Hannibal and the Transcendence of the Autistic Mind
Hannibal impressed me right away by presenting an autistic character with "pure empathy." I understand autism to be definitionally a matter of unusually high empathy - a spectrum, sure, but above and beyond normative levels of empathy, not below. It's not as contrary or revolutionary a view as one might imagine, though it is somehow still a minority view. Ursula K. Le Guin (this enterprise's namesake) grasped it way back in 1971; her story Vaster than Empires and More Slow features an autistic character understood quite astutely in this way. But it has been forty-some years since then. The minority view is still a minority view.
In tonight's episode, these traits - autism and an "empathy disorder" - were presented by one character as a contradiction. This irked me initially, until I considered that the context was a trial in which all the things which made Will useful were used against him. This is how autism works in life as well as fiction; how all uniqueness is cynically identified with its opposite in order to undermine it, which in turn serves to reinforce normative supremacy. The very fact that autism is seen- strike that, portrayed - as a lack of empathy is an indictment of normalcy. That a difference in presentation of emotional states should belie a lack of emotion seems itself the conclusion of a mind lacking in empathy.
In one of the episode's final scenes, Will and Alana have a conversation in which she asks what the killer wants. Will replies that the killer wants to know him. Asked what she wants, Alana says she wants to save him. Forgive me for reading too far in, but this seems, at the end of this episode in particular, a perfect summation of the gap in empathic states which runs as a tension throughout the series. While we as an audience might question the decision to play up the similarities between sociopathy and autism (I have a hunch we will eventually be treated to an illuminating discussion as to their differences), Will's gift has always been about his capacity for proximity to any other state or constitution. When he says the killer wants to know him, he is also explaining why he suffered through the traumas of fieldwork - he wanted to know the killer, to find his center in a life of other people by reaching toward the far margins of human nature.
Normalcy seeks to save, holding normalcy as the highest ideal. It is born of a narcissism which betrays a lack of real insight. It is the force of entropy - uniform if only in death. Alana, good intentions considered, is merely a curious possible transformer, an agent by which Will might become saved - become normal. Of course, Hannibal's agenda will likely prove to be the exact inverse; to groom Will's oddness into actual psychopathy by emphasizing and increasing his alienation from everyone else. Both sides, when profiled (a type of reductionism from which the narrative manages to exact great nuance) are equally pathological in their goals. Normalcy, sociopathy - both are blind, manipulating extremes, set in unreal worldviews which cloud both judgement and perception.
Hannibal presents autism as the optimal state, at least in virtue of truth. In the world as it stands, it is something else indeed: a dangerous clarity, as that of Cassandra. Will is the agent of an unpopular idealism, the personified torment of sanity in a psychotic culture. Will, after all, is the only truly sane one, even or especially in his capacity for self-doubt. Everyone else is falsely assured.
While normalcy seeks to assimilate, empathy seeks to know, to understand - not an intellectual knowledge, but a personal one, a gnosis. To known another on its own terms, not through the self but despite it. The price of this knowing is steep; isolation, strangeness, an inability to blend in which is the natural result of clarity.
Why do autistics withdraw? Because they see people as they are? Perhaps withdrawal is simply the natural reaction to an intimate apprehension of human nature.