The Difference Between Elephants & Humans as Filmed
by David Lynch  & Reassessed by a Student of Existentialism

December 15, 1998 

I was browsing through your page and thought you might want to post this
paper i just wrote for a class at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Difference Between Elephants and Humans as Filmed by David Lynch and
Reassessed by a Student of Existentialism 

"I am not an animal. I am a human being," proclaims John Merrick in David
Lynch's contemporary classic The Elephant Man. This highly successful
film achieved both popular and critical acclaim when it debuted in 1980,
due mainly to its poignant pathos. However, the medium of film can do
more than jerk tears or inspire laughter. In the hands of a great
director like Lynch, film can provoke thought and express an otherwise
esoteric idea. In this case, Lynch uses John Merrick's quest for his own
humanity to show that human relationships are fundamentally deception. 
John Merrick (played brilliantly by John Hurt) arrives at the fact
that he is human by realizing his freedom and the loneliness it brings.
In a total inverse of Kafka's Gregor Samsa, Merrick wakes up to find that
he is no longer a cockroach. Instead of probing his alienation from the
perspective of being removed from humanity, he discovers humanity at the
eclipse of his alienation. In both Kafka and The Elephant Man,
alienation is a the central, internal conflict of the protagonist. Samsa
and Merrick both try to create new lives for themselves, but both fail
finally and inevitably, because of the inalterable conditions that are
peculiar to them. However, these conditions mirror man's struggle between
his "angelic" and animal selves. In The Elephant Man, this conflict can
be explored by borrowing ideas from the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean
Paul Sartre, and Soren Kierkegaard.
For the first thirty minutes of the film, John Merrick's
appearance, personality, and history is hidden from the viewer. Yet, he
continues to be the central character. This naturally alienates him from
the audience. As the narrative tension builds, one becomes dreadfully
afraid to see what he actually looks like. He is the unknown, repulsive
alien. The only sounds that issue from his mouth are grunts and panted
breaths. He is treated by his keeper as a circus animal, exploited for
the demented satisfaction of others. Like Nietzsche's description of men
taking pleasure from the suffering of others, people from all sectors of
society are thrilled and intrigued to witness Merrick's deformity, his
misery. As Nietzsche also believes, the more this pleasure discords with
their social rank, the more the person feels empowered. This is exhibited
in the enthrallment of poorer people at Merrick as opposed to the aloof
amusement of people such as the doctors who take a scientific interest in
him. The film also illustrates to Nietzsche's credit that punishment, in
this case exploitation, is not static in its purpose. The common folk who
jeer at Merrick in the circus tent do much the same as the high society
crowd that pities him later in the film. In both cases, his suffering is
used for the ends of others; first, for the simple thrill of his ugliness,
and later, for the opportunity to be fashionably charitable. Although
high society portends to have empathy (a reflection of Judeo-Christian
morality), its treatment of Merrick is entirely pragmatic in almost all
cases. Therefore, this Victorian society as a unit is analogous to
Nietzsche's vision of Greeks or Romans. This uniformity of society
enables the film to separate Merrick from everyone else. It is the
exploited and those who exploit; leaving Merrick to stand in opposition to
society as a whole. 
Merrick stands as a symbol of humanity dehumanized. He pays the
debt that hangs over all their heads, the debt they all owe to become part
of society. However, Merrick himself does not have any visible sense of
guilt, or bad conscience, until the turning point of the film when a gang
of drunken thrill-seekers accost him in his hospital room. Until this
point, Merrick is innocent and quite oblivious toward himself. He is
first an animal that either has never known or has long forgotten that he
has any responsibility to himself or society. When he is accepted at the
hospital, he recreates himself as a cordial guest, owning nothing, with no
commitment to a reciprocal relationship. At this point, he is analogous
to the young Orestes in Jean Paul Sartre's The Flies. However, when he is
assaulted by the drunks, the indignation is so unbearable that he reverts
back into animal mode and lets himself be taken away to the circus again
by his former master. This is a quite natural and believable response;
although, it might be the prerogative of dramatic convenience. The moment
is one of profound tension, with an erratically shifting camera angle and
down-right weird character actions, Lynch hallmarks. Amidst this
audio-visual tempest of the bizarre, a mirror is thrust before Merrick's
face. Everything stops. A moment later Merrick lets out a tortured yelp;
he has frightened himself. Thrust onto the dangerous line between
oblivion and self-consciousness, he seems to opt for the latter. His
progression toward being a civilized man has been thwarted. 
One could in fact project that the agent of this denigration is
his implicit sense of guilt. To support the fact that there is a latent
bad conscience within Merrick, one could cite his knowledge of the Bible,
his sentimentality when speaking of his mother, and lapse into tears when
a beautiful woman is finally nice to him. These things seem to be
