My Dialogue With Hannibal: Reflections on

Whenever I am compelled to repeatedly view a film, I know there is a subtext concealed somewhere between the lines of the narrative that my mind is straining to grasp, and so it is with “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Whenever I am compelled to repeatedly view a film, I know there is a subtext concealed somewhere between the lines of the narrative that my mind is straining to grasp, and so it is with “The Silence of the Lambs.” The following reflections arose as a result of a sustained brooding over this film during the past few years. With the understanding that “The Ego’s pathology is in accord with the psyche’s individuation,” I tend to situate the subtext of this film in the arena of both myth and psychology. Thisfilm suggests to me that when we attempt to forge an authentic existence, the depth and quality of the choices we make in our day-to-day lives determine the depth and quality of a complimentary psychic process. This film also suggests to me that Clarice Starling’s process of growth, in effect her rite of passage, is achieved by balancing the excruciating tension between the opposites of Hannibal Lector and Jack Crawford, and it’s final reconciliation situates her in a more mature and grounded position in both her subjective life as well as in her existence in the world at large.

The story is concerned with Clarice’s process of maturation – through navigating the extreme demands of both Jack Crawford and the Hannibal Lector, Clarice transforms herself and her tentative relationship with life through being led through the wound caused by the premature death of her father and the shock of her subsequent abandonment. Both men – Crawford and Lector – imply the two compensatory aspects of the father imago, and the balancing of both lead Clarice to a fuller and more mature expression her herself through facing this wound.

"Where the two men are situated in physical space"; Crawford enthroned high in his office at FBI headquarters, and Hannibal in his zoo like enclosure buried deep in the lowest rung of life, where he may not touch or be touched – suggest their function in psychological space. Clarice, the developing self, embroiled in her arduous rite of passage, innocently strains to maintain a balance and so serves to mediate the two forces, receptive yet critical in a discerning way, integrating positive, life-enhancing influences from the two men. The very existence of a Jack Crawford – cold, calculating, rigid, a human being reduced to a mere function in an organization relentlessly devoted to the enforcement of justice, necessarily creates a Hannibal Lector as a natural and necessary antidote, a primal figure propelled by a compulsive and voracious appetite that perhaps compensates for a fundamental lack of authentic relationship. Lector’s cannibalism is the ultimate act of lovemaking – the feast that substitutes for the orgasmic release and union with the other. It is a compulsive attempt to bridge the terrible gap that he faces between himself and others. It is interesting to note that Lector prefers to dine on those who, according to his own rigidly inflated standards, have behaved badly; it is almost as if he unconsciously denies his own pathology, and so lapses into a compulsive rage when he perceives it in others. This is perhaps the ultimate, yet most impotent, act of introjection: collapse the projection by ingesting it, but not integrating it.

Both Lector and Crawford bring each other into existence; each are dependent on the other, and Crawford’s extreme rigidity activates Lector as a compensation. Clarice comes to terms with Crawford by recognizing and making him responsible for his concealed and manipulative agenda, thus forging a more mature relationship with an authority figure; Hannibal is called to task for his rudeness. Through her direct and thoughtful questioning, both must yield to and come to terms with Clarice.

Lector’s initial mentoring of Clarice, as well as his eventual love for her, is made possible by the stance that she assumes towards him. Her attitude is an opening through which the life affirming influences of the shadow may cross into consciousness and be absorbed and integrated. He instantly recognizes that she has not approached him with a hidden agenda, is moved by and appreciates her respect, innocence, frankness, honestly and kindness. She in turn innocently, yet cautiously, befriends what is considered loathsome and thus shunned by being placed into the lower depths, and so begins her process of maturation. She heroically stumbles into the depths to engage Lector, and as a boon is given entry into her own shadow world.

