Meat. There’s something off-putting about the word, even in isolation. Even for those of us whose diet consists largely of that fibrous, succulent substance, the monosyllable carries with it a faint connotation of revulsion. It bears a host of sensory associations: the dull thud of a freshly-cut hunk of flesh connecting with the butcher’s table. The smell of burning fat. The unyielding, spongy texture, the feeling of resistance to being ground apart by our teeth.
What’s even worse is when the word is juxtaposed with connotations of consciousness. Human meat. Meat-puppets. The meat of the brain. And so on and so forth. Shivers.
The realization that all we ultimately are is thinking meat, a mass of living tissue that just happened to stumble upon consciousness or the illusion of consciousness, is an intensely disquieting one. (Indeed, horror author Thomas Ligotti went so far as to base a book upon the subject; those of you who see the phrase “thinking meat” and feel the urge to read on, I encourage you to buy The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror.) So disquieting, in fact, that only one of our resident killers really addresses it in his myth. Sweeney Todd uses the political as a way of shifting the horror of cannibalism up a level—in its universe, the horrific thing is that humans have made other humans into meat due to the nature of the society in which they find themselves trapped. American Psycho is more willing to address the fact that humanity is nothing but a bundle of reactions and routines rather than a unified self, but again passes this off on a societal cause. In the world of Hannibal, however, the horror is philosophical—we are all thinking meat, and we are all on the menu.
* * * * *
For what’s the sound of the world out there? Those crunching noises pervading the air? It’s man devouring man, my dear, and who are we to deny it in here?
The cannibalistic orgy that forms the second act of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street begins as a nihilst’s alternative to Marxism. Todd, in his initial attempt to murder Judge Turpin, is a one-man proletariat rising up against a microcosm of the bourgeoisie, wreaking just revenge for the indignities and injustices wrought upon him. Even once the mark has escaped and the barber’s “Epiphany” has begun, he phrases his outpourings in Marxist language:
They all deserve to die,
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why?
Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,
There are two kinds of men and only two—
There’s the one staying put in his proper place
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face,
Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you!
At this moment, the framing of Burton’s film adaptation is particularly interesting. Todd, as the final lines of this verse are sung, stares at himself in a shattered mirror, smiles, and then turns on his heel, catching Mrs. Lovett’s eye. He has seen something in his own image, and it’s sparked a change in his thinking:
No, we all deserve to die,
Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I!
Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief,
For the rest of us death will be a relief,
We all deserve to die!
The third-person “they” has become the first-person “we”, and in a rhetorical flourish not present in the 1979 cast recording—Sondheim, who originally simply repeated “Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why,” had altered the lyric by the time of the 2005 Broadway revival, and the change remains in the film—Todd numbers himself and his companion among the damned. In the film, he goes so far as to seize her throat, thrust her into his barber’s chair, and bring his razor to her neck.
Looking into his own reflection has given Todd his true epiphany, though it’s one that his Benjamin Barker person-suit tries to shove down throughout the rest of Act II: he is beyond repair, the jagged fragments of his glass-face reflecting the irredeemable pieces of his soul. In a world where so much damage has been inflicted upon the lower classes by the upper class, there is no such thing as a chance at redemption, a rising of the proletariat and an abolition of injustice. All he can hope to achieve is to drag his oppressors screaming into hell along with him, putting his fellow sufferers out of their misery on the way.
It’s immediately after this that the central metaphor of Sondheim’s incarnation of Todd makes its appearance: hide the evidence of Todd’s various revenges and mercy killings by grinding them into Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies. Notably, it’s not Todd who has the idea, but Lovett herself. She’s the businessperson of the two, the practical mind that brings Todd’s grand schemes down to earth; she’s also, despite her suffering condition, a cog in the vast mechanical beast that is Industry, a victim who is unable to escape turning to her oppressors’ methods in order to survive. Thus it’s an avatar of capitalism, lower class notwithstanding, who spawns the notion of a very literal symbol for society’s horror: humans ground from thinking beings into meat, providing sustenance for the humans who will themselves undergo the same process. Only this time, it will be the poor rather than the privileged who dictate who gets eaten when.
Magnanimously, Todd and Lovett conclude the jewel of black comedy that is “A Little Priest”, a grocery list of sorts that covers the various professions the pie shop will prepare, with these lines:
Todd: Have charity toward the world, my pet!
Lovett: Yes, yes, I know, my love!
Todd: We’ll take the customers that we can get!
Lovett: Highborn and low, my love!
Todd: We’ll not discriminate great from small,
No, we’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone,
And to anyone at all!
Equal-opportunity cannibalism. Rich and poor alike will be butchered, rich and poor alike will eat.
However, Mrs. Lovett isn’t on board with Todd’s nihilistic vision. In many ways, she’s the ultimate villain of the play. Rather than bringing down the upper class, she dreams of joining it, regaling the barber with her visions of the two of them living well-to-do in a cottage by the sea and having rich friends over for dinner. Chopping up the rich and poor alike is not a way for her to prove some ideological point; it’s a means of advancement, a way for her to rise from the ranks of the lower classes and replace the members of the upper class with whom she and Todd dispose. She’s representative of the self-perpetuating lie of what we would call the American Dream were the play to take place on Yankee soil; there are no poor, merely temporarily embarrassed millionaires, as the quote attributed to Steinbeck goes. Mrs. Lovett sees all the oppression and suffering wrought upon the poor by an unjust system, and rather than bringing the system down by any means necessary merely wishes to advance far enough up its ladder that she can’t be hurt by it anymore. Fittingly, she suffers perhaps the ultimate poetic death of the musical—burned to death, a shrieking pile of raw sinew and bone, by her own oven.
As horrific as Sondheim’s vision of industrial hell is, it doesn’t descend to the posthumanist depths that Hannibal takes us to. Nowhere does it attempt to grapple with the philosophical question of whether human beings are actually thinking meat, fit for the grinder even in our most idyllic state. Rather, it presents us with a universe in which the reduction of humanity to stuffing for a greasy crust is exactly what it seems like: conscious intelligences being ground into flesh and sinew by the injustices of an industrial, class-based society. The horror is that selves are becoming nothing but the flesh they inhabit, not that there never were any selves to begin with. American Psycho takes us one step further: we have become soulless bags of meat, but societal causes are still to blame.
(to be continued)