Conservation operates the discursive machinery of psychiatric discourse, which results in the mutual reading of frame and painting, for the grand villain eats not merely meat but also souls.

The aesthetic laboratory, once it subverts the species matrix, expands, becoming an unlimited nominal stomach, producing and consuming within itself various theatrical images (theatre, hospital, zoo, etc.). The cannibal aesthete transcends locality, he is everywhere and nowhere, presenting us with the pervasive presence of illness. Lecter’s aesthetic vision, through its decadent infection of sensuality, rewrites the humanistic perspective, but this integration is not a bestial revolution but aristocratic mimicry. The grand villain’s demonic self-transcendence necessitates, as a prerequisite, a highly developed, discriminative speciesist system, just as the subversion of the rules of the hunt requires the institution of the hunt. Lecter may be interpreted as an exemplar of the overhuman, but this species is parasitical, for it feeds upon the ambiguities of modernist humanist ideology. The young Lukács would undoubtedly have welcomed such a species, for Lecter is the real punishment of an age suffering from “talent-pathology.” Lecter is a creature who performs, in the most drastic form possible, the genius-imperative of Romanticist anthropology: “the genius is the only normal person, and all that which is not ingenious, that which is not the height of something is decline, decadence” (Lukács 441).


The essay (including the quotations from Lukács) were translated by Ádám Lovász.


Works Cited

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  • Demme, Jonathan, dir. 1991. The Silence of the Lambs. Strong Heart/Demme Poductions. Orion Pictures.
  • Scott, Ridley, dir. 2001. Hannibal. MGM, Universal.
  • Ratner, Bratt, dir. 2002. Red Dragon. MGM, Universal, Dino de Laurentiis Productions.
  • Webber, Paul, dir. 2007. Hannibal Rising. Carthago Films, Dino de Laurentiis Productions.
  • Fuller, Bryan, dir. 2013-2015. Hannibal TV-series. AXN Original Production. Dino de Laurentiis Productions.
  • Evans, Bruce A. 2007. Mr. Brooks. MGM.
  • Ferreri, Marco, dir. 1973. The Grand Bouffe. Films 66.