(cross-posted with Accidental Dharma)
Thanks to my wife, Ellie, who put this book into my hands--with the words "Accidental Dharma." It's very short, for reasons that will become obvious. I read it in a couple of hours... and she's right, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the archetype of the "gift wrapped in shit." Jean-Dominique Bauby, its author, was at the prime of his creative and, yes, rather glamorous life as the editor of the French magazine Ellewhen he was struck, at the age of 43, by a massive stroke. (Ram Dass, remember, fondly calls it being "stroked.") Bauby was left totally debilitated, but for the ability to blink his left eye. The "diving bell" is the metaphor for the nightmare prison in which he finds himself isolated, and deprived of even the least of those things that had brought joy into his life: his family, his work, the physical activity of the body, food and wine...
The gift was the "butterfly," the life of the mind which becomes his last refuge ad solace. With it, he studies the inside of his diving bell with feelings ranging from despair, to inner rage, to bemused irony and gentle, self-directed humor. When self-pity rears its head, he nudges it away with wit or memory, reliving incidents of his past life with gratitude and pleasure. Or rides on the wings of his butterfly into the world of the imagination, inventing vistas of which he is physically incapable. All in all, Bauby takes us with him on an agonized--but also tender and delightful--voyage into the furthest reaches of the human mind.
How does he manage this, with his near-total disability? He blinks an eye. Working through the alphabet with the aid of an able and infinitely patient assistant, he stops her with that one good eye at the letter that he needs, and thus dictates the words, the sentences, the paragraphs that make up this short but powerfully eloquent little book. Reading it, we come to understand that human life stripped of everything but the barest of essentials can still be a life worth living, thanks to that invisible, intangible and infinitely mysterious of qualities, the mind and its ability to experience love.
Julian Schnabel has created a film version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly which has already been honored with multiple awards and nominations. Schnabel, known first for his work as a painter, is also the creator of two earlier outstanding biographical films, Basquiat, about the ill-fated young African American graffiti artist, and Before Night Falls, about the Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas, both men who faced great adversity in their lives and whose creative minds proved at once their burden and their triumph--either one, if you haven't seen them, a great rental.
Signing off here, for Christmas, with all good wishes to those generous to read my ramblings. May you and yours be blessed with peace and happiness in your lives.