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‘The Elephant Man’ and the Sensual Experience of Form

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Painted on the canvas in primitive colors was a life-size portrait of the Elephant Man. This very crude production depicted a frightful creature that could only have been possible in a nightmare. It was the figure of a man with the characteristics of an elephant. The transfiguration as not far advanced. There was still more of the man than of the beast. This fact – that it was still human – was the most repellant attribute of the creature. There was nothing about it of the pitiableness of the mishapened or the deformed, nothing of the grotesqueness of the freak, but merely the loathing insinuation of a man being changed into an animal.

– Sir Frederick Treves, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923)

Now there is a second element, less obvious but no less powerful, in assessing the beauty of a man or woman. The further removed from the animal is their appearance, the more beautiful they are reckoned.

– Georges Bataille, Eroticism (1957)

By all accounts Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, was a kind, generous, thoughtful and imaginative young man. He had a passion for the theatre, a love of reading and an infectious curiosity. Yet, Merrick’s life and identify were irrevocably tied to his monstrous physical appearance. Instead of merely documenting Merrick’s life in The Elephant Man, David Lynch explores the sensual experience of Merrick’s existence as fundamentally questioning our understanding of the human condition.

The first shot in The Elephant Man, is a close-up still image of Merrick’s mother, whose sad eyes fill the frame.  The camera pans down to settle on her pursed lips. It is followed by a shot of her complete portrait — the unmistakable face of a beautiful woman, and then eventually is overlayed with an actress representing the character. From the onset, Merrick’s mother is little more than an illusion; a fragmented idea. Her beauty becomes her singular characteristic, an antithesis to the monster she would bear. As the opening sequence continues, a heavily conceptualized story pitting beauty against beast emerges as Joseph Merrick’s origin story. This is a story that Merrick himself would tell throughout his life, and one he sincerely believed. Was it perhaps a story that Merrick’s mother told him as a child, the kind of nonsense tale a parent tells to comfort their infant when the world doesn’t make sense? Or was it merely an invention of his own imagination, a logical way of handling his monstrosity?

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Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment is how it translates the sensual experience of the human condition through its haptic vision (haptic vision is the idea of touching through sight). This is done most obviously in the heavily textured opening sequence, but throughout the film “normal” sensual experiences of touch, sight and sound are exaggerated in order to create sensory overloads that reflect the emotional and physical states of the characters, in particular those of Joseph Merrick.

Lynch’s most visually and aurally textured films – Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Inland Empire – are all fundamentally about the decay of the human body, and the prison of our corporeality. This is expressed through not only the content of the film, but through the choice of different film stocks, sounds and perspectives that distort our vision and amplify textural qualities of and around the human form. Even beautiful bodies – such as Laura Palmer’s – become distorted and reduced to their mortality.

The film explores the many facets of Merrick’s body and experience. He exists as a side-show, as a science subject, and finally as a man. In early parts of the film we see him through the eyes of others. In the side-show, even before we are introduced to him, we are presented by the iconography of difference – a “Freaks” banner is hanging above, we see the poster to his show, and finally his dejected and sullen silhouette. Later when Merrick is being studied in the hospital, he is displayed nude behind a white curtain in a different kind of performance, arguably one in which he has even less control over his own image. Rather than de-emphasizing Merrick’s humanity in these scenes, they serve to emphasise the troubled ethics of the people who surround Merrick. Does the key to humanity lie in virtue rather than form?

David Lynch’s vision highlights Merrick’s vulnerability and in doing so finds tremendous beauty in his world. While those who have written about Merrick and his life often highlight the incredible attitude and love for life that he had, none portray it so richly as Lynch and John Hurt. The emphasis on Merrick’s breathing, his laboured movements, and ultimately his entire physical being strangely enough do not cast him as an other as much as they accentuate the fundamentals of living itself. This resonates especially with Joseph Merrick’s condition, as his body came to define him while he struggled above all else to remain human. John Hurt’s impassioned cry of, “I am not an animal”, has likely become such an iconic moment for this reason. Though specific to Merrick’s experience, the separation between humanity and animal is an idea we all struggle with.

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Men are swayed by two simultaneous emotions; they are driven away by terror and drawn by an awed fascination.

– Georges Bataille, Eroticism

In understanding the ugliness or monstrosity of Merrick’s condition as existing solely in contrast with the beautiful human form, his ugliness becomes forever tied to beauty. Though it seems cruel to understand Merrick solely as a foil to beauty, we also understand that in looking at Merrick and understanding his condition, we gain a more complex understanding of the self. Beauty does not necessarily need to be defined in contrast, therefore it is often incomplete – often uninteresting. Ugliness, on the other hand, exists solely as a response to our understanding of beauty, therefore it cannot exist without it. Drawing briefly on Georges Bataille’s writing on beauty in his book Eroticism, he observes that beauty is tied to the lack of animalism… he highlights that this is only possible due to the animal contrast of our genitals, as well as our desire to reduce this beauty back to its animal form. Beauty and ugliness, therefore, are not only intimately connected but essentially defined through touch and the desire to touch.

The film’s ultimate and final exploration of the sensuous experience is that of physical intimacy. Observations are made throughout the film related to the various textures of Merrick’s affliction, but more importantly, it is touch itself — in particular from a woman – that Merrick yearns for. Though this desire extends beyond something explicitly sexual, it remains under the surface as a motivating factor. This is demonstrated powerfully in the scene in which Treves first introduces Merrick to his wife, Anne,who extends her hand to Joseph. He reaches out and touches her for the briefest moment before he begins to cry, and he says “I’m just not used to being treated so kindly by such a beautiful woman.” The scene that follows immediately in the other room features a conversation about Anne and Treve’s children, and their extended family, further reinforcing the nature of the intimacy that exist between man and woman.

Again working in stark contrast, this scene is situated in a cozy little home where the sound of the street outside becomes the background noise instead of the cold winds that seem to pass through the long hallways of the hospital. Through this contrast we understand the fundamental loneliness of Merrick’s life without touch or intimacy. Even his origin story, which emphasizes the accident his mother suffers, seems ultimately touched with misplaced sexual understanding and desire. On more than one occasion in the film, the normality of Merrick’s genitals is emphasized and even in his written account on Merrick, Treves writes this particularly powerful phrase in reference to Merrick’s passion for romance stories: “In his outlook upon the world he was a child, yet a child with some of the tempestuous feelings of a man”.

There is a danger in approaching a film like The Elephant Man, a story of a real person with real ambitions, dreams and desires, from a perspective that only emphasizes the person’s curiosity as something “other”. Joseph Merrick was a man of great fortitude and dignity, who remains an object of interest as much for his attitude towards the world as for his physical state. Lynch’s vision makes no doubt of Merrick’s humanity but rather turns the table on the curious spectator and forces them to question the integrity of their own humanity.

– Justine Smith


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