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“The Elephant Man” and the Culture of Contempt

August 25, 2020


This October marks the fortieth anniversary of a truly great work of art, a film that should be required viewing for high school students: The Elephant Man. Its greatness lies, first and foremost, in asking one of the big questions: What does it mean to be human, to live and to suffer and to die?

But The Elephant Man is also great because it is enduringly fresh. Recently, amid America’s downward spiral into ideological division and rancor, my mind turned once more to this powerful film. This is not just a story about one unique man in history who evokes our pity; it is about all of us­—about our shared humanity, and our inhumanity toward each other.

The first remarkable thing about David Lynch’s 1980 film is that it is David Lynch’s at all. Just three years after his first feature film—the mindbending and nightmarish cult classic Eraserhead—the avante-garde filmmaker released this project, and—aside from both being black-and-white and sharing some stylistic touches—the two films are worlds apart. To this day, The Elephant Man is a strange, providential detour in his career—one of the few Lynch films (The Straight Story is another) that is not experimental in form. It is also arguably his best film, and with eight Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), it is certainly his most celebrated.

The Elephant Man beautifully tells the story of John Merrick, based on the real-life case of a horribly disfigured London man and the surgeon who helped him. In Lynch’s telling, Merrick is being exhibited in a London sideshow under a cruel and abusive showman named Bytes. After Frederick Treves (played by Anthony Hopkins) sees the exhibition, he eventually takes Merrick under his wing at the London Hospital. We see Merrick fully for the first time when a nurse walks into his room (and promptly screams); from that point on, Lynch masterfully presents him in sharp detail, forcing us to focus on the reality of his disfiguration. The rest of the film tells the story of Merrick breaking into the consciousness of those around him—first Treves, then the hospital staff, and eventually, the upper echelons of London society—until he meets a tragic end.

The most quoted scene in the film is deservedly famous. Merrick, who has just escaped after being recaptured by Bytes, makes his way back into London through a train station, where a few young boys taunt and chase him. When the shrouded, hooded, staggering man accidentally knocks over a screaming girl, a crowd forms, unmasks him, and corners him in a public bathroom. Merrick makes his stand, crying out with all his strength for his dignity as much as his life: “No! I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

But there is an earlier scene that captures another powerful cry from Merrick—one that’s more subtle and intimate but also more meaningful. Hidden away in an upper room of Treves’ hospital, the doctor takes his superior, Carr Gomm, to see Merrick, in hopes to prove to him that he is intelligent and can therefore remain in the hospital. Merrick repeats a few customary phrases, giving Gomm the impression that he has simply been taught by Treves to parrot what he hears. He nods kindly, but as he leaves, explains to Treves that Merrick is essentially a lost cause—an “imbecile,” an “incurable.”

As Gomm leaves the room, Merrick begins to recite the twenty-third Psalm—evidently another thing Treves has taught him. But as Gomm walks down the stairway, Treves calls after him—because Merrick is reciting more of the psalm than what Treves taught him. He knows it. They burst into the room and see a new man behind the outer visage: a man of freedom, intelligence, and prayer. Merrick explains: “I used to read the Bible every day. I know it very well. And the Book of Common Prayer. The twenty-third Psalm is beautiful. It’s my favorite.” He beautifully conveys not only his ability to reason, to remember, and to speak, but to do all of this in the light of faith. Merrick, perhaps out of fear or confusion, had hidden himself from them; but sensing that he was about to be cast aside, he reveals the truth. John now speaks; he is heard; and he is seen. And he is seen not for what he appears to be but for what he truly is: a human being, which means a creature with the inherent dignity of knowing and being known by God. This religious dimension appears again later in the movie, when we see Merrick building a model of a church outside of his window.

The dynamics of this scene have profound implications. When we see someone at the polar opposite end of the ideological spectrum—especially on social media, where we can more easily twist them into a parody of a person in our mind’s eye—what do we see? We tend to see someone we regard as disfigured; as emptied of true thought; as likely devoid of the impulses that make us fully human. In other words, we see an elephant man. If we are more “refined,” we might respond like Gomm, quietly but quickly diagnosing them as a lost cause, denying them entry into our care, and moving on. Often, though, we are inclined to treat them more like Bytes, who beats and berates Merrick and displays him as a “freak,” or like the porter who sneaks Merrick out at night to parade him around for his friends in drunken revelry. In either case, we haven’t really seen the person at all.

Disagreement, even passionate disagreement, is healthy. But to allow disagreement to so distort and disfigure a person in our mind that our impulse is either to discard them privately or degrade them publicly—that is a sickness.

To love requires truly seeing the “other,” which means seeing their dignity—and this finally means seeing God’s infinite love for them. This isn’t easy, of course. Merrick’s appearance remained just as hideous and disturbing as it was before as people begin to engage with him—and so it goes for us too. We continue to find those who disagree with us unlikeable, even unlovable. But as Chesterton remarked, love means “loving unlovable people.” And the consequences of relinquishing this difficult path are dire. In the end, the only alternative to the imago Dei, man the image of God, is homo homini lupus: man the wolf of man. As Bishop Robert Barron remarked in his book Vibrant Paradoxes, when the biblical foundations of human dignity are shaken, “a culture of death will follow just as surely as night follows day.” And a culture of death is not just marked by physical death; as Scripture teaches, “Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14). The culture of contempt is a facet of the culture of death. Go on Twitter sometime, where countless people are busy “breathing threats and murder” (Acts 9:1) at each other for sport.

2020 is a good year to watch, or re-watch, this remarkable film. And the next time we feel inclined to make elephant men of those we despise—or a rapacious showman of ourselves—we might remember Merrick and his favorite psalm.