My freakish fixation

When am I not thinking about the Elephant Man? 

I’m not just talking about the shattering 1980 film by David Lynch (still one of my favorite movies — see my appreciation here). I also mean the actual, real-life Elephant Man, née Joseph Merrick, the hideously deformed young Brit who, with considerable luck and one doctor’s wayward compassion, went from the squalid, dehumanizing freak show circuit to become the toast of Victorian London before he died at age 28 in 1890.

Merrick has been on my mind since I was yay high. Call it odd, perverse or, well, freakish, but the creepy and offbeat have clutched me in their thrall since my youthful exposure to Universal Horror flicks, campfire myths like Bigfoot and the Moth Man, and the most enduring gift I received on my eighth birthday, the thick book “Very Special People: The Struggles, Loves, and Triumphs of Human Oddities” by Frederick Drimmer.  

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In the book, among the likes of Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Grace McDaniels the Mule-Faced Woman; the original Siamese twins; and Julia Pastrana, aka the Ugliest Woman in the World, was Merrick, perhaps the saddest story of them all. (Although Pastrana’s story is heartrending, bizarrely grotesque, and worth a look here.)

A speedy summary: In an unorthodox gesture of charity, Dr. Frederick Treves took in the incurable Merrick, who suffered from severe neurofibromatosis, at the Royal London Hospital, furnishing the sick, lost and abused sideshow veteran a dazzling new life of comfort, friends, celebrity visitors, room and board and more. Though his appearance still terrified the faint of heart, Merrick was embraced by mainstream society until his premature death. IMG_0581.JPG

(Merrick’s skeleton resides at the old Royal London Hospital, and a few years ago I visited hoping to see the bones. I was rebuffed, but I had the pleasure of the hospital’s special museum dedicated to Merrick’s life.) 

I know a lot about “The Terrible Elephant Man,” as he was billed on the road, not only from “Very Special People” and Lynch’s ravishing biopic, but from a slim paperback I bought in seventh grade, “The True History of the Elephant Man,” about which I wrote and presented a book report to my befuddled English class. 

What gets me about Merrick is his life story, one so rippled with tragedy and depravity, it curdles the soul as it breaks the heart. Living in a sooty black-and-white London of clanking, steaming machinery that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, Merrick’s old-timey milieu also enthralls (see the Lynch movie for a rattling immersion in time and place), and seems of a piece with his destitute, Dickensian plight. 

And the disease: The exotically gruesome, inconceivably savage affliction renders man into monster, whose corrupted flesh cannot conceal the gentle soul locked inside the twisted, tumored carapace.  

My fascination has become rather fanboy. (Elephant Man cosplay — I will have to pass.) Besides books about Merrick — including “Making ‘The Elephant Man’” by one of the film’s producers, which I just bought — I own the American, Turkish and Japanese posters of Lynch’s movie, as well as a coffee mug embossed with a period photo of Merrick looking dapper in a three-piece suit. 

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Around the time I got the making-of book, I ordered what I’ve wanted for a long time, a t-shirt of the “Elephant Man” movie. This one is a silkscreen of the film’s Japanese poster art, fusing my passion for all things Japanese with my strange Merrick mania. 

A tad zealous, perhaps. But consider that Michael Jackson famously tried to buy Merrick’s bones. He was flatly refused. I once thought that Jackson was overreaching, being the creepy eccentric he was.

Nowadays, not so much.

The weird and wiggy, worldwide

As one who seeks out the freaky and far out in my travels, serendipity seems to be the best GPS for the fiendishly, often funnily, strange. Mostly this is in the form of art, mainly sculpture and statue and the occasional painting. (Or some decidedly unfunny human cremations in India and Nepal — I’ll spare you.)

Sure, it’s superficial this fascination. (So weird! So hilarious!) What does it mean? Not much. It’s aesthetics of the outré, stimuli out of left field, tailored, perhaps, to the oddballs among us. It’s striking, warped and wonderful. The more ghastly the better. The more shocking the cooler. (Note: I have yet to stumble upon art or artifact that’s sincerely blasted my senses. It’s out there, and I will find it.)

Here, meanwhile, are irresistible curiosities I’ve come across around the world: 

 

Cast of Joseph Merrick’s, aka the Elephant Man’s, skull, Royal London Hospital. One of the most interesting, most hideous and saddest skeletal specimens ever.
Latex cast of the Elephant Man from the 1980 David Lynch film “The Elephant Man” at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York. This is the mold they used to make-up John Hurt as the real-life Elephant Man.
“Crucified Woman,” an unsettling work by supreme provocateur Maurizio Cattelan, hanging in the Guggenheim in New York City. Note the pigeons. I have no idea what’s going on.
Cracked cherub in Iglesia de El Salvador, a gorgeous church in Sevilla, Spain. I love the little fella’s decrepitude and pink and bulgy doll-like creepiness.
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona. Stacked: a sheep, a pig, a cow, all with unicorn horns. Interesting, until you realize it’s just bad art.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Rugged hiking man with primates. The bloke’s head is like a bobble-head.
The Met, New York City. Exactly how I wake each morning.
Body cast of Chang & Eng, original Siamese twins, Mutter Museum, Philadelphia. Gross and glorious.
A baby through Picasso’s eyes, Paris. I just like this poor warped toddler, so bulbous and twisted — and probably demonic.
Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Petersburg, Russia. At the resident Torture Museum. Highlight: the saliva string and puddle.
Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, DC. Trump in two years, in his cell. 
Malformed Baby Jesus, flea market, Barcelona, Spain. So distorted and freakish I desperately wanted to take it home and cuddle it.
Hanging horses by crazy Cattelan, Guggenheim, NYC. Something out of Fellini. See the little Pinocchio puppet by its front legs. Discuss.
Monkey murder. I really haven’t the foggiest. I wish I did, but I don’t. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 

In defense of death

A new book is out and contains a passage that provides a frisson of happy recognition: 

“The human cannot abide the thought of death … Most people aren’t wrestling with dread so much as trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

This comes from Sallie Tisdale’s windily, and wittily, titled “Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.” It’s a slimmish, scintillating book, pimpled with wisdom and knowledge from the stance of a professional thinker, steadfast Buddhist and registered nurse — a trusty troika.

