Personal Calamity, Perseverance and Wisdom: Jean-Dominique Bauby’s ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a text that Jean-Dominique Bauby pens with an objectivity typical of a memoir, intimate introspection characteristic of an autobiography, and a critical understanding of the leniency afforded by fictional storytelling, which come together to recount his life after a horrible accident that changed the way he lived forever; in the winter of 1995, when Bauby is at the peak of his career, he was driving his then nine-year-old son, Theophile, in his brand new convertible, to a restaurant for dinner, when he suddenly has a cerebrovascular seizure which leaves him in a coma for three weeks. He wakes up to find out that he is now paralyzed. The work juxtaposes the happening, and glamorous life he enjoyed as the editor-in-chief of a French Elle, with the pain of being restrained into to a life where he is incapable of speech or movement, and the only means at his disposal for being able to communicate are the blinks of his right eye. Despite this hurdle, he finds escape in the power of imagination and memory, and proceeds to work on a book that he had planned with a publisher. He found solace in the support of friends and family that visited him on weekends, and was able to finish this book by working with a patient diction recorder.

Just days after the book is realised to widespread acclaim, Bauby succumbs to his death. This personal tragedy is an ode to the resilience of the human mind and spirit. Bauby provides a non-linear narrative that shifts back and forth between the bustling life he has the editor-in-chief at Elle, with his new life where he was bound to a bed and the aide of his doctor, nurses, family and friends, in order to navigate the challenge of writing a book as a paralyzed man. Babuby’s conversations with Roussin, about the power of imagination and memory, were important to helping him cope with this difficult new life. Roussing, when recounting his days in captivity, tells Bauby that“the passage of time [is] the worst,” but he was able to survive the isolation and preserve his sanity “because [he] held fast to [his] own humanity.” He achieved this by reciting the names of the wines that were kept in the cellar where he spent five years trapped. Bauby sought to illustrate the import of this exchangeby providing that no matter how much you have taken away from you, whether it’s a heart-breaking realization of “all the chances [you] failed to size” in life, in reference to a chance at love he once let slip away, or “your vital motor functions which grant you the independence and power to function as you desired”, you can always count on your ability to imagine and reflect on your memories to find comfort in the circumstances that confront you. Bauby’s narrative offers that an individual can always get back up if they try hard enough, and as his story depicts, even a single functional eyelid may be enough to help realize that object.

Bauby’s experiences demonstrate that the sense of importance we attribute to our body as an indispensable part of our life, and in helping us realize the visions and dreams we develop and nurture as individuals, may be ‘disproportionate,’ as it fails to account for what the mind by itself is capable of achieving. In other words, his experience helps us see that in coping with the knowledge that our body has become, owing to whatever reason or circumstances, limited in its functionality, the mind may struggle to cope and limit the sense of wellbeing that an individual enjoys when they have full control of their bodies. This importance is reiterated in the chapter titled “Guardian Angel,” where Sandrine, his speech therapist, repeatedly poses a simple query: “are you there, Jean-do?” When he had met Sandrine, he was not able to use his eyelid to present his thoughts and feelings to anyone, and this inability to respond to this repeated query compelled him to wonder whether his conscience was merely an extension of his physical being, and whether the non-functionality of the latter rendered him a ragdoll underserving of exercising speech and thoughts. Bauby eventually didn’t know anymore, and says that “[he] doesn’t know anymore.” Bauby’s arrival at this realization served as the driving force that compelled him to employ the power of imagination and memory to escape the confines of his disability. The recurring sense of dread that Bauby absorbed from his sessions with Sandrine equipped him with the the purpose to work harder towards being able to use his eyelid, and eventually make himself be understood again by those around him.

The conversation that Bauby had with Roussin was a development that held great narrative significance; Roussin recounts how as a hostage for four years, he preserved his sanity by reading the labels of wine bottles. This was his way of holding on to his humanity, and that there is nothing more important than holding on to your humanity when circumstances bind you in a way that test your sanity. This was a daunting revelation for Bauby, as he was still coming to terms with his new way of life, reflected in the moment when he ‘blinked’ out the words ‘I want to die.’ This moment was powerful because it the act of blinking to spell words to form speech was a tiring affair in itself, and to use it to admit your desire to die, made it very memorable. This book recalls to mind Aaron Ralston’s Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place, both of concern individuals physically incapable of movement, albeit to different degrees, but demonstrate the power of the human imagination and memory in not only giving them the power to carry fighting on and persevere in the most difficult of circumstances.

Despite being fastened to a life of absolute motor imparity, the nature of the introspection offered in this text is a robust mixture of aching thoughts about making amends with loved ones, attempts to verbalize his understanding of a wisdom that can only come with confronting the gravest of personal calamities, and the pain of indefinite confinement. It is said that when someone looses their sense of sight, their sense of hearing becomes more acute. Bauby lost three of his, and perhaps this afforded a wisdom that cannot be arrived at otherwise, and as such, justified the excruciating patience that would be necessary to prepare a text with just a single blinking eyelid in place of pen and paper.