The Ugly Innocent

I finally got around to watching David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980; streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy. Thanks to Paul Clark for the encouragement to check this one off my list!). It was rightfully nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1981 (tying Raging Bull for the most nominations), including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. John Hurt lost to Robert De Niro for Best Actor. I haven’t seen Ordinary People, which took the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay, but from its description, the themes of that film run in the opposite direction from The Elephant Man

I am not always a fan of filming in black and white after the advent of color, but The Elephant Man makes the most of it, capturing the chiaroscuro of Victorian England with its hissing gas lights (which one can almost feel in this film). It is marvelously photographed, and John Hurt’s accomplishment as Joseph “John” Merrick is stunning, considering that he had to act the part largely without facial expression, except through his eyes. While the film is based on historical accounts, including Sir Frederick Treves’s account, the film is doing something other than merely giving us a dramatization of a real person’s life. Apparently in real life Merrick was not treated as horribly as he is in the film, both by Bytes (a wonderfully shifty Freddie Jones), and by the night porter (Michael Elphick) and those whom he charges to see and harass Merrick. The real owner of the side-show to which Merrick was briefly attached was Tom Norman. While Treves in his biography accused Norman of being a cruel drunk, as he is portrayed in the film, Norman disputed that characterization and supported the United Kingdom Temperance Association. 

But the writers, Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren, and David Lynch, are after something deeper about human nature, and they use the character of Merrick to expose it. Freak shows, in themselves, show a human desire to separate ourselves from the “freaks,” to take comfort in our own normalcy. How could we justify staring at and objectifying other human beings as horrors of nature or freaks? Only if we put them on a lower plane, considering them as something less than fully human. Of course, we still do this all the time in our own minds, and sometimes in our speech: watch and objectify and judge other people based on their physical particularities. The Elephant Man takes that base desire and puts it fully before our eyes. (Flannery O’Connor often does the same thing in her stories, using those who are considered “freaks” to expose the evil in each one of us.) This happens in the film especially when Treves (Anthony Hopkins) wonders aloud to his wife whether he is not doing exactly the same thing as Bytes, making Merrick a side-show attraction, except now in front of “respectable” people such as physicians. “Am I a good man or an evil man?” he asks her. Even (especially?) good motivations lead to evil results.

Most significantly, The Elephant Man shows an innocent, a guileless man who has been exploited, abused, misunderstood; the object of the bored, gawking crowds. His deformity allows anyone and everyone to use him for their own purposes. He becomes the receptacle of all the ugliness of human depravity. Joseph Merrick used to sign letters with two quatrains, the first published in 1748 by “J.G.” and the second part of a poem by Isaac Watts. The first has the lines (slightly changed from the original), “Tis true my form is something odd,/ But blaming me is blaming God,//Could I create myself anew/I would not fail in pleasing you.” The second has the words (again, slightly adjusted from Watts’s original, “If I could reach from pole to pole/Or grasp the ocean with a span/I would be measured by the soul,/The mind’s the standard of the man.” In the film, Treves says that he is an idiot, or an imbecile—or hopes he is, given his level of probably suffering. But he was far more intelligent than assumed. He had memorized at least Psalm 23 (shown in the film), and much of the Book of Common Prayer, and he constructed a paper model of St. Philip’s Church. 

‘Tis true my form is something odd, but blaming me is blaming God. On its surface, it is simply the acknowledgment that Merrick did not create himself, and to find horror in his physical appearance was to blame God for bringing him into the world. But in the light of the film, a further significance emerges: the people pile onto Merrick their blame and scorn and hatred of another human being. “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” Merrick shouts in the train station, as he is being pursued by a crowd. They force on him their own corrupt and immoral desires, their greed, their lust for the strange, new, and abhorrent, and Merrick takes it. He does not fight back; he doesn’t even tell Treves about the threats of the porter. He is the sole innocent in a coal-black world. 

In the end, Merrick goes to sleep, to rest, as he hears the (imagined?) voice of his mother speaking part of Tennyson’s poem “Nothing Will Die”: “Never, O, never, nothing will die;//The stream flows,/The wind blows,/The cloud fleets,/The heart beats,/Nothing will die.” Which sounds like a nice sentiment, but it is an empty hope, tied to wish and desire and nothing else. Tennyson himself also wrote a poem called “All Things Will Die,” which expresses the opposite: Yet all things must die.//The stream will cease to flow;/The wind will cease to blow;/The clouds will cease to fleet;/The heart will cease to beat;/For all things must die./All things must die.” Vanity, indeed.

But Joseph Merrick himself seems to have put his own hope not in uncertain, sentimental idealism, but in Christ, the Innocent One, who truly bore our griefs and carried our sorrows; who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. “As many were astonished at You—His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind. … He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not” (Isaiah 52:14; 53:2-3). Joseph Merrick bore in his body the suffering of Christ. It would not have been out of place for him to echo St. Paul: “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear the brands/marks (stigmata)of Jesus in my body” (Galatians 6:17).