The Silence of the Limbs: Critiquing Culture from a Heideggerian Understanding of the Work of Art

Iain Thomson

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1998

About the Author
Table of Contents

In 1991 Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs made off with five Academy Awards, including the coveted "Best Picture." Merely to introduce this fact I have already had to ignore several potentially relevant questions. [1] But I will spare you the tedium of endlessly qualifying my choice of subject matter; both existentialism and psychoanalysis teach us that the attempt to get behind our own starting points or render our pasts completely transparent to ourselves is an impossible task. Rather, let me lay my Heideggerian cards on the table up front, briefly outlining the methodological understanding from which I will be working in the rest of this paper.

I. Theory

Heidegger argued that in many of the matters that matter, we have not yet begun to think. This is not because we don't care about these things--they are in fact issues which concern us the most intimately. Nor can this be explained as a failure of conscience by those fortuitously positioned to do this thinking; rather, this is a failure stemming from difficulties intrinsic to thought itself. Heidegger's was an attempt to systematize the question of our most basic self-constitution, to answer the most basic questions about ourselves, "ontological questions concerning the sort of beings we are and how our being is bound up with the intelligibility of the world," as Bert Dreyfus puts it. [2] For Heidegger, to re-think philosophy meant to avoid begging ontological questions, and one of Heidegger's most powerful insights is what he called "the first law of phenomenology" or the "law of proximity," namely, that that which is closest to us in our everyday worldly endeavors, that which surrounds and shapes our embodiment, is furthest from us in terms of our ability to take it up critically and "under-stand" it.

In Being and Time Heidegger argues that every human being should be understood most fundamentally as an embodied answer to the question of the meaning of existence. We do not come to embody the answer to this question of existence in solipsistic isolation; rather, our self-interpretation always takes place against the background of a pre-existing socio-cultural understanding of what-is and what matters, of intelligibility and meaning. Cast out of the past and projected into the future, we are "always already thrown" (like Howard the Duck) into a world we didn't make, always operating on a background we can never get fully behind. Like a movie, we are always already starting somewhere in the middle of the action, in medias res.

How, then, can we come to explicitly understand the prescription on the glasses through which we view the world and ourselves? How, in other words, do we become cognizant of the interpretive predecisions which always already filter and circumscribe our perspectives, forming our bodies and in-forming our viewpoints? What critical purchase can we obtain on what Bourdieu calls the basic "principles of vision and di-vision" shaping our very view of reality? How might we make explicit the process whereby human beings make meaningful the world that makes them?

One answer can be found in Heidegger's theory of the work of art. The work performed by the work of art--its performative or poietic dimension--is what Heidegger calls "truth setting itself to work." This phrase is meant to convey that truth, or more generally "dis-closedness," is not discovered through a cumulative convergence on the Real, but is rather the product of an ongoing shared social accomplishment, accomplished through our social practices. In short, art works to construct and maintain intelligibility.

The work of art functions as a social paradigm ("paradigm" comes from the Greek paradeigma, meaning "model"). A work of art is thus (in Clifford Geertz's terms) both a "model of" reality and a "model for" reality; it reflects and directs, or, as Heidegger says, it "gathers and preserves" an understanding of what matters, of what is important, in sum, of what is.

Already in Being and Time Heidegger had argued that the meaning or sense of a sign is determined by its involvement in a equipmental context. The early Heidegger's point, put in a Wittgensteinian font, is that meaning comes from use. But Heidegger's more mature and influential theory of language develops out of his later analyses of the work of art. He comes to recognize that words are not merely signifiers bearing meaning thanks to a denotative correspondence to a pre-existing equipmental context. In other words, the words we use do not just point out relationships and interconnections that were already there in our practices.

Rather, Heidegger comes to recognize that words can also function like works of art, as small cases of truth setting itself to work, or what I would call microparadigms. In other words, words need not merely articulate a preexisting set of relations, but can create new relations--and must if we are not to exhaust the pool of social meanings. A word can name reality into being. This naming-into-being is the poetic heart of language, the source of its ontologically generative capacity to shape reality. Heidegger's most famous example of a work of art is the Greek temple, which "gathers" and "preserves" a certain "understanding of being." As a work of art, the Greek temple both reflects and directs public sensibility; it first embodies and then conveys to us a sense of what matters to us as a community, a community the intelligibility of which its members help constitute. [3]

Perhaps the most crucial dimension of Heidegger's analysis is his insistence that the work of art must maintain the "essential tension" between what Heidegger calls "earth and "world." In other words, to be a work of art, the artwork must not close off the struggle between the open-ended totality of interpretive content ("world") and that which resists all interpretation ("earth"); the work of art must preserve the tension between interpretation (world) and that which resists the interpretation (earth). Thus an artwork for which there could be one right interpretation would not count as a work of art. The work of art must resist being interpretively exhausted; it must preserve the sanctity of the uninterpretable within itself even as it offers itself up to interpretation. Accordingly, if a film as rich as The Silence of the Lambs is a work of art, there will be no one correct interpretation of it--this is just what Heidegger means when he assigns the name "earth" to the interpretively inexhaustible dimension of art that an artwork properly speaking can never foreclose. [4]

In sum, Heidegger would teach us that "reality," so often taken for granted, should be seen not as the basis but rather as the destination of our investigations. Reality is produced through the ongoing agon of intelligibility, the ongoing social contestation and accomplishment of our interpretative practices, an agon in which the work of art occupies a central role. Heidegger's conceptualization of the art-work leads to a revealing understading of the intersection of film and culture studies. Films, when they function as works of art, articulate a vision of the artist or artists' understanding of being, a general sense of what we are all about, of what matters to us. And, insofar as the movie finds (or creates) an "us," an audience with whom the understanding it embodies resonates, the movie will reinforce a certain understanding or vision (to borrow on the perhaps overdrawn and potentially ocularcentric metaphor).

