‘Diving Bell and the Butterfly’

By Danette Vernon

I once rented a movie that opened with flickering images and the voice-over of a narrator whose eyes I peered through, watching only what he could see, listening to only what he could hear.

I sat alone in my living room, voyeur to his thoughts, while all others experienced him in near silence.  He had awoken from a coma to his right eye being sewn shut, and the dawning realization that though he could answer all questions put to him, his name, where he lived, the name of his children … no one could hear him.

Our protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby, was the editor of Elle Magazine in France, until at 43 he was struck with a massive stoke that would have left him dead in decades past, but with modern medicine — the “agony was prolonged.” Jean-do, as his friends call him, finds himself living in the imagined heaviness and isolation of a “diving bell” at a convalescent hospital by the sea, unable to speak or move (locked-in syndrome), with the exception of his left eye.

An alphabet system is devised with the letters most frequently used at the beginning of the alphabet, rather than the traditional order. When the alphabet is read to him, he blinks to let you know you have reached the desired letter until words and then sentences are formed. Under contract for a book prior to the stroke, Jean-do eventually begins the arduous process of “travel notes” from this seaside prison. On one of his excursions outside of the walls of the hospital, he discovers a view of the local lighthouse.  “Rigid and mute,” he places himself, “… under the protection of this brotherly symbol, guardian not just of sailors but of the sick — those castaways on the shores of loneliness.”

Captive, he is still free to float about like a butterfly. “There is so much to do!” he exclaims, noting that “on any given day he can set off for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court.” He considers that while he used to be a “master at recycling leftovers,” in today he is “cultivating the art of simmering memories … the sour smell of a New York bar, the odor of poverty in a Rangoon market, little bits of the world.” He reveals that at times he “derives a guilty pleasure from his total lapse into infancy,” on other days, tears roll.

As memories surge past the mind’s eye, Jean-do realizes that he is much “like the sailor who watches as the home shore gradually disappears,” as he too is watching his past recede. We listen in as he confides that while “his old life still burns within … more and more of it is reduced to the ashes of memory.”

On a different day and in a different mood, he revels in the familiarity of being dressed in his old clothes, “a symbol of continuing life. And proof that I still want to be myself. If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere.”

I have never watched the movie adaptation of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and failed to be impacted—with inspiration and with profound guilt. Jean-Dominique Bauby wrote a book with the use of one eye. In high contrast, I do so little with my two eyes, my two arms, my two legs. And you? What will you accomplish with all that you have?

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