AN INVISIBLE SUN
" Life is a pure flame, and we live by invisible sun within us. "
Sir Thomas Brown, 1658
We’re now at the end of the spins cycle. I began the Deadly Spins series with gluttony, by doing some investigative research on the seafood buffet at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. For lust, friends and I navigated the aisles of vibrators and lotions at the Everything About Sex Show at the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre. For sloth, I recalled sitting at home, staring at the floor for hours at a stretch, during a struggle with depression. Greed had me shaking my head at the infantile excesses of CEOs and other assorted masters of the universe. I finished on pride, profiling a nameless acquaintance with a Napoleon complex, who gave me the finger in stereo when I failed to recall a television series he was producing. I can’t say all of it was giddy fun; but I can say it was instructive.
Superbia, ira, invidia, avaritia, acedia, gula, luxuria: Pope Gregory compiled the list of deadly sins 1400 years ago. Pride, or superbia in Latin, heads the list, followed by envy, anger, avarice and sloth. These are all sins of the spirit, the mind, the soul: the true or higher self. Gluttony, or gula in Latin, is near the end, next to lust. These are the sins of the flesh.
Throughout this series I have argued that we've spun the medieval concept of the seven deadly sins, by default rather than by design, into something new and psychically seismic. What began as a form of social control built on self-denial has been inverted into a form of social control built on self-absorption.
Envy, anger, greed, lust and gluttony all move product and services, as does pride, in its latest incarnation as "high self esteem." Even sloth, in its original sense that the church fathers meant, a torpor of the soul, has found a new, market-friendly form as clinical depression.
We live in a world of marvels; of just-in-time inventory, and globe-girdling communications systems that help mediate a lifestyle of great comfort and enjoyment for a great many of us. Never before have so many been exposed to so many life-affirming possibilities in the arts and sciences. To deny the positive aspects of hypercapitalism would be one-sided and simplistic. Yet as Buddhists say, all things have both a hellish and heavenly aspect. The flip side of a robust, high-tech economy is a regime of time-gobbling, unrewarding work for a great many of us, along with shrinking community. Weakened by the system, we risk allowing it to sicken us further into cynicism, by internalizing the false gods of competition and capital.
Greed, anger, and all the other so-called sins are normal human emotions. They have always been with us, and always will; and surely such feelings are, to a certain degree, unavoidable and perhaps even necessary. The difference today is the messaging, both overt and covert, that these are somehow laudable states of mind. The paramount signature of the Deadly Spins is separation. They separate the individual from others, the world, and one's own inner resources. They promote a worldview that is grasping, fragmented, fearful and perpetually dissatisfied. Greed, anger and all the other spins tend to shrink the world to the boundaries of the "skin-encapsulated ego." This mindset threatens the very species it has infected like a spiritual bacillus, and is pushing the biosphere to its limits. The ideal is to keep the citizen-consumer always looking to the market for solutions to his or her discontent; the monstrous nature of consumerism can make monsters of those it touches.
In bringing this series to a close, a story of one particular "monster" comes to mind. The life of John Merrick has much to tell us of how the human spirit can rise above circumstance, and the demands and commands of the market.
One day in 1884, Dr. William Treves, a lecturer in anatomy at London University Hospital, crossed the street from work. He noticed a gaudily painted sign above a recently-vacated greengrocer shop, announcing a showing of The Elephant Man inside. Intrigued, Treves entered, and gave a few pence to the showman at the desk, who rose and casually swept aside a curtain in the back of the room.
In the faint blue glow of the gaslight, Treves witnessed a figure crouching on a stool, covered by a worn brown blanket. The figure sat before a brick warmed by a Bunsen burner, huddled close for warmth. The showman yelled "stand up!" as if commanding a dog. The figure slowly rose to his feet, dropping the blanket to its feet.
The anatomist was horrified by the sight. A few lank hairs were draped over the man's massive skull. A mass of bone projected from his mouth, turning the upper lip inside out and making of the mouth a "mere slobbering aperture." (In the painting outside of The Elephant Man in the storefront, this growth had been portrayed to appear to be a rudimentary tusk.) "The nose was merely a lump of flesh only recognizable as a nose from its position," Treves wrote 20 years later of his first meeting with John Merrick. "The face was no more capable of expression than a block of gnarled wood." The body was even more appalling, with huge sacks of cauliflower-like flesh hanging off Merrick's trunk and appendages.
His right arm was a disfigured stump, with the tuberous, root-like fingers giving his hand the appearance of a "radish." The other arm was a remarkable contrast in its normalcy. Treves remarked on its delicacy and fine skin, and Merrick's "refined hand." It was the one outward sign of his fundamental humanity. Yet his speech was almost unintelligible, and Treves imagined him devoid of reason or any deep emotion. From the showman he learned that The Elephant Man was English, aged 20, and went by the name John Merrick. As a doctor, Treves recognized the monstrosity represented some acute medical condition, what today we call neurofibromatosis. He arranged with the showman to interview the "strange exhibit" in his examining room at London University Hospital.
