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.
Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
We routinely leave our small children in day care among strangers. At the same time, in our guilt we evince paranoia about strangers and foster fear in children. In times like these, a genuine monster has to watch it, even a monster as indifferent to children as Dr. Lecter.
Thomas Harris, Hannibal
Gambolling in the playground area of the internet, something made me laugh. Some basement room knob-jockey was promoting a sort of comic-book confrontation between Anton Chigurh, the killing machine from Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic psychiatrist from Thomas Harris’s trilogy of thrillers. It was the funniest thing I’d seen in that line since I was given a promotional torch-pen years ago embossed with a graphic novel rendition featuring Nietzsche vs Dracula.
But, wait. Could this childish nonsense be instructive? As Nietzsche wrote – when he wasn’t busy fighting Dracula – why should we not speak like children? Perhaps we could pit Chigurh and Lecter against one another, not in some clanging cage fight, but in the more shadowy arena of the moral.
The two fictional characters are serial killers, a breed of (mostly) men traditionally associated with the complete absence of a moral code. But precisely such a code looms large in both personalities. In fact, it is the combination of brutal murders with a rigid adherence to an inexorable moral programme that makes the two men so entirely other, les étrangers.
Chigurgh 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. 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. When the rookie Special Agent Starling attempts to understand what created him, he rebukes her; Nothing happened to me, Clarice. I happened.
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 and ethical health. Chigurh, shortly before he shoots the captive Wells, asks;
“If the rule you follow led you to this, of what use was the rule?”
Lecter, 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 scientist, curious as to how such people came to be so. Lecter collects clippings about church collapses involving fatalities. Both men feed from the destruction of faith in others, and what is fed 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’s scenes of genius are miniaturist moral productions in extremis. The gas station scene in which Chigurh forces the store owner to stake his life on a coin toss, and 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.
Superficially, the two men could not differ more. Chigurh eats cashew nuts and drinks from a milk carton. Lecter eats oysters from the Gironde and drinks Château d’Yquem. Chigurh murders those who stand in his way. Lecter kills the flautist from the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra for musical incompetence. Chigurh dresses like a mestizo cowpoke. The bounty hunter Commendatore Pazzi finds Lecter’s clothes ‘beautifully cut, even for Italy’.
But 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 behaviour is impeccable, absent the values we take for granted. When the store owner is questioning his need to call the coin toss, 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 behaviour, then, if morality is gauged simply by consistent adherence to its formal codes. Many of us would kill if we could. What stops us is the fear of punishment rather than any post-Kantian moral imperatives. Chigurh and Lecter have no such burdensome encumbrances; they are moral imperatives.
The novel is one of the great schoolrooms for the subject of morality. It is a far more effective medium than the tedious tomes of moral philosophy, Nietzsche excepted. Moral philosophy is a waste of time after Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. Spinoza’s Ethics was the last heroic attempt to codify and rationalise something which can only ever be at best an heuristic device for combining societal approval and personal advantage.
Anton Chigurh and Hannibal Lecter remind us of Moosbrugger, the horrific child-murdering pervert from Robert Musil’s 1942 masterpiece, The Man without Qualities. If mankind could dream collectively, writes Musil, it would dream Moosbrugger. So too Chigurh and Lecter, our modern nightmare bogeymen. In the end, we are fascinated more by the moral monster than by his immoral or amoral co-workers.