To regard the immorality of the will as an imperfection of it would be a fundamentally false point of view. — Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea
Say goodnight to the bad guy. — Al Pacino’s character Tony Montana in Brian de Palma’s Scarface
If you wish to study morality as a subject, then the novel is one of the great schoolrooms. Novels are a far more effective delivery system for moral instruction than tedious tomes of philosophy, and this is because books of philosophy feel like hard work — which they are and should be –, whereas novels feel like down-time and relaxation. Worthwhile and improving content which will improve your life can be smuggled via a medium that doesn’t feel quite so stern and puritanical as a weighty volume of deep thoughts. Sometimes, something you are not sure whether you want or need can be secreted inside something else you are certain that you do. It’s why you put your pet’s tablet in their food.
Moral philosophy, in my view, is largely a waste of time after Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. As soon as I read the title of the former on a Penguin paperback when I was 20 (41 years ago), my life changed. I didn’t become a serial killer or anything, but I understood instinctively that morality is a piece of string you use to measure something without knowing if the piece of string is the right length. What do you measure the string against? What is the calibration of a calibration? It’s like those meter-long lines you can still see in parts of Paris, painted or engraved on a wall, and used at one time by linen merchants to measure a meter of fabric. But who measured the line on the wall? There was once a meter-long platinum rod held in Paris, and that was the world’s official measure of the meter. But who measured that? And using what?
Spinoza’s Ethics was perhaps the last great attempt to codify and rationalize morality along Cartesian and mathematical lines. Morality — and this is very much my personal view, and not some universal edict — is something which can only ever be at best a heuristic device. Morality is like a wish-list in a charm locket. To attempt to use some sort of vaguely pre-existent metric system to calibrate something which is still early in its evolution is like trying to play pool with a baseball bat.
Morality: Is it merely what guides you to do what you do or don’t do in life, and instructs you as to how you feel about it afterwards, or is there a regulatory table to which we can all refer without fear of difference of opinion, like what was once known as the “times table” at English schools of my generation, before arithmetic became a question dominated by how many genders there are today? Is morality, like the tablets of Moses, carved in stone? Or do you just make it up as you go along, like a doodle? Is morality de facto or de jure? You decide. And if you believe you can decide, you have already answered the question.
If I ask you what 7 x 8 equals, your mind moves to the solution quicker than you can think of the answer. The sum is simply there, and you don’t need workings because the answer is ingrained, like a tattoo. If, on the other hand, I ask you whether a particular prisoner should be executed, you would at least have the sense to ask what he had done and what the law of the land is. You cannot mathematize morality, with all apologies to Spinoza. But back to the novel as moral messenger.
So, which novelists do we go to for our moral school-slate and chalk? Galsworthy, Bennett, Conrad, Dostoevsky, Dickens? Think of the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Raskolnikov’s turmoil in Crime and Punishment, the moral anguish of the eponymous protagonist in Lord Jim. All these are examples of superb writers writing superbly as moralists. But there is so much moral goodness in the history of the novel, perhaps too much saccharine virtue, even when mistakes are made. It is like a heavy meal, enjoyable overall but with too much port and cheese. Too many good guys and gals, too much redemption going on. Maybe we should leave the good guys to their moral struggles and turn our attention to the bad guys.
I’ve always tried not to be a snob about literature. I won’t avoid a book simply because everyone else is reading it and it is the latest thing in all the magazines. So it was many years ago that I found myself with a charity-shop (or thrift-store) copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which no one would shut up about when it first came out. I found it quite an enjoyable little romp, although having read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail — equally enjoyable semi-mystical beach-reading –, I could quite see what the ensuing court case concerning plagiarism was all about.
Popular literature, however, doesn’t always yield such pleasant results. Fifty Shades of Gray may have got a few suburban housewives hot under their Marks & Spencer knickers but, much like any book by Norman Mailer (and I’ve tried a few), I was unable to finish it. But the novels I am considering here were read after I had seen the respective movies they engendered, and introduced the world to two characters who might make us have a closer look at morality and consider whether its central supporting wall is goodness or consistency.
