Autopsy of the Elephant Man: A Critical Analysis of Proteus
Proteus is a poem about the notorious ‘Elephant Man’ - Joseph Merrick (1865-1890). This man suffered from a rare genetic condition called Proteus Syndrome. This disease is characterized by huge boney outgrowths. Unfortunately, for Joseph Merrick this painful condition caused catastrophic and irreparable damage to his skeleton. Over a century later, there remains no cure for this condition. This disease is so rare that less than a hundred cases have been documented. Proteus is a Greek shape-shifting deity, which gave its name to both the poem and this terrible disorder.
Confessions of an Outcaste
Towards the end of his life, Mr Merrick told his surgeon Dr Treves that he would like to live with blind people. He confided that he thought they’d be in a better position to tolerate his disfigurement. The pathos lies in the fact that he hoped to marry a blind girl.
Dr Treves introduced Joseph Merrick to a female friend of his. It is said that Joseph Merrick cried when she shook his hand. She was the first woman since his mother to smile at him. It was quite normal for women to be repulsed by his frightful appearance and often, they would run way from him when he spoke to them. This experience of simple kindness was to have a profound and lasting affect upon him.
Textual and Critical Discourse Analysis
My love is beautiful but blind
she does not see like you nor I
my lady has no eyes only her mind
(Stanza 1, lines 1-3)
This poem explores the old cliché: loves is blind, interpreting it through new eyes: the eyes of the Elephant Man.
Obviously, Joseph Merrick’s lover ‘…does not see like you nor I’ because at one level she is blind. Yet paradoxically, her perception penetrates deeper: she sees him as he is – simply a man. So the seeing attributed by the narrator – to that of his beloved is of a different order of seeing - it cannot be classified as a normal kind of perception.
The beloved’s vision is of a different order - one could call it a kind of celestial seeing, which to ‘to the rest of mankind’ appears as blindness. This non-formal kind of vision apprehends the object of its perception as it really is. She sees the Reality behind the appearance, the noumenal Subject hidden within the phenomenal object. This second sight transcends the mechanics of normal perception – its metaphysic lies outside of the traditional laws of optics. Through this second form of perception, the object is not filtered through the distorting prism of the human mind, rather it is seen through the eyes of an angel.
Therefore, his beloved sees him beyond the prison of his body and is thus blind to that reality. She perceives him with her heart. Henceforth, the object seen is not physical but spiritual. Therefore, it cannot but comprehended with normal ‘eyes’ but only the ‘mind,’ as the first stanza emphasizes.
On the symbolic level, his lover must be blind because she isn’t real, and exists solely as a figment of Merricks’ imagination. This imaginary lover is the perfect wife because she loves him as he is rather than as he appears. This marriage is an idealized relationship, which unites beauty with ugliness— extinguishing the two in the union of both. It is the unification of wisdom and love: at its foundation is the compassion, which supports it. This leads us into the second stanza:
Nor does she condemn like the rest of mankind
let loose my black bride and ask not why
I found love in the asylum for the blind
(Stanza 2, lines 1-3)
The ‘black bride’ cannot be seen with normal eyes because she is the ubiquitous presence of death that haunts this narrative. Paradoxically, the black bride is also a widow and thus the betrothed is also the widowed!
Notice how the third line in the second stanza echoes the first line in the first stanza. The next stanza introduces a few details into the narrative matrix:
My head is bloated and my spine unaligned
But looks do deceive though I tell no lie
For she sees me even though she is blind'
(Stanza 3, lines 1-3)
In line two of the third stanza, the author presents the reader with a curious wordplay known as an equivoque - an ambiguous word or phrase with a double meaning. Therefore, the narrator’s appearance is deceptive because he looks like a monster (Proteus) when in fact he is a man. In truth, he tells ‘no lie,’ because love is ‘blind.’ Even so, the beloved is just a fantasy in the Elephant Man’s mind. Thus, he both lies and tells the truth at the same time. A paradox, that takes words beyond the usual dimensions of language, whereby their normal usage no longer applies. Therefore, this oxymoronic line has multiple readings; it seems to say one thing and yet points to another. Also the phrase ‘looks do deceive’ can also mean the act of looking can itself trick us into seeing something which isn’t there: the intellect can tell us it’s a monster, whereas only the heart can reveal it as man. The heart sees the spirit garbed in the disguise of the flesh.
The third line in the third stanza references the third line in the opening stanza, because seeing him with her ‘mind’ she can now see him ‘…even though she is blind.’ The next stanza introduces an erotic element into the narrative:
Lift your black veil so your mouth touches mine
take me into your arms and ask not why
I found love in the asylum for the blind
(Stanza 4, lines 1-3)
This is a veiled reference (excuse the pun) to the presence of death. By lifting the veil of death, he touches her mouth, which is the void of eternity - her kiss is the kiss of death. The second line in the fourth stanza xeroxes the second line in the second stanza, giving us a partial copy of that line. This corrupted refrain leads onto the third line of the fourth stanza, which is a perfect refrain of the last line in the second stanza. John Merick is asking to be united with his beloved - the ghost of death. Therefore, union with his ‘sweet mistress’ is congress with death. The ‘daughter of darkness’ holds him in her eternal embrace, which signifies his total irrevocable extinction. This is not as terrifying as one might suppose as it is infused with the bliss of love. This theme is further developed in the next stanza:
Hold me my sweet mistress for you will find
love has no form, no lips, no tongue to say goodbye
nor eyes to see and touches me though she is blind
(Stanza 5, line 1-3)
Love is purely nominal and exists beyond the realm of all temporal-spatial objects. Here the approaching dénouement is foreshadowed by the word ‘goodbye’ (line 2, stanza 5). The love which ‘sees’ now ‘touches’ the Elephant Man, and he starts to see through the eyes of eternity.
