The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Perhaps if Jean-Dominique Bauby's story of "locked-in syndrome" - a rare cerebrovascular condition in which the mind ("The Butterfly") is vibrant and wide awake, while the body ("The Diving Bell") is a slumbering mass of perpetual immobility and inertia (a very personal prison cell comprised of his own flesh and blood) - were fictive rather than so terribly true, I'd of more so savored each of his spare sentences. For each sparkling sentence is a story or a truth unto itself.

"But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding."

Chew on that lyrical gem a bit. Words to live by, even if your body, unlike Bauby's, is not permanently paralyzed.

Perhaps if this poor man, victim of a massive and usually lethal stroke at forty-three that left him in a coma for two months, weren't dead right now, and hadn't died so soon after completing what could be considered the most concentrated (and certainly shortest) tome ever written, or had I not known these horrible facts while reading the book, I could say then, and only then, that I enjoyed it, the book. I greatly enjoyed the poetic, philosophic writing, the sardonic humor despite his heartfelt and unfathomable (for someone not trapped in his godawful situation) psychological suffering and loss, and even the occasional, understandable, bitter barbs of incisive wit he let loose, I liked too (i.e., an insensitive, gruff doctor asks Bauby, "Do you see double?", and Bauby, internally, replies, "Yes, I see two assholes, not one."). But how can I honestly say I enjoyed this story? I suppose I did enjoy it - the storytelling, that is - but I likewise didn't enjoy poor Jean-Dominique Bauby's tragic story. A story that just as easily could be anyone's story at any time, should Fate or God or The Cosmos or Whatever determines to do to you what it determined so abruptly and brutally - fatally - for Bauby.

It's so much easier to read something deliciously depressing like The Road because it's obviously made up stuff no matter how realistic the author breathes whatever bleak and ruined life into the characters and settings and scenarios he's created, but The Diving Bell And The Butterfly is about as in-your-face, depressingly real as it gets. And it's not depressing necessarily because of anything Bauby said (or how he said it) - though I will wholeheartedly say that Bauby said as much about life - and about death and suffering and how to deal with the latter two as optimistically as possible - I believe, in barely 100 pages (and did so only by blinking his left eye! - you just try communicating and writing anything - let alone what borders on the meaning of life - just by blinking your left eye!), as any existentialist, 19th century Russian masterpiece could say even though it pushed or exceeded a thousand pages.

Bauby indelibly tapped into the primal human horror of having complete consciousness, and yet being so ill-equipped to communicate that consciousness - to connect it - to another human being as to take humanity's innate dread of loneliness and abandonment to levels perhaps previously unrealized in fiction or non-fiction. I've a dear daughter "locked-in" her own isolated interior world of autism, and knowing Bauby through his brief book, helps me understand and recognize more clearly that there's probably a lot more going on beneath the surface with my mostly non-verbal, uncommunicative daughter than I ever realized.

The book, quite simply, is beautifully sad. Hopeful, and yet despairing. Inspiring, yes, but not "joyous," as the dumb publishing blurb on the back, falsely claims. Movie tie-in marketing no comprendo's.

I don't recommend The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, but I think everyone should read it.

CymLowell's Book Review Party Wednesday 


  1. I love your reviews .. honestly .. I truly do .. I could tell how split this book made you. Yes, "The Road", while bleak and dark and horrible, is MADE UP; it's all made up misery, even if we can sympathize with the characters. I, of course, had heard of this book in brief passing, but I didn't realize that it was 'written' by someone who was living the situation being described. I think that this one must go on my I-must-read-before-I-die list.

    Julie @ Knitting and Sundries

  2. gautami tripathy ~ thanks for dropping by!

    Julie ~ After a bad day, it's so nice and rewarding to read a lovely comment like yours. Lately I've wondered if this blogging business is worth all the time and effort, and have considered abandoning it for something else. A comment like that will keep me going here for some time. So, thank you too for dropping by!


Post a Comment