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My Journey With Elephant Man

Posted on: April 22, 2013

English: Joseph Merrick (1862–1890), photograp...
English: Joseph Merrick (1862–1890), photographed c. 1889. The photograph was circulated to members of the public c. 1889 as a carte de visite. This photograph was first published in The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity by Ashley Montagu (first published in London and the United States in 1971; OCLC: 732266137) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I finally finished the longest essay I ever wrote (in Chinese) about Elephant Man. It would be impossible for me to translate it in English because of the energy it requres, so I like to just have a summary here. It was a brief bio of Joseph Merrick’s (Elephant man) life, and my view of this tragedy. It consists of two parts – part 1: God’s outcast, which is about his early life: his childhood, his life in workhouse and life as a “star” in “freak show”; the second part “Awaking Humanism“, is about his being rescued by a young surgeon Fredrick Treves, his life in London hospital and all helps he received from the society.

I didn’t find many books about this person, the only source materials I used were The True History of The Elephant Man, by Michael Howell and Peter Ford, and wikipedia. However they seemed to be enough to trigger my emotion and thoughts.

My essay starts with a short chapter regarding 19 century of Europe, an era that consisted of both the darkest and brightest aspects of human nature: stunning achievements, greed, misery and suffering, kindness and humanism. I quoted the beginning paragraph (just part of it) of The Tale of Two City, even though Dickens meant for a little earlier time period, I thought it appropriate in the context. To demonstrate this contrast, I started with the misery of Joseph Merrick, a tragedy for which (I believe) “fate” was more responsible than human society, and then went through his early life experience. In the second part, I wrote about the charity and the kindness Joseph received from society during his last 4 years life in London hospital, which shows bright side of this tragedy.

The True History of the Elephant Man
The True History of the Elephant Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Because of Joseph’s hideous incorrigible deformity caused by incurable diseases, his fate was destined to be miserable, by my understanding. So at the ending chapter I had to question “God”: what’s the purpose of making such misery? By Christians’ view, “One of the Creator’s objects in permitting men to be born to a life of hopeless and miserable disability was that the works of God should be manifested in evoking the sympathy and kindly aid of those on whom such a heavy cross is not laid.” (from the open letter in Times, 1886, by Carr Gomm, Chairman of London hospital). I have no doubt of the goodwill of this interpretation, and the positive result of this thinking, but logically, this makes no sense to me. Here is my reason: if there is no adversity, there would be no need of compassion. i.e., if there is no pain, there is no need of using painkiller. “God”‘s creating misery just for human’s compassion, in my eye, is like an adult hurt a child deliberately just for the use of painkiller. Of course, I had no answer for this ultimate question, neither I refuted the existence of “God”, but I did “conclude” that the “omnipotent all loving” God which we humans wish does NOT exist.

I also stated: If I were God, I would never ever put such suffering in any human beings, or any life beings, because millions of people’s compassion, could not compensate one single life being’s suffering. I also wrote, if “God” had some incomprehensible reasons to create “Elephant man”, the only comfort I could think of is that he made him in the 19th century of Europe, where the idea of humanism was getting mature and turned out almost like a “fashion” among the middle and upper classes (I am also fully aware of that there have been many more human beings like Elephant man existed through history and did not have his luck).

As matter of fact, the kindness that Joseph received was tremendous and sincere, all were out of absolutely goodwill. Joseph was not only intelligent, but also had “romantic imagination” (as Treves put it), and all in his previous life women flew away from sight of him with terror, so it became to ladies’ “responsibility” to pay him a visit. When the first time a young beautiful lady (Leila Maturin) “entered his room with an easy grace, smiling as she approached him, reaching out and taking his hand as Treves presented him to her. … It was all too much. Joseph could not speak. Slowly he released her hand and slowly he bent his great head forward to his knees as he broke into heart-reading sobs and wept uncontrollable” (Elephant man, Fredrick Treves). Joseph mentioned later to Treves, that was the first time ever a woman looked at him in the eye and smiled to him. Later, Joseph’s room was frequently visited by almost all well known people, especially ladies, from all England, even Princess Wales (Alexandra) came to meet him. Based on Fredrick Treves: “The Queen made many people happy, but I think no gracious act of hers ever caused such happiness as she brought into Merrick’s room when she sat by his chair and talked to him as to a person she was glad to see.”(Elephant Man, Fredrick Treves).

With these actions of kindness, Joseph was able to achieve some of his wildest dreams, such as watching Christmas pantomine in Royal Theatre, spending a “glorious vacation” in the countryside when residing in a gamekeeper’s house in a rich lady’s property. Joseph was grateful for every single help he received, and satisfied by his restricted even “boring” (in many people’s eyes) life in that small simple room of London hospital (he actually had two rooms, one bedroom and one bathroom, carefully built without mirror). He was happy “everyday and every hour”, as he told Dr. Fredrick Treves. Joseph could not smile because of distortion of his face, but Treves knew he was happy because several times, he saw Joseph beat up pillows like child, when he thought no body was around.

