The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Bauby, Jean-Dominique - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Hoylake Community Cinema ‘pops-up’ one Friday evening every month in the local community centre.  The films cater for all styles, tastes and genres, taking in everything from black on white classics (It’s a Wonderful Life), docu-films (He Named Me Malala), contemporary sci-fi (Ex-Machina), and foreign language films (Mustang).

So when the Diving Bell and the Butterfly appeared on the 16-17 season programme I decided to dust of my copy of Bauby’s book.

It must be almost twenty years since I first read it.  At the time I was attracted to the human story behind the book. Bauby, in his early forties, editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine, was paralysed as a result of a massive stroke.  His speech therapist sets up a code that allows him to communicate with the one part of his body he can still move, his left eyelid.  And that’s how he ‘wrote’ The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: he dictated it, blinking each word letter by letter.

In the 1990’s I was a less than attentive reader, clearly, because although I’d remembered the story I’d forgotten everything about the actual writing.  I’d forgotten that the ‘Diving Bell’ of the title is Bauby’s image for the ‘hellish trap’ that ‘holds my whole body prisoner.’ The ‘Butterfly’ is his escape from his ‘cocoon’: his ‘mind takes flight,’ using the power of imagination, or he can ‘intercept and catch passing fragments of life, the way you catch a butterfly’ through contact with loved ones.

I’d also forgotten the richness of some of his flights of fancy, such as his encounter with the Empress Eugenie who in 1884 visited the hospital where’s he’s being cared for.  The clever changes of perspective that can have us standing with him as he ‘confided my woes to her likeness’ one minute, and the next observing his own reflection, ‘the head of a man who seemed to have emerged from a vat of formaldehyde.’

And there’s the structure.  Bauby’s day to day existence is interspersed with memories, dreams, and fantasies, all building to ‘the end of the road’, the day of his stroke, his ‘last moments as a perfectly functioning earthling.’

My last blog post covered Under the Eye of the Clock by Christopher Nolan.  If you’ve read either the book or the post you’ll know that Nolan was born severely handicapped and typed the account of his childhood using a pointer on his head.

I called it a hymn to the human spirit; by contrast The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a psalm of lament for what has been lost.  Nolan demands acceptance, Bauby a miracle. ‘Does the cosmos contain keys for opening my cocoon?  A metro line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking.’

Hope springs eternal, my mum used to tell me.  I’ve got a deeper understanding of that little epithet having re-read Bauby’s book.

** Worth reading


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