On this reading, interpretations, like the films themselves, endeavor to enrich the audience's awareness by articulating an understanding that resonates with and deepens not just our immediate filmic experience, but the impact of that experience on our more general understandings of our place in the world and the meaning of our existence, what Heidegger calls our "understanding of being."

As a Heideggerian hermeneut I am placed in a paradoxical situation, then, for to show you what I take to be the deep existential meaning of this filmic work of art I find myself struggling to interpretively exhaust it; but were I to succeed in doing so then I would in fact have failed hermeneutically. For if I interpretively foreclose this film in order to show you how it works as a work of art, then I really will have shown that, in virtue of being forecloseable, it is not a work of art at all; total success would mean utter failure here. Fortunately, a film as rich as The Silence continues to offer the attentive reader new insights--although whether it is hermeneutically an artistic onion or an exhaustible artichoke must remain in question.

With these precarious guidelines in mind, let me just briefly sketch the contours of the broader or more general historical narrative within which I would insert my interpretation of The Silence of the Lambs. Simply put, this broader frame is the history of philosophy's self-imposed exile of the body, A. K. A., "the silence of the limbs."

The story goes something like this: Somewhere in the history of philosophy the body was lost. This isn't like misplacing one's house keys, or losing one's glasses on top of one's head. No, its more like losing your whole head on top of your head. But "losing your head" is too easily heard in a cognitivistic register, when in fact it was only because the body was lost--in the special sense to which I am alluding--that the realm of the cognitive came to inherit the full privileges it now enjoys. (To sharpen the Heideggerian point and insert it into the dominant cognitive-neuroscientific discourse: We do not think because we have a brain; we have a brain because we can think.) The Western mysticism of the logos and its theology of pure thought have misled philosophers since at least Plato's Theaetetus--in which Socrates is haunted by the silent double of his body--into the pursuit of an unreachable ideal: the Aristotelian God of pure thought thinking itself.

By looking at The Silence of the Lambs I will try and motivate this metanarrative by drawing an implicit connection between the eclipse of the body by rationality in the history of philosophy and the flight from and denial of the "reality" of death, as this repression of death is sublimated into complex and interpenetrating language games and broader semiotic-systems of meaning.

My specific treatment of The Silence will endeavor to make intelligible Heidegger's claim in Being and Time that: "authentic being-toward-death . . . is the hidden basis of Dasein's historicity" (p. 438). In effect, I will attempt to read the success of The Silence of the Lambs as evidence for Heidegger's claim that the denial of death is the motor driving the historical creation and maintenance of a meaningful world. Or, as Bob Pippin glosses Heidegger's claim: "In the largest and most comprehensive sense, all of civilized life itself . . . is to be understood as a great recognition of, and avoidance of, mortality (and so not [primarily] the repression of instinctual life; the collective realization of virtue; the struggle between masters and slaves; . . . the rational organization of the means of production, etc.)." [5]

In short, my underlying claim is that the reason that The Silence won so many Academy awards and so many people love it, but without being able to say why, is that this film leads its audience through a vicarious repression of death. We so liked this movie--whose Francis Baconesque crucifixion of the Law constitutes one of the most graphically abject scenes ever to make it to celluloid, let alone to help garner 5 academy awards (and who would deny that this spectacle of the abject is also the high-point of the film's beauty?)--because it effectively reinforces our dangerous denial of death.[6]

II. Analysis

The opening sequence of the movie begins with a steady shot of what looks like a steep cliff or a pit. Eerie music is playing; we can see that there is a rope anchored to the top of the cliff, and it is moving. We hear breathing, getting louder, and realize that someone is struggling to climb up out of what looks like a pit but is in fact the steep face of a cliff. We soon see that it is Jodie Foster, as agent Clarice Starling, who is struggling with all her strength to climb up and out of this pit-like topological obstacle. Let me draw attention to two crucial facts.

First, choosing Jodie Foster for this role serves to effect a subtle blurring of the reality/movie ideation, an important blurring of what is known in film semiotics as the diagetic/extra-diagetic border. We grew up with Foster's happy-go-lucky tomboy and all-American country girl movies, she is a relatively easy character with which to achieve the vicarious identification upon which the cathartic or repressive actio in distans on which the film's affective effects depend. Further, if we remember that this young starlet, or should we say starling, was, while on her way to emotional maturity and adulthood, the victim of one of the most dramatic star-stalkings, namely that of John Hinkley Jr., whose assassination attempt on then President Reagan was carried out--in the grip of a near total loss of the distinction between film and reality--as an attempt to foster Jodie's love for him (through an overt mimicry of events from the movie Taxi Driver), then it becomes difficult not to see this choice of casting and/or character naming as a deliberate attempt to keep the movie/reality ideation indistinct. Such is, at any rate, its function. (I will return later to this important diagetic/extra-diagetic border-blurring use of the young Hollywood starlet/starling, and will speculate as to how to break the complex semiotic code of this and another symbolic reference to Reagan, thus addressing the question as to how to begin reading the overtly political dimension of the film.)

