Review of The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby

In The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Twain quotes John Hay regarding the imperative to write an autobiography.  Hays says,

And he will tell the truth in spite of himself, for his facts and his fictions will work loyally together for the protection of the reader: each fact and each fiction will be a dab of paint, each will fall in its right place, and together they will paint his portrait; not the portrait he thinks they are painting, but his real portrait, the inside of him, the soul of him, his character (223).

Likewise, Bauby’s The Diving Bell and The Butterfly uses, perhaps unknowingly, modernistic techniques to embody his essence.  Like Twain before him, though likely for different reasons, Bauby discards the stifling form of realism.  Bauby’s condition renders him able to write only through arduous dictation.  Bauby foregoes strict chronology, instead opting for the easier, modernistic stream of consciousness form.  As Hay predicted, this form captured Bauby.  Lacking any appreciable context, we discover a man full of life.  More than that, we find simply a man.  Absent is the big-shot editor, the fashion mogul, the womanizer, the playboy, the failed husband, and the absentee father.  These simplistic generalizations vanish precisely because Bauby writes within the shattering framework that is modernism.

Beginning with the title’s juxtaposition of the movement continuum’s two ends, Bauby transports the reader to the depths—and heights—which he experiences after entering his condition.  Necessarily, Bauby begins with how he learned of his condition.  When the story reaches terminal velocity, the slightest thread of a chronological timeline acts as a scarcely visible trace of footsteps which keep us certain that we’ve never strayed far enough to become lost.  Besides this, Bauby’s style has the effect of placing us on the wing of his butterfly.  We climb, we fall, we climb again; flight without consequence.  What does a man like Bauby have to lose if the truth he tells is rejected?  Through the book Bauby proves what should–but never will–be common knowledge: the uniting power of truth–not just truth, but being comfortable telling your truth.  Through his memoir, then, Jean-Dominique Bauby proves like many before him that courageously announcing to the world that you exist has the power to break down the barriers we build for ourselves over a lifetime.  The only question remaining is why won’t we let Bauby move us to act on this lesson?


Twain, Mark, Harriet Elinor. Smith, and Benjamin Griffin. Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California, 2010. Print.


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