criticism

“What more does the Traveler want of Me?”: Destiny 2, Ghaul, and the Sci-Fi Villain

[7-10 minute read]

As its title screen fades to black, Destiny 2 (2017) sets itself up to follow the familiar science fiction trope of moral disambiguation. After destroying the last vestiges of human society on the planet, the new villain of the series – the not so subtly named Ghaul – has just thrown your player avatar off a hovering space craft to plummet toward earth. His final words to you hang in the air, a sinister snarl: “I am Ghaul, and your light…is mine.”

This “light” references the power bestowed on your character by a roving god-like entity known as The Traveler. In the first game, guardians chosen by this entity have the power of light bestowed upon them, granting them exceptional abilities. These powers are granted to them in order to facilitate their fight against the enemy of The Traveler – again, the not subtly named, “The Darkness.” Destiny is not aiming for subtlety in the moral lines that it draws. This idea of clear cut sides, of a “right” side and a “wrong side,” serves to anchor Destiny not only within the genre of science fiction, but within the medium of video games.

Science fiction has a long history of “black and white” narratives. Both Star Wars and Star Trek, arguably the two most popular science fiction texts in 20th and 21st century American culture, utilize a rather simplistic moral framework. Star Wars relies on “The Force” with characters falling to either the “light” side or the “dark side.” While the occasional “grey” character may emerge,[1] on the whole, Star Wars falls back on characters that are motivated either by selfish interests (the dark side, the Sith) or general good will and honor (the light side, the Jedi). “Light” side characters in the franchise films (the most widely and frequently consumed Star Wars texts) often receive ample development time on screen, leading to what Murray Smith calls “alignment,” a form of audience identification with a character that results from our exposure to information about that character within the film.[2] The motivations of the texts’ central heroes are made fairly explicit; for example: Luke wants off his home planet, wants to help the mysterious and beautiful Leia from his droid’s recordings, and wants to escape the Empire who murdered his aunt and uncle. However, the major villains of the franchise receive little-to-no attention: Emperor Palpatine is evil because of “reasons,” or simply because he’s Sith.

Img1The Poster for the most recent installment makes the split between good and evil readily apparent. (Lucasfilm/Disney)

Star Trek carries this same tradition: The Borg are defined by their inhumanity, the Klingons and Romulans are aligned with their cultures of violence, imperialism, and war; all alien species that fight against the United Federation of Planets quickly become coded as vicious, violent, and evil. Even when the series investigates the motivations behind its antagonists, there is no question about who we view as villain and hero: Khan’s devotion to slaughter in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is reprehensible and unforgivable, even if he is responding to manipulation on the part of the Federation. Struggle between a righteous, noble humanity and a violent alien “other” quintessentially characterizes much of the science fiction that populates our popular culture.

This convention rings even more true for video game narratives where the developers must establish not only the moral framework of the world, but do so in such a manner that motivates the player by interpolating them into this struggle. The Halo (2001-2017) series utilizes humanity vs. The Covenant, and the Mass Effect (2007-2017) series explores the fight between humanity and “the Reapers.” In both cases, the player knows immediately which side they should root for – that is, which side is the victim in need of a hero – because it is the side their avatar fights for within the world of the game. Even in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), which allows players to choose a side in Jedi vs. Sith battles, the Jedi are still coded explicitly as good, and the Sith as evil.

This overwhelming generic convention has followed gamers down the pipeline to their first encounter with the world of Destiny in 2014. The presence of this science fiction trope for moral disambiguation made it easy to buy into the clearly delineated light vs. darkness world of good vs. evil present in the first game. Immediately, within the game’s opening cinematic, players know they are in the right, aligned with the Traveler and his Light against the forces of The Darkness, and justified in the goals of the first-person shooter/ MMO-hybrid: shooting and killing everyone who shoots at you. Narrative turns act in concert with these game mechanics to structure your behavior and pit you against alien “others.” The initial player encounter with aliens in the game, creatures known as The Fallen, is introduced by your robot guide stating that he “needs to find you a gun before the Fallen find you.” From this point forward, information about the various aliens species encountered in the game comes filtered to the player through their robot guide and the various leaders of the human resistance on Earth. Cut scenes within the game focus on the player’s hero, or on members of the human resistance, but never on the aliens. Again, they are evil simply because they are pitted against the hero, and bent on the same goal as the player: to kill rather than be killed. Their motivations remain vague, clothed in the language of “domination” (The Imperial Cabal), “dark ritual” (The Hive), “resource theft” (the scavenging Fallen), and “technological superiority to non-robots” (The Vex). In all cases, the aliens act as violent aggressors, while the humans simply attempt to defend the remaining human population.

With this framework from the first game, our return to the Earth of Destiny feels familiar in the opening moments of Destiny 2. The surprise comes not from a new alien threat, but from the success of this threat to obliterate the majority of humanity’s last bastion on Earth, and to cripple the heretofore invincible character avatar, the guardian. Destiny 2 opens by insisting that the “good” guys might not win this time.

Img2Ghaul prepares to boot the player’s guardian off the Cabal command ship. (Bungie/Activision)

The narrative continues this insistence on mortality in the following scene, reducing the heroic guardian from the first game to a limping, weaponless shell that must navigate the ruins of the Earth outpost. Mechanics force the player to experience this powerlessness alongside their character: stripped of all the powers and abilities that made their guardians super-human, as well as the ability to jump or run, the player instead can only control the direction of their guardian as the figure limps through burning rubble at a crawling pace that stretches the moment out interminably.

Something else is different in this opening sequence as well, a change whose significance becomes clear as the game’s cut scenes begin to unfold. In the beginning cinematic, Ghaul, the player’s new alien enemy, is presented to us with a recognizable face. Up until this point in the series, members of the alien species of The Cabal enemies faced by the guardians have all been helmeted, with a single exception encountered if the player seeks out lore hidden throughout the worlds of the game.

Img3The usual Cabal suspect. (destiny.wikia.com)

In contrast to this, Ghaul’s face is open to us, or at least his eyes and head:

Img4Dominus Ghaul (destiny.wikia.com)

The impact of seeing his face, and of the eye contact made with the camera (and therefore the gaze of the audience) startles the player. In no small part, this rises from the forces of abjection functioning in this moment of reveal.[3] Here, the face of the other, scarred, mangled, red-eyed, and trapped behind a breathing apparatus, nevertheless still looks human in shape. Ghaul still has eyes which gaze at the player the player gazes at him. The barrier of helmet that helped to define the Cabal as “other” more easily for players is torn away, causing an encounter with an abject other that may be closer to the self than the helmet allowed.

This almost “humanizing” moment in the opening of the game serves as prelude to the function of the rest of the narrative. Where the first Destiny centered cut-scenes almost exclusively on characterization for the player-guardian and their companions, Destiny 2 instead focuses half of its cut-scenes on Ghaul and his ongoing dialogue with The Speaker, a human who serves as a sort of voice for The Traveler. During these scenes we discover that Ghaul is motivated toward his conquest of The Traveler’s light not by some abstract evil, but by victimization he suffered as a child coupled with manipulation wrought by his mentor, The Consul, a disgraced Cabal scholar. Born a runt and albino in a culture that prizes physical domination and strength, Ghaul was abandoned to die. Though The Consul saved him, it was only so he could mold him into a tool to use for conquest and destruction. Ghaul’s childhood abandonment clearly still impacts him, regardless of his accumulated power and prestige as the leader of the Red Legion. His continuous plea to The Speaker and The Traveler rises from the insecurity of his childhood trauma, as he calls for them to “see” him: “Do you see, Traveler, all that I have done? Grace me with your light.”

As the game progresses, Ghaul’s desire to be worthy becomes more and more desperate. He begs the Speaker to “help [him] understand,” to reveal to him why the Traveler will not bestow its light on him. Even though he could simply tear the light out of the Traveler and claim it for himself, he insists that the Traveler must recognize him and what he has accomplished, and gift to him the light instead. When The Consul insists that taking the light by force is the only way, Ghaul retorts, “Not for me.” At the surface level, he is driven by selfish thirst for glory and power that we have come to expect from villains, but beneath that, he is an abandoned child seeking to repay his mentor for rescuing him by raining revenge on “an empire that failed him” – and the game makes sure that we, the players, know this. Unlike past Destiny villains, we know what drives Ghaul: not an abstract concept, but a relatable need for acceptance that feels all too human. His final demand of The Speaker reiterates his desire toward worthiness: “Tell me, Speaker. What more does the Traveler want of me?” It is only after this moment that The Consul leverages his power over Ghaul, and questions his loyalty and the value of his word. In the face of failing the man who raised him, the man who “chose” him, Ghaul consents to take the Traveler’s light.