The second point is more germane to the opening sequence. We should all be clear about the importance of the this image of trying to climb up out of a dark place. The system of metaphor (or metaphoric) of the pit plays, through a subtle intertwining of homologous images, an absolutely central role in this film. We need to recognize that symbolically, the Senator's daughter, the one who is introduced as the "American Girl," and who is then trapped in Buffalo Bill's pit, is none other than a symbolic stand-in for Starling herself, the "little Starling" [7] who represents the death repressed and encrypted in the older Starling's unconscious. This becomes absolutely clear once we recognize the identity of two seemingly different images: the girl in the pit clutching the fuzzy white crying animal, and Lecter's drawing of Clarice holding the lamb (a drawing based on Starling's description to Dr. Hannibal "the cannibal" Lecter of her attempt to save the crying lamb by running off with it in her arms). It should be clear, then, that the American girl in the dark pit with the lamb-furred dog in her arms symbolically embodies the psychic event which Starling must confront deep in the lair of the "crazed killer," though the meaning of that confrontation has yet to be clarified (the fundamental task of the protagonist, as the very name Clarice suggests), and this central image represents the event which Clarice is fleeing from the very first scene. [8]

Someone might already want to object that, if with the first scene we are already seeing Starling struggling in vain to escape from this dark pit in her psyche, how is it that here she manages to climb up the cliff? The answer is given in the rest of the first scene. The next few shots convey that message that she is not able to escape the as yet unnamed terror from which she flees. We watch as she struggles up out of the pit, and then runs away from it through the forest. Next she hits a net wall, a stand-in for the walls of a past that still imprisons her. She manages to make it over this wall, but, just as she seems to be escaping into the foggy woods beyond, she is "caught," called back by a red-shirted servant of Crawford. This is an obvious reenactment of the traumatic event from her past when the young Clarice ran off with the lamb into the dark only to be caught "by the sheriff's deputies" shortly thereafter. By showing us her inability to run away from her past, this opening scene seems to be saying: "she never gets very far," an interpretation thoroughly corroborated by later events (especially by her choice of profession vis-à-vis her father's), and this sets up the necessity of the rather bizarre analysis she will undergo.

As though in direct response to her latest attempt to escape her past, her inner pit, she is called for with the words: "Crawford wants to see you." The words are totally compelling. She hurries--drenched with sweat--to be seen by Crawford. To get there she has to walk across the campus and we see that it is an FBI training school. We get a sense of complete intensity and seriousness--as she sees her friend they do not break pace but just slap hands in passing. We see her climb into an elevator filled with huge men in red--demons or angels?--the doors close and we can't tell if she is going up or going down. But in Crawford's office, which nevertheless strikes us as being somewhere below--like an underworld into which the hero must venture in order to learn how to complete her journey--everyone speaks in whispers, as though in fearful deference to their master. She is intentionally left alone in his office long enough to study the brutal pictures of Buffalo Bill's victim's, their bodies a bloated splotchy blue red, large patches of skin removed in varying geometric shapes from various spots all over their bodies.

I describe this for two reasons. This scene allows us to glimpse something of Crawford's plotting and manipulative style--he is obviously as in control of the events occurring in his stronghold as Lecter, despite being a prisoner, is in his. Note that here we are beginning to anticipate the question of the effect of Starling's dual and dueling father figures, the competing but also complimentary models for idealization embodied by Crawford (the Guru) and Lecter (the psychiatrist). Further, the pictures of the mutilated bodies on the walls of Crawford's office provide the first hints at Buffalo Bill's "pathology" as well as the viewer's first glimpse of real gore in what is by the end going to turn out to be by far the goriest movie ever to gain such popularity with critics and public alike. [9]

As Crawford looks at Starling, he remembers his approval of her: "I remember you . . . as I recall you grilled me pretty hard on the Bureau's civil right's record during the Hoover administration, I gave you an 'A'." She immediately corrects him, reminding him of the phallic barb he'd attached to his approval: "an 'A-', Sir." He smiles, and a later scene is set in that we now see her hyper-awareness of the approval of this particular father figure; in this regard Crawford clearly represents the impossible approval she so desperately craves from her long dead (town Marshall) father. Crawford says he has an "interesting errand" for her. "Do you spook easily, Starling?" "Not yet sir." {Hear preceding}

It is Crawford that sends Starling to Lecter; this could mean that she must transfer her libidinal cathexes from this father to a new love object in order to find a way out of the pit in which she is in some sense trapped. "Crawford," if, following the work of French semiotician Julia Kristeva, we pay attention to the phonetic materiality of the language, then we notice the drawn out syllables of Craw-ford, as compared the harsh-sounding sharpness of "Lecter." Lecter: the name is appropriately reminiscent of the name of superman's arch-enemy, the evil mastermind Lex Luthor (Lecter is nearly a condensation of the first and last syllables of Lex Luthor; no doubt this is simply fortuitous). Lecter is first introduced as: "The psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter." Notice the officiality; he is being introduced as a psychiatrist first, only immediately afterward as "Hannibal the Cannibal," a "monster," and finally as the "they-don't-have-a-name-for-what-he-is." Lecter is that which the Law cannot name, the ineffable, the uncategorizable, the absolute Other of pure evil, the abject, the Monster--and he thus represents death, even if it is Buffalo Bill who represents killing.

