Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned a lot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit. And Im glad I found out all about my family and me. It was like I never had a family til I remembired about them and saw them and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like everyone.
–Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon
Our command of language, whether we use it to craft an Oscar-nominated film or to order a cup of coffee, is what allows us to function as human beings, alone and in society. Nonetheless, there is always the sense that language regulates, or perhaps covers up, one or two basic facts about ourselves as subjects. Lacan talks about this a lot – he divides human identification into the Imaginary (one-to-one, aggressively narcissistic identification with a threatening other) and the Symbolic (identification mediated through the system of language, the Big Other), with the Real occasionally intruding. But more importantly, David Lynch shows this to us in The Elephant Man, charting the movement of a threatened, voiceless soul into a community of language and friendship, with all the pitfalls in between.
When Fredrick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins) wanders deep into the corridors of a Victorian freak show, he passes an array of fragmented, disconnected images – namely midgets and bearded ladies. The Elephant Man that he eventually meets (John Hurt) is caught in a system of humiliation, spectacle and aggression – the audience comes to be terrified of him, and he is rightfully terrified of them for it. Horribly disfigured, the Elephant Man’s only hope of functioning as a human being is contained in the phrase “My name is John Merrick; I’m very pleased to meet you.” Though he speaks with difficulty, hampered by the realities of his body, Merrick’s newly-discovered voice is sweet, even musical. It is through his discovery of language that Merrick is able to articulate his plight, and gain acceptance by the Victorian community.
But in Merrick’s movement, from the carnival to the hospital to bourgeois society, the nature of his embodiment never goes away. There is always a sense, discussed by many of the characters in the film, that the public’s ‘fascination’ with Merrick is no different from the leering, primal horror of the carnival crowd. This is most clear in the fact of Merrick’s ongoing abuse at the hands of the night watchman (Michael Elphick) – the carnival returns, only this time in that dark inversion of language, the market. Once more, Merrick is made into an object, but unlike Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones), who declares of Merrick, “He is my partner… my treasure,” the night porter’s actions work intelligently to destroy our Elephant Man.
The juxtaposition of these scenes – Merrick in language/society and Merrick in language/marketplace – reminds us that, while language must step in to mediate our frightened desires, this mediation is still a source of pain. When we begin to distinguish words and things, we begin to create objects for consumption – the aggression we seek to overcome is in fact sanctioned by the systems we put in place to control it. This is what keeps Fredrick Treeves awake at night, causes him to ask “Am I a good man? Or a bad man?” Are we any better off, given language and community, if the result is to be made a spectacle of in new and cruel ways?
But John Merrick offers an answer to this question: “My life is full because I know I am loved.” In the crucial theatre scene towards the end, Merrick marvels at the movement and shifting patterns of the pantomime theatre. He is at once a child, scared of the unknown, and a man, grateful for it. In a very sincere way, Merrick is a model for all of us, a limit-case of the difficulties we find in reconciling those parts of ourselves – the child threatened by their reflections, and the subject trapped in language. But there is a kind of joy to be found here, when those aspects of ourselves are reconciled, through art, through human connection and through engagement. At The Elephant Man’s conclusion, Merrick has constructed an entire cathedral having only seen its tower from his window. And we have reconstructed his subjectivity, from the outside-in, and found it to be a beautiful place.