Le scaphandre et le papillon

I suspect you think that this is an awfully pompous title for a blog post, or a film, or a book. And in a way it is. It is French, and means “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”. And it is the title of both a book and a film. And their subject matter are neither pompous nor awful.

Both tell the story of the French bon vivant and editor of ELLE magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who at age 43 suffers a massive stroke, and upon waking from his coma finds himself suffering from “Locked-in syndrome“: Locked in his completely paralyzed body, with all of his senses and mental capacities intact, he can only communicate by blinking his left eye. By having an assistant read the letters of the French alphabet aloud in order of frequency of use, he can blink whenever she reaches the letter which he wants to use in a word or a sentence. Ever so slowly, he can let his surroundings, his family and friends, as well as his doctors and nurses know how his life is now.


It is in this state that he dictates the book, which he calls “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in reference to his complete isolation in this vacuum of easy communication, which he fills with his still-sprawling imagination, dreaming of all the things he has lost or never had.


I saw the film yesterday, and it is amazing. By giving the viewer Bauby’s perspective, we too are a dumb and unable to take part in the happenings in front of us. For a while, we share his pain and gain a vivid perspective of life within the diving bell. It’s wondrous.

But even, so Bauby managed to tell his tale, though he died within days of its publication. It reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges‘ short story “The Secret Miracle“, in which Jaromir Hladík, a Jewish scholar and playwright, while standing in front of the firing squad just before his execution, is granted one year of time by God to finish the play he never dared complete. But that year of time is relative. It is basically time frozen for year, where nothing apart from Hladík’s conscious mind is in motion. Unable to write his work down, Hladík is forced to recite and refine the play in his mind, line by line.

When he finally finishes the play, reciting it in full before adding his epithet, physical time resumes and the bullets rip. The secret miracle unobserved and his play unheard.

At least in that way, Fate was kinder to Jean-Dominique Bauby.

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