TL;DR: If Oscar Wilde ate people he would eat Geoff Klock. Support your local library instead of paying for this book.
I promised this almost two months ago and I hope you’ll all forgive me for taking so long to deliver.
Going into Aestheticism, Evil, Homosexuality, & Hannibal: If Oscar Wilde ate people I had pretty high expectations for CUNY philosophy professor Geoff Klock. The book, had I been unable to find it at the University library, would have cost me around $90.00. That’s a huge investment for a scant 120 pages, one I was tempted to make, solely because of the implications made by the book’s title. The title implies that a marriage of aesthetic philosophy and queer theory used to analyze Brian Fuller’s Hannibal. It implies that, perhaps, a criticism of the “queer coded villain” trope might also be involved somewhere in that analysis. It implies that there will be at least some mention of the homoeroticism evident in the relationship arc between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter.
Suffice it to say I didn’t waste my money on this book and I still feel cheated.
Please note: this isn’t a Serious Academic Review and I’m a bit rude in it. This is a personal blog. What you see is what you get.
Let’s start with the basics.
If you aren’t familiar with academic writing, a.k.a lofty and cerebral writing that makes no attempt to meet its prospective audience where they’re at, then this is not a book I can recommend reading lightly. Klock’s style is largely inaccessible and florid. I enjoyed most of it, but it isn’t easy to parse his nested clauses, even with my college education, because I have aphasia. I imagine others will have similar experiences. While he explicates Hannibal extremely well, he doesn’t bother to attempt to familiarize the audience with the individual philosophers whose dicks he rides so hard (Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, others) and that can be aggravating for folks who want more context regarding aesthetic philosophy and the individuals who informed it. This is clearly meant for students who are already familiar with philosophy. I, personally, was left feeling like he was name-dropping just to look cool.
Klock opens the book briefly describing the principles of aesthetic philosophy as it was popularized by Oscar Wilde and a bunch of other dead white dudes from the 1800’s: beauty for its own sake is the only Moral Good, more or less. If that’s not what the audience is supposed to take away from this section, then you might want to consider that a failing on the part of the author to teach. You can read more about it and its associated art movement on Wikipedia. It’s an interesting perspective and Klock skillfully applies this lens to every aspect of Fuller’s adaptation. Whether it’s costumes, scene dressing, cinematography, editing, dialogue word-choice, actors’ tone and delivery, poetry referenced, visual and textual allusions, literary devices, color theory– it’s dizzying when the whole of it is laid out. It’s very easy, as a reader, to lean back in awe of the artistry. It is at times overwhelming but I found the density of these parts of the book to be pleasing. This intricate, close reading is exactly what I was looking for. It’s apparent that Klock appreciates the amount of love that went into making it. While Klock has no clear direction, no obvious point to prove with this analysis, it is decadent and fun to read, academically-speaking.
I wish he had stuck to his close reading and spared us all what comes next.
It isn’t until page 54, halfway through the book, that he introduces his central argument:
I have set Wilde’s aestheticism against the Social Justice Activists, and identity is the ground on which they are most radically opposed: for Pater, in the words of Yeats, identity is a center which cannot hold; modern Social Justice activism is founded on identity politics, whose anthem is Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way”, where my identity as a gay man or female or black [sic] is often anchored in a radical way, especially in the case of trans experience, where it is anchored more deeply than the physical body which has traditionally defined gender.
That is to say, in clearer terms, that a piece of media cannot be informed by aesthetic philosophies and be analyzed through the lenses of sexual, gender, or race identity. Why Klock felt the need to mention race when it has factored not at all in any part of his analysis to this point, even implicitly, is beyond me. I don’t know where to begin unpacking everything that is both incorrect and objectionable about this sentiment so please bear with me as I muddle through.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, this is the ugliest sentence I’ve ever read. This clumsy segue shoehorns in as many marginalized identities as possible without respect to syntax or the audience’s understanding of the tenuous grammar. It’s arrogant. The mere inclusion of the phrase, “for Pater, in the words of Yeats,” is dripping with pretention as if Klock simply could not stand the thought of his audience perhaps not noticing that he recognized Pater’s reference to Yeats– instead of just directly quoting either Pater or Yeats. It is morally ugly as well, barely concealing various prejudices. Calling human women “female” is reminiscent of those vitriolic incels oozing from the deepest crevices of the internet to perpetuate white supremacist violence.