He is introduced as "the psychiatrist," and the name "Hannibal Lecter" literally connotes the "conqueror reader" (Hannibal the Conqueror plus Lecter, "reader" in Latin). This conqueror-reader conquers victims (like Starling) by reading them; he reads and so consumes victim and patient alike. Doctor Chilton, the only representative of the official ranks of psychiatry proper, introduces him as "a psychopath, pure evil; so rare to catch one alive; he's our most prized possession . . . from a research point of view, that is." Dr. Chilton inevitably gives us a chill as he oozes his slick yet repulsive come-ons to Starling. (If we contrast Chilton's slick repulsiveness to Lecter's later gruesomely attractive violence we note that Chilton comes off as a much less appealing character. And much could be said about the long history of Hollywood's ambivalent relationship with and treatment of the psychiatrist). [10]

We are duly impressed by Starling's professionalism in handling Chilton, but does Chilton's cold, sadistic researcher persona (which Lecter is instrumental in painting, by the way) in any way justify the outcome implied by the final scene? My impression was that as Lecter walks off to quite literally "have his old friend for dinner" {Hear Lecter}, Chilton has long-since lost the sympathies of the audience (a sizable portion of the packed audience was in fact laughing when I first saw this). Chilton's fate, the final moment projected beyond the literal ending of the film, and thus across the already blurred diagetic/extra-diagetic border between film and "reality," will be crucial to my conclusion. The rupturing of this symbolic prophylactic separating the internal space of the artistic experience from the external space of the "real" social world facilitates the transference from art to world, and thus it helps, in the terms we began with, to make this work of art work.

We will come back to this point soon, but we need to say a bit more about Lecter, this seemingly absolute Other. (For, I will argue, while it is seductive to think of death as absolutely Other, this is also dangerous, because it facilitates the denial and repression of death.) Lecter's alterity, his otherness, is reinforced by his display of amazing powers; his penetrating insight is supernatural. Starling is led through the red walls of prison-hell by Dr. Chilton, who she manages to ditch (perhaps he could not take her as far as she needed to go?--literary analogies abound--Dante's trip through the Inferno, e.g., and his necessity of switching guides to travel through different regions). She is then reassured by Barney (named after the reassuring purple children's dinosaur?), the friendly black "order-ly" dressed all in white. Barney tells her "to keep to the right"--advice which is fortuitously ambiguous between two meanings: 'keep to what is good and right,' and 'keep to the right side of the hallway'--we naturally assume the latter, but that fact that she doesn't walk very close to the right side of the hallway (at least from one camera angle) reinforces the former. What is clear is that she is told by all the representatives of the Law--the FBI Deputy Director, the psychiatrist, the order-ly--not to go near Lecter, and that, conversely, she eventually transgresses this and progressively all the pre-established commandments of the Law as she comes more and more under the sway of Lecter.

Lecter himself is located at the heart of a deep labyrinth, surrounded by a continuum of more and more broken men, the last of whom, "multiple Migs", seems to have been evolutionarily de-evolved through his proximity to Lecter into a mad monkey-man. Lecter is encased in thick glass with small air holes at the top, yet he is in control of every moment of their meeting. Lecter's unstoppable insight tears into her; he identifies her immediately, then goes on to detail her autobiography as though he could gaze straight into the darkest corners of her soul.

Later he demonstrates that his power of smell can dissect her being: "You wear Evian [tellingly, a palindrome of naïve] skin cream, and [scent of springtime] perfume, but not today." No spring today. Today whatever happiness and innocence she might have enjoyed in childhood, any hope of a coming spring, is far behind. His final olfactory insight is interesting in that: "Your father, did he stink of the land" can quite easily be heard as "Your father, did he stink of the lamb?"

Lecter analyses her reub-like attempt to conceal her Origins, her attempt to repress and escape her country-bumpkin past (a past integrally associated with the death of her father). The return of the repressed is triggered after this encounter with Lecter; the sight of her beat-up Pinto induces her first cathartic flashback, complete with affect. We see her in childhood greeting her father as he comes home from work, a happy little Country girl, then, back in the bleak industrial present, sobbing uncontrollably.

Again, we must skip more, just highlighting a few important events as we go: the clues Lecter gives Starling during her subsequent visits--his power demonstrated by his talking Migs to death--Starling finds his trophy room--she jacks open the garage door, cracking it open just enough to slip into this hidden repository of the past, the unconscious, the literal version of the Repressed (called "Your self storage")--she cuts her inner thigh open on the door, symbolizing the loss of her virginity and/or her first menstruation, (i.e., her symbolically leaving childhood behind and entering on her way to maturity; thus next the back seat of the limo as if on prom night; she pulls back the veil and finds the first head).

The ordinary psychoanalytic reading might read this as a step toward maturity through this cathecting with a man other than her father. And Lecter seems to be encouraging the development of the sexual dimension of her relationship with Crawford. This sets up the later scene in the car when, ostensibly describing Bill, Starling really seems to be describing Crawford's imagined sexual prowess, to his coded approval. Then we see her humiliation when she is left embarrassed in front of the local Sheriff's deputies, as if haunted by the myriad reflections of a hall of paternal mirrors. In the face of these spectres of her father's disapproval she de-cathects the event of her father's death, seeing him in the coffin again; here the events run together, bridging the time-gap and calling the character of the real narrative into question. Then she examines the dead body--an obvious stand-in for the antecedent image of her dead father--analytically, coolly, and discovers the death head moth pupa.

This moth--as can be seen from the movie poster--is a symbol of pivotal significance--the death's head is "an emblem of mortality," the OED tells us. The design on the back of the moth (which on the poster covers Foster's mouth, as if rendering her mute) is a well-known Salvador Dali image--a cluster of naked bodies forming the outlines of a skull. The central image--right between the eyes (of the skull), so to speak--is the crucifixion. Directly below the Christ-figure, covering it from the waste down, are two nude figures that could be Adam and Eve, with their backs turned dispassionately away from the viewer (the innocent and deathless paradise lost). By being stuck in the throat of its victims, the death's head moth takes on connotations of being killed by that which you repress, that which sticks in your throat, that of which you cannot speak--death. Other than its prominent spot on the movie poster, this death's head moth image appears fully only three times in the film, here in this autopsy, in the lab when it is explained, and then at the pivotal moment when the presence of the moth allows Starling to realize that the man she is talking to is James Gum, alias Buffalo Bill.