Card church built by Merrick
Card church built by Merrick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the last chapter of my essay I wrote:
“The human world is a place for both beauty and beast, “good” and “evil”, dark and light, and I believe that the weight of “dark” is heavier, or more significant, than that of light. I believe, as long as misery exists, the happiness of life could never compensate the suffering. So the last 4 years of happiness of Joseph Merrick could not compensate his previous over 20 years suffering (he died at 29). If this sounds unbelievable to you, just imagine, who would choose to live if they knew before they were born that they would be given Joseph’s fate, even if they would be treated as “celebrities” of whole society at the end? However, after finishing writing his life, I have to focus my memory on Joseph’s last 4 years of happiness, the reason is simple: life continues regardless we choose it or not, and only if we keep hope, see the light, will it be easier for us to take.

Joseph Morrick quoted (very appropriately) hymnwriter Issac Watts in the pamphlet of “Freak Show” as the end of his brief autobiograph:

‘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.
 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.

Yes, Elephant Man had a form of beast, but a heart of gold. I don’t believe in God, but after the journey with the him, I hold such a faith firmly: in another world, Joseph is normal, healthy, more importantly, handsome.”

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12 Responses to "My Journey With Elephant Man"

a very profound post. this is my favorite quote:
“”The human world is a place for both beauty and beast, “good” and “evil”, dark and light, and I believe that the weight of “dark” is heavier, or more significant, than that of light. I believe, as long as misery exists, the happiness of life could never compensate the suffering.”

Thanks Charlene!

Such a moving post, yunyi, written with such intelligence, conviction and sensitivity. You pose so many essential questions about the nature of suffering, its possible justification or meaning, and the problems it raises in terms of believing in a supposedly all-knowing, merciful God. In fact your post reminds me in many ways of The Book Of Job in the Hebrew Bible, which in my opinion never offers a satisfactory explanation for the existence of human suffering.

Thanks np! Yes, it was a journey, after I finished for one week, I am still not completely out of it. His life inevitably triggered so much emotion and questions of life. And thinking of him, makes me feel like I have absolutely no reasons not to feel content!

What an incredible post, Yun Yi, objectively written and deeply inquisitive. No one chooses to be born, much less choosing whether or not to be born deformed or impaired. To chalk it up to God's will and his desire for humans to bestow kindness upon each other is a load of crap, a weak, IMO, a meaningless rationalization. People like Merrick, whose resilience despite great suffering, demonstrate the invincible, transcendent beauty of the human spirit….that has everything to do with soul. Thanks for a really terrific post.

Thanks Kris. “People like Merrick, whose resilience despite great suffering, demonstrate the invincible, transcendent beauty of the human spirit…” —well said!

Such a moving story yunyi. As humans we must be drawn to the inner strength of the man.
Cheers, ic

You cut to the chase and explore so emotionally the very questions which dare us to think, to hope, to puzzle out the meaning hidden in the folds of this complex life. I wish I could read your entire essay. I know little of Joseph's life. I knew of his existence as a 'freak show' – I know of my confusion and disgust as a child seeing a 'freak' in a tiny trailer with a glass front at a local fair. Pain and suffering and barbaric acts and kindness and compassion are all interconnected at some very sensitive places, aren't they?

Thanks Melody! It is a puzzled question and there is no answer. You are right, that suffering and compassion are connected, beauty and beast are inseparable.

Yun Yi, what an incredibly perceptive analysis. Many years ago, I saw “The Elephant Man” movie with John Hurt. I was so moved, I saw it several times but I never read the book. Joseph Merrick’s courage was remarkable. Also remarkable was the kindness he received later in life.

Ah, yes, what’s the purpose of God creating such misery for one soul? Excellent question and one I’ve pondered often when I see children, for example, suffering from illness or deformities. (I have a brother who is partially autistic.) That God would create misery, causing someone to suffer just to invoke human compassion in others is a view taken by many Christians, but one that makes no sense to me either. My feeling (and I say this as someone raised Catholic but who no longer subscribes to any organized religion) is that one will never find a real answer to this question within the context of religion. The answer would have to be more along the lines of random cause or perhaps some version of karma, and any answers along those lines cannot exist in the fabric of faith alone. I believe there is a universal intelligence but that intelligence is sans the human qualities subscribed to it by religions.

Joseph Merrick’s “romantic imagination” came out in the movie portrayal as well (the actor John Hurt did a stunning piece of acting). Have you seen the movie? After reading your post, I want to see it again, and read the book now. I agree with so many of your well thought out conclusions, and in particular the last chapter of your essay. Yes, keeping hope and seeing the light makes the darkness easier to bear.

What a wonderful and inspiring post, Yun Yi! Thank you, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Thanks Madilyn for such a profound comment. Sorry for your brother's autistic condition. I believe he is well loved by your family.

the movie is exaggerated on the “romantic” part of story, but the spirit is the same as reality: humanism. The book (“The True History of Elephant Man”) is good in resource. hope you enjoy it:-)
thanks again for your reading and comment!

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