Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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PracticalRationality
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I suspect my mind of taking its observations of a person’s physical energy and dexterity as strong evidence about their mental quickness and clarity.

The existence and the wrongness of this presumption were brought into relief for me by reading Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, on his life with locked-in syndrome. Because realizing that the author’s lively and intelligent voice was issued from a single blinking eye looking out of a mostly inert body felt like seeing a magic trick.

But perhaps it is just that a writing process without vigorous back-and-forth with a mind-expanding piece of paper or virtual paper—a place to lay out one’s words and see them and move them around, without having to keep the entire gameboard in one’s head—sounds mentally paralyzing to me.

At this point, I realize that in all likelihood it is my own mind that is weak and wasted from clinging to these crutches, and that has learned to fear starting out by itself with no piece of paper to reassuringly catch its thoughts and promise that nothing will be forgotten. Bauby’s mind may well have become stronger between his time as eloquent editor of French Elle and writing this book.

It probably isn’t the feat of its creation though that makes this enjoyable to read, or makes my mind keep coming back to it. It’s a bright and compelling window into another person’s mind. (The bizarre tragedy of the plot probably doesn’t hurt either.)

Another thing I found interesting about the book was that the setting of being immobile in a hospital bed doesn’t give the reader many of the clues they might usually use to make out the character of the protagonist. How does he hold himself, when he can hold himself? How does he talk to his partner, when he can do more than blink? What did he want in life, before the goalposts were changed and, as he says, not drooling all the time became a cherished ambition? (We do learn that he is 44 years old, and that if he is going to drool, he would prefer to drool on cashmere.) Yet, I did not have a sense of blankness about his personality. From his narration of the world, I felt that I knew him. However toward the end, he narrates the final day before the stroke that detached his mind and his body mostly. And I realize that if I had met him in that way first, I would have a different impression of him. And I liked the way around that I did meet him. So I wonder, if it would be better to more often meet people’s trains of thought for a while before getting to see their appearance or overt behaviors.

I composed each paragraph of this post in my head except about fifteen words of editing, and dictated the first line to my boyfriend via winking.

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Thanks for this - this book is unlikely to get to the top of my queue, ever, and the review style (mix of content and your reaction to it) seems ideal for it.