Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Elephant Man

"I have deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light,--" William Shakespeare

Outside the ticket office a man dressed in red striped large bell-bottoms and blue striped cotton jacket is busy cajoling the customers to buy more tickets and add entry into various tents to see what surprises lie within the folds. People scurry along carrying their little ones on their shoulders while the loudspeaker playing loud music interspersed with the Ringmaster’s baritone calls to come and watch the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

A little child walking aside his father holding on to him by his hand pulls him towards the tent of the “Human Freaks.”  “No, Johnny, you don’t want to see that do you? There are much more exciting things out there. Look at the lion tamer and those people on the trapeze.” As he points to the giant billboards advertising the events. Besides entry into the Elephant Man tent requires another few dollars.
“But dad, I want to see the elephant-man.” Little Johnny protests.
“I am telling you Johnny, you wont like what you see.” The father gently tries to dissuade the child.
“Okay. We’ll go see him after the trapeze and the high-wire act that is starting now.” The father relents.
“Okay.” Johnny answers dejected in the procrastination of his demands but excited that he will be able to see the elephant-man.

A lone announcer dressed in a green striped jacket down to his knees and standing on three-foot stilts, with his head covered by a joker's hat, gestures towards the tent. Adorning the entrance of a vertically black and white lined tent are the words, “Human Freaks- The Elephant Man” emblazoned in gold. Johnny tugs at his father’s hand, without success.

Both walk into the main cavernous tent where the crowd is brimming with excitement and parades of animals, players in joker-type loud colored costumes and bright red shining noses walk the circular enclave, each person walking a different animal and all in lockstep to the drumbeat marching to the hypnotic music from the overhead loudspeakers.

“Ladies and Gentlemen. Please direct your attention to the silver coated wire above you…” And the act begins. A drama in very corner within the tent, interspersed with flame-throwers and large Python-carrying snake charmers. It is gluttony of spectacles and soon Johnny is enmeshed in the theatrics of it all.
As they exit the tent, Johnny remembers the elephant man briefly to make a meek protest, “But dad…”
“Lets go get that cotton candy, the white one that I promised you and then we can look at the animals in the cages, Okay?”
“Okay!” Johnny cries. His thoughts now firmly fixated on the spun-fluff of the cotton candy.

As they walk across to the food section a six-foot life sized poster of the face of the elephant man stares down at them with the caption. Johnny looks at the poster and quickly averts his eyes. “See Johnny, I told you that is not what you want to see. I mean who wants to see some ugly scary man.”
“But dad, I just wanted to see…” Johnny’s voice loses its fervor, “we all talk about him in school...” The poster still intrigues the sense of desire. The image is enough to turn Johnny’s stomach. But to see him in person, now that would be something and he can tell all his friends too. Johnny is lost momentarily in his thought, but just until the view of the cotton candy appears and dissipates all other thoughts.

Reaching the stall the father pays for the sugary delight and a happy son and father walk along the gaiety of the circus, oblivious to the sight of the elephant man, his grotesque features and his misshapen body. All left unseen. The father feels that the delicate senses must not be affronted by this reality. All of the elephant man and his deficiencies and nature’s ugliness should be left to the land of imagination. So it is with imagination that it makes monsters with time.
Father and son leave the circus happy in the circumstance of their recent endeavor, both regaling in the joy and sensations of perfection. Father animatedly talking to his son about all that they have seen to keep the sense of excitement from getting stale while the son walks besides him wondering at the empty feeling inside of him and wondering why.
Joseph Merrick "Elephant Man"

Johnny’s desire to see the elephant man and society’s look at medicine from a distance is one and the same. Medicine and the curiosity of the Elephant Man, both have been rendered, the ugly and grotesque and made into invisible monsters. 

Medicine has been discussed as the lone cause of what ails the society. The comparison to the grotesque by its very nature has made its practitioners garner the same repute. At first with tiny little cuts from outside it has been weakened to a state of malaise. As certainly as the Elephant Man’s much-discussed persona is debated, his tumors continue to grow. No one wants to see and seek a solution.
Joseph Merrick's handwritten letter

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."
- Joseph Merrick. (The Elephant Man)

Joseph Merrick as a sideline died at the age of 27. He is purported to have a combination of "neurofibromatosis type I and Proteus Syndrome affecting Chromosomes 10 and possibly 18. He died of asphyxiation due to tracheal obstruction at a London Hospital in 1890.

Many medical practitioners and their business partners alike assigned to the lofty chairs of visibility have thrown their lot into the appeasement society. They have rendered themselves blind to the travails of what ails medicine. They sit and foster papers in journals about what their “feelings” are and how it would be a disparaging affair should this or that not be done to make medicine better. The reality is not one of those ivory tower maestros know what happens in the trenches of medicine where the real battles of life and death are fought. They are like the father who dissuades his son from seeing the real Elephant Man by distracting him with high-wire acts and a pleasure of cotton candy. No one wants to rattle the cage, or at least in some cases know where the cage is. No one wants to enter the tent where the elephant man sits. They all know he is there, they talk about him but fear that when viewed would send a pungent aroma into their rarified perfumed presence. They build images in their minds but none want to actually see. No, this view is not worth the price of the ticket. Let “him” sit in his secluded tent and we can discuss what needs to be done –ad-nauseum. And so the circus goes on. 

All the glitter and glitz of the fire-breathing drama of visual delights overtake the senses while the agony of the lone elephant man lingers within the chapels of his mind.

Stabbed by a thousand little cuts, medicine lies bleeding at the doorstep of sanity. The world is awash with ideas and mechanisms to fix it. Cries of foul play are heard and aspersions cast at it in the daily tribunes, times, posts and blogs. Nothing is done save for a few more statements, articles and oohs and aahs. Medicine is like the elephant man- warts and all, who sits in his tent waiting for the crowd to understand his dilemma and see who he really is, a person and not a monster, that he is worth understanding, learning and saving and not merely an afternoon of literary exposition. That, curing his problem will help the future. 

But the circus goes on and the elephant man sits quietly wondering how he will rid himself of the growing "carbuncles" that doom his existence.

One foot in sea and one on shore,

To one thing constant never."
- Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare.

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