Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly)

In 1995, Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby had a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome, a condition in which he was unable to speak, swallow, or even breathe without assistance. His mind, however, was unaffected. His only method of communication with the world was a flicker of his left eyelid. A companion recited the alphabet, and he blinked when she arrived at the correct letter; in this painstaking way he conveyed thoughts, held conversations, and, in the end, dictated and edited an entire book.

I read this book on a recommendation from a student, who had seen the French film starring Mathieu Amalric and Marie-Josée Croze. I’m not sure what I was expecting — short stories, perhaps? The book surprised me by being a collection of brief essays, mostly about Bauby’s experience of paralysis (the “diving-bell” metaphor is his.) He talks eloquently, or as eloquently as possible under the circumstances, about his isolation (even other doctors and patients avoid him as a “hopeless case”), the pain of not being able to talk to his children, the effect of the letters he receives from the outside world. His tone is sometimes wistful, but much more often sardonic or even mischievous — something I found remarkable.

Other essays are the “papillons” of the title, ways in which Bauby’s mind can roam outside his frozen body. He talks of visiting faraway places, times in the future and the past, his own childhood, and his dreams. Perhaps the most touching essay, to me, is the one entitled “Le saucisson” (“The sausage”), because it is so purely French. Unable to eat or swallow on his own, fed through a tube, Bauby spends hours fantasizing about the perfect meal:

If it’s at a restaurant, no need for a reservation. If I’m cooking, it’s always a success. The bourguignon is unctuous, the aspic translucent, and the apricot tart has just the right tanginess. According to my mood, I have a dozen escargots, a choucroute garnie, and a golden bottle of Gewurtztraminer “Cuvee vendanges tardives,” or perhaps I relish a simple soft-boiled egg, accompanied by toast with salted butter. What a feast!

Perhaps the thing that comes through these short essays most clearly is the shift in priorities that comes with severe illness. Bauby is aware of just a few things: the urgent needs of his body, trapped in the diving bell, and the equally urgent needs of his spirit, the butterfly. For someone with a remarkably full life before the stroke — not only was he the editor of Elle, but he drops significant hints about his complicated personal life — this drastic reduction in priorities must have provided a painful clarity.

Bauby wrote this book about six months after his stroke. He died not quite a year after completing it. It’s a remarkable work in its way.

Note: I read this book in French, and the translation is mine. It is, however, available in English, translated by Jeremy Leggatt.

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9 Responses to Le Scaphandre et le papillon (The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly)

  1. litlove says:

    I used to use bits of this in my first year translation class – it’s very good for that! And I could never resist telling the students that even though Bauby had locked-in syndrome, he nevertheless managed to marry the nurse who helped him write the book. I said it was typical of a Frenchman that he could still pick up women with only one eyelid moving! But jesting aside, it’s a remarkable story and a tribute to the strength of the human spirit. So sad that Bauby never lived to see it come out in print.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, thanks for the heads-up about translation! I’d never have thought of that, but after your note, I can see it would be very useful for that sort of thing. Fairly straightforward prose, but interesting vocabulary. Very nice.

  2. I never heard of this one but sounds great. It must be awful to be trapped in our body. I think a read a similar book to this one, but instead of being paralyzed the author in a semi-coma. I don’t remember the name though.

    • Jenny says:

      There was another movie called The Sea Inside, but I don’t know whether that was based on a book. I kept getting it mixed up with this one. Anyway, this was a very interesting piece.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think the sea inside movie is also a book. This man that is paralize wants to die. Its a very good movie and very sad. the actor is the famous Javier Bardem.

  3. Emily says:

    I find the idea of this syndrome so terrifying that I don’t think I could ever bring myself to read the whole book or see the film adaptation—I could barely even read your post through, seriously. Pretty much my worst nightmare.

    But it is a remarkable achievement. Even if I’m not planning to read it, I’m still glad I know it exists. And it’s very funny that of all the things Bauby could choose to include in his fantasy meal, one of them would be ASPIC! Ugh!

    • Jenny says:

      Emily, I agree that it’s an awful thought. Bauby brings a very remarkable mordant humor to it — something I seriously doubt I could achieve. And I totally agree about the aspic! So French!

  4. Kathleen says:

    I cannot imagine finding myself in this position. I can imagine that this is a book that would inspire me.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m not sure it was really inspirational in that sense — I found it rather sad — but it was certainly a triumph that he could write the book at all.

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