Lecter calls the moth a "butterfly"; it symbolizes Buffalo Bill's desire for a powerful self-transcendence. The same moth is found in the throat of the severed head from Lecter's treasure room. We know that the name Lecter gave of the patient, Hester Mofet, turns out to be an anagram for "the rest of me." "The rest of me" is also the main part of the title of Reagan's so-called autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? (which Michael Rogin analyses thoroughly and persuasively in his masterpiece of political psychoanalysis, Ronald Reagan, the Movie [11]). This is significant in that the Hertz-limousine in which the headless body is found dressed as though for the Prom--pushing further the symbolically overlapping ideation of sex and death--is draped in the American flag. The flag also appears three times at important junctures: here; again when Lecter makes a 'crucial-fiction' of the Law (where the flag becomes the wings of the Christ-butterfly); and then in the final scene, when Starling blows away Buffalo--"they say he likes to skin his humps"--Bill, letting the sun shine cathartically into her darkest core, redeeming, it would seem, both Starling and, insofar as we have been participating vicariously through her in a generalizable analysis, the audience. But when the character of this redemption is better understood it turns out, I believe, to be a false and even a dangerous salvation in which we encounter the limits of vicarious psychoanalysis. This, I believe, is the deeper message of the film.

To see this we must understand what Starling's analysis accomplishes, what issues it revolves around. One clue has already been given: her father "reeks of the Lamb"; when we see what this means the rest of the clues to this puzzle, if not Oedipal than Sphynxian, fall more or less easily into place. From Starling's analysis we learn that her mother died when she was very young, and her father when she was a young teenager. The image Lecter draws of her--holding the lamb in her arms--nicely sums up the essence of her analysis, and the content of the image is confirmed when she chases gum down into the darkness of his lair and dis-covers the girl in the well crying and holding the substitute "lamb." [12] Remember how she had described to Lecter what she was thinking and feeling when she ran away with the one lamb: "it was very cold, very cold. I thought if I could just save one, but it was so heavy. . . ." Who is this one that she wants so desperately and futilely to save? One of her dead parents? Her father, as the flashbacks suggest ("he was so heavy")? Or even her mother (as suggested both by the American Girl's pleas from the bottom of the pit: "I wanna see my mommie!" and by the corpse of the mother rotting in the darkest corner of her unconscious in the room where the confrontation takes place--a confrontation foreshadowed in the FBI training: "Where's your danger spot Starling?" "In the corner." "Did you check your danger spot?" "No." "That's the reason you're dead.") Or is it not her own death that has been most deeply repressed and doubly-concealed, hidden behind the death of her mother which is itself concealed by the death of her father? Maybe we can answer these questions by seeing what it is that she does to finally 'cure' herself.

To answer such questions we have to ask: what about the human-flesh woman's suit making Bill? ("Love your suit, Senator." Lecter's final taunt to the Senator makes clear that he understood what Bill was up to; the Senator embodies the image which Buffalo Bill will kill and skin her daughter in order to become.) Perhaps one could argue (heterosexistly) that the androgynous neither-man-nor-woman Bill is like a child whose development is arrested. If this were true than Starling's victory over him could be taken as a symbolic triumph over that part of her that was stuck and couldn't mature. We could unpack this by asking: What does it mean to kill the boy inside her who wants to be a woman? Is this supposed to be a necessary step of her becoming a woman? If we listen to the lyrics of the gothic song to which Gum does his famous dance (the final image of which is doubled in Lecter's crucifixion of the Law), the words are: "I see the night, we always fall, all things pass in time. I disagree, the girl said. I've seen the hopes and dreams lying on the ground." As I said, there is something to the straightforward psychoanalytic interpretation; but The Silence paints this surface Oedipal drama atop a deeper existential one (thereby obscuring the latter from view). [13]

As the song-lyrics corroborate, Bill, although a polyvalent symbol, is fundamentally the man who loves death ("Somebody loved this guy," the entymologist tells Starling in reference to the death's head moth pupa), who nurtures the death's head moth. He is the evil man who traps little girls in dark pits, the man in the song who tries to talk the little girl into giving up hope. (It is interesting how easy it is at first to mistake the American Girl's screams as song Lyrics, her "Help me, let me out of here" barely making perceptible, through song, the repressed memories trapped in Starling's unconscious. These voices from the pit or her unconscious are quite interesting; her final words to the "girl" encrypted in her unconscious--the command to: "Be Quiet!"--help reinforce my 'repressive hypothesis.') Bill is the bogeyman. As his first and final appearances make clear, his are the eyes that look at you from out of the deep shadows of the night; his is the malevolent hand reaching invisibly toward you from the darkness, he is the presence that makes the lambs scream like children! Simply put, he is the killing face of death, death in its nightmare mask, death as it tears life away from us, death in the hyperbolic cruelty of its utter senselessness, death meeting us--as it will meet each and every one of us--to take our lives away from us, the death that kills us.

Lecter is death, but a death that reveals itself to us only as murder, as Bill. (They are two sides of the same coin; to meet death is to be killed. This explains why Lecter first refers to Bill as "That no one"--murder is nothing except death.) Thus, unlike Lecter, who is scariest when he is most most revealed (as in the bright white light of his cage in the final scene of Starling's analysis), Buffalo Bill is most frightening when he is masked, when he personifies the hostile eyes and hands lurking in the shadows, waiting to draw us in--when we let down our guard in a moment of sympathy for a stranger, (e.g., and here Bill's modus operandi recalls that of Ted Bundy).

