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The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean Dominique Bauby

by Venky

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Jean Dominique Bauby was a former journalist whose career stints included working for the likes of the Quotidien de Paris and Paris Match. He was also a very well acclaimed editor of Elle for four years ending December 1995, before fate decided to intervene in a cold, ruthless and merciless manner.  On the 8th of December 1995, Bauby while driving his son in a gun metal BMW suffered a massive stroke. Waking up 20 days later, in Room 119 of the Naval Hospital, Berck-Sur-Mer, Bauby was left to reconcile with his circumstances. Diagnosed with what is known as the Locked-in Syndrome, Bauby’s entire gamut of physical faculties was restricted to merely blinking his left eyelid. While his mental faculties remained unimpaired, he lay paralysed. In the first 20 weeks after his stroke he lost a whopping 27 kilograms. He was all of 45.

Instead of being mentally traumatized and ravaged by his plight, Bauby decided to take the contrivance of fate and circumstances head on and the result is an eviscerating, extraordinary and effervescent memoir that leaves an indelible mark on every reader. What is most incredible about this small book evocatively titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” – a paean to the contrasting plight of a body rigidly locked in as though it was within a diving bell as against a mind which was free to flutter around like an unconstrained butterfly – is the technique employed to pen it. Bauby composed and edited the book entirely in his head. Blinking when the correct letter was reached by a person slowly reciting the alphabet over and over again employing a technique called partner-assisted scanning, he dictated the whole book one letter at a time. Bauby’s interlocutor, Claude Mendibil listed the letters in accordance with their frequency in the French language.

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” is an ode to optimism, a tribute to acceptance and a complement to reconciliation. When bogged down by burdens dire, the wont is generally to take refuge in and recourse to ecumenism. Not Bauby though. Going against the expected and prosaic grain, Bauby lets loose his thoughts and imagination in an unfettered whorl which can only be termed liberating. Juxtaposing morbid humour with magnificent narrative, Bauby accomplishes the incredulous task of virtually disconnecting and detaching himself from his motionless body and looking at himself with a mixture of curiosity and candour. Roaming the corridors of the hospital in his wheel chair he immerses himself in sights and sounds that evoke both enthusiasm and exasperation. For example, he terms the temporary occupants of the physiotherapy segment of the hospital, ‘tourists’. “Elsewhere a battalion of cripples forms the bulk of the inmates. Survivors of sports, of the highway, and of every possible and imaginable kind of domestic accidents, these patients remain at Berck for as long as it takes their shattered limbs working again. I call them ‘tourists’.”  These ‘tourists’ with shattered limbs are also reduced to a state of awkwardness upon sighting Bauby with his rigid and immobile limbs, as he lies in a state of suspension tethered to an inclined board, which is slowly raised to a vertical position. “I would like to be a part of all this hilarity, but as soon as I direct my one eye toward them, the young man, the grandmother and the homeless man turn away, feeling the sudden need to study the ceiling smoke-detector. The ‘tourists’ must be very worried about the fire.”

There are moments of seraphic poignancy and sobriety in the book. The chapter where Bauby recollects the last time he met his aging father before his accident, and gave him a shave leaves absolutely no room for a single dry eye. Just take a deep breath, read through the following paragraph in silence and ruminate over it:

“I complete my barber’s duties by splashing my father with his favourite after shave lotion. Then we say, goodbye, this time for once, he neglects to mention the letter in his writing-desk where his last wishes are set out. We have not seen each other since. I cannot quit my sea-side confinement. And he can no longer descend the magnificent staircase of his apartment building on his ninety-two-year old legs. We are both locked-in cases, each in his own way; myself in my carcass, my father in his fourth-floor apartment. Now I am the one they shave every morning…”

Multiple passages identical to the one reproduce above dot the landscape of this magnificent book. Jean Dominique Bauby’s normal, run-of-the-mill, taken-for-granted routines might have come to a shuddering end on the 8th of December, 1995. But he did not allow this damning calamity to dull his life. He lived, loved and laughed with more vivacity, verve and voluptuousness. Most importantly he lived with a sedate sense of fulfillment that cocked a snook at adversity if not downright showing it the finger.

We would all do exceedingly well to imbibe even a faint whiff of Bauby’s undying spirit, unyielding passion and undiminished courage.


The book was published in France on 7 March 1997 to resounding success. However Bauby did not live long to bask in its glory. Contracting pneumonia all of a sudden, Bauby died just two days after the publication of his book. He is put to rest in a family grave at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France. A movie adaptation of Bauby’s book was also released to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.  Nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or, the movie’s Director Julian Schnabel bagged the Best Director award.


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