While the end of the video game’s narrative resolves to place Ghaul squarely in the role of the evil villain in order to generate the medium’s essential boss battle and clean narrative closure, this expository work throughout the bulk of the game’s campaign serves a significant purpose. In our current political environment of creeping fascism and nationalism that relies so heavily on rhetoric of “us vs. them,” a genre that bends conventions to serve up a complicated and pitiable villain creates a bold political statement. Ghaul, ostensibly the enemy, reveals his motivations as hubris and a need for vengeance against those who hurt him. He asks us to question our notions of a black and white world. He presents a narrative of moral ambiguity that reflects back on our reality of human experience. He causes us to question our easy moral binaries, and the lines we draw between others and ourselves.


[1] Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker both exemplify these “grey-area” characters: Han due to his questionable motivations of wealth rather than honor, and Anakin due to his slaughter of the entire sand tribe rising out of a uncontrolled rage over the violence done to his mother

[2] For an easily accessible overview of Murray Smith’s theories on audience identification see Greg Smith’s chapter, “How do we identify with characters,” from his book What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss, Routledge, 2011.

[3] The term abjection and the theory surrounding it is pulled from Julia Kristeva’s book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Columbia UP, 1982.

Hillarie Curtis is a second year Ph.D. student in English at Syracuse University where they study masculinity, monstrosity, censorship, and queer representations in Classic Hollywood films and Popular Culture texts.

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Special Edition: How I Misplaced my Faith

[5 minute read]

Last month, when teaching a Metathesis post I previously wrote about being a Catholic scholar, I felt like a bit of a fraud. My intention in using this post was to give my students a look at my research on a rare book they had examined for class. However, when one of my students immediately remarked that the book smelled “you know, like when you’re at Easter Mass, and the priest is using incense”, my response was one of disconnect, rather than recognition. Between submitting my syllabus for approval in April and teaching the content in September, I had misplaced my faith somewhere.

Somewhere, I say, but I know exactly where I misplaced it. I left it in the run-down Amtrak station in Schenectady, New York: a tiny room with a manual train schedule, a contaminated drinking fountain, and an air freshener that whined every quarter hour. I know I left it there because I spent my layover from Syracuse to Montréal in an airport-style seat bank, squished between my piles of luggage, reading Kaya Oakes’s The Nones Are Alright.

AshleyOct1

My unglamorous road from Damascus

Oakes, a freelance writer and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who will be giving the annual Borgognoni lecture on Monday, compiled this collection of first-hand narratives to represent the faith processes of those who belong to (as the subtitle describes) “A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between.” The book finds its premise in the 2012 Pew report on American religion, which identified that over a third of Americans have no religious affiliation. Some are “nones” — spiritual but not religious, they might be seeking a religion where they feel at home, or they might not. Some are “dones” — spiritually burned by their previous religious affiliation, they seek no association with formal religion. Some have never had religious affiliation; some had it, but found themselves unable to believe anymore. Whatever their motivations, a large population of Americans do not identify with religion as an institution, or as we previously knew it.

Image2An updated version of the Pew Research Center’s findings from 2014.

With her book, Oakes looks beyond the numbers of the report to compile and showcase the stories of these “nones.” The pages are populated by lifelong nonbelievers, sudden converts to atheism, and exploratory practitioners of multiple faiths, as well as exiled divorcees, gay ex-Jesuits, and women scalded by institutional sexism. But as I sat in the chilly station, one story about a Jewish seminarian-turned-Jewish atheist almost seemed to be talking about me. This man had built his life and his career around institutional Judaism. But although he was able to negotiate a personal agreement whereby he would teach nontraditional classes in Hebrew school and observe Jewish holidays, after reflection, he discovered that he could not bring himself to worship a being in whose existence he could no longer believe.

TitleCoverKaya Oakes’s The Nones are Alright (Orbis Books, 2015)

Although I started my degree as a (technically) non-practicing Catholic and described myself to colleagues as more intellectually than spiritually interested in Catholicism, within a year I was fully embedded in my research on Early Modern Catholicism, both academically and personally. I felt like I’d finally embraced — with a few provisos and quid pro quos — the faith I’d grown up in for my own. I was a Catholic scholar writing about Catholicism with aspirations of tenure at a hippie Catholic college. Sometimes it all seemed a little excessive; the other Catholic scholars I interacted with (who weren’t Jesuits) led much more diverse lives. But I had a brand, a kind of a fandom, and the symmetry made so much sense.

Yet here I was, beneath the dingy fluorescent lights of the train station, where the phrase “agnostic Catholic” struck me with such a resonance that I felt as if the text had directly addressed me. I’d never been able to completely buy into large chunks of the catechism. In the meanwhile, I practiced. The rites and rituals, but also the leadership positions and committee work — I practiced and participated in these because they seemed meaningful, because I could, and because I should. I’d always just assumed, or hoped, that someday, someone would explain it all to me in a way that I could believe in. I realized now that I’d confused faith with trust: and the more I distrusted the systems of oppression embedded in the Church (or that the Church was in bed with), the less I could truly believe that it all was true. I didn’t know what I believed anymore. And so I found myself in a little city, in a tiny Amtrak station, in a kind of long-distance communion with these “nones” — these people with whom I’d sympathized, but never empathized with before – now, my new fellow travelers.

I say I’ve misplaced my faith, because I wonder if it’s still around here somewhere. Like the Winnie-the-Pooh headband I’d misplaced as a child, that I had known must have been in my childhood bedroom somewhere, and which I’m still half-convinced is in one of the boxes my family never unpacked after our big move nineteen years ago. Maybe someday I’ll find that headband; maybe one day I’ll stop feeling like an imposter when I go to mass, or write for religious magazines.

newstationLet me know if you see my faith in the lost-and-found.

Schenectady tore down its Amtrak station a few weeks after I passed through. An artist’s rendering of the future new station depicted an elegant, white, modern building, ostensibly with computerized schedules and clean drinking water. Maybe I’ll find my faith still there when I next pass through. Maybe I’ll be a believer again. Or maybe I won’t: maybe I’ll always be a seeker. Or, maybe, I’ll be somewhere in between.


Kaya Oakes will be leading a discussion for graduate students about her work on Monday, October 9, 10:30 AM – 12:30 PM in Hall of Languages 504, Syracuse University. RSVP to Ashley O’Mara (amomara@syr.edu) for readings.

Ashley O’Mara is a PhD student and teaching associate in the Syracuse University English program. She studies asexuality, celibacy, and the queer politics of Catholicism after the Reformation in Early Modern English literature. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and listens to Mashrou’ Leila. She has very strong opinions about hummus.

Seduction and Devastation

[10 minute read]

In my final foray into Hannibal, I will examine the final season and its tragedy and seduction. After the violence of “Mizumono,” the season two finale, Hannibal escapes to Italy, his pursuers scattered and recovering from their injuries. Driven by vivid hallucinations and a grisly murder, Will sails the Atlantic to seek Hannibal out. Will’s obsession with Hannibal lures him into a deep web of seduction, mirroring, and finally, unity through violence.

Before we are able to fully understand the tragedy of the reunion between Hannibal and Will, it is important to explore the extent of Hannibal’s trauma in “Mizumono.” Rather than anger, Hannibal responds as if he has been hurt, acting as the betrayed party. In a flashback, Hannibal discusses forgiveness with his therapist-confidante, Dr. Du Maurier. “Betrayal and forgiveness are… best seen as something akin to falling in love,” she explains. However, Hannibal counters this, saying “You cannot control with respect to whom you fall in love.” The framing of this conversation makes it clear they are both speaking of Will. In Hannibal’s grief, he reaches out to Will in his typical fashion.

