the process is the artwork

Does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature?

“Is this the surprise? To see myself?” (- From the movie)

Are you a prisoner of the human condition? Do you feel like a hostage held captive inside your own shell, suffocated by who you are or what you’ve become? Then the auto-biographical memoir «The Diving Bell and the Butterfly» by Jean-Doninique Bauby might give you some perspective.

Does it take the harsh light of disaster to show a person’s true nature?” asks the movie character of ‘Bauby’, based on the life of former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, who, aged 42, suffers a massive stroke, leaving his entire body paralyzed except his eyes. The state is referred to as «locked-in syndrome». The ‘Diving Bell’ is a metaphor for his claustrophobic condition: he is intellectually healthy but physically impaired. The only way he can communicate with the outside world is by blinking his left eyelid. His therapist rearranges the french alphabet relative to the frequency of use (E-S-A-R-I-N-T-U-L etc), and Bauby blinks his eye when the correct letter comes up. Letter by letter, word by word, he is able to narrate his point of view.

“Other than my eye, two things aren’t paralyzed, my imagination and my memory” (- From the movie)

I just saw the film adaptation by Julian Schnabel twice and now I’m reading the book, recommended to me by my mother almost half-a-life ago.

“Once, I was a master at recycling leftovers. Now I cultivate the art of simmering memories.” – From the memoirs of Jean-Dominique Bauby

The film is an absoloutely stunning piece of work (but don’t watch the trailer, it doesn’t do the movie much justice): I’m pleased that it was shot in the original language and that Schnabel learned french for the occasion. His background as a neo-expressionist painter surely influences the choice of dynamic visual qualities which enables the viewer to emotionally relate to Bauby from a first-person perspective. Despite the seriousness of his condition, Bauby maintains a delicate sense of humour, and Julian Schnabel successfully manages to balance the depressingly heavy against the lightness of a butterfly.

“Whereupon a strange euphoria came over me. Not only was I exiled, paralyzed, mute, half deaf, deprived of all pleasures, and reduced to the existence of a jellyfish, but I was also horrible to behold. There comes a time when the heaping up of calamities brings on uncontrollable nervous laughter – when, after a final blow from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke.” – From the memoirs of Jean Dominique Bauby

The insight into Bauby’s misfortune brings my attention onto the pleasures of life, and, for a long time, relatively speaking of course, I am inspired with a volonté to do good, to enjoy life fully. I suspend not my disbelief but my belief. Gradually, as the ashes of empathy slowly emerge, my own mental diving bell drags me down again and I’m reminded that no matter the physical condition, it is impossible to escape yourself.

In loving memory of J.A. I hope you escaped.

One response

  1. The truth about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”

    “The film is said to be “based on a true story,” which, of course, is from Bauby’s book. The problem is that mixing his factually accurate journey through locked-in syndrome with a personal life that has been fictionalized for film has affected real people who were intensely involved in Bauby’s life before and after his accident. Now some of his closest friends feel the movie may forever obscure the truth of his life. They fear this collision between art and reality has created a revisionist history that is accepted by filmgoers around the world, and that this is what will remain in the collective cultural memory. For the first time, they are speaking publicly about it. As one of Bauby’s friends says, “There’s the Real Story. The Film. And the New Real Story.”

    September 19, 2011 at 10:07 am

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