Guest Post: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

So, it’s no secret that I’ve neglected this little blog for awhile now.  I have been reading, but not really feeling the urge to post anything.  Perhaps in an effort to get me back into blogging, or perhaps even as an attempt to see how he feels about starting his own blog, today I have a guest post by my husband.  We read this book together, and then watched the movie.  Here are his thoughts:
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a book perhaps more notable for the circumstances surrounding its writing than its contents. Almost entirely paralyzed by a stroke at the age of 43, Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated this work by blinking his left eyelid to indicate the letter of his choice as an assistant cycled through the alphabet. Letter by letter, word by word, he built this book, part memoir and part philosophic meditation.

Perhaps it would be unbecoming, in light of the monumental difficulties faced by its author, to enumerate the faults of this book. But, as the book itself provides an unflinching examination of the truth, so too should a review avoid pulling any punches. The book is very short. But brevity is the soul of wit; and nobody can accuse the author of laziness. The composition is fragmentary and quite disjointed. There are no major upheavals of established doctrines or new schools of thought founded. But these things are rare in any book, and at least the author does not retreat into platitudes.
Instead, Bauby describes his routine at the hospital, his incremental steps towards rehabilitation. These alternate between harrowing and hopeful. He is wide awake as a doctor sows shut his paralyzed right eyelids to prevent scarring of the cornea; later, with great effort, he is able to regain the ability to move his head, to open his mouth, to grunt the melody to a song. He enjoys watching television, but if the wrong channel is on, it can be hours before he can signal to have it changed. The most compelling thing, however, is his descriptions of the mental strategies he employs to cope with his condition. Like one-eyed Odin, he dispatches the ravens Thought and Memory to survey not Midgard, but his own mind. Trapped in one room, he recalls his travels across the world. Inert, he recounts his defeats and his triumphs. Sustained by a feeding tube, he imagines elaborate banquets. Motionless, his mind makes measureless journeys through time and space.
And so, here is the fulcrum upon which the tale is balanced. The book’s title seems to imply that the delicate butterfly of the spirit is encased in the formidable diving bell of the body. In reality, the feebleness of the body is insufficient to contain the indomitable strength of the spirit.  At the end of the book, Bauby wonders if there are “keys for opening up my diving bell”, seemingly unaware that he has found the key within himself. He concludes, “We must keep looking. I’ll be off now.” And after writing those words, he departed his diving bell forever. A few days after the book was published, Bauby succumbed to pneumonia.
The book, by virtue of its mere existence, stands as a call to action. Who, with ten fingers, has written less than this man has with one eyelid? Who, with two legs, has travelled less than this quadriplegic? Who, with their full body, has accomplished less than this man did with a fraction of one? And so, Babuy’s work transcends biography and becomes a testament to the power of the human mind. Faulkner, in his Nobel acceptance speech, said that literature “need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Jean-Dominique Bauby, laid low by illness, built this pillar to elevate himself above his circumstances. And now it is up to us all to climb it and survey the world he revealed. I’ll be off now.
This entry was posted in Reviews.