This corrupted refrain makes the point that love is a way of seeing - a central thematic that runs throughout the poem. Being from the heart, it neither judges or ‘… condemns like the rest of mankind’ (stanza 2, line 1). Love is nonobjective: it is a way of seeing - because the eye which sees the beloved cannot see itself, it must therefore be blind to itself! It cannot be grasped by the human mind, only apprehended through the heart. The transparency of love can only be seen when the beauty of life is appreciated - a clarity sometimes seen at the point of death. Thus the reader is lead into the final stanza:
Let motherhood sing to me death’s lullaby
squeeze me Daughter of Darkness and be kind
crush my windpipe, kiss me for all of womankind
and let the weight of my dreams break my neck
(Stanza 6, lines 1-4)
The first line in the final stanza is curious and is loaded with multiple meanings. Joseph Merrick’s mother died when he was twelve. So the line references this fact. When she died, his father’s brutality replaced the love of his mother. The maternal love thus dies inside of him as his life goes from bad to worse.
In addition, the first line in the final stanza points to the fact that the narrator will forever be childless. ‘Death’s lullaby’ sings its song to no descendants. The line is therefore, polysemic.
For Joseph Merrick the deadly lullaby sung to him by the Spirit of Motherhood, is the presence of love in the form of death or a love of death, which brings with it true spiritual (in)sight. Being strangled by the ‘Daughter of Darkness’ is also an act of compassion and euthanasia. In any case, this second symbol is closely linked with the symbol of motherhood. In this poem, both Sleep and Death are close cousins.
In the third line of the sixth stanza, Death kisses him for all of womankind. This last spirit visits the deathbed of Joseph Merrick and quite literally breaks his heart (as well as his neck.) For the Elephant Man this love is maternal, filial, amorous, erotic, gentle, tender, and selfless. It’s possible to transpose these qualities onto the spirits that visit him. Thus please note the following pattern.
The virgin, the bride, the daughter, the mistress, the widow, and the sister all make there appearance in this poem - they are the spirits of womankind: Death kisses the narrator for all of them and thus extinguishes him. Paradoxically, there is no narrator left to appreciate their gentle ‘touch,’ as he expires under the ‘weight’ of his own dreams. Some of these spirits although not explicitly mentioned are still present through the symbols used in the narrative. For the long-suffering John Merrick, death is union with the beloved, it is a ‘kiss’, which ‘touches’ his soul and which lingers in his heart.
Victorian esoteric literature always refers to the soul using the feminine pronoun (even when it belonged to a man). Angels also were symbolized with feminine qualities. Oscar Wilde and many other authors at the time referred to the femininity of man’s soul. The feminine word for the soul is anima and it is where we get words like animal, animate and animation from. This word has a Greek etymology.
In this poem we see the Elephant Man conversing with the only feminine power he knows i.e. his own soul! Thus, she tames the animal in the man and seduces him to his own divine nature. The light of love is experienced through the presence of the ‘black bride’ – the ubiquitous presence of Death. This love is expressed as the death of all which the Elephant Man knows - which is Nirvana - the realization of the kingdom of Heaven within, or simply the death of suffering. Within Proteus these ideas are eroticized through the feminine power.
For Joseph Merrick real physical union with a woman was impossible (due to his skeletal condition the act of lovemaking would have killed him). That in itself is a fascinating idea and is one, which is explored in the narrative of the poem. In this piece, the Elephant Man seeks union with his own soul and she presents herself to him through the numerous spirits of womankind. These are all disguises for the different kinds of love, locked up and buried within his own soul.
These women are really angels guiding him back to God. Therefore, the play between life and death, presence and absence, takes place in the narrative of this illuminelle - it is a philosophical thematic which runs throughout the text. Ipso facto, man, animal, monster, and woman merge in a strange synthesis uniting in the persona of the Elephant Man. Certainly; there is a symbiotic relationship between these characters and their symbolic attributes. Through their interaction in the mind of the narrator a mystical narrative unfolds: The Passion of Proteus – the Sacrificial Elephant resurrected through the mystical lines of the text.
There are a couple of important points to mention about the last line of the poem. The first is that it completely breaks from the rhyme scheme; it acts like a caesura (seizure!) - disrupting the natural flow of sound - it is a lexical departure from protocol. Therefore, the word ‘neck’ rhymes with nothing! It signifies a total transition in the narrative - a switch in textual technique. It’s presence disrupts both the poetics and schematics of this form. In addition, the neck contains the jugular vein that connects the heart and the head, so it is the connecting point that holds together this narrative, and once broken – the story of Joseph Merrick ends.
Historical Autopsy of the Elephant Man
Because the head of Joseph Merrick was so huge, he could not sleep in the same way a normal person could - to have slept on his back would have snapped his neck. He had to sleep with the weight of his gigantic head propped between his knees.
The poem finishes on a factual note. Joseph Merrick’s cervical spine was dislocated and this resulted in his premature death when he was only 24 years old.
In the autopsy report made at the time of Joseph Merrick’s death - it is obvious (if one reads between the lines) that his own personal surgeon thought he may have committed suicide. During the Victorian period, suicide was a social disgrace and stigma. Dr Treves is very compassionate and guarded in his words. The doctor put the death of his friend – Joseph Merrick, down to a tragic ‘experiment’ - an accident that had resulted from him trying to sleep like a normal person. Dr Treves said:
‘His death was due to the desire that had dominated his life - the pathetic but hopeless desire to be ‘like other people.’
We shall never know how Joseph Merrick really died— but Proteus offers us another alternative, illuminating the wretched life and death of the Elephant Man.