The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

What is the power of a mind without a body? How far away can we travel standing in one place? How truly important is memory, imagination, and the intellect? Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is a triumphant response to these questions.

In December 1995, after suffering a massive stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby was rendered a victim of “locked-in syndrome,” which left him completely paralyzed and able only to communicate by blinking his left eye. In this way, he conveyed a poignant, ironic, and masterful memoir in the final months of his life.

The metaphor he uses for his paralysis is “something like a giant invisible diving bell that holds my whole body prisoner.” It does not hold his mind prisoner, however, and he reveals that when “my diving bell becomes less oppressive “my mind takes flight like a butterfly.” On these flights, he travels to Lourdes, to Paris, through literary and culinary experience, to the bedside of the woman he loves. He collects these experiences in his mind and memorizes them into exact words, sentences, and paragraphs to be communicated into his memoir.

Bauby describes his communication system as “simple enough,” though as you get into the book you realize how time and energy consuming it must have been. He explains,

You read off the alphabet until, with a blink of my eye, I stop you at the letter to be noted. The maneuver is to be repeated for the letters that follow, so that fairly soon, you have a whole word, and then fragments of more or less intelligible sentences.

Though this communication system established the successful completion of his memoir, it didn’t always work as effectively in casual conversations. He humorously describes the hopeless attempts of “the nervous,” “the reticent,” and “the meticulous” to operate the system, who either completely give up, exclaiming, “I’m an idiot!” or exhibit such scrupulousness as to make the whole process painstakingly exhausting.

One of the memoir is titled “Sausage.” Bauby describes his dietary routines, which consist of a tube and bags of brownish fluid, and his new “art of simmering memories” and cooking up fantastic feasts. Each entree, made from the finest ingredients, is a success. His choice indulgence of the day is “a good old proletarian hard sausage….Each slices melts a little on your tongue before you start chewing to extract its entire flavor.”

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is filled with such leaps of the imagination, forward to the plays he will someday write, and backward to bittersweet memories, of people and places, to the last time he saw his father, to a lost bet at the Vincennes racetrack, to a childhood friend named Olivier who had an enviable knack for story-telling. He also speaks of his children, Theophile and Celeste, whose small bedtime prayer is worth more than all the mantras, candles, monks, and amulets bestowed by family and friends toward a miraculous recovery.

Bauby died two days before The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published. However his memoir exists as a testament that life can be lived to the fullest despite the direst of circumstances. Jean-Dominique Bauby is the manifestation of the human spirit that rises above and beyond.

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