Sept1

Will finds Hannibal’s broken heart 

Impersonating a museum curator, Hannibal befriends a young, attractive man, Anthony Dimmond.[1] When he is invited to the home Hannibal and du Maurier share (playing the role of husband and wife), Dimmond casually and flirtatiously proposes a threesome. After looking to du Maurier for guidance, Hannibal admits “it’s not that kind of party.” Rebuked but intrigued, Dimmond falls right into Hannibal’s trap: he beats Dimmond with a decorative statue and savagely breaks his neck. Hannibal then transports the body cross-country, mutilating it to form the shape of a human heart which he leaves in a church for Will to find. It’s a gruesome Valentine, and one with a clear message: Hannibal’s heart is broken. Italian detective Pazzi observes “Is Will Graham here because of the body, or is the body here because of Will Graham?” The aftershocks of Hannibal and Will’s mutual betrayal are felt as distantly as Europe, placing them in a difficult and peculiar position of forgiveness.

Will’s response to Hannibal’s hurt is not a pursuit, but a seduction. Upon tracking Hannibal to a maze of church catacombs, Will calls into the darkness “I forgive you.” The exceptionally painful nature of the relationship between these two men muddies the scene. In their previous moments together (in the season two finale) Hannibal guts Will and murders Abigail, a young woman that Will had begun to view as a surrogate daughter. And yet, despite this pain, there is no uncertainty or disingenuousness in Will’s voice.[2] Rather, it is Will’s method of signaling the start of their web of seduction and violence. After Will makes this statement, he leaves immediately. He does not pursue Hannibal aggressively, but instead invites him to give chase by retreating back to Hannibal’s childhood home.

Sept2

Will leaves Hannibal a Valentine of his own

In an attempt to better understand Hannibal’s history and trauma, Will seeks out Hannibal’s birthplace in Lithuania. There, he begins to understand Hannibal’s genesis as a killer, starting with Hannibal’s forced cannibalization of his young sister Mischa. With new insights, Will leaves to reconnect with Hannibal, but not before leaving behind a gift of his own: a body presented in a remarkable fashion, reaching out to Hannibal through the man’s own art form.

When Will finally returns to Hannibal, it is from a place of understanding and confidence. Although the nature of Hannibal as a character makes it impossible to fully understand him, Will’s revelations about Hannibal’s past offer clarity into their relationship. Will admits that he already defines his life in terms of his relationship with Hannibal, but understands that Hannibal’s own expression of his past is blurrier. However, their paths forward are linked; they are led inescapably to each other.

Sept3

Will and Hannibal reunite in the latter’s favorite art gallery

Despite the inevitable weight of the past, the long-awaited reunion of Hannibal and Will is powerful moment of brightness and pleasure. “If I saw you every day, forever, Will, I would remember this time,” Hannibal remarks, gazing at Will with adoration and open affection. There is a sense of palpable relief as the two men come together. Surrounded by the beauty of the art gallery and the symmetry of the shot, it is easy for us to forget the trauma that Will has experienced at Hannibal’s hands. We can almost believe forgiveness. Remarking upon the twisting intimacy of their relationship, Will explains “We’re conjoined. I’m curious whether either of us can survive separation.” This comment speaks frankly to the relationship between Will and Hannibal. They remain obsessed with each other to the point that they are all the other can think about, all the other longs for.

Sept4

An image from the show’s opening credits shows Hannibal and Will’s edges blurring together

The tender moment in the museum is shattered as the two men walk out side by side. In a moment painfully resonant with “Mizumono,” Will attempts to stab and kill Hannibal. This attempt is thwarted by Hannibal’s childhood caretaker, Chiyoh, who shoots Will through the shoulder, saving Hannibal. True to Will’s prediction, he cannot be separated from Hannibal, attempts to do so only bring them closer. Once Hannibal has dragged Will to safety, he disrobes him, embraces him, and tends to his wounds. The intimacy of the scene is gentle, but unsteady. The camera lingers over Will’s delicately arched neck and vulnerable form. Even when Hannibal literally places the knife back into Will’s hand, it is to emphasize his weakness. “You dropped your forgiveness, Will,” Hannibal says, seeming more intrigued than hurt. He is fascinated by Will, and by their inability to fully separate.

Sept5

Will and Hannibal in their final moment of unity

Will and Hannibal’s link reaches its crescendo in the season three finale “The Wrath of the Lamb.” Having chased and been chased by serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, Will and Hannibal are finally united in their violence. In a final and bloody confrontation, the two men kill Dolarhyde with knives and teeth, each giving themselves over fully to the fervor of the fight. With Dolarhyde slain, Will and Hannibal fall into each other’s arms, coated in each other’s blood and exhausted from the fight. “This is all I ever wanted for you,” Hannibal finally says to Will. Hannibal is delighted by Will’s violence, the joy he has taken in killing. “It’s beautiful,” Will admits, before pitching them both over the cliff’s edge and into the turbulent waters below.

Will and Hannibal are unable to survive separation. Like a rubber band, attempts to pull away only send them back together until the only option left is to break.. Their trauma and torment is so wrapped up in the other’s existence that even living is impossible while the other still breathes. Will’s final act of murder-suicide allows the only modicum of agency in his relationship to Hannibal: choosing when it will happen. By taking responsibility for Hannibal’s destruction, Will accepts their unity, but is unable to allow Hannibal his freedom. His victory is bittersweet, but it is ultimately heroic.


[1] In many ways, Dimmond resembles Will: the same dark, curly hair and scruffy jaw.

[2] This is especially important as Will’s character is shown to have difficulty lying.

Molly is an MA student pursuing her degree in English Literature with a focus on Game Studies and New Media. She uses these fields to explore her additional interests of race, gender, sexuality, and LGBT representation. She has also studied Victorian literature, the Gothic, and 19th century American literature. Her teaching interests include film, graphic novels, and popular culture.

 

“Remarkable Boy…I Think I’ll Eat Your Heart.”

[7-10 minute read]

The exploration of queer representation in Hannibal allows for a greater understanding of the conventions of gender and sexuality within the thriller genre. Highly-fictionalized thrillers such as Hannibal thrive on extreme relationships, but also rely heavily on non-traditional erotic relationships to further depict the extremes of personalities in its central characters. The cop-vs-serial killer subset of the thriller genre adds an element of intense, personal desire to what would otherwise be a genre categorized by rote sleuthing. So it is in Hannibal, where the main draw of the series (besides its stunning visuals) is the eroticly-charged cat-and-mouse game between FBI agent Will Graham and cunning killer Hannibal Lecter. Several characters of the series equate the furious obsession the two men share for each other to love. This suggestion troubles the relationship between the two men, indicating that their painful, self-destructive relationship is based simultaneously in love and hate. They are unable to pull away from each other, just as they are unable to completely become one. Instead, their relationship serves to complicate the viewer’s understanding of desire and the desire to kill.

Remarkable1

Hannibal stabs Will in the opening shots of the film Red Dragon (2002)

To fully understand the complexity of Hannibal and Will’s relationship, we must return to one of the first incarnations of this relationship in the 2002 thriller Red Dragon.[1] What is unique about the Silence of the Lambs trilogy is that no one film depicts Hannibal’s time before prison in great detail.[2] Hannibal’s crimes are defined largely through rumor and his own description; Hannibal is the arbiter of his own mythos. However, there is a significant gap in the viewer’s understanding of the relationship between Hannibal and Will. This is deftly remedied in the opening scene of Red Dragon. Over the opening credits, Will Graham, here played by Edward Norton, comes to the shuddering realization that the mysterious killer is eating his victims — and that the killer is none other than his close confidante. At the crescendo of Will’s understanding, signified by the drawing of his gun, Hannibal sinks his knife into Will’s stomach. Despite the violence of the action, there is unmistakable tenderness as well. The stabbing mirrors a lover’s embrace; Hannibal rests his chin on Will’s shoulder, hushing him gently. In this scene, Hannibal gains no visible pleasure from hurting Will. Instead, he is careful, tender. “Remarkable boy,” he says. “I think I’ll eat your heart.” The reverent, intimate delivery of the line, coupled with the way Hannibal holds the fallen Will around the waist like a dance partner suggests a fond tenderness that goes beyond the bounds of homosocial friendship. Their intimacy serves to hint at a homoerotic bond that is only briefly touched upon in Red Dragon.