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But why does that quote sing? As I’ve touched on in prior posts (like this one), we are the whopping deniers, gymnastic dodgers, when it comes to confronting or even thinking about death. We know it’s there, lurking in the gloom of the collective id. Most people, as Tisdale says, are “trying to ignore a chronic background anxiety.”

I find this absurd and annoying, because I wonder: How, on a daily basis, does one not consider their inevitable, totally inescapable and at once entirely unpredictable (how and when will you die?) and completely predictable (you’re gonna die!) mortality?

“Advice for Future Corpses” examines that idea with a graceful, empathetic touch and it adds to a mini-mountain of mainstream literature about dying that includes Atul Gawande’s mega-hit “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End” and Cory Taylor’s “Dying: A Memoir,” to name just two.

Why this death-book boomlet? Because lots of us are understandably freaked about the fearsome finality. (At least those who even consider it.) For one, people are living longer than ever and we find ourselves taking care of aging, often incapacitated parents and relatives. Death is in our face. And still, so many look away.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

Call me sick. Tisdale quotes William James on two personality types: the “healthy-minded … with its strange power of living in the moment and ignoring and forgetting,” and the rest, the “sick souls” who cannot blot out the naked prospect of mortality. Yes, a sick soul am I, but also enlightened, awakened and aware that our flimsy, fleshly bodies will someday fail us and atomize to dust.

I’m a nervous type so the fact that I look death in the eye doesn’t mean it’s a steely gaze. I lose that staring contest every time. Death scares me, even if, as I believe, it’s one big great nothingness — no heaven, no hell, no paradisiacal virgins — and we shouldn’t be scared of nothing. Yet the unknown is killing us, so to speak. Its foreverness terrifies.

Tisdale writes: “The psychiatrist Irvin Yalom describes the ego facing extinction as being ‘staggered by the enormity of eternity, of being dead forever and ever and ever and ever.’”

Totally.

“At some point,” Tisdale says, “most of us shift from realizing that sooner or later some future self will die to realizing that this very self, me, precious and irreplaceable me, will die. It’s a terrible thing to grasp, and though this insight may last a mere second, it changes your life.”

Her breadth on the topic dazzles. She addresses both sides of death-phobia (terror vs. liberation), our response to death (unalloyed grief), the certainty that we will die, the notion of the “good death,” personal anecdotes such as her dying friend shopping for biodegradable coffins and shrouds, and Zen-worthy declarations like “cremation can have a kind of stark beauty.”

She naturally can’t get to the bottom of it — death’s mystery is all-engulfing, impenetrable, the Big One — but her Buddhist-nurse compassion touches every page and she sheds copious slats of light into our shared abyss. My favorite citation comes from a dying Rabelais, whose last words were: “I am going in search of a great perhaps.”

The beauty in that is bottomless.

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Brompton Cemetery, London, 2017

A grave interest in cemeteries

Considering my voluptuous fascination with death and dying, I’ve become quite the habitué of graveyards and cemeteries, be they local, regional or far-flung amid my world journeys. I dig graves. And I go out of my way to find them, stroll them, contemplate and photograph them, from Boston to Brooklyn to my personal cemetery capital of the world Paris.

My favorite cemetery is, no surprise, Père Lachaise in Paris, a dense, lush, almost medieval necropolis of winding paths and boulevards, overgrown ivy and shady groves — a crepuscular cosmos unto itself whose edifices just happen to be ornate, angel-crested crypts and poetry-carved tombstones. Famous artists, actors, writers, politicians — Jim Morrison to Oscar Wilde, Proust to Edith Piaf — slumber here. Locating their graves is part of the game at the labyrinthine, 110-acre Père Lachaise, which contains over a million graves. (Cimetiere du Montparnasse is another must-see, star-studded burial spread in Paris.)

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Tchaikovsky’s grave

Researching my nearing trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I was thrilled to find a whole page about local cemeteries. The most popular and famous is the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other luminaries rest. Expect travelogue-y descriptions of my visits to the Russia repositories.

Meanwhile, this is a catalog of recent cemetery jaunts — and more. All the images have to do with death, dying, the great beyond.

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Brompton Cemetery, London.

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Westminster Abbey, London. (How I face the world each morning.)

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Istanbul Islamic cemetery.  

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Serge Gainsbourg, Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.

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Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London.

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Highgate Cemetery, London.

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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.

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Paris Catacombs. (Alas, poor Yorick!)

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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.

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Cast of Joseph Merrick skeleton, aka The Elephant Man, Royal London Hospital.

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Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

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Highgate Cemetery, London.

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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.

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Funeral pyre of old woman, Kathmandu, Nepal.

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London.