Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hannibal, Kierkegaard, and Empathy

Will Graham, a former special investigator for the FBI and someone capable of “perfect empathy” that allows him to see what killers experience, is pulled back into solving crime by the murders of a cannibalistic serial killer in Minnesota. To help him, the FBI calls in a psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter to consult.
Having heard that NBC was doing a tv version of Hannibal, I was terrified both because NBC seems to be capable of only producing shows that are mere rip offs of their own shows (in retrospect I now realize that the network's fondness for cannibalism of course made them the perfect venue for Hannibal) and because I hate procedurals based around the detective-with-a-gift angle.  Really only Psych and Grimm have done good jobs with this trope, and that's because the former is mocking the trope and the latter has a quick-witted werewolf sidekick.

When Will Graham is introduced as having "perfect empathy," or the ability to enter into the mind of the serial killers he's investigating in order to re-create the murders exactly as they happened, I believed my fears had been realized and wrote off the show.  Fortunately, the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and the cinematography of the show were so outstanding that I continued to watch the show regardless.

Though it took me until fairly late into the season, I started to realize that one way of appreciating this gift/curse of "perfect empathy" is to see it as actually a complete fabrication.  I do not mean this in merely the sense that this was something dreamt up by the show's writers, but rather that this is something dreamt up by Will Graham himself, and thus parallels the (un)reality of empathy rather well.

Teaching ethics, and health care ethics in particular, has led me to think frequently about the existence, or lack thereof, of empathy.  Though we might often be led to believe that we can "know how you feel," we have no proof that this is actually true.  And when the one we are meant to be comforting with this refrain responds by rejecting our empathetic overtures, we of course take this as not a failure on our part to empathize, but a failure of the other to appreciate that we are "there for them."  But perhaps the other is right and we are so quick to move from correlation to causation that we cannot see that just because I'm wearing your shoes that does not mean that I can take a walk in them as if I were you.

Deanna Troi
Deanna Troi, empath-ing
This is why I often point out to my students the brilliance of Gene Roddenberry in having Counselor Deanna Troi be an "empath" as a member of an alien species (though of course none of them have ever seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, or are unwilling to admit that they're that cool, and so I also have to spend a lot of time explaining the show to them, which I of course don't mind doing).  Humans are not empathic, thus if we want to portray someone who is capable of empathy we need someone who is inhuman, someone who, as Bryan Fuller points out, would be "so swamped with neuroses that he could, arguably, be unlikable or trying for an audience."  And thus just as Troi annoyed fans for years over her being unable to typically offer anything other than plot-driving silliness and annoyed Ryker and Worf with her come-hither-uniforms, Will Graham not only pushes people away, but can only seem to befriend serial killers, their daughters, or people obsessed with serial killers.

What is most vital though is that Will Graham is human, and thus lacks Troi's even half-Betazed powers of empathy.  He is able to pick up on various details of crime scenes and create fantastic and seemingly realistic re-creations of crimes from out of them, and yet HE CAN HANG OUT WITH THE VERY KILLER HE'S TRYING TO CATCH.  Time and again Jack Crawford or Hannibal Lecter say something to the effect that Will Graham's mirror neuron disorder allows him to know precisely what anyone around him is thinking or feeling.  Yet, much like a psychic in the East Village, he is nonetheless incapable of actually seeing anything.  What is much more important then is not what he can do, but the effect of what he believes he can do on himself and others.

To understand this, look at how Søren Kierkegaard describes empathy in The Concept of Anxiety:
Often the examples mentioned in psychologies lack true psychological-poetic authority.  They stand as isolated notarialiter [notarized facts], and as a result one does not know whether to laugh or to weep at the attempts of such lonely and obstinate persons to form some sort of rule.  One who has properly occupied himself with psychology and psychological observation acquires a general human flexibility that enables him at once to construct his example which even though it lacks factual authority nevertheless has an authority of a different kind. […] Hence he ought also to have a poetic originality in his soul so as to be able at once to create both the totality and the invariable from what in the individual is always partially and variably present.  Then, when he has perfected himself, he will have no need to take examples from literary repertoires and serve up half-dead reminiscences, but will bring his observations entirely fresh from the water, wriggling and sparkling in the play of colors.  Nor will he have to run himself to death to become aware of something.  On the contrary, he should sit entirely composed in his room, like a police agent who nevertheless knows everything that takes place. (Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pages 54-55)
To be empathic according to Kierkegaard is essentially to be an actor, and in particular a method actor.  In studying serial killers and, vitally, in killing a serial killer, Will Graham is able to act like a serial killer and to imagine, through the "poetic originality in his soul," how the serial killer pulled off the murder.  But this does not require mirror neurons, but rather the ability to pull from "what in the individual is always partially and variably present" the source of this originality.  In other words, Will Graham sees not what the serial killer did, but what he shares with the serial killer, he is able to see the temptations to kill and the way to kill that are "partially and variably present" within himself.  This is why it is so important, as Fuller explains, that Hannibal is trying "to help Will Graham better understand who he is and embrace a purer version of himself that he may have become deluded by." Hannibal sees that Will Graham is sensitive to the murderousness within himself and is thus trying to help him, in a very Nietzschean sense, become who he is.

Hannibal is thus not only a great television show, but a great portrayal of everything empathy is (i.e., an act) and everything empathy isn't (i.e., mind-reading).  And, what Hannibal most importantly portrays about empathy is how dangerous it is to not realize that the other that empathy connects us with is the other within us
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