Sunday, July 16, 2006

Elephant man

Joseph Merrick, born in Leicester, England, in 1861, is known to history as the Elephant Man. He suffered awful disfigurements. Lumpish growths on his head, back, buttocks and legs. Slabs of reptilian skin. Twisted bones. One arm slender and normal, the other a grotesque tuber. Healthy in mind, with normal genitals and sexual appetites, Merrick was nevertheless so monstrous in appearance that he ignited fear and loathing in all who saw him.

As a young man, he allowed himself to be exhibited as a freak as his only way of making a living. In his twenties, he was "rescued" from this fate and given a room in which to live at London Hospital. Even his nurses could not bear to look upon him.

The Victorians were fascinated with Merrick. In his hospital chamber, called the Elephant Room, he was visited by members of the medical establishment, celebrities and royalty. They gawked; they were repelled; they spoke platitudes. He inspired in them, one imagines, a feeling of smug superiority, an opportunity to practice their Christianity, to love (or pretend to love) the utterly unlovable.

Fascination with Merrick continued into our own century. He has been the subject of a number of books, an award-winning play by Bernard Pomerance, and a film by David Lynch. The Elephant Man endures as a cultural icon because his very existence confirms our faith that nature's laws are there to be broken. See this week's Musing.

A Sunday pic by Anne. Click to enlarge.