Merrick showed up a few days later, a shambling figure with a walking cane, disguised with a cloak and an enormous peaked hat with a curtain draping his face. The elephant man was "shy, confused, not a little frightened and evidently much cowed," wrote Treves. The doctor determined through careful listening to his garbled speech some of the details of Merrick's life. "Here was a man in the heyday of youth who was so vilely deformed that everyone he met confronted him with a look of horror and disgust." Shunned like a leper and housed like a wild beast, the young man "was taken about the country to be exhibited as a monstrosity and an object of loathing."
At the age of 20, Merrick had no plans to look back upon or a future to look forward to. "There was nothing in front of him but a vista of caravans creeping along a road, of rows of glowing show tents and of circles with staring eyes, with, at the end, the spectacle of a broken man in an…infirmary."
After the examination, Merrick returned to his abode across the street. The next time Treves returned for a visit, the display, the showman, and Merrick were gone, shunted along by authorities who had determined the show offensive to public order and decency. That might have been the doctor's final encounter with The Elephant Man, had not Merrick and his promoter experienced a similar fate with police in Belgium. The promoter, tiring of the constant harassment from officials, gave his former meal ticket just enough money to get back to London. There police picked him up off the streets, and delivered him to London Hospital. Merrick, fortuitously, still had the business card of Dr. Treves, who was immediately contacted.
Treves, arriving to rescue the frightened Merrick, realized he couldn't turn this pathetic creature out into the world again. By publicizing his case in the local papers, the doctor gathered enough funding for permanent lodging at the hospital, in two unoccupied rooms overlooking a courtyard. Merrick, who had been on the move for much of his life, couldn't believe his great good luck, and for weeks after asked the doctor repeatedly when he would be relocated to less agreeable quarters. (His fondest wish was that it be an asylum for the blind, so no other resident could see him.)
As he got to know his new friend better, Treves came to understand that Merrick was an eager conversationalist. He described his young friend as "a being with the brain of a man, the fancies of a youth and the imagination of a child." A surprisingly good artist, he was also a voluminous reader who wrote with flair. The permanent resident of London Hospital "possessed an acute sensibility and – worse than all – a romantic imagination, that I realized was the overwhelming tragedy of his life."
One day the doctor asked a personal friend, a young and pretty widow, to visit Merrick, wish him good morning and shake his hand. She agreed, but the effect on the young man was not quite what the doctor expected. "As she let go of his hand he bent his head to his knees and sobbed until I thought he would never cease." The interview was over. John later told him that this was the first woman other than his mother who had ever smiled at him, and the first woman to ever shake his hand. "From this the transformation of Merrick commenced and he began to change, little by little, from a hunted thing into a man."
So what does this have to do with the Deadly Spins? Mid-Victorian London did not have our contemporary glut of public relations, advertising and media. There were no horror movies or video games, no high-tech passion plays like The Apprentice or Fear Factor. There were no monstrous parables of beastliness and transformation like Extreme Makeover or The Swan. Accidents happened then as now, but bloody collisions between carriages and rag carts weren't fastidiously recorded for dinnertime viewing. Instead of such amusements, there were circuses and sideshows. In this sense, The Elephant Man in London's Mile End was, in miniature, a predecessor of some our contemporary diversions and scare schemes: he was a congenital monster without a tabloid, a fright without a pharmaceutical campaign, a reality without the television.
Merrick was a terrorist of the mid-Victorian visual imagination, and a template for the paying voyeur's Shadow. Given his years on display, and the cruelty visited upon him, Treves found it a wonder that Merrick didn't end up a "spiteful and malignant misanthrope, swollen with venom and filled with venom for his fellow-men." The doctor never heard him speak badly of his captors or express regret over his circumstance. Anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who brought Treves and Merrick back to life in his 1971 book The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, puts it succinctly. "The truth seems to be that in most ways he achieved the kind of mental health that defies most human beings, the ability to love, to work and to play."
In Montagu's reexamination of Treves' account, he counters the doctor's implicit belief that Merrick was taken from his mother in infancy. Citing his ability to read and write, including his fond reminiscence of his mother, Montagu argued that he had been on display only from the age of 12 to 20. During that time, the anthropologist reasoned, Merrick's recollection of his mother's love had sustained him throughout his years of isolation and indignity.
Merrick received many well-bred visitors in his apartment, who gave him books and gifts. He had portraits of many of his well-dressed, attractive callers upon his settee, including Queen Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Enlisting the aid of the wife of a famous actor, the doctor once arranged for Merrick to visit the theatre, by having him carefully concealed from the rest of the crowd by a curtained proscenium. The spectacle on stage left him speechless; Treves heard his companion gasping and panting in excitement, at "a vision almost beyond his comprehension."
Perhaps the greatest day in his life came when wealthy visitors arranged for him to spend a weekend on their large country estate, free from prying eyes. For a good portion of his life, Merrick's view of the world was through a peephole in a showman's cart. Now he was "alone in a land of wonders," wrote Treves, with "the breath of the country passing over him like a healing wind."
"The Merrick who had once crouched terrified in the filthy shadows of a Mile End shop was now sitting in the sun, in a clearing among the trees, arranging a bunch of violets he had gathered."