indications of a will to supersede animal instincts. The Bible implies
that he is religious. His mother fits neatly as a dead ancestor from whom
to be absolved as in Nietzsche. His tears show a gratitude for kindness,
but Nietzsche might argue that gratitude is just a perversion of feelings
of unworthiness, much akin to guilt. Other than these, there are few
other indications in the film that Merrick feels any regret or has any
remorse for living as an animal. Nietzsche contends that guilt is the
pain of denying the animal within. But, how does the animal combat the
man within? When confronted with feelings of worthlessness, with being
abused after forgetting abuse, Merrick denies his humanity, surrenders his
freedom, and resigns himself to the oblivion of the circus. He is not
afforded the chance to develop his guilt by denying his animal self, just
as he is not given a chance to change his appearance and join society.
Upon returning to his former life-style, Merrick becomes ill and
collapses on stage. The spectators are disgusted when they realize that
it is sickness which is supposed to entertain them. They feel cheated.
His master also feels cheated. Merrick's sickness is indirectly caused by
the progress he has made toward humanization (or rehumanization). This
might be dramatic convenience again, but it stands to reason that having
breathed the air from the fresher parts of London, the mire of circus life
becomes unhealthy. To worsen his failing health, his master beats him
and locks him in cage with monkeys. It is a memorable moment when Merrick
is confronted with a frightened, howling baboon. Even animals are
repulsed by him, perhaps because he has become so human; his manners have
come to discord with his appearance. At his lowest moment, Merrick is
rescued by dwarves who are running away themselves. His decision to leave
is based on survival. They drop him off back in London where, at the
train station, he makes the resounding affirmation: "I am not an animal.
I am a human being."
Merrick is returned to the comfort of his hospital room. His high
society friends give him a night at the theater, a very Lynch-esque
montage of surreal images. The Princess of Wales had lobbied for him to
be made a permanent resident of the hospital and it was done. Upon
arriving from the theater that night, Merrick is told that the hospital
is his new home. He is deeply moved. The staff presents him with a
dressing kit as well, which launches him into tears. This is his first
real possession, other than his deformity. He suddenly feels as if he has
finally achieved the status of a functioning member of society. This is a
scene of such power with so little dialogue, that volumes could be written
about what it is saying. He thanks Mr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins), then
pauses. "My friend." He says a few times, trying it out. He is
surprised at how natural it sounds. Treves smiles, but inside he is
thinking that Merrick suddenly sees through him. He sees that all of this
compassion he has shown has furthered his medical career. He sees himself
and knows that he is indeed ugly, but his ugliness has not over-powered
him. He has made it to the pinnacle of evolution in Victorian England,
the society chap. He realizes that the world has exploited him, but in
one wonderful evening at the theater he was able to exploit the world, as
Treves does, as his master does. Lynch gives a long sustained shot of
his face working through all this information. The frame cuts to a
picture on the wall of a man lying down in bed asleep. The audience knows
that Merrick must sleep sitting up; it would be fatal for him to lie down.
But people sleep lying down, and he is a person. People also die.
Suddenly, Merrick feels at home in his sense of mortality. It is the
common denominator that unites all living things. The last thing that
Merrick realizes is that he is free to make a decision. Merrick lies down
and goes to sleep.
It is true that Merrick was already dying and was conscious of it
before this scene happened. It is also apparent that him killing himself
makes a tidy ending to an emotionally sophisticated tear-jerker. However,
his reasoning is deliberate and not unlike that of Orestes in Sartre.
Orestes chooses a path and follows it to its terminus of his own accord.
Merrick also chooses a path, becoming human in his own mind and in the
minds of others. Like Orestes, he is advised against it by those who have
known him in his former life (his master, or the tutor in Sartre). Both
of their decisions have been weighed in their own minds according to their
own system of values. The difference between them is that Orestes has
developed those values throughout his life and has just come to understand
what they imply. However, Merrick realizes that he has his own values and
makes the decision to put them into effect all at once, in the last five
minutes of the film. The result of Orestes killing Aegitheus is the
liberation of Argos. Merrick liberates himself from his deformity in the
same way.
Merrick's suicide can be considered neither ethical nor unethical.
Just as Kierkegaard's Knight of Faith can teleologically suspend the
ethical, Merrick can righteously murder himself to be free from his
earthly toil. He ordains it so. In Kierkegaard, Abraham resolves to
kill Isaac because of his faith in God. This is the singular passion that
defines his existence. In Sartre, Orestes can avoid the wrath of Zeus by
believing in his own freedom, his ability to have his own values and act
accordingly. Merrick's struggle to become a man is the summation of his
existence (at least in the film). By finally being accepted into society,
