Viewing the Elephant Man

For the UAS Whalesong

On Friday February 5th, the Sound and Motion series of this semester had its second presentation, “Viewing the Elephant Man: How Science & Commerce Reconfigured the Grotesque Body.” Professor Robin Walz gave the presentation on the life of Joseph Cary Merrick (1862-1890), who would later become known as the Elephant Man. This was done in conjunction with The Goldtown Theatre downtown which was showing the 1980 film, said film will be showing in other areas over the month. This presentation shined light onto both the man and the subject of how the modern age views the human body.

Professor Walz started by stating, “There are no truths about the elephant man.” There are a host of contradicting stories written about Merrick posthumously, different ‘true stories.’ With extensive research the audience was able to see varying ways that things did differ, such as Merrick’s true name, or what the disease he had could have been. This, interestingly enough, included Frederick Treves, Merrick’s friend and doctor, calling Merrick John instead of Joseph. This was taken for inspiration for both the play and the film based off Merrick’s life.

Professor Walz introduced the idea that humanity has been intrigued with the strange for years, with the men whose face were on their torsos or the cynocephali (wolf headed men), or a rather a pre-modern understanding of those differences. This included paintings of some of the most famous cases. That the viewing and prejudgment of the human body was always something of an interest for other humans. That, while there was a misunderstanding on the science or biology of it, there was always a human reaction to it all. People have always wondered about the unknown and one of the best examples of it is the Freak Shows. Now, we have the Mütter Museum, a medical museum in Pennsylvania.

With clips from the film and a documentary of the Mütter Museum, where casts of the Elephant man’s bones were on display, Professor Walz was able to show a stark understanding of how we as a society view the grotesque. That at the end of it all, it is humans looking at humans, shows perhaps a much darker look into how we view others, and how we make certain judgements based on what we consider grotesque. When we look at the human body clinically, then we no longer are seeing the other as human. When there is no reaction, then something isn’t right. In hindsight, that is even more frightening. This was especially made important with the documentary of the Mütter Museum, where the strange is loved.

We were given a quick view into Merrick’s life, from start to finish, following along what may and may not be true. We followed his beginnings in a poor household, to his life in a sideshow, later his work with Doctor Frederick Treves, and his final three years in the hospital. He willingly joined a sideshow, knowing the money he could make from his abnormalities to the willingness to show himself to doctors in hopes of being “normal.” He came as quickly as he left. Due to the weight of his head, Merrick had to sleep sitting up in bed. In 1890, he was found dead by asphyxiation because he had laid down to sleep on his back. The weight of his head had dislocated his neck. Doctor Treves attributed Merrick’s death to his desire to sleep like other people.

Ultimately, this presentation showed the intrigue of the grotesque and perhaps one of the most famous cases of it: a man whose condition remains unknown as well as any idea of what may have caused it. It also showed how people continue to interpret abnormalities and the grotesque, and the repercussions that may come from it.

He ended the presentation with a final look at Merrick and the mind the man had, citing a stanza of a poem Merrick used to end his letter:

“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…”

This poem was adapted from “False Greatness” by Isaac Watts. In truth, viewing the other is a dangerous act. Our need to understand never seems to completely outweigh our need to view and prod at the subject. Instead of nurturing, we alienate. Perhaps that is something we should take away from the Professor Walz’s presentation.

Leave a Reply