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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Emily Alspector's picture

Aside from the beautiful and charismatic style which makes the procession through The Diving Bell and the Butterfly absolutely enthralling, complete appreciation of this book requires an acknowledgement of the implausible efforts of its creator. It is rare that a book can be inspiring based not only on the content of the writing but also on the process of its creation. Jean-Dominique Bauby does not explicitly give details about his condition, nor about how he went about writing this book. This seems to be the main theme of the book: it is not why, but how. He does not want the reader to know much about his accident or the painstaking method of communication he has been forced to resort to, but rather he wants to share stories of his past and thoughts of his present. It seems as though Bauby is making an effort to deconstruct his personal history from this new perspective for his own peace of mind.

When people experience trauma, they must rebuild a new self, or I-function, while integrating the traumatic experience into their personal narrative of their life story. Bauby appears to have written this book so that his new self would overcome the evident susceptibility of feelings of anger and bitterness towards the world. He knew that he needed to collect his thoughts, as slow of a process as it would be, in order to come to terms with his newfound existence. Perhaps the most frustrating thing to a person is being unable to communicate properly, whether due to being lost in translation or a cognitive deficit, humans are a social animal whose basic needs include accurate communication. Bauby knew that if the only way to accomplish this was by the trudging and slow process of blinking one eye to correspond with letters of the alphabet, it had to be done. His new outlook on life had to be integrated into his life story, and he chose to express his narrative in the form of a novel. And although the great lengths he went through to accomplish it are inspiring as well, he does not want the reader to be distracted by that aspect of the book’s conception and so mentions very little about his own personal Delphic oracle (21). Instead, one gets the impression that his level of patience is almost beyond normal human capacity.

He talks of his speech therapist as a guardian angel, giving him the gift of communication, something which most people take for granted. Although he often expresses frustration with his “forced lack of humor” (71) or inability to participate in the fluidity of a conversation, being a magazine editor in his past life, he seems to be well aware of the value of language. However, these aggravations mentioned are few and far between, with most of his attentions on attempting to “organize all this spiritual energy” (13), either from within himself or transmitted to him by loved ones in an effort to show support. In the chapters in which Bauby describes routine occurrences, like bathing, walking on the beach with his family, or physical therapy, he seems to flourish in his understanding and acceptance of his life in the hospital. His humor reemerges and he no longer seems to be imprisoned by time or his diving bell, as he notes, “I have no time for gloomy thoughts” (17).

There is a very subtle lesson that Bauby is conveying to his readers, although because of his constant change in tone, it is difficult to realize. Whereas in one chapter, he has a more sour personality and tone of voice, other times he vocalizes an appreciation and understanding of his current life. It is this alternating of voice that makes the book, and the author’s objectives, difficult to interpret. He admits that these “gusts of happiness” (83) that he experiences should be separated from his usual state of oppression. He juxtaposes these two internalizations in the form of the “imprisoning diving bell” (40) where he feels literally locked in, compared to when his “mind takes flight like a butterfly” (5). He is careful not to pit the two against each other, but expresses his new existence as a dance between the two dispositions. It immediately caught my attention that the book was titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and not versus, so as to communicate to the readers that one position is not necessarily more favorable to him, but they are both equally necessary for his reconstruction of character. It is imperative that he appreciates the oppressive diving bell, even if he does not necessarily enjoy its company.

In addition, one can surmise that the irregularity in mood and tone is actually the feature of the novel that reveals its meaning. Bauby knows that his new existence consists almost entirely of his own thoughts because of his communication disability. In displaying his confusion alongside his bliss, he is telling his readers that he doesn’t have all the answers—he is still the same regular man he was before his stroke. In illustrating his normalcy, he is also informing us that even in his locked-in state, he is still alive and has active thoughts. He is not just a vegetable; his consciousness is what separates him from death. He separates himself from the patients who are comatose, admitting that they “weigh strangely on our collective awareness, almost like a guilty conscience” (31), as well as the “tourists” who stop in to repair their temporarily shattered limbs. His position in the hospital is somewhere in between, but he refuses to be categorized with either. He is aware of his tendency to “spoil the view” (32), but he also knows that perhaps he is better off then both of them. In showing his readers that even though almost all he is capable of is thought, perhaps he wants us to realize that this is all anyone is capable of. Consciousness is all we have, and it is all we need.

One tactic Bauby uses to further illuminate his conscious state to his audience is to refer numerous times to his senses. In his memories as well as in his present state, Bauby alludes to his sense of smell, time, sight, and taste, in a comparative sense as well as idiosyncratically. He makes it clear that many of his senses, touch, for example, have been greatly affected by the stroke: “My hands […] are hurting, although I can’t tell if they are burning hot or ice cold” (5). But he also lets his imagination run wild, utilizing the memories of his senses, for instance, in imagining the hospital’s statue of Empress Eugénie as almost saint-like. He describes her attire, her scent, and her compassion toward him. When he first saw himself as others had, in the reflection of a window near her statue, Eugénie helped him avoid a breakdown, and they then decided “to treat it all as a joke” (25). Bauby becomes animated through his senses, his “inexhaustible reservoir of sensations” (36). From remembering his fondness for sausage at an age when most young boys prefer a stick of candy, to the intoxicating effect that the smell of french fries now have on him, perhaps because he can no longer enjoy their taste, his appreciation for his senses never falters. He comes to terms with these newly placed boundaries, compensates for his losses by learning to appreciate his past and his present.

Bauby also has a very unique concept of time. When he speaks of the future, one can detect a sense of sarcasm, as if he wants to stay optimistic but something is holding him back from truly believing he has an extensive future ahead of him. In fact, he embraces the relinquishing of his “grandiose plans” (11). Symbolically, he only mentions the “disconcerting resemblance” (75) of his daughter’s drawing for him of the emblem signifying infinity, as if he wants it to sit with the reader rather than explicitly reveal his thoughts on the matter. Moreover, his fixation on the past allows the reader to understand the processes of his life being “reduced to the ashes of memory” (77). Again, we can see Bauby struggling between two frames of mind: an optimistic present and an unenthusiastic prospect of the future. And, still, there is an aura of acceptance of both, or either, as he objectively watches his past recede, “like the sailor who watches the home shore gradually disappear” (77). Although he feels out of control of the situation, he realizes he must avoid indifference, and keep resentment and anger looming, “just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding” (55). His memories are his safety valve; he chooses to evoke the silver lining and live not only in his memories but to create new ones with the puzzle pieces of his remaining senses.

Interestingly, Bauby looks at these puzzle pieces he has been handed from an objective stance, resembling an out-of-body experience. It is as if his I-function temporarily disconnects and is able to oversee his past, present, and future because he has the time and will to do so. He experiences two realities: one which his body remembers and one which he currently experiences with the current nervous system that is operating. Because all we experience as reality is that which the nervous system translates to our I-function, perhaps distress and suffering occurs when the nervous system is greatly altered and the two ideas of reality do not match up. Bauby recognizes that he has “indeed begun a new life” (129), one with a new perception of reality. Bauby discusses a dream he has in which he sees in a museum an Impressionistic painting of his hospital room, as if he is equating his new sense of reality to an illusion. But because he so strongly reflects on his post-stroke self, or I-function, as being legitimate, conscious, and animate, one can conclude that the author believes life, no matter the condition of the nervous system, to be an illusion.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Life as an illusion and ...

Bauby discovers/believes life "to be an illusion", but one that can participate in creating/get satisfaction from, no? Maybe that's what building a "self" is always about?