Monday, 7 May 2007

first principles

Just two essays left to mark, hooray! Then there will be only five novels and a play remaining between me and the end of the semester (and a further seventy essays). I also have to find a job quite soon, but that is a whole other story. Yes. Well, I could grit the old teeth and finish those two essays off, or I could blog a little about how much I would like it if Hannibal Lecter could come and give my students a few simple and badly needed lessons in hermeneutics.

I do my best with them, I really do and I'm happy to, but there is too much to learn and not enough time to teach it in. More drastic and economical methods seem called for.

In The Silence of the Lambs (which was one of my essay-marking movies this time around, along with The Exorcist and Dead Ringers) there is a scene that brilliantly illustrates the right and the wrong way to go about making interpretations. Clarice Starling furtively comes to see Hannibal Lecter in his temporary cell in Houston; she asks him to help her find 'Buffalo Bill'.

Hannibal Lecter: I have read the case files - have you? Everything you need to catch him is right there in those pages.

Clarice Starling: Then tell me how.

HL: First principles, Clarice: simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. "Of each particular thing, ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?" What does he do, this man you seek?

CS: (whispers) - he kills women.

HL: No, that is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does, what needs does he serve by killing?

CS: (pacing) Anger. Um, social...acceptance...and, um....sexual frustrations -

HL: No. He covets. That is his nature.

Do you see what he does there? He tells her that what she's looking for can and will be found inside the text, not by googling wikipedia or some such nonsense; that a certain alienated ruthlessness or critical distance is necessary, even if this means setting aside for a moment facts as brutal as woman-killing; that lame and waffly depth-psychologising only muddies the waters even further, and that you must make yourself see, with utmost clarity, exactly what it is that you are looking at, or else you haven't a hope.

When I watch this film my mind and ears always play a strange little trick at this point: I hear Anthony Hopkins say "he covets" as "he cuts", which is also what Buffalo Bill does, at a level just as elemental as coveting. The frame of reference is different, that's all, and if he really had said "he cuts", the movie could still have gone on and found its way to the same conclusion. It would not have been as elegant, but it would have been correct. First principles are not monadic. There is more than one essence to grasp in a text.

I have been entertaining myself with a little fantasy of playing this scene to the group when we next talk about the subject of essay-writing. But based on past experience the group will contain people who can't manage depictions of violence, even obviously fictional ones. I don't blame them for this.


Tim said...

That's a fantastic post.

Ariel said...

Oh, but you should! Can't you invite those people to leave the room for five minutes if they prefer to? Or is that not the done thing? It's such an excellent illustration of your point. I like it very much.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'that you must make yourself see, with utmost clarity, exactly what it is that you are looking at'

Which is why I so love the moment, in both book and film, when Clarice is gazing blindly at the stitching in Frederica Bimmel's hand-made clothes in her wardrobe, thinks about the triangles of skin, and suddenly says to herself 'They're darts ... Buffalo Bill's trained to seriously sew!' That is my absolutely favourite moment in the entire Hannibal Lecter story and he isn't even present, except, of course, in spirit, as you demonstrate so elegantly here.

Meredith said...

Clarice, Clarice, I love her.

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