Remark2

Hannibal embracing Will

This highly-charged bond is given far more screen time and consideration in Hannibal. The two men are far closer in age, diminishing the mentor/pupil relationship present in Red Dragon[3] and emphasizing a more equal footing. Furthermore, the first two seasons of Hannibal take place prior to the moment of understanding in Red Dragon that culminates in Will’s stabbing. The challenge of Hannibal then is to balance the painful anticipation of this “breakup” with the pleasure of watching the budding relationship between two fascinating, electric men. And a pleasure it is. Hannibal and Will have a powerful chemistry that obsesses the narrative. They share intense, longing looks, have little regard for each other’s personal space, and have many moments of strangely endearing domesticity. Hannibal is always cooking for Will, seeking to impress him with increasingly elaborate presentations. Food in Hannibal is always a matter of seduction and charm, a way for Hannibal to exert power over his guests (Will most frequently) while simultaneously providing them with nourishment and artistic pleasure.

Remark3Hannibal preparing a rare non-human delicacy for Will.

The homoeroticism of food and eating crescendos in Hannibal’s second season, when Hannibal and Will share a meal of songbirds eaten whole. In an interview with Logo, director Bryan Fuller comments on this feast below:

We really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them, but including a perception of sexuality that the cinema is actually portraying to the audience more than the characters are. There’s a scene at dinner where we were tackling in the edit bay because it was so transparently homoerotic. They were doing something that was not sex or anywhere near sex, but it was shot so suggestively that they may as well have been…

This scene lingers lovingly over open mouths, swallowing throats, and blissful expressions. In mood, framing, and aesthetic, it is a sexual scene. And yet, everyone’s clothes remain on. The evident homoeroticism of the scene is tempered by its modesty. There is power and seduction, but the lack of sexual acts and romantic physical gestures such as kissing leaves it clear that the relationship is not a traditionally romantic one.

For LGBT audiences, representation in film and television is an obstacle course of flirtation with canon. This battle with on-screen depictions of queer couples is often waylaid by a phenomenon known as queerbaiting. Queerbaiting teases the viewer with hints to a homosexual relationship in order to entice LGBTQ viewers, but this potential relationship ultimately remains unfulfilled. (Shows such as Supernatural are notorious for queerbaiting its fans.) Despite accusations of queerbaiting when it became apparent that central characters Will and Hannibal’s relationship would never be a physical one, queer fans nonetheless rejoiced at Hannibal. While Will and Hannibal would not explore a homosexual relationship on-screen, which frustrated some fans, many others were content in the highly-aesthetic, subtext-heavy portrayal of Hannibal and Will’s relationship.

Remark4

“Hannigram” fan art by DeviantArt user Look-ling

Fans of this relationship, which is affectionately dubbed “Hannigram,” are quick to admit that the relationship between the two men is certainly an abusive one. For all of the intimacies between Will and Hannibal, their relationship is one built on manipulation, violence, and entrapment. However, for many, this is part of the attraction. The intensity and darkness is appealing, especially with two lead actors with significant fanbases. Many elements of “Hannigram” are aesthetic; there are large sects of fanworks dedicated to the sheer beauty of the show and its actors. However, the appeal of “Hannigram” is not wholly artistic. The cat-and-mouse element of their relationship, emphasized by a history of serial killer/cop films with similar relationships, is characterized by danger and seduction. In a show about the art of violence, “Hannigram” dances alongside the violence, rather than shying away from it. The honesty of the appeal of “Hannigram” in (largely female) fans allows for a deeper exploration of the intimacy of violence between Will and Hannibal.

This violence culminates in a stabbing, just as in Red Dragon. In Red Dragon, the stabbing is presented as a shock. In Hannibal, however, there is great anticipation for the moment. While this could be, in part, due to lingering audience familiarity with the source material, it is more likely a reading of the tone of the scene. Red Dragon amplified the shocking element, playing off of Will’s horrified revelation about Hannibal’s guilt. In Hannibal, however, we anticipate the betrayal. Will has spent the season desperately, obsessively working to prove Hannibal’s guilt. And yet, when the time comes to make the arrest, Will balks; he reveals the ploy to Hannibal. When he finds that Hannibal has not run but instead done grave violence to Jack and Alana, Will is heartbroken. “You were supposed to leave,” he says, his voice low and devastated. Hannibal responds by touching the side of Will’s, and stabs Will like an apology, like a betrayal.

Remark5Hannibal pulls Will close after stabbing him

The embrace that Will and Hannibal fall into speaks to the unsustainable nature of their relationship. They are so deeply caught up in each other’s obsession that they are desperately linked. They are fated to trap each other. While their romance departs from traditional depictions, Will and Hannibal are still star-crossed, their mutual erotic obsession only just beginning.


Next week: Seduction and Devastation After the Betrayal

[1] There is also an adaptation of Red Dragon even before Silence of the Lambs, a thriller titled Manhunter released in 1986. However, this did not enjoy the same popularity as the later Harris-based film trilogy.

[2] A later film, Hannibal Rising (2007) attempts to remedy this, but it is considered separate from the trilogy.

[3]This is not to say that mentor/pupil relationships lack homoerotism. Rather, this particular relationship is strengthened by a different power dynamic.

The Erotics of Evil

Among the harmful tropes of Hollywood, the figure of the Sissy Villain is one tainting LGBT representation in film and television. Despite the improvements of LGBT rights outside of film, the image of men in women’s clothing is one that pervades the genre of horror in particular. Such figures at Buffalo Bill, Cillian Murphy’s John/Emma of Peacock, or James McAvoy’s multiple-identity’d character of the controversial Split perpetuate this notion of dangerous men being made all the more terrifying by their eschewing of gender norms by dressing in women’s clothing. The argument made by these films is clear — men in dresses are dangerous, perhaps even more dangerous than brilliant psychologist-cannibals.

hannibal-wallpaper70664Promotional image for NBC’s Hannibal

Because of this, a second, more subtle argument is made by Hannibal’s narrative about the “right” way to be a killer. The pop-culture juggernaut of Silence of the Lambs isn’t the terrifying Buffalo Bill, or even the feminist darling Clarice Starling, but rather the slick and seductive Hannibal Lecter, whose presence in psychological thrillers spans three books, four films, a television series, and endless fanworks. The audience — casual viewers and “Fannibals” alike — is charmed by Lecter, largely due to the way he departs from other popular fictional killers. Lecter is not a brute: he does not resemble the slasher-killers of the gory teen film franchises; he is no Freddy Kruegar or Michael Meyers. Nor is he the pure psychological villain such as those made popular by the Saw franchise. Instead, Hannibal performs a meeting of the two, all of their strengths and seemingly none of their weaknesses.

Though he is never seen working out, Hannibal is physically fit, shown to be extremely strong and agile; he is able to easily overpower police officers and threatening patients, and, like any proper serial killer, he shakes off injuries that would cripple anyone else. Despite this strength, Hannibal is lean; his bone structure is that of a dancer. His physical presence is catlike and easily predatory. This effortless strength is the kind of appealing danger that typically befits the slender femme fatale, but Hannibal subverts this by having its hero-villain emulate these traits. His graceful-killer performance is further emphasized by the raw, calculating intelligence he displays. When his cannibalistic secret is revealed to Jack, Lecter attempts to fight his way out.  When FBI agent Jack Crawford puts him in a stranglehold, Hannibal goes limp, playing dead. In Jack’s moment of ensuing confusion and hesitation, Hannibal takes up a piece of broken glass, stabbing Jack in the side of the throat. As Crawford bleeds out in Hannibal’s pantry, Lecter is able to make his escape.

hannibal-clip-1Hannibal uses an improvised weapon in his fight with Jack Crawford

Logically, Hannibal should not be able to overpower a highly trained federal agent, but his combination of strength and wit allow him to move beyond the killer roles his gender suggests. He deliberately avoids the highly-phallic, hypermasculine killer forms, seen in Michael Meyers, Jason Voorhees, Pyramid Head, and many others, as does he avoid the physical frailty of the feminized mastermind. Although Hannibal embodies the sissy killer, his success[1] in the television series speaks to his performance of this trope. He navigates between men and women’s worlds with ease, and confidence. This confidence is what is most critical. Hannibal is never shown to struggle. His acts are effortless. Those that struggle to express themselves, fashionably, romantically, sexually, or otherwise, are portrayed as desperate, fawning, trying too hard. Hannibal paints a clear image of its wannabe villains — either you’ve got it, or you don’t. And Hannibal has “it” in spades.