The doctor noted that his friend now appeared to be one of the most contented beings he had ever been fortunate enough to meet. "More than once he said to me, 'I am happy every hour of the day.' " Certainly Merrick's ecstatic feeling was in no small part due to his incredible reversal of fortune; but it seems that this boundless happiness drew upon something already deep within him. All it required was someone like Treves to bring an ember, previously tended by his mother, back into flame.
Even though he was now treated as a human being, John Merrick still keenly sensed the great gap between himself and others. More than once he had expressed his wish to sleep like normal people. The Elephant Man never slept recumbent but had always tucked himself into a fetal position and dozed sitting up, with the weight of the head supported by his knees. One night, Treves later surmised, he must have decided to attempt the experiment. Nurses found the young man dead the next morning. His neck had apparently snapped from the enormous weight of his head, as he attempted to lay back on his pillow. He was 26 years old. Shuttered up in darkness for much of his life, his human encounters limited to the gasps and jeers of horrified spectators, John Merrick very likely saw no way out of his situation. (He told Treves what he looked forward to most during his time on display was crawling away and hiding). He didn't have the luxury of grasping for, or holding onto, attachments. He didn't have the option of what we now call "status anxiety," or any other urbane malady of the soul. There was no direction for Merrick to go other than inward.
There is tragedy in his story, but sublimity, too – especially when we recall the meaning of sublime: "a terrible beauty." Human transformation is often only achieved with some effort, and often at a terrible price. The situation is paradoxical. Consider the situation today, when so many healthy, well-educated people in the Western world are so thoroughly dissatisfied, and looking for personal liberty through a pill, a portfolio, a water view, bottle, lottery ticket, sports team, or flag. Yet their opportunities for love, for personal and professional reward, for inner transformation, are much closer at hand than anything Merrick could have ever hoped for. That is nothing if not paradoxical.
Every day, in innumerable, carefully researched ways, the market tries to convince us of our limitations, and prey on our fears. This is accomplished by appealing to envy, greed, anger and the other deadly spins – all to keep us running like rats on the wheel of market relations, chasing the "frozen desire" of money. The greatest irony is that we have built this wheel ourselves, and take turns playing captives and guards in a virtual prison of our own making. This explains why television viewing in North America has always been free. Because, you the citizen-consumer, or rather a demographic of which you are a part, has been presold to advertisers. YOU are the product, and YOU are on display. The monitoring may be more subtle than a Mile End mid-Victorian freak show, but that only makes the process all the more insidious. The ideal consumer is the one alone in the dark, in front of a television or computer monitor, watching, paying, ordering, and suspended in a purgatory of passing sensation and vague unease. One might speculate that the final dream of the high-surveillance, database-driven world of hypercapitalism is to turn us all into distorted, isolated specimens. Elephant folk.
In spite of this, the wonder isn't that many of us have been led to believe we are freaks – by appearance, status, or nature. It's a wonder that so many of us have not. There is a rubbery resiliency to the human spirit that snaps back from the hectoring message that we are fearful, finite beings, only in it for ourselves.
John Merrick looks out at us from old daguerreotypes and medical etchings, his face a gnarled mass in which we can read no recognizable emotion. But that face whispers something to us about the nature of the human spirit. In his time alone, he had no formal education, no media, and no clever arts of distraction. Cast out of human society and made into an object of revulsion, all he had left was what remains after the normal touchstones of self-definition are removed. With little more than a memory of his mother's love, Merrick connected to something that sustained him for his remaining time on earth. Montagu believed that Merrick's suffering, "like a cleansing fire, seems to have brought him nearer to that human condition in which all that are essentials of life having fallen away, only the essential goodness of man remained."
Merrick's friend and saviour, William Treves, summed it up best in the final words in his monograph. "As a specimen of humanity, Merrick was ignoble and repulsive; but the spirit of Merrick, if it could be seen in the form of the living, would assume the figure of an upstanding and heroic man, smooth browed and clean of limb, with eyes that flashed of undaunted courage." It was a wonderful disguise.
We cannot control the world, but like John Merrick, we have some control over our response to it. His story was simply an extreme variant of a common human experience. For all the joy of all living, we are born into bodies subject to all sorts of disorders and diseases, with minds and hearts that can imagine or experience all manner of hells. Meditating on our fates, we may grow to wonder what purpose all our struggling accomplishes, when it's all over in the wink of an eye. But something keeps us going regardless – whether we are happy by nature or otherwise – and pushes to seek something deeper than impermanent shadows. I suspect this is something more than the brute will to live, or "selfish genes." The joy of living is its own reward, but that joy draws from a deep well.
Underneath the places we've been hurt, or hurt ourselves and others, past the memories of failure and disappointment, the "thousand shocks that flesh is heir to," and all the phantom fears pushed at us and on us, down at the foundations of our being, there is not darkness, but light. This light is the healing force that burns up illusions and unites us with fellow beings. It lives in a quiet place beyond the screaming headlines of our twilight world, and away from the din of the market – the land of shadows where the beautiful John Merrick was once paraded.