Saturday, 5 November 2011

Joseph Carey Merrick - The Elephant Man

Joseph Merrick - The Elephant Man

"The showman—speaking as if to a dog—called out harshly, “Stand up!” The thing arose slowly and let the blanket that covered its head and back fall to the ground. There stood revealed the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have ever seen. In the course of my profession I had come upon lamentable deformities of the face due to injury or disease, as well as mutilations and contortions of the body depending upon like causes, but at no time had I met with such a degraded or perverted version of a human being as this lone figure displayed."

"From the intensified painting in the street, I had imagined the Elephant Man to be of gigantic size. This, however, was a little man below the average height and made to look shorter by the bowing of his back. The most striking feature about him was his enormous and misshapened head. From the brow there projected a huge bony mass like a loaf, while from the back of the head hung a bag of spongy, fungus-looking skin, the surface of which was comparable to brown cauliflower. On the top of the skull were a few long lank hairs. The osseous growth on the forehead almost occluded one eye. 
The circumference of the head was no less than that of the man’s waist. From the upper jaw there projected another mass of bone. It protruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out and making of the mouth a mere slobbering aperture. This growth from the jaw had been so exaggerated in the painting as to appear to be a rudimentary trunk or tusk. The nose was merely a lump of flesh, only recognizable as a nose from its position. The face was no more capable of expression than a block of gnarled wood. The back was horrible, because from it hung, as far down as the middle of the thigh, huge, sacklike masses of flesh covered by the same loathsome cauliflower skin."

Sir Frederik Treves description in The Elephant man and other reminiscences of his first encounter with Joseph Merrick.

Thoughts surrounding a poem
Joseph's hat/mask

A man should be measured by the soul, but perhaps not from his soul alone. The man with the noblest and loftiest ideals but a temper uncontrollable enough to cause grief and harm to those it might fall upon is but a flawed soul. Man’s actions springs from his mind so through action a soul enters the world and the persons biography becomes the manifestation of their souls.
The biography of Joseph Merrick stands like a lighthouse. He was a man nature gave nothing to guide calloused minds of common men towards his inclusion in the human race, demonstrated so aptly in the famous words screamed out at the mob in David Lynch's 1980 movie.

“I!… am!... Not!... An animal.”

He acts, speaks and lives as a human being even when humanity shuns him. He did not ask to be born this way, but into this world he came. But still in this misery his humanity found its way through the severe physical deformities, through the torture and abuse by exhibitors and so called friends. Inside the Elephant man resided a soul that could not be crushed by all the worlds hardships. A poem from his autobiography adapted by Joseph from Isaak Watts' "False Greatness" expresses his feelings about himself and his formidable appearance with grace and burning beauty.

Cardboard church created by Joseph.
“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

Was I so tall, could reach the pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span;
I would be measured by the soul,
The mind’s the standard of the man."

Never could the poet Isaac Watts even in his wildest imaginations, if indeed the ‘father of English Hymnody’ had a wild imagination, just how fantastically apposite his words would become for a  man deemed by his contemporaries to have been “Gods foulest creation” or “Natures grossest mistake.” To the point that today a google search for "False Greatness by Isaac Watts" brings up Joseph Merrick's version rather than Watts' as the first hit.

Never has there been a man more adept at making us behold the durability of the very essence of humanity. With the troubled and deprived life this brave soul led, he should be a reminder for us all that no matter how much deprivation of those things most often imagined as necessities for human happiness should we let it bereave us of upstanding and heroic dignity.

Still from Lynch's movie

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