I will try to go easy on the spoilers as far as the books are concerned, but if you haven’t seen the movies, I will assume either that you don’t like films or that you live, and have always lived, somewhere with no cinemas or Internet access — Tibet, say, or Atlantis.
I read Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel The Silence of the Lambs after seeing the movie in 1991, and enjoyed it so much that I bought 1999’s sequel Hannibal the day it came out in the United Kingdom. The film of the latter was a grave disappointment, the former movie an acknowledged classic, but both books are gems of the thriller genre, and Thomas is severely underrated as a writer. He also gave us Hannibal Lecter.
There are amusing differences between the cinematic and the literal text in Lambs. The famous scene in which Lecter informs the recently deputized Clarice Starling that he once ate a census-taker’s liver with fava beans and “a good Chianti” was obviously a consumer-conscious change from the book, in which Lecter says his wine of choice with his cannibalistic meal was “a big Amarone.” I guess the screenwriters and focus-group gurus didn’t think that ordinary cinemagoers would know what Amarone was. I am not showing off, as I have no idea what it is, either. I gather it is an Italian wine, but I have certainly never knowingly drunk it. I probably couldn’t afford it. Lecter knows his wine, and the culinary arts — but we are all familiar with Lecter, and the doctor’s interview is over, for now. Send in the next psychopath.
Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was a similar catch-up for me, as I saw the film before I read the book. Again, I imagine the plot is familiar to you: A Mexican drug-cartel massacre in the desert over a botched heroin deal; a huge, missing case of cash; a man whose hubris is giving water to a dying man; and one of cinema’s greatest psychopaths, Anton Chigurh, combine to produce both novelistic and cinematic tension as good as I have read or seen.
Hannibal Lecter and Anton Chigurh do not seem to have much in common at first glance, unless you count a moral code. The two fictional characters are killers, compassionless and merciless, apparently both with the complete absence of the universal moral meter we saw in figurative form in Paris earlier. But that is to miss what is hidden in plain sight. Precisely such a code looms large in the personalities of both Lecter and Chigurh. In fact, it is the synchronization of the brutal murders the two men commit with a rigid adherence to an inexorable moral program that makes the two men so similar if — I hope — somewhat different from the rest of us.
The methods used by our two psychopaths is markedly different but comparable. When Chigurh needs to rob a pharmacy after being shot, he simply limps in — “gimping” across the floor, as McCarthy puts it — and takes what he needs, having distracted those present by parking his car opposite the store and blowing it up with a gas-soaked rag and a Zippo. When Hannibal Lecter similarly requires drugs for the pharmacologically-assisted rehabilitation of Clarice Starling after she has been shot — and to facilitate the Jacobean gore of the climactic scene — he disguises himself as a doctor (which he is) and coshes a hospital pharmacist to get what he needs.
As for motive, those of Lecter and Chigurh move in parallel but with important differences which define the men. Chigurh is hunting money, but not for himself. For him, retrieving the drug-deal stash is the performance of a duty chance has thrust upon him, and he must perform it unswervingly, guided as he is by a moral compass pointing exactly at the opposite pole to other such devices. When Carla Jean asks him why she has to die, he replies that he made a promise to her husband before he died — which was to kill her. This is simple moral consistency, albeit as a negative print.
Lecter seeks only the continuance of his freedom. His exquisite manners, his culture, his intellect are all geared towards liberty enjoyed within a structure imposed by his personal deity, chaos. He is a manifest destiny. When the rookie Special Agent Starling attempts some amateur psychoanalysis to understand what created him, he rebukes her: “Nothing happened to me, Clarice. I happened.”
Superficially, the two men could not differ more. Chigurh eats cashew nuts from a packet and drinks straight from a milk carton. Lecter eats oysters from the Gironde and drinks Château d’Yquem. Chigurh murders those who stand in his way as a point of principle, the provision of stability within the framework of his moral universe. Lecter kills the flautist from the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra for hitting a bad note at a concert, and also “likes to eat the rude.” Chigurh dresses like a mestizo cowpoke, boots and all and, in the movie, with a haircut so bad actor Xavier Bardem was mystified by it. Bounty hunter and Florentine Commendatore Pazzi finds Lecter’s clothes “beautifully cut, even for Italy.”
