The Elephant Man, A Reflection On Human Dignity

The Elephant Man is a black and white portrait of human dignity and sensitivity hidden under a deformed body. In this mythical David Lynch film we discover the true story of Joseph Merrick, a young man suffering from Proteus syndrome who, after spending part of his life in the circus world, found calm in his last years at the London Hospital.

The story goes that Merrick had the soul of an artist and the heart of a poet.  He had only one useful hand, and although this was small like that of a 10-year-old boy, he always showed great skill at crafts. So much so that he was able to create fascinating constructions with paper, cardboard and toothpicks. These small works he used to give to all those people who were kind to him.

“It is true that my form is very strange,
but blaming myself for it is blaming God;
If I could create myself anew I would
try not to fail to please you.

If I could reach from pole to pole
or embrace the ocean with my arms, I
would ask to be measured by my soul,
The mind is the measure of man ”.

-J. Merrick-

When Mel Brooks entrusted David Lynch with the script for this story, he knew very well what he was looking for. The story of Joseph Merrick deserved to be brought to the big screen in a special, different way. Even more, it should be a tribute. His delicacy, his virtuosity and his intelligence had to transcend above that skin inhabited by bumps and deformities. His humanity had to overcome society itself, instantly despicable and grotesque, always eager to set its sights on what is different and strange.

The result exceeded all expectations. The film turned out to be a warm chiaroscuro canvas on human dignity, an unforgettable production where goodness emerges over perversion and the monstrous. The Elephant Man received 8 nominations for the Oscars in 1981 and although he did not win any, history has already made it a cult work, an unforgettable cinematographic jewel.

The elephant man : I am not an animal, I am a human being

David Lynch was very clear that the story of The Elephant Man  should be brought to the screen in black and white. Only in this way could the stele of that Victorian underworld that accompanied the life of Joseph Merrick be shown. Only in this way was it also possible to envelop the public’s gaze of that accumulation of sensations, anguish and emotions that marked the existence of this young British man suffering from serious malformations since the first year of life.

That monochrome photograph was very useful to illuminate, for example, that circus underworld where the elephant man was exhibited . The spectacle of the freakshow was the only resource available to people with deformities, and Joseph Merrick was a notable success in Europe in the 1880s. He suffered from what is considered, even today, the most serious case of Proteus syndrome . He described himself as follows:

My skull is 91.44 cm in circumference, with a large fleshy bulge on the back the size of a breakfast cup. The other part is, to describe it in some way, a collection of hills and valleys, as if it had been amassed, while my face is a vision that no person could imagine. The right hand is about the size and shape of an elephant’s front leg, measuring more than 12 inches in circumference at the wrist and 12 inches across one of the fingers. The other arm with her hand are no larger than those of a ten-year-old girl, although well proportioned. My legs and feet, like my body, are covered in thick, putty-looking skin, much like an elephant and almost the same color. In fact, no one who has not seen me would believe that such a thing could exist.

Thus, and amidst the brutal and humiliating scenario contained in the world of the circus, we are suddenly presented with an emotional and compassionate look that changes the life of Joseph Merrick. It is Dr. Frederick Treves, a role that Anthony Hopkins masterfully plays. Someone capable of seeing the human being under the monster’s skin, someone moved by the screams of a young man who demanded to be seen as a person, not as an animal.

The double public exhibition of The Elephant Man

Despite the fact that Dr. Treves feels very close to the young Merrick, the viewer does not fail to sense that he also has a deep scientific interest. He exhibits it to eminent pathologists, physicians and surgeons, exhibits it to his colleagues, and does everything possible to ensure that the Elephant Man stays at London Hospital for life.

Once installed in a room, young Merrick finally manages to show them what is under all those bumps and thick skin. At first, the scientific community stipulates that such a body would undoubtedly be accompanied by a profound intellectual deficiency. However, soon they discover something that today is perfectly documented. Joseph Merrick was highly intelligent.

He read and wrote with powerful fluency, composed poems, was a great reader, and had a vision of the world as innocent as it was hopeful. The shadow of his childhood, plagued by mockery, abuse or his dark years in the world of show business and the circus had not made a dent in his heart, hardening it. As he himself explained, his hope and optimism came from love. The love that his mother had professed for him, a beautiful young woman who instilled in him a love of books and who died early.

Curiously, and despite the fact that the London Hospital raised funds to provide Merrick with a life of comfort in the institution and thus avoid the public exposure to which he had been subjected, he ended up committing an act that is inexcusable for many. The elephant man passed away on the morning of April 11, 1890, at the age of 27 in his sleep.

It is known that the young man was a believer, and that one of his wishes was to be buried near his mother. However, scientific interest was stronger than respect, more than defense of their dignity. The London Medical College Pathological Museum exhibited his skeleton for decades. To this day, his remains have been removed (but they are still being studied) and have been replaced by his belongings: his armchair, his handwritten letters, the hat with the sewn cloth that covered his face and head …

If there is one thing this film achieved, it is to give us a faithful portrait of the humanity contained in the battered body of Joseph Merrick. The music, the photography, the studied direction … Everything made up a more than perfect canvas loaded with humanity, there where to discover a mind that remained intact despite the humiliations, despite the abuse.

The elephant man never lost his delicacy, his exquisite manners, his trust in other people. Ironically, after his death he was the victim of another spectacle: that of the scientific world.

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