Lector repeatedly calls attention to Clarice’s “second-rate shoes” as if calling attention to the tentative and timid way that she moves through her life. Clarice is in a sense second rate: an undeveloped and immature human being, an adolescent, still clinging to infantile dependencies, yet Lector recognizes her basic, fundamental integrity, her lamb-like innocence, and so accepts her as an apprentice.

Starling’s initial meeting with Lector, mediated by the repellent psychiatrist Frederick Chilton who in his own way cannibalistically feeds on Hannibal Lector, activates the pain surrounding her absent father; compensatory memories arise of a primal scene of being embraced, protected, and loved by the father, enveloped in an aura of supreme innocence. This meeting with Lector leads her to the physically placed shadow world of the storage facility. Her entrance into Lector’s storage area is marked by a physical wounding – an initiatory scar received as the result of passing through a small and temporal gap between two incongruent worlds through which Clarice must crawl in a birth like passage at the price of her innocence. The surrealistically grotesque world to which she has gained access is filled with arbitrary and dismembered pieces of the chaos of Lector’s former life, torn out of context and tossed together in an unruly heap. The terror and subsequent exhilaration that accompanies the confrontation of the dismembered head is Clarice’s initiation into the shadow realm; it is Lector’s test of both her intellectual acumen and her moral fortitude; can she fully face herself? Can she successfully situate herself in life as it is – a world populated with a cast of both good and bad guys? It is an event that partially prepares Clarice for her formal apprenticeship with Lector, and her eventual confrontation with Buffalo Bill.

Memories of her father are again activated as a result of another confrontation with the aftermath of evil. After viewing and identifying with the mangled corpse of a woman who while alive was not unlike Starling, Memories of her father’s funeral arise, perhaps signifying the primal loss of innocence through the loss of her infantile father imago, his actual physical death only now integrated, and her subsequent exposure to a dangerously complex relationship to life is now open.

Lector’s “quid pro quo” arrangement with Clarice in his analysis of her formalizes their relationship; both are authentically receptive to the other; a balanced and carefully regulated flow of energy is maintained between the two, and the lives of both are enlarged. Through this relationship, perhaps the most authentic of Lector’s life, his compassion and love for her is activated, that is to say his innate humanity, but he is careful not to overstep a crucial boundary and thus spoil his mentorship/analysis of Clarice. His respect for her is too profound for him to simply hand over to her all the answers she is seeking; that would also abruptly terminate their association, a relationship that Lector desires. He is the classical analyst, the Zen Master, as well as a fine Socratic teacher: he coyly hints, adroitly sidesteps her direct questions with enigmatic koan-like clues, and delicately guides her to her own real understanding of not only the identity of Buffalo Bill, but the meaning of her own bevy of screaming lambs.

Buffalo Bill seeks to transform himself through an impotent and merely surface manipulation of his persona through the weaving together of all that is foreign to him. His desire for “transformation” is horrifically literal as well as misapprehended simply because it exists as a compensation for his innate self-hatred. His quest for a new identity is fundamentally an escape from facing the enormous pain borne of his self-loathing.

Clarice faces and subdues Buffalo Bill in the literal darkness of his own realm; Clarice emerges weakened and dazed by the full onslaught of a neglected aspect of life that she was only partially prepared to confront. Bill’s life is terminated in a spasm gasped in a Christ-like posture of sacrifice, surrender and release. The outward token of her successful rite of passage that Starling receives moves her up a step in life from merely an “agent” to a “Special Agent” – somewhat like moving from being a paralegal to an attorney, a person to now respect and take seriously, an identity that Starling instantly identifies with; but the full outcome of Clarice’s change is portrayed in the sequel where we now meet a deeply mature woman who confidently moves through life on her own terms, is in command of herself and her surroundings.

The paradox, the supreme attraction of a Hannibal Lector is that despite his pathology, despite his horror, when approached and engaged with honesty and courtesy, respect and dignity, character traits that Lector brutally insists on, healing just may be the result.

Mark Edward Armen
3050 Blackwell Drive
Vista, California 92084
(760) 724-1227
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