Thursday, January 13, 2011

Life