This charm is instinct, intuition. Hannibal is a natural leader, drawing moths to his flame. It is predatory power. He is described by a childhood acquaintance as “charming, like a cub is charming before it’s learned to be one of the big cats.” His therapist describes him as wearing “a well-tailored person-suit.” His danger is magnetic, sensuous. Even in his most threatening moments, the men and women surrounding Hannibal are drawn to him. He works a cobra-dance, expertly weaving aesthetic, philosophy, and manipulation together to entangle his victims. And yet, they are glad to be wound in his web. The violence (and resulting cannibalism) is filmed like sex: lush, lingering shots of stolen breath and trembling bodies.

hannibal-182Hannibal experiencing a completely innocuous projector malfunction

Though Hannibal’s victims are male and female in similar ratios, his only (onscreen) sexual relationship is with a woman, whom he later attempts to murder. However, he engages in his erotic, sensual seduction with men and women alike. In an interview  with Entertainment Weekly, director Brian Fuller opened up on his view of Hannibal’s sexual preferences. “I think Hannibal is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer.” This interpretation of Hannibal positions him in a unique position of the sissy villain. Being presented as a figure with attractions all over the gender spectrum both embroils Hannibal in gender and distances him from it. He never indicates a preference for men or women in particular, but in this lack of preference, Hannibal is presented as a man who samples from any and all areas of the spectrums of gender and sexuality.

When not trying to kill and eat his paramours, Hannibal performs the role of an attentive lover, acting with sensitivity and romance. He remembers food and drink preferences, washes his lover’s hair, teaches them to play instruments. He draws beautiful European landscapes, plays the harpsichord, and, of course, cooks. Although it is often used as a way of disposing of his victims, Hannibal’s love of cooking also expresses a departure from gender norms. He delights in feeding his friends (and, on more than one occasion, feeding his friends to his friends). He uses food for care-taking, for seduction, for friendship, and for art. Such expertise furthers his aura of effortless skill, and the appeal of his power to those around him. He works with precision and tenderness — many shots see him lingering lovingly over smells and tastes, clearly impressed by his own work. (And with Hannibal, we know that’s the only opinion he truly values.) This delicate care is a humanizing moment of tenderness, one that allows him to embrace his gentler side.

tumblr_n384sbtQkJ1tx4u06o3_1280Hannibal enjoying the fruits of his labors

Hannibal is the true Renaissance man, an exquisite dandy in bespoke suits. Alongside the cannibalism and culinary skill, Hannibal is known for his stunning fashion sense. His suits are finely tailored, the colors and patterns unique, precise, and often mirroring the color scheme of the episode. Dedicated fans have compiled a list of images for a complete look at Hannibal’s wardrobe over the television series. Hannibal’s suits tend to depart from traditional male attire, often featuring colors and patterns most would not attempt. Hannibal wears them with confidence, embracing a look that is not traditionally masculine. He also wears ascots and unironic bowties, many articles of clothing that are reminiscent of queer menswear. And yet, his unique style is celebrated among straight and cisgender male fans. Men’s fashion websites even offer instruction on “How to Dress Like Hannibal Lecter”.[2] Through fashion, Hannibal is shown to thread a delicate dance through gender expression that is very often lauded by those who would never describe themselves as queer.

hannibal_3Promotional image featuring Hannibal Lecter for the NBC television series

In Hannibal’s nuanced performance of gender, he embodies the danger of the Sissy Villain while also working to appeal to an audience across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality. However, rather than a Buffalo Bill-esque performance that disturbs both audience and characters, Hannibal is deeply appealing to both. This suggests that there is a correct amount of sissiness to be played to still remain attractive and desirable, even when the subject in question is a serial killer and cannibal. For Hannibal, his effortless performance allows him to glide through gender in the “fallen angel” manner his creator intended.


[1] Here, success is defined as Hannibal’s ability to escape danger and pursue his sadistic goals.

[2] The how-to guide is prefaced not by a disclaimer that emulating serial killers is wrong, but that Hannibal was canceled due to the fact that “most people would rather the quality of McDonald’s over the quality of a 5-star restaurant.” Hannibal would approve of such haughtiness

 

 

The Queer Response to Trauma in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal

The representation of queer figures in cinema is politically fraught, with the anxieties of difference manifesting in portrayals of queer figures. These anxieties are particularly keen in the horror genre where the other is demonized. This other represents the danger of the unknown: race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender presentation. Within horror, these characteristics of the other are representative of perceived cultural threats, dangers to our ideologies. Following the trends of villainy in horror films can create a fascinating map of American anxieties throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. For this week, I shall be focusing exclusively on the representations of queer figures in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller Silence of the Lambs and Bryan Fuller’s 2013 television series Hannibal, both adapted from Thomas Harris’ popular novels. I believe that the vital differences in the queer audience’s reception of these two works illustrates the key difference between the queer-coded figures in Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal.

Due to the genre-typical violence involved in Harris’ works, extremes are to be expected, particularly in the others who fill the roles of antagonists. For Harris, it is not enough to have Buffalo Bill be a serial killer, not when he’ll be forced to act as a foil to the legendary killer-cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Therefore, Buffalo Bill embodies all extremes. Not only is he exceptionally violent, he is also sexually deviant; viewers are shaken by the shock of his perversity. When recalling images of the film, it is not the cannibalism that shocks viewers, but the memory of Buffalo Bill’s dance. Draped in gauzy fabric, wearing the scalp of one of his victims, Bill makes love to his reflection, admiring his nipple rings. “I’d fuck me,” he concludes, posing nude with his penis tucked between his legs. With the camera in the position of the mirror, the scene is deeply uncomfortable, voyeuristic.

Amid the extreme gore and violence of the films, this scene stands out as somewhat more explicit, more difficult to watch. While Bill is clearly wearing the scalp of one of his victims, it is his atypical nudity that disturbs the viewer (such that I didn’t notice the tucking in the scene until rewatching the film several years after the first time I saw it – I always looked away in embarrassment). The othering here is that of alternate gender presentation, displaying it as deviant. The scene is clearly understood – men who dress in women’s clothing are to be feared as figures of sexual deviance. Buffalo Bill takes this a horrifying step further by dressing literally in the body of a woman, her scalp and ultimately her skin.

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Buffalo Bill’s (in)famous dance.

There is some minimal effort made within Silence of the Lambs to suggest that Bill is not trans.[1] While profiling the killer, Hannibal states “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” Indelicate language aside, Hannibal suggests here that “Buffalo Bill” believes he trans as a result of trauma – that his own self-hatred is enough to alter his gender. However, Hannibal states that this trauma alone is not enough for Bill to be authentically trans, that Bill does not perform trans-ness correctly. Even Clarice Starling agrees that Bill does not fit her understanding, citing that “transsexuals are very passive.” Buffalo Bill does not, evidently, perform “trans-ness” correctly. The film suggests, rather, that it is Bill’s own psychosis that leads to his desire to play dress-up with women’s clothing, hair, and skin. His goals are grotesque, skinning women to make a flesh-suit from their bodies, but Bill’s gender presentation and homosexual relationships are treated as a symptom of his monstrosity, rather than a facet of his identity.

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Buffalo Bill as the queer-coded villain.

In emphatic objection to this characterization, LGBT activists protested the 1992 Academy Awards. While there are a few transgender women who have adopted Buffalo Bill as a trans icon (some even mirroring the character’s tattoos), most regard the film as a harmful continuation of the queer killer trope. Without adequate representation in the media, characters like the effeminate, queer-coded Buffalo Bill are reluctant sources of queer media.

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Margot is introduced through her implied sexual assault.

