Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: a brief report

eglaser's picture

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby is the story of  the chief editor of Elle magazine who suffered a massive stroke and became affected by what is known as “locked in” syndrome. Although his mental abilities, memories and senses remained intact he was unable to move his body except for the ability to shake his head slightly and blink his left eye. Despite all of this he managed to write a memoir about his experience and how he used the power of his own imagination to overcome his paralysis. Along with his descriptions of how his friends reacted, how he feels about the situation, he intersperses the story with vignettes where his mind creates an alternate, surreal reality and allows him to escape from his immobile body through memories and dreams.

In class we have spoken about the power of the mind to create things, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Brain - is wider than the Sky/ For - put them side by side/ The one the other will contain/ With ease - and You – beside” The mind is capable of creating the world and everything in it. Although Bauby is deprived of basic motor functions and the ability to physically interact with the world he is still capable of experiencing it through his thoughts. This book is a demonstration of the power of the mind over the physical condition of the person.

The most touching and inspiring portions of this book came when he wrote about the different ways he used his imagination to recreate scenes from his life and escape from his unyielding condition. At the beginning of the book he writes, “My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court” (Bauby, 5). This is a direct contradiction of the hopelessness of his situation and a vastly different way of viewing his prospects. For someone limited to such a confined existence there is very little sign of despair in his voice. On the contrary, “There is so much to do” (Bauby, 5). Physically he is trapped and yet he sees limitless possibilities. The mind has such power that even though he is trapped in a paralytic shell he can still find a way to experience life. This amazing optimism is completely transformative for the reader. It forces you to reexamine your own situation and to find ways to overcome those hardships. Just by thinking he can transform his situation and transcend it. The man wrote a book by blinking his left eye! If he can do that even trapped in his ‘diving bell’ than what can I accomplish in my own life?

As he wanders through space and time Bauby makes sure to stop off in places and events that are surprising in their negativity. He talks about how his experiences as a world traveler give him fuel for his minds imaginings. He recalls, “The sour smell of a New York bar. The odor of poverty in a Rangoon market. Little bits of the world. The white icy nights of Saint Petersburg or the unbelievably molten sun at Furnace Creek in the Nevada desert” (Bauby, 103). He does not just take time in his diving bell to remember the happy moments in his life, the banquets and summers with his family, he dwells on the poverty he has seen and the extreme conditions he has been exposed to. He rejoices in all of the experiences he has had in his life, remembering each in turn. Through this we can understand that life is not just about the good moments and the happy times. Although it is good to remember the joy in your life it is equally important to remember the sour smells and burning heat of summer as well. Every experience is an experience worth having. In the end, we interact with the world completely, unconsciously, all senses tingling and taking in everything. When we are deprived from all events, we find that drudging up scenes of poverty is just as freeing as any other wandering your mind can take.

One issue this book does raise is the idea of life and living. If we are stuck in a hospital bed like Bauby, unable to go or do anything do we still have a meaningful life? Although he has retained his higher brain functions he is still shut down and shut out from the actual actions of living. “I am fading away. Slowly but surely. Like the sailor who watches the home shore gradually disappear, I watch my past recede. My old life still burns within me, but more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory” (Bauby, 77). Is a life lived solely within the confines of memories a life? In our description of the nervous system we were careful to include both input and output as being vital to the functioning of a healthy nervous system. Although Babuy’s life is not without input it is so severely reduced that it could be said that he is scarcely taking in anything new. Is this a life? Is this a life worth living?

The answer can go both ways. Bauby, through this ordeal managed to create an amazing work of literature that has the capacity to change people. He was able to create and interact with the world despite his condition. He gained a unique perspective on life and on the people he knew. “Had I been blind or deaf, or does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature?” (Bauby, 83). He was awakened to the possibilities of his condition and to the unwavering support of friends and family, even those who he would not have suspected of caring. But at the same time, was he truly living? As he writes, “I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe” (Bauby, 55). Even he believes that we need more in our lives then just existence in order to be counted among the living. How dependent are we on our mundane interactions with the world, how can we live without them? When one of his friends asks him over the phone if he is there, Bauby responds with, “…I have to admit that at times I do not know anymore” (Bauby, 42).

As I have said before the class we have followed throughout the semester has encountered many new facts about the abilities of the nervous system. The brain is capable of rewriting the world around us in order for us to take it in without difficulty or pain. We don’t know it but we have the ability to create cities out of the air and feast on perfectly cooked delicacies. For Bauby it took a disaster of epic proportions to bring to light the abilities of his own mind but for us, it only took a semester sitting in Park science center to realize the powers of visualization, comprehension, and observation that we all have. Even, or rather, especially when trapped within our own immovable bodies we can create fantastic new worlds in ourselves.

We started the class with a passage from one of Emily Dickinson’s poems and I think it is apt to end the class and this paper with that passage, “The Brain - is wider than the Sky/ For - put them side by side/ The one the other will contain/ With ease - and You – beside.” Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir about life after a stroke reiterates what Dickinson said decades ago. The human brain is capable of unlimited potential. What exists in this world outside of our minds if by thinking we cause it to exist? Even when trapped, even when hurt, even when incapable of making a single motion on your own we are still connected to the world through our minds and our thoughts. We go through life unaware of what our mind can create and how often we do this on a daily basis. Sometimes we need a disaster in order to clearly see what we are capable of.  “Far from such din, when blessed silence returns, I can listen to the butterflies that flutter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wingbeats are barely audible” (Bauby, 97). Our mind can take flight like a butterfly, anyone is capable of it, all you have to do is open your eyes and your thoughts will take care of the rest.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Butterflies and the brain

Do we need the world, or can (do) we make it up ourselves?  if "one can manage to be calm and pay close attention ..."?