“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby


The author of this work (published in 1997) suffered a stroke at the age of forty-three and was subsequently cared for at a seaside hospital in France. His ordeal included a coma that lasted for twenty days, and he discovered afterward that he was reduced to a state of almost complete paralysis. His only means of communication with the world outside his body was his left eye, with which he learned to blink messages via a specially arranged alphabet. The person with whom he happened to be “speaking” would recite this alphabet, paying attention all the while to Bauby’s eye, which he would blink when the desired letter was spoken. This was how he formed words and sentences; it was how he would ask visitors simple questions, such as, “How are you?”; and this was how he wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—a memoir of his experience as a victim of locked-in syndrome.

The book is broken up into twenty-nine chapters, each of which deals with a particular topic or theme, such as “The Wheelchair”, “Prayer”, “Bathtime”. It is one of those books that can be gotten through quickly, but that is the wrong way to read it. One should ponder the effort that was involved in the writing of a single sentence, not to mention the thought, precision, and artistry that went into the whole and every part of this work. Consider, for example, the feat of “winking” the following observation:

‘Speech therapy is an art that deserves to be more widely known. You cannot imagine the acrobatics your tongue mechanically performs in order to produce all the sounds of a language.  Just now I am struggling with the letter l, a pitiful admission for an editor in chief who cannot even pronounce the name of his own magazine!’ [Bauby was the editor of Elle magazine] 

Though it might all sound depressing, I found The Diving Bell to be inspiring. Many topics are explored, though two themes have struck me with special force. The first concerns the power of the human mind, and its ability to remember or imagine in ways that most of us never realize. The second theme that comes through concerns the almost miraculous healing effects our simple acts of kindness and consideration can have on those who are severely disabled. The receivers of these acts may not express gratitude; it might be that they cannot; but the sincerely compassionate deed, great or small, is never wasted.

Not to be overlooked is the 2007 movie adaptation, directed by Julian Schnabel and starring Mathieu Amalric. It is an excellent film and faithful to the spirit of the book. Even so, if I had to choose between the two, I would have to go with the book. It reads like a series of striking prose poems; and given the circumstances of its composition, it is an achievement on par with the greatest literary works of all time.