When Starling follows Gum down into the darkness to rescue the girl in the pit, she has to confront the room in which the death of the mother is stored. We see the ancient corpse sitting in a bathtub full of mold and cobwebs, decomposing from many years of neglect. Could there be a better analogy for this deep dark corner of her mind, this keep or crypt where the bodies are stored--the Freudian unconscious (and we are led to believe that the death buried most deeply here is her mother's). The lights go out and she is alone in the room with death. She can see nothing, he has his night-vision goggles on; death is the Other here, the constant but invisible presence. He follows her through the darkness, taking his time, savoring her terror as Lecter savors her emotional pain. Finally he cocks his gun slowly. . . . But Starling spins in slow-mo and blows Bill away, her bullets shatter the glass and light comes pouring in--total catharsis! She won, she overcame him, she rescued the little girl inside herself by beating the bogeyman, banishing evil, killing death. (And the flag appears in the sunlight: the Law is restored, although the final image of this scene, of the two butterflies becoming one, hints that even with the elimination of Bill, Lecter--the real threat--is still out there.)

This sounds something like a cure, or at least like a happy ending; a reading reinforced by the penultimate scene in which she achieves what Kafka's "man from the country" was unable to, she is initiated into the order of the Law, and Crawford tells her what she's needed so badly to hear: "Your father would be proud," the handshake he gives her signaling the closure of the sexual dimension of their relationship, the successful resolution of her Elektra complex. Sounds nice and happy, right?

The problem with reading this as a cure or happy ending is that the scene I just described is not in fact the end. The final scene throws this penultimate one into graphic relief: the film ends with Lecter going off to kill and eat Dr. Chilton, thereby closing and sealing the gateway to reflexivity, symbolically eliminating the psychiatrist, the institutional path to self-knowledge. What is the message of this?

It is one thing to heroically embrace the tragic mortal struggle in the face of death, and quite another to think that we can somehow defeat death itself. Death cannot be killed. When we think we have beaten death--as in the dramatic climax of The Silence when Agent Starling blows Buffalo Bill away--our cathartic release is just an example of what Marcuse called a "repressive desublimation," a release which only reinforces the general repression of death. The final scene of the film suggests that by convincing ourselves that death doesn't exist, we leave it free to wreak its havoc on others, in this case to eliminate the very source of its own possible discovery, the psychiatrist, and then--do not doubt it for a moment--to come for us as well.

Thus, Starling's belief that she is safe from Lecter, from death, in other words, our belief that we viewers are safe from death, seals the attempt--in which the audience which ignores the deeper existential and psychoanalytic message is completely complicitous--to exorcise the spectre of death. We gather together publicly in the theatre to convince ourselves that death has been vanquished, that death is dead. But death is no more dead than height is high. Starling tells her friend, "He won't come after me. I don't know how to explain it; he'd consider that rude"--but Lecter's propriety is a very fragile hook on which to hang her hopes. Starling's belief that Lecter won't come after her, which Lecter encourages her to believe (when he says "I think the world is more interesting with you in it, Clarice"), helps preserve this beguiling film's illusion of the requisite Hollywood happy ending, and, more seriously, allows us audience members to feel that we have overcome death vicariously through a heroic once-and-for-all confrontation. But this belief that she--and thus we--will be safe is undermined not only by the general impossibility of killing death, but by at least three specific and related considerations in the film.

Lecter remarks that we covet that with which we are familiar, and he is surely familiar with Starling. Remember that he says, "I think it would be quite something to know you in private life, Clarice," which is, of course, not an appropriate thing for the analyst to say to the analysand (although, as I will argue momentarily, Clarice is more of a "patient" than an "analysand"). More concretely, the belief that we will be safe from death is undermined by the suggested superimposition of two images from the film, the first obvious and disturbing, the second subtle but important: first, the image of Lecter stroking Clarice's finger when he hands her Buffalo Bill's file after her final analysis, and, second, the image of Lecter's finger subtly stroking the phone (in precisely the same way) after telling her that he won't be paying her a visit; a gesture which contradicts and thus undermines the utterance which has preceded it. This is a paradigmatic form of the "double-gesture," the taking back with the one hand (or final scene) what was bestowed with the other (earlier scene). This final image of Lecter's finger--stroking the phone--says it all: Death will be paying her a visit, even though she doesn't believe it; for she is each of us and death will be paying each of us a visit, even though we don't believe it.

"Every person believes in their unconscious that they are immortal," Freud says in The Interpretation of Dreams, and--in addition to being understood as a kind of Heideggerian work of art--this Academy Award winning Best picture can also be read as a kind of dream of the public unconscious. And a very successful public dream, where a successful dream means that the dream-work (of condensations and displacements) was able to disguise the true meaning of the dream just enough to keep us dreamers asleep, so that we could release some of the repressed anxiety which our general denial of death causes us, and do so without either awaking from the dream or confronting that denial of death which is the source of the repression in the first place. The existential-psychoanalytic underbelly of The Silence thus constitutes a kind of hidden wake-up call, the barely audible ring of an alarm-clock which would wake us from our public collusion to repress death, to wake us so that we might open our eyes and begin to come to terms with the existentialist thesis that the denial of death is itself the motor of history.