It would perhaps read better as “Women, the gays and those darn millennials keep giving valid criticism of institutions and art and I don’t like it. Get out of my ivory tower, you plebians. Also, I don’t like Black or trans people, either.”
I feel like I should note that Klock failed to capitalize “Black” as is appropriate when discussing race rather than the color of crayon. I’m further compelled to point out that Klock’s bitter reference to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” dates his analysis, rooting it firmly in the sociopolitical landscape of 2011 United States– an aesthetic faux pas which he expounds for pages that Hannibal deftly avoids making in the very first pages of the book (6). He shows his hand a little more with this statement, highlighting how very much he fails to understand modern queer perspectives on intersectionality and institutional violence. If I weren’t so embarrassed for Klock, I’d be impressed by the narrowness of his understanding.
Let’s get one thing straight: Oscar Wilde was not. He literally died because he was gay, suffering ten years’ incarceration on “obscenity” (homosexuality) charges, before dying shortly after his release from prison. Bryan Fuller is also gay. Identity is indivisible from the art we make and the philosophies we construct. This reductive and narrow perspective, “identity is the ground on which [Social Justice and Aestheticism] are most radically opposed”, is insulting to Klock’s, Fuller’s, and Wilde’s audiences– the people reading this book who might have the audacity to be “female” or gay or Black or trans. The people who picked it up in the hopes that the author might have something substantial to say about how Hannibal treats the beautiful, the morally repugnant, and the queer.
Klock loosely constructs his argument from this point onward with little regard for his previous close reading. Remember: it took him half a book to work up the courage to state this position. Now, in an obvious effort to protect himself from criticism, he buries it in more pretention.
He remarks that “dissolving of identity [is] crucial to aestheticism”, attempts to prove this by referencing three different artists in rapid succession including Henry Darger who was an outsider artist, not an aesthete. For Klock, the dissolution of identity is a primary theme in Hannibal. The problem is, though, that isn’t the primary theme of Hannibal; rather the series concerns itself with the dissolution of societal barriers that would otherwise constrain the development of identity. An inherently-queer nuance Klock seems to have somehow missed despite his thorough attention to every aspect of the show.
Dissolution of societal barriers to the free expression of identity is central to queer discourse and queer existence. Whether it’s through petitioned repealing of unjust laws or Pride parades or bringing up our queerness in daily conversation, breaking down those norms that would otherwise conceal us is part of our everyday lives. In public or in secret, our mere existence requires us to celebrate our own beauty for its own sake or else no one will ever see us and love us for what we truly are.
Of course, in the context of Hannibal the identity constrained revolves around serial killing. Around violence and fear and transgression– but violence and fear and transgression have always been synonymous with queerness in mainstream media. A quick glance at the TV Tropes page for Bury Your Gays, which lists only the major pieces of media across all genres that employ the tradition of killing off queer characters as punishment for their transgressions, confirms that. The violence and fear (and thus queerness) in Hannibal are presented as artwork, though. They are agonizingly beautiful; disgusting but compelling in such a way that we can’t bear to look away and aren’t allowed to for a second as the camera lingers on intimate shots of viscera. According to the principles of aestheticism, because of this inherent beauty, the horrors of the series are not subject to moral judgment. Through aesthetic philosophy, Hannibal subverts the trope of the queer(-coded) villain: Fuller elevates villainy, and by proxy queerness, safely above petty moral judgment through the art it creates. In no way are aestheticism and queerness opposed in this text; they are aligned and intertwined. Aestheticism is used to symbolically support and, in some ways, make morally-safe the queerness of its characters.
Do you see? See? See how easy it is to form a thesis statement about aesthetic philosophy and conventional morality in Hannibal without homophobic allusions?
Yes, I’m mad about this.
No, I’m not done with it either. But I am done for today since I don’t want to subject y’all to a few thousand more words of my ranting on what is supposed to be something akin to a review.
The long and short of it is: this book contains some compelling analysis and it is painfully apparent that Klock only included “Homosexuality” in the title to sell copies to queer fans of the show — he goes out of his way to make explicitly clear the fact that he disagrees that queer theory is in any way applicable to Hannibal. While it is worth reading, I don’t recommend paying for this book if you don’t have to. Support your local library instead.