#20BooksofSummer23: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

white and black butterfly on shrubs

Le scaphandre et le papillon was recommended to me some years ago by a French-speaking English student who thought I might enjoy reading it in the original language. I have not so far managed to do that, but I have finally read the English translation, and I was blown away.

It’s an extraordinary document of the indomitable spirit of a man who becomes completely “locked in” to his paralyzed body, and yet retains the curiosity, humor, and warmth to write a book about the experience that is uplifting rather than depressing.

In short but perfectly composed chapters, Bauby tells us about how he spends his days, the physical challenges and pains along with the consolations of imagination and memory. He explains the system by which he has been able to create this account, letter by letter, by means of an alphabet that is read to him until he blinks his left eyelid. Without this ingenious method, brought to him by a speech therapist he calls his guardian angel, he would be even more cut off from the world; as it is, people’s patience and sensitivity is not always up to the challenge.

Bauby writes with wry humor and an impressive lack of cynicism about the humiliations imposed by those around him who don’t understand or don’t want to engage with his condition. But his restraint all the more brings home the fact that even within a person whose inner world is completely closed off to us, there is a living being deserving of respect and love. The butterfly trapped in the diving bell finds release through communication, through the links that we forge through empathy and understanding.

Only at the end of the book does Bauby work himself up to describing the decisive moment in his story: the sudden stroke that paralyzed him in midlife, cutting him off from his old identity and casting him up upon the shore of loneliness, a kind of death-in-life. His communication is really like a message from the world beyond death, where there will be no more opportunity to work through the body, but still much to remember, celebrate, and learn. We poignantly feel the depth of his loss, and yet he never falls into self-pity, intent on exploring and using what he still has to the utmost. All of us who retain the use of our limbs and senses must feel the obligation, upon learning how much he could do with so little capacity, to make better use of our time and our life, of the freedom we so often squander or sleep through.

This is a book I want to read again and to press upon others, in a world that desperately needs to liberate itself from self-inflicted chains of the mind and spirit.

Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, translated by Jeremy Leggott (Knopf, 1997)

One of my 10 Books of Summer– #20BooksofSummer2023
Also counts for the Spiritual Memoir Challenge: A book that engages with spirituality through illness or trauma

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21 thoughts on “#20BooksofSummer23: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

  1. Heard so much about and around this memoir but never took the opportunity to give it a chance. You remind me it might repay the effort.

  2. Actually a book I’ve read and a brilliant one at that. Indomitable is absolutely the right word, his spirit has stayed with me. Have you seen the film? I thought it was wonderful.

    1. I did wonder how they could possibly put it into film, because it’s so much about his subjective experience, but if you think it’s good, I’ll check it out.

  3. Wow! I don’t dwell on it often, but this experience is one of my greatest fears – to be ‘trapped’ in my own body. This sounds like a powerful and timeless read.

  4. Thanks to your recommendation, I’m reading this now as my July book for the Spiritual Memoir challenge. I’m amazed every time I open it that he had the patience to blink his way through each letter, word, and sentence. It makes me read a little slower so I can appreciate even more all the effort put into composing it.

  5. Wow, reading your review gave me goosebumps.
    I haven’t heard about this before, so thanks!
    Have saved the e-book at Scribd, and can’t wait to read it.

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