Furthermore, if--from this perspective--we question the authenticity of Starling's analysis, we may be struck by the fact that she did not really participate interpretively in the solution to her Oedipal puzzle. This is what I meant when I said that she is a "patient" rather than "analysand;" she plays a predominantly passive role in her own therapy. In each case, Lecter gives her answers disguised as clues--and she finds out the answer when she stops trying to reason out the clue. The last two clues, that allow her to find Gum, are no different. Lecter says: "we covet that which see everyday," he tells her that the distribution of bodies is not really random, and he tells her that the first principle is "simplicity" (he throws in some Marcus Aurelius, but this is just a smoke-screen; "Simplicity" is not a philosophical first principle of analysis but rather the brand name of a popular brand of dress-patterns). She puts the three clues together when she goes to the first victim, Frederika Bimmel's house, and--using her skill for uncovering little girl's secret hiding places--discovers that there was someone secretly taking nude photos of Frederika, learning, in other words, to covet the fleshy substratum of her feminine being. She also finds out that Frederika made dresses, seeing a dress pattern in her closet that exactly matches the body of the victim who was her father's double! Only then does she realize: he's making a dress, a dress of human flesh!

But perhaps most telling is the moment when Hannibal Lecter provides her with the interpretation of her "most painful childhood memory." Starling: "I was so scared to look inside, but I had to." Lecter: "D'you think that if you save poor Catherine you could make the lambs stop screaming, don't you? You think if Catherine lives you won't wake in the dark ever again, to that awful screaming of the Lambs?" She confirms this interpretation even as she tries to resist it, "I don't know, I don't know." He recognizes and overcomes this weak resistance, sealing his interpretation with his, "Thank you Clarice, [whispered]: Thank you." {a sound file of the preceding}

So we could ask: is this an accurate portrait of the psychoanalytic treatment? Is it, further, successful? Does it succeed it achieving Freud's modest goal of transmuting neurotic misery into ordinary suffering? Is this a "cure" accomplished through the recovery of a magic semiotic decoder ring facilitating the de-encryption of the lost child and the abolition of death? Or is this not rather a dangerous substitution, at the level of the public unconscious, of the vicarious psychoanalysis of a Hollywood quick cure instead of the analysis in principle interminable? In short: Can death be confronted and overcome, or is this successful (and success entitling) de-encyption--this rescue from the pit or crypt of the unconscious--not an impossible id fantasy, a substitution of a final, heroic, once-and-for-all, happy-ever-after accomplishment for the unending vigilance which is in fact demanded of the resolute existential ethos?

I have already noted that this repressive desublimation of the fear of death, through this public fantasy of its overcoming, results in the futurally projected death, projected beyond the film and into the reality of the mundane flow of life (the death of the publicly recognized psychiatrist representing a closing off of the gateway whereby death might even be confronted--remember that when they first met Chilton warned Starling that she was "just to [Lecter's] taste," that is, that she is not safe from death, as she and we would like so desperately to believe). As the film ends, and the credits roll, Lecter follows Chilton off into an indiscriminate stream of people even as we ourselves stream out of the theater. Here again the diagetic/extra-diagetic boundary is transgressed. It is as if Lecter were walking off the screen and into the real world; for them and for us, life goes on as the extraordinary mixes into the mundane. The unstable gothic-pastoral mix of this final image leaves us with an unheimlich sense of the danger lurking beneath the familiar. One of the last distinct images of The Silence is of a child learning to ride a bike, mastering reality, creating and participating in the intricate web of meaning-conferring rituals (and semiotic systems) with which we surround ourselves in everyday life, denying and repressing the ultimate background motivating all such systems of meaning.

I leave you with a brief recapituation of the fortuitous ambiguity in the title itself (and the interpretations it entitles): an ambiguity caused by the subjective and objective genitive of the "of" in The Silence of the Lambs. The title not only points to the meaning of The Silence of the Lambs which we've focused on, namely, the will to silence the memory of the lambs, in other words, the desire to silence the call of death, it also points to that which silences the lambs, that which in fact made them silent: death. Perhaps we have to leave "earth" and "world" in tension here, in the tension of the very ambiguity of the title of this artwork. But this should not stop us from taking note, as I have done, of the consequences of the fact that the silence of death is--not surprisingly given what has been said about the birth of meaning from the denial of death--written over the silencing death, obscuring the perhaps impossible source of its own possibility.

In conclusion, Americans loved this movie, I am arguing, because it allows us to convince ourselves, if only unconsciously, through our vicarious participation in the drama, that death is no longer a threat, that we have heroically walked into the dragon's lair and the den of the monster and have vanquished death itself. But that is dangerous. For, as this film also teaches us, in the final scene, death cannot be killed; there is no once-and-for-all battle through which we could vanquish the condition that defines our mortality. The danger--which the ending of this film illustrates--is that when we think death has been overcome (although society is only too happy to agree with us and celebrate our heroic deeds), what we effectively do is set death free, allowing it free reign.


1. Let me just note a few of these concerns briefly. First, simply put, is the assumption that the Academy Awards matter, and the further assumption that the "Best Picture" award holds some special status amongst the totality of awards given by the Academy. This could be restated in the somewhat weaker form of a conditional; namely, that if the Academy Awards matter, then the Best Picture Award really matters, or is somehow especially meaningful (note that this is not as yet to characterize how the Academy Awards matter, but is simply to assert that there is a presumably important sense in which they are meaningful). As the logicians among you know, in order to falsify this conditional one would have to hold the antecedent true and the consequent false; in other words, one would have to argue that although the Academy Awards mean something, the Best Picture Award either means nothing, or at least holds no special status vis-á-vis the other awards. Although I think it untenable, one could make such an argument. I imagine that this would be an argument of the kind a highbrow critic--perhaps the highbrow inside all us budding cultural critics--might find initially appealing, especially if this highbrow has granted (at least) hypothetically that the Academy Awards matter at all. "The Academy Awards are a bad enough indicator of good art," we could imagine our highbrow sneer, "but what panders more to the masses" or, to update the content of our highbrow's spleen, "what plays more easily into the hands of the hegemonic influences of the capitalist cinema market--than the Academy award for Best Picture?"