Within the novels that Hannibal is loosely based off, the character of Margot Verger is another queer icon of questionable origin. The Margot Verger of Harris’ text is exceptionally masculine in her gender presentation. Margot is heavily muscled, and Starling even wonders to herself if Margot “tapes down her clitoris.” Again, this fixation on altered genitalia shows how both the straight-coded characters and the viewers are troubled by nonbinary gender presentation (or, in the case of Margot Verger, even the thought of nonbinary presentation). To further her masculine appearance, Margot also heavily abuses steroids and hormones, pumping up her muscles to the point that she has rendered herself infertile. Margot’s chemical use is difficult to read. Some read the character as trans in the same disbelieved vein as Buffalo Bill. Others view her as a lesbian, as her canonical romantic and sexual relationship is with another woman. The exact nature of her identity is left deliberately ambiguous. What is more clearly suggested is that this queerness is the result of sexual trauma sustained at a young age, from her brother. Rather than being “aggressively” queer, Margot is defensively queer, eliminating the parts of herself that were most subject to abuse. This refusal to accept bodily vulnerability is relatable for many queer viewers, and yet it also posits an extremely harmful view of queerness, suggesting that Margot is queer due to her trauma, rather than her queerness existing as another facet of her identity.

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A much more femme Margot.

In Hannibal, Fuller worked to change Margot’s presentation to make it clear to the viewer that her queerness was inherent, not a product of trauma. In lieu of her masculine book appearance, Margot is a china-doll femme fatale in riding pants and lush lipstick. Despite the tortures of her brother, Margot remains a collected, intelligent, dry-humored force in the narrative. Her power is in her rationality, her ability to manipulate her brother through her knowledge of his sadism. This change was Fuller’s attempt to restore a queer voice in the narrative. In a 2014 interview with Collider, Fuller states:

In the book, Margot is a lesbian character, but it’s not clear if she is transgendered, or if she is just so pumped full of steroids and hormones that she’s become more masculine in her appearance. So, what I didn’t want to do is say that being transgendered or being gay is a direct result of horrific sexual trauma, because it’s not. I think being transgendered and being homosexual are natural things that occur in the creation of biological beings.

In Hannibal, Margot is presented as a deeply traumatized individual. After the death of her tycoon father, Margot is trapped living with her sadistic brother – the sole recipient of her father’s enormous fortune. Per their father’s will, the Verger fortune will go only to a male heir, or else the entire estate will be transferred to the show’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Westboro Baptist Church. This puts Margot in a difficult position. As she states, she “has the wrong parts, and the wrong proclivities for parts” to ever hope for escape from her brother. (When she attempts to overcome her “proclivities” long enough to allow Will Graham to impregnate her, her brother immediately drugs her and performs a violent hysterectomy.)

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Despite Margot’s extensive traumatic history, there is never any indication given that her queerness is due to her trauma; rather, her queerness flourishes despite it. Together with Hannibal’s defenestrated lover, Alana, a passionate and fulfilling romance blooms between the two women, seemingly in defiance of the trauma they experienced. While many female romances on-screen are either fetishistic or overtly chaste, Margot and Alana’s sex scene is both beautiful and bizarre. Their nude bodies kaleidoscope into each other, the shot a twisting tangle of ecstatic limbs. And, due to the necessary censorship in television, all genitals, binary or otherwise, are obscured. This allows the viewer to embrace the emotional component to the scene rather than wholly on the physical.

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Margot and Alana’s relationship is introduced with this hypnotic scene

Together, Alana and Margot manipulate and overcome their captors, escaping from the mansion with a baby of their own. (In a violent off-screen moment, Margot harvests her brother’s sperm by sodomizing him with a cattle prod, and uses that sperm to impregnate Alana, effectively finding a loophole in her father’s will.) With queer female character deaths at an all-time high, Alana and Margot’s escape marked a welcome shift, and queer fans rejoiced. The happy ending to a queer couple on a deeply unhappy show was a victory, and yet there is still enormous ground to tread. In a perfect world, Margot will be allowed to present in any gender she chooses, rather than being feminized for an easier narrative. Buffalo Bill’s gender dysphoria would be treated as a serious facet of his character, and the trauma implied to create queerness will be understood as queerness alongside trauma.

Next week: Exploring the Erotics of Evil: The Seduction of Hannibal Lecter

[1] “Trans” here refers to the broad spectrum of nonbinary gender identities.


Molly is an MA student pursuing her degree in English Literature with a focus on Game Studies and New Media. She uses these fields to explore her additional interests of race, gender, sexuality, and LGBT representation. She has also studied Victorian literature, the Gothic, and 19th century American literature. Her teaching interests include film, graphic novels, and popular culture.

“Bring in The Crows to Peck the Eagles:” Rewriting the Politics of “Coriolanus”

Compared to a number of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Coriolanus does not frequently enter into the popular consciousness.  While T.S. Eliot may have called it Shakespeare’s “[m]ost assured artistic success,” the play has not historically been viewed as one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies.  Despite this, the play has long been the subject of critical scrutiny over its deeply political narrative and its treatment of war and peacetime governance.  Coriolanus is a play in which the victorious Roman warrior Caius Marcius Coriolanus has returned to Rome after winning a prolonged campaign against the Volscian army.  Rome is in a state of civil unrest and the citizens stand in revolt against Coriolanus and the rest of the Roman aristocracy.  After a pair of tribunes, Junius Brutus and Sinicius Velutus manipulate the citizens into supporting the banishment of Coriolanus, he turns traitor to Rome and eventually dies a tragic death following the brokerage of peace between Rome and its enemies.[1]  In the 1930s, the play was briefly banned in France over the perception that the narrative, one of a powerful war hero brought low whose attempts to govern are destroyed by a population that is given too great a voice, could be too easily understood as pro-fascist.[2]  Likewise, the play was heavily critiqued in post-war Germany for being too militaristic and doing too much to celebrate the image of the glorious warrior brought low by his own fellow citizens, demonstrating that during times of particular political anxiety, Coriolanus tends to return to the public eye.

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Fiennes’ Coriolanus

In 2011, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a version of Coriolanus which brings to the forefront a number of key political questions raised by the text.  The production ostensibly takes place in a setting meant to be associated with Rome, as indicated by its title cards and maintenance of the play’s language and characters, but the aesthetic is decidedly contemporary, with modern dress and a presentation of warfare that is modeled after military conflicts from the last two and a half decades.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus centralizes the impact that his time at war had upon Coriolanus, bringing to the production an interpretation that focuses on a post-9/11 investment in the state in which soldiers return from war.  It transforms the play into a meditation on the impact that war has, both on the individual and the society that sends those individuals to fight. Fiennes also modernizes the political crisis occurring in Rome.  In his version, Brutus and Sicinius, for instance, are presented as wealthy political insiders whose appearance and actions invoke a modern discourse of class struggle and income inequality, framing them as clearly distinct from the much poorer citizens whom they manipulate into banishing Coriolanus. Critical of both the actions of Coriolanus and the state of perpetual warfare that has impacted both the tragic hero and the citizens of Rome, Fiennes’s vision of the play attempts to utilize Shakespeare’s tragedy as a site for contemplating then-contemporary issues of war and its impact upon citizens.

Earlier this month I quoted Thomas Marc Parrott’s criticism that we could not think of Shakespeare as having an opinion on democracy, and while he certainly wouldn’t be able to have an opinion on the kind of representative democracy that we are most familiar with, the text of Coriolanus does not shy away from examining the idea of the consent of the governed.  It is a play in which a civilian rabble becomes the tool of a small cabal of aristocrats who oust Coriolanus, and the early scenes of the play present the rabble as easily strung along by learned Roman rhetoricians, suggesting the dangers of placing too much authority within the hands of the population.  In addition, if we are to read Coriolanus as a tragic hero, even one brought low by his pride, we must at least entertain his suggestions that the populace of Rome is making a grand error in banishing him, as they are banishing one of their betters, a belief that Coriolanus returns to time and time again.  This is, perhaps, a moment in which it is worthwhile to remember that in Elizabethan England debates over the merits of the consent of the governed and democratic rule were often very pessimistic about the capacity of the citizens of a nation to govern themselves.

Fiennes seems to deny this somewhat pessimistic attitude towards the populace’s complicity in the tragedy of Coriolanus with his presentation of the assorted Roman citizens.  His version centralizes their plight and their desire to resist a Roman system that denies them access to food, with an opening scene framing Roman defense of its grain supply as a militarized police force led by a fatigue-wearing Coriolanus beating back hungry protesters.  While the argument that we are meant to side with the citizens in Shakespeare’s play is by no means unfounded, Fiennes’ invocation of contemporary political struggles against state sanctioned violence leverages a very modern understanding of political crises in order to frame Coriolanus as a tragically flawed individual.  We read Coriolanus’s speech concerning the instability, intemperance, and ignobility of the citizens as proud, unfounded, and misguided in large part because of the visual language of this scene, rather than extracting that interpretation wholesale from the original text that Fiennes recites.

Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus

There is, in this vision of Coriolanus, a certain desire to collapse the current and the historical, both to demonstrate a series of momentarily important political ideas but also to point towards their seeming timelessness nature.  An implicit idea present in Fiennes’ Coriolanus is that the lessons of the text of Coriolanus have a specific relevance that transcends the historical moment of its original production.  This, however, requires Fiennes to traffic in a language of visual and political iconography that makes these lessons legible to a modern audience far removed from the world of the Roman aristocracy.  I bring this up not to denigrate Fiennes’ Coriolanus, but to suggest that the act of attempting to find specific modern lessons in these plays necessarily requires us to reconstruct Shakespeare’s texts to suit our current political climate and we must remain aware of this practice of reconstructing Shakespeare when we attempt to garner political lessons from his plays.

The function of this examination of Coriolanus isn’t to produce a unified reading of the play’s political message, but rather to demonstrate how malleable that message becomes when we attempt to understand it with contemporary eyes.  Fiennes’ Coriolanus is not a more or less valid representation of Shakespeare’s text, but it is transparently bringing a highly modern perspective to the text in order to make its political commentary clear.  This does not invalidate the things that Fiennes’ production can teach us about the political questions that inform Coriolanus, but it demonstrates the ways in which any attempt to parse out the lessons of a text necessarily brings to bear our own political investments upon that text.  This is true for the audiences in the first half of the 20th century who saw the play uncomfortably courting with fascism, and it is true in the case of Fiennes’ Coriolanus, which attempts to use that same text to understand a set of more contemporary questions about war, social dissidence, and the consent of the governed.

[1] This is, admittedly, a highly abridged account of Coriolanus.  A full treatment of the play’s richly complex handling of issues such as the construction of masculine identity, the role of motherhood in the lives of individuals and the state or its examinations of the costs of war alone would consume an entire blogpost.

[2] Coriolanus is far from the only play that has garnered attention for how it might help us understand fascism.  For a particularly unsubtle example, see Ian McKellen’s Richard III.

“Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes:” Using Shakespeare to Understand Contemporary Politics

“Living when he did, Shakespeare could no more be democratic or anti-democratic then he could be a motorist.”

                  ­-Thomas Marc Parrott, Twenty-Three Plays and Sonnets

On October 8th, Stephen Greenblatt wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times which sought to argue that through a detailed close reading of Shakespeare’s Richard III, we could better understand the state of the 2016 US Election.  He argues that Richard III represents a play in which Shakespeare dramatizes the rise of a tyrant into power through the consent of the governed, despite how apparent his evil was to everyone around him.  In this argument, Richard III becomes a cautionary tale, one that teaches its audience a lesson about the dangers of political complacency and the abdication of one’s responsibility as a political subject, whether that political subject is a low ranking early modern aristocrat or a swing-state voter in 2016.  The politics of this particular editorial are fairly transparent, but what interests me is the mobilization of Shakespeare’s Richard III as an exemplum of a political reality that remains relevant to readers over four centuries after Shakespeare’s death.  Here, a play about the rise of a usurping king and a political rebellion against an absolute monarch becomes a lesson about the importance of active and informed participation within a system of democracy that would be incomprehensible to even the few republics of Early Modern Europe, let alone the subjects of the English Monarchy.

Here, I don’t intend to criticize Greenblatt’s reading of the play, but I am more invested in the underlying impulse, specifically the implication that Shakespeare, if approached properly, can reveal grand truths about the state of our current lives.   Greenblatt goes so far as to conclude his editorial by claiming, “Shakespeare’s words have an uncanny ability to reach out beyond their original time and place and to speak directly to us.  We have long looked to him, in times of perplexity and risk, for the most fundamental human truths.”  Variants of this appeal seem to represent a justification for the continued study of Shakespeare.  In this model, Shakespeare becomes a unique literary site for understanding the world around us, and if we can simply read a play like Richard III well enough, we can understand the issues in our current historical moment that would appear inexplicable.

Richard III is an interesting case study for complicating this desire to find timeless political truths within the canon of Shakespeare.  Richard III, despite being a play about an English king, is not really a history in the sense that we might understand the word today.  The play itself draws heavily upon carefully crafted bits of Tudor propaganda which sought to validate the current ruling regime in England.  The play, which documents the fall of the tyrant Richard III, implicitly celebrates the rebellion of King Henry VII, first monarch of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of the sitting Queen Elizabeth I.  The play’s framing of King Richard as a child-murdering, usurper is itself a theatrical decision grounded in a series of incredibly specific contemporary historical circumstances.[1]   This is not to say that we can’t learn anything of value for a play like Richard III, but it should serve as a constant reminder that the political world that Shakespeare occupied and the political world in which we live are so radically different as to be nearly unrecognizable.

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Anthony Sher’s 1984 Richard III, in line with Shakespeare’s text, frames King Richard as a monstrous caricature of political evil.

As a graduate student working on the political discourses that were in circulation during Shakespeare’s life, this intellectual movement is one that I find fascinating because it simultaneously highlights and collapses the gulf that exists between our world and the world of Shakespeare.  In my own work, I examine the political anxieties which gripped Shakespeare’s England in an attempt to better understand the ways in which the institution of the theater helped negotiate those problems.  Here, four hundred years later, it is more than a little mystifying to see a major publication print an op-ed piece in which a renowned scholar makes a near identical move, utilizing the institution of the early modern theater to address a political anxiety gripping the country in 2016.

My posts this month will seek to delve deeper into this mode of reading Shakespeare as a window through which we better understand our contemporary world.  While I don’t intend to provide a definitive answer to the question of just how much we can learn about politics merely by reading plays about politics, I do hope to offer insight into why Shakespeare’s political plays are thought to remain relevant exemplum for teaching political lessons.  However, before turning towards the strengths and deficiencies of this model, I feel it will be worthwhile to look at the longer history of turning towards the past to learn about the political present.  This belief that by turning to the fictions and lessons of a long forgotten age that we strive to see as a mirror of ourselves is not a unique quality of modernity.  Next week, we will look at the ways in which thinkers in the Early modern world looked towards their own imagined past as a way of understanding their specific historical moment.

[1] This narrative surrounding Richard III’s history has been remarkably hard for historians to dispel, as these very specific examples of Tudor propaganda remain ingrained in cultural memories surrounding the real Richard III.


Evan Hixon is a second year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Sharing Space: “Proteus” and the Personal

It seems like academia (or any professional forum, for that matter) encourages us to keep our feelings out of things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve crossed out passages of student essays this month for being “off topic” or “too praisy,” for bringing in “irrelevant” value judgments on the film they’re writing about. And that’s fine: we’re trying to teach them the conventions of textual analysis, not ranting movie reviews. But every time my red pen scratches out the words “I think” or “I feel” or “the best part,” a little part of me dies. It sometimes feels like I’m getting rid of the human element somehow – an often unsophisticated and inexperienced expression of the human element that doesn’t logically support an argument, but the human element nonetheless. It’s numbing to cut that out.

This censoring isn’t just for undergrads, either. I have found very few opportunities in academic writing where you are free to wear your love on your sleeve. I understand the usefulness of the genre, but it’s refreshing to have a forum where we can get more emotionally expressive. This renewed interest in personal within academia (one way to think of the so-called “affective turn”) is part of the impetus behind the virtual space that is this blog, after all: it gives us a chance to feel as well as think, and reach our communities as well as our peers.

All this is a roundabout way of introducing the fact that I haven’t been okay recently. There have been days where I have found myself in negative mental spaces without a clear path out, and there are nights where my dreams have taken me back to places haunted by bad memories. I could point out a number of reasons why this might be – the grad student workload, lack of good sleep, anxieties about the future, homesickness – but a diagnosis only goes so far when most of those things are unavoidable at this point in my life. Other contributors to this blog have taken on mental health before, so I think I’ll leave the specifics aside for now. Instead, I would like to spend this post doing one of the things I like best – taking a walk with someone I care about. I want to show you a place that I go when I’m feeling down: a little virtual island called Proteus.