he realizes that his sensual being is no longer compatible with the
direction his life precedes in, and he dismisses it. None of these three
heroes deludes themselves of the future. All act for the moment, willing
to accept the outcome whatever it might be. Abraham has the clear
advantage because his faith compels him to believe that God's will is
being done which in itself must be comforting to him. Orestes can now
claim his deed as his own and cherish his freedom. But, what is left for
the Elephant Man? 
The tragedy of this film is not that Merrick is so grotesquely
deformed and condemned to a painful existence in which he is shunned,
exploited, and humiliated. The real tragedy is that "being human" means
being part of reciprocal relations of deceit. Some careless production
executive at the film studio slapped this misappropriated quote on the
advertisements: "A film about the triumph of human dignity over
ignorance." As if Merrick was able to come out to the world as the actual
man underneath his deformity and everyone was able to see and appreciate
him on terms of his humanity. But, the film goes to lengths to show that
such a thing is impossible in the film's reality.
Lynch weaves a brilliant depiction of industrial England. A new
order is being thrust upon the rigidly demarcated social structure. The
film is literally littered with images of smoke-spitting turbines and
other heavy machinery. The phenomenon of industrialization is often cited
as the cause of the alienation of modern man (e.g. Marx's "Alienated
Labor"). It creates a society where humans become subjects of machines,
and lose the ability to connect with one another. Judeo-Christian
morality fades as its predecessor is reborn as Social Darwinism. Virtuous
becomes "efficient." Essentially, it is the reversal and repetition the
historical phases out-lined by Nietzsche. Man's animal self, now called
his libido, is given room to roam. The will of the post-industrial man is
limited only by a latent sense of guilt. Instead of struggling to
suppress the animal, man now struggles to suppress his feelings of bad
conscience. How? By doing the same as he had done in the past, forcing
his will on others, punishing, and exploiting. It is a losing battle, but
it is the struggle that counts. 
Amidst the degenerate nature of mankind, the innocent Merrick
wishes to become a man. Of course, he already is, but not in his own mind
until close to the end of the film (the train station). Perhaps, he could
have realized that maybe being human was not in his best interest, but
then it would be too late because he cannot choose not to be human, not
even by suicide (that would just be dead human). Merrick longs to be
human, in other words, reconnect with society. But to become a member of
society, he does not have to gain a "memory of will" or experience the
mnemotechnics of pain. His whole life has been pain. Indeed, his will to
anything but survival (if even that) had been crushed, yet his memory of
will is not necessarily affected. Basically, he is a defeated man but
still a man., with all the sensibilities of man. In fact, his manners
are essentially those of the Victorian man. The one thing he lacks is
real interaction with others, on a human to human level. He has all the
tools mentally and emotionally to do just that, but not the opportunity.
When the opportunity finally arrives, he instinctively accepts. Shortly
after, he ends his own life. Why?
T o recapitulate: Merrick like almost every human being is torn
between the animal and the man. Implicit in this struggle is one's
relationship with society. Only the individual can decide whether to
embrace the animal or the man within himself. The individual is
consequently alienated from society by possessing his own unique internal
conflict. The more unique the conflict, the more the alienation grows.
(Merrick is very unique and very alienated.) The alien sees society as
both the cause and cure of his predicament. A dichotomy arises between
his consciousness of himself and his consciousness of others. This rift
spreads with the perseverance of the struggle. Consequently, others
become the means of healing the self, especially in Merrick's case where
the self has proven powerless against itself. At the termination of his
innocence or naiveté, Merrick knows himself. He knows that he too is the
exploitationist. He knows that he is human; and all relationships between
humans are necessarily deception. It is not what he expected. The sudden
burden of it is too much for a man that has only known himself as an
animal. Once he sees himself as a victim, he cannot ignore the truth that
he is also, or at least has the capacity to be the perpetrator. 
Nevertheless, his suicide is not resignation. His life-defining
quest for his own humanity has not been altered by his sudden and painful
realizations. He does not kill himself because he knows that his goal is
unattainable. It is virtually attained. His drive has gained so much
momentum that he chooses to expedite its completion, to achieve humanity
in the absence of existence on "the strength of the absurd." Merrick is a
Victorian age Knight of Faith disguised cleverly as a side-show freak
turned society chap.
In conclusion, none of the above is necessarily true to Lynch's
intentions or to what is popularly perceived of the film. Indeed, almost
all the base for this argument is presented rather thinly here. The
Elephant Man is for all purposes a heart-warming tear-jerker with just a
hint of the baffling paradoxes, horrifying morbidity, and inexplicable
absurdity that are inherent in the writings of existentialists.

E.Thaddeus Pawlowski

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