Let me just say in response to this: Okay. But so what? The problem with applying this kind of economic (or other) reductionism to art is that it tends to ignore the particularity of the subject; it doesn't say anything about why this particular film--and not some other--was so popular. Even if the masses are asses, and surely we are, and even if the Academy Awards play into our false capitalist consciousness, and surely they do, I still want to know why this particular film won such broad-based acclaim. Almost everyone liked The Silence of the Lambs, but no one seemed to be able to say why they liked it. I will argue what it is about the particularity of this film which makes it so fascinating. But in so doing, I don't want to contest the importance or even the veracity of Marxist or other metacritiques. For I myself am interested in the possibility of critiquing culture from the perspective of a Heideggerian understanding of the work performed by the work of art, the artwork's socio-cultural function and effect.

We will briefly characterize the Heideggerian theory of the work of art as both reflective and directive of cultural consciousness below. But notice that assuming this Heideggerian perspective easily leads to a general low-brow critique of high-brow critique. Such low-brow critique of high-brow critique is sustained by an appropriation of Heidegger's thought which shears his ontological method away from its immanent philosophical content (as found for example in the important work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. At the other end of the spectrum, the current master of the aristocratic discourse etiquette is Jacques Derrida, at least by popular acclaim. Such an ascription of 'aristocracy by popular demand' is only apparently paradoxical--high cost often generates desirability and not the reverse--think e.g. of McLuhan's 'conspicuous consumption').

So, when I begin by noting that "In 1991 Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs made off with five Academy Awards, including the coveted 'Best Picture,' my point is simply to set up a system of questions so that we can ascertain something of the existential and psychoanalytic rather than the economic meaning of the fact, which we will now assume to be marked by these five Academy awards, that American culture so enthusiastically embraced this violent and disturbing film. (back)

2. Hubert Dreyfus, Being-in-the-World (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p.3. (back)

3. As I understand the later Heidegger, there are in fact works of art of three orders of magnitude: naming words (or micro-paradigms), the work of art proper (or paradigms), and the macro-paradigms, the culturally renewing event which Heidegger calls "god." (back)

4. In this sense, Heidegger is (on Lyotard's definition) a post-modernist with respect to art, but not (I would argue) with respect to history (for which Heidegger does want to tell a single overarching meta-narrative). (back)

5. Bob Pippin, Idealism as Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 383n16. (back)

6. True, philosophers, with the notable exceptions of the existentialists and a very few others, have not generally distinguished themselves via their treatment of death. As an anecdote of this denial, consider the following. In Anthony Flew's A Dictionary of Philosophy (St. Martin's, 1979), we read, under the heading death: "See survival and immortality." On the other hand, the main objective of Stanley Cavell's Presidential Address to the 1996 Eastern meeting of the APA seemed to be the legitimation of film as an object of philosophical analysis. (So, with Cavell's blessings, we will now begin decoding the semiotics of The Silence.) (back)

7. As Lecter will call her during their first meeting ("Fly away little Starling"), emphasizing that she is in flight from her past. (back)

8. This is clarified later in one of the pseudo-psychoanalytic exchanges. Clarice: "I opened the gate for them, but they wouldn't run, they just stood there." Lecter: "But you were able to, and you did run, didn't you Clarice?" (back)

9. Slasher flicks have long enjoyed a big fan club amongst my "Jason generation," often generating a seemingly unending chain of sequels. Reanimator stands out in my mind as having garnered some critical acclaim, and largely for its pushing of the limits of the abject, the repulsively fascinating (a theme which Cronenberg's Crash thoughtfully reexamines). But like the Evil Dead trilogy, this acclaim was mostly limited to a the slightly different category of film experience, that of "the late night cult film." Perhaps others would rightly point out that standards of permissibility with regards to violence have changed greatly in a relatively short period of time--such that Psycho struck its contemporary viewers as shockingly graphic, brutally grotesque, and frankly terrifying; the classic, perhaps somewhat apocryphal story is that after watching Psycho viewers refused to take showers alone. (And how many future ocean swimmers did Jaws disabuse of the inclination?) If Psycho seems tame in comparison to today's brutal shockers, that is perhaps a good sign of how much greater a tolerance for the public display of violence we have developed in a relatively brief period of time. And rather than immediately blaming this increased violence on these movies, we should employ a hermeneutic of suspicion and remind ourselves of Foucault's question: what kind of body does society need? What socio-psychological needs in this postmodern world are being filled by this increased ability to ignore or repress even these most violent reminders of death? (With this question we are back to The Silence.) (back)

10. For a systematic and compelling feminist reading of The Silence which provides alternative interpretations of some of these same details (and includes several important facets which my interpretation misses--including perhaps most notably the importance of the Vampire trope--and in so doing helps make the argument that this film is in fact an essentially polysemic art-work in the Heideggerian sense), see Cynthia A. Freeland, "A Feminist Framework for Horror Film," the introductory chapter for her forthcoming book, The Naked and the Undead: Feminism, Philosophy, and the Appeal of Horror. (back)

11. Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie: and Other Episodes of Political Demonology (Berkeley: UC Press, 1992). (back)

12. As we pursue the trope of redemption, it should be kept in mind that biblically, the lamb represents sacrifice: the sacrifice substituted for Isaac, symbolizing the end of human sacrifice (an end which Buffalo Bill sets out to reverse), and the sacrifice of Christ, the "lamb of God." (back)

13. See esp. Alain J. J. Cohen, "Il quid pro quo/The Silence of the Lambs: Trasposizioni: romanzo - script - film," Carte Semiotiche 2 (1995), pp. 74-84. (back)

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