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Proteus is a short game created by independent designers Ed Key and David Kanaga in 2011. To call it a “game” is a bit of a misnomer. There are no rules, there are no enemies, there are no apparent goals. The only controls are the arrow keys to move, the mouse to look around, and the space bar (which makes your avatar appear to sit down). The game is pure spatiality: all the player is encouraged to do is explore and experience.

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You emerge from the main menu and find yourself floating above a tranquil sea, with only the soft sound of the waves below you. As you look across the shimmering water, you might be able to see the faint outline of land beckoning you closer. Recognizable shapes begin to emerge from the fog as you approach: a blocky beach, a few twisted pixelated trees crowned in pink or green, maybe even the swell of a mountain to vary the landscape. As soon as you make landfall, the island erupts into the simulated sounds of spring: the warbles, tweets, and crooning of synthetic birdsong; the rustling static and base-toned murmuring of unseen electronic creatures; and through it all soft strings and the tinkling of a chiptune keyboard invoking the sound of a pleasant breeze and gently falling cherry blossoms. Despite being technologically generated, the sounds that engulf you are the sounds of life, and they ebb and flow as you wander around the island.

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What you’ll actually see as you meander among the trees is unclear. Like Minecraft, Proteus is procedurally generated; the island’s topography, flora, and fauna are completely dependent upon algorithms over which you have no control. But though you will never see the same island twice, certain landmarks remain constant through multiple playthroughs. There is always a cabin nestled in the trees, there is always a circle of mysterious totems, there is always a lonely headstone at the top of the highest peak. What this creates for the player is a familiarity which retains the mystic wonder of discovery. I can feel intimately close to this virtual space, but I can never own it; I can know what to expect, but it will always surprise me. Few places, virtual or otherwise, are truly like that in the way Proteus is.

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When night falls, something magical starts to happen. The stars – the only rounded figures in the pixelated world – start to float down to earth, swirling around a particular spot on the island. The curious explorer who approaches the circle of stardust is wrapped up in a flurry of motion and sound as time accelerates. The sun rises and sets, rainclouds race across the sky, wind whips through the leaves on the trees. Standing in the center of the circle brings all this chaos to a crescendo, and after your vision fades to white you find yourself no longer in spring, but in summer.

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Every season brings a change in the island’s landscape and soundscape – summer brings its blooming flowers and buzzing flies, autumn its orange leaves and somber tones, winter its stark silent white – changing the tone of your exploration from joyful wonder to thoughtful reflection as you come to know the lay of the land. As the days get quieter and more familiar, the nights become increasingly fantastic with fireflies, shooting stars, and even the aurora borealis – a sight that even in its polygonal form fills me with the joy of home.

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Though you can spend all your time exploring these little wonders (I never went past summer the first time I played), the game does have an ending. I won’t say what happens on that final winter’s night, but it never ceases to move me. For all its joy and wonder, Proteus teaches you that all things that change, even a sense of place, must come to an end. When you close your eyes on that first island, you will never see it again. All that will remain are the echoes of your emotional experience. That impermanence, for me, is beautiful.

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The description I’ve given here hardly does it justice – Proteus really needs to be experienced to be understood. But I also find it’s best when experienced together. If you’re around where I happen to be, go ahead and ask. I’d love to play it with you, if only to see the look on your face when you first set foot on land. If you happen to get it and I’m not around, well…go up to the totem circle on the first night of autumn and just wait for the moon to rise. Maybe it’ll make you think of me. In any case, I think it’s a place worth sharing.


John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.

 

Exploring Space: A Walk among the Gravestones

 

I suppose it speaks to my interest in the virtual that I wrote a whole post about spatiality last week without moving an inch. On the surface, that doesn’t seem quite in line with the so-called “spatial turn” I mentioned in my last post: the trend in humanities scholarship towards the importance of place and space to ideas and power. Then again, many of the concepts we associate with the spatial – the panoptic nature of surveillance, the power of the wanderer versus a top-down view of the world, the distinction between geographic space and humanized place, that sort of thing – were probably for the most part mulled over in armchairs, in the mindscape of the scholar. I wonder how much all things are born from the virtual…

I was probably thinking something along those lines as my phone announced it was beginning to die. Yanked out of my own head for the time being, I found myself back in Oakwood Cemetery, on the steps of a mausoleum, with a tattered American flag in my hands. It wasn’t often I strayed off the path during my runs – my feet followed a 5k race route whose markers faded long ago – but since I found myself in a wandering mood, I decided to do some exploring.

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Founded in 1859, Oakwood Cemetery lies about a block away from Syracuse University in what used to be the outskirts of town. The graveyard is sprawling; at 160 acres, Oakwood plays host to over 60,000 individuals and counting. Between the oaks, monuments, and mausoleums plotted along the rolling hills wind approximately 10 kilometers worth of trails (some paved, others dirt) shared by visitors and mourners alike. It is very easy to get lost among the stones, as I soon found out.

You never really understand just how odd a graveyard is until you try to walk among its stones. The place is full of conflicting messages. The architectural features of so many grave markers beckon visitors closer, whether than be because of interesting architectural features, places to sit, or just tiny print. Or all three, in the case of this massive monument:

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This makes sense, of course – graveyards, like funerals, are for the living. We are encouraged to visit the resting places of our loved ones to mourn or to give gifts or simply to talk. In Western culture, at least, these acts help to create an aura of reverence around those who have passed on, sanctifying the ground under which their remains are buried. Much like the concept of nationhood, this layers a virtual space upon material reality, giving what were stones and dust the weight of the secret and the sacred.

This makes things incredibly hard to navigate when you have something like this blocking your path:

 

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For the superstitious or the particularly pious, a graveyard is a nightmare to navigate. Perhaps the dead do not mind people stomping all over their resting places. There is, after all, six feet of earth and a coffin to insulate them from the tremors of the world above. But once I knew there was someone beloved under there, I created a virtual barrier of reverence in my mind. Such a thing is hard to unsee.

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Another odd thing about graveyards is their aesthetic of incompleteness. All around Oakwood were stairs that led to nowhere, pillars holding nothing up, archways huddled over aborted paths, locked iron doors without working handles, and yards and yards of unused space. Even some of the gravestones themselves like stray slabs from unfinished foundations, especially those that have been overgrown or worn down with age. All of this lends cemeteries the same uncanny air a ruin might have, hinting at some former glory that now goes unremembered.

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Oakwood in particular also has more mausoleums than I’ve ever seen in a graveyard, and these fascinate me most. They sit in the muddled middle between monument and place, having all the fixings of shelter but (for the most part) being eternally locked to anyone who would want to enter. Whereas headstones seem to jut into the physical space of the living, the barred doors of these larger structures create a clear barrier between the living and the dead. Gravestones can be touched, stroked, grasped as if they were virtual stand-ins for the one interred; the remains within mausoleums, it seems, can only be peered at through barred or broken windows.

How does one mourn at a mausoleum? Must it be opened to bridge the void between the living and deceased, or does the distance not matter? And what does it mean to sit on the steps while pondering these questions only to find you are standing on an actual welcome mat?

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(Seriously, why is there a welcome mat?)

Graveyards are odd places, to be sure, but they are also very human (perhaps I repeat myself). The burial of the dead is one of those cultural touchstones that seem as ancient as they are ubiquitous, and are perhaps the oldest constructed spaces known to humankind. As easy as it is for some of us to put them out of mind in day-to-day life, it is important to remember that these “Cities of the Dead” (as one old flyer for Oakwood proclaims) are built for the living. This not only means that we are obliged to respect and protect them – burial grounds are frequently neglected, littered, or (all too frequently) bulldozed – but that we ought to find time to visit them in order to look into ourselves. We will all end up like those buried beneath, after all, and I find graveyards are one of the few urban places that are quiet and empty enough to allow for self-reflection.

So, what I’m saying is go visit a graveyard. Turn off your phone and take an hour to meander the grounds, read the epitaphs, pick up any litter that’s blown in. Take a look at what there is to see before it gets too cold. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find there is life among the stones.

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John Sanders is a second year PhD student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games and new media. He considers himself an extroverted optimist, which can make mornings difficult for his roommates.