Enjoying Your Symptom

One full hour of “Silence of the Lambs” passes until Hannibal Lecter has claimed his first on-screen victim. This is not to say that his cannibalism was some kind of secret — he is framed, for audience-conduit and FBI trainee Clarice Starling, as someone worth fearing; as if to underline this, Chilton produces a crime scene photograph. Although we never see the image itself, the photo captures (as explained by Chilton) one of Hannibal’s victims, mauled to death. This unnamed woman, signifier-less and face-less, calls to mind some of Doane’s musings on the censorship of the female gaze.

In Un Regarde Oblique, the male gaze cuts across the photograph, finding its terminal in the ornately framed nude; an epitomization, perhaps, of male fetish. But the female gaze cannot be so accounted for, and thus frames Doane’s reading of the picture:

Indeed, as a subject of the gaze, the woman looks intently. But not only is the object of her look concealed from the spectator, her gaze is encased by the two poles defining the masculine axis of vision. Fascinated by nothing visible — a blankness or void for the spectator… the female gaze is left free-floating, vulnerable to subjection. (Doane, 85).

Clarice looks at the photograph; Chilton looks at Clarice. This is a test, and Clarice is determined to pass it. Desperate to be taken seriously, she can display no visible reaction to the photographed gore. But her attempt to subsume the male position only ratifies Doane’s conceptualization of the feminine “mask.” Call it the Joan of Arc model: while there is a broad societal understanding, even quasi-acceptance, of this gender masquerade (of course a woman would want to be anything but), the Woman (capital W in the Lacanian sense) is still firmly planted within the field of the male gaze. Clarice looks at the photograph, Chilton looks at Clarice. 

As the pair move through the bowels of the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, of which Chilton serves as director, the dichotomous relationship between law and criminality seems to be altogether conflated with that of sanity and insanity. Which is to say, the first is entirely predicated on the existence of the second. 

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