Both men have a moral antipodes. Chigurh never meets Sheriff Bell, while Hannibal ultimately elopes with Clarice Starling (ignore the film Hannibal; the end is pathetic and makes redundant the whole point of the story). Both men are fascinated by what the moral practices of others have led them to in comparison with what they both view as their own moral health. Chigurh, shortly before he shoots the captive Wells, asks: “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?”
Lecter, in a letter dissecting Clarice’s fragile sense of duty with the skill of a vivisectionist, asks, “Have your supervisors demonstrated any values, Clarice? How about your parents, did they demonstrate any? If so, are those values the same?”
Chigurh watches his victims die with the disinterested objectivity of a lab technician, curious as to how such people came to be so. Lecter collects clippings about church collapses involving fatalities, and famously cooks and eats his victims. Lecter feeds from the destruction of faith in others; Chigurh has no interest in such trifles. What feeds both is their sense of cosmological order with particular reference both to their own place within that cosmogony, and that of their slain opponents.
McCarthy’s and Harris’ scenes of genius are miniaturist moral productions in extremis. The famous gas station scene in No Country for Old Men in which Chigurh forces the owner to stake his life on a coin toss, and in Hannibal, Lecter’s speech in Florence to the academic studiolo in which he lectures on Dante, Judas Iscariot, and the classical connection between avarice and hanging, are both highly concentrated existential homilies which teach us much about both men. And morality.
Each man, in his own heart of darkness, resembles the other in precisely the area in which the modern world is so deficient: morality. Their moral behavior is actually impeccable, as long as we accept the polar difference between their moral DNA and the values we take for granted — or I assume we do. When the gas station owner is questioning his need to call the coin toss which may end his life, Chigurh tells him: “I can’t call it for you. It wouldn’t be fair. It wouldn’t even be right.”
Dr. Lecter prides himself on the fact that he never lies. Exemplary moral behavior, then, if morality is gauged simply by consistent adherence to its formal codes. Some of us might kill if we could. What stops those of us who could kill is the fear of punishment rather than any Kantian moral imperative. Chigurh and Lecter have no such burdensome encumbrances; they are moral imperatives.
The films differ in their pacing. The Lecter films are big on jump-cuts and a constant sense of mental and physical activity, while No Country for Old Men often has a leisurely pace to it, like a stroll in the park, but a stroll accompanied by one of the most dangerous psychopaths in literary and cinematic history. As for the acting, Anthony Hopkins obviously takes the plaudits for Lambs, and deservedly so, although in the sequel he looks bored with what is already becoming a franchise, and did in fact become one with the Netflix series of a few years ago, with Mads Mikkelsen as Lecter.
In the Cohen brothers’ movie of McCarthy’s novel, although Bardem is extraordinary as Chigurh, the laurels go without question to Tommy Lee Jones, whose performance is outstanding. The character Jones plays, Sheriff Bell, is the commanding voice in the novel, the only stanchion of order amid the chaos. And it is chaos. At the end of the Harris/Lecter novels, you know what has happened. At the end of No Country for Old Men, I wonder whether McCarthy himself could tell you what it all means. Indeed, Jones delivers one of the great lines of the book: “Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I don’t want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work.”.
So endeth our moral lesson for the day, and we students have homework we should approach with caution. People like Anton Chigurh and Hannibal Lecter undoubtedly exist, although they are probably tawdry figures not rounded out by great novelists. We just go through our day hoping we don’t meet them.
The pair remind us in some ways of Moosbrugger, the horrific child-murdering pervert from Robert Musil’s 1942 unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities. Neither the suave Lecter or the neatly insane Chigurh would interfere with a child, however, and would undoubtedly slaughter anyone who did and was unfortunate enough to cross paths with them. But there is a point of connection. “If mankind could dream collectively,” writes Musil, “it would dream Moosbrugger.” So too Chigurh and Lecter, our modern nightmare bogeymen, might represent a wider swath of humanity than we would be happy to admit.
And now we must close our novels, ready for bed. Lights out. In the end, we are fascinated more by the moral monster than the good man.
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