Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Elephant Man and Societal Fascination

What is, perhaps, most fascinating about Joseph Merrick's, aka John Merrick aka The Elephant Man, story is his rise to popularity and fame due to his grotesque, dare I say carnivalesque, body.  The fascination that surrounded Merrick, while is in part due to sincere pity and the longing to help the helpless,  was for the most part society's fascination for the different, the Other.  What is it that is most fascinating about a man who could barely speak, whose body so distorted it is hard to determine where limbs and joints come together?  Is it that Merrick's body symbolizes all the wrong that could happen to a man, reminding an individual of his luck?  That is, Merrick's body represents man's greatest fear; a fear that roots from man's inherent narcissism and vanity.

Merrick as symbol may be interpreted in many ways.  For Dr. Treves, Merrick symbolizes potentiality.  Treves sees Merrick as the manifestation of what science could be and could do.  As a mystery to solve, Merrick serves Treves' curiosity and the doctor's fascination roots from his own need to prove the extent of scientific prowess.  Though he becomes Merrick's friend, Treves' sincerity may be questionable.  Does the good doctor befriend Merrick to save him from an abominable situation or does he save Merrick to serve his own ego? 

One of Merrick's greatest advocate is the Princess of Wales, a powerful person who seemingly enlightens society about notions of charity and caring for fellowmen.  She is responsible for putting Merrick in the limelight, bringing attention to his situation and to the cause of helping the most helpless.  Yet, is her fascination for Merrick really only rooted in pathos, motivated by the goodness of her heart?  The same question could be asked of the high society that welcomes Merrick into their arms. 

Society's fascination for Otherness, for the Different Merrick, is exemplified in the scene where Merrick, seated with the highest people in society, watches a musical show in the theater.  At the end of the show, a lady announces that the production is dedicated to Merrick and the crowd receives the news with a standing ovation.  What is interesting about this scene is from a Bakhtinian point of view, the scene illustrates how the Other holds power, even if momentarily, within the carnivalesque space.  Yet, it may also be argued that the standing ovation dedicated to Merrick perpetuates his position as pawn of society.  He is merely a source of entertainment feeding society's fascination.

The movie ends with Merrick taking his own life.  But why?  Is it because as Other, like women, Merrick has no other solution but to end life?  That the only way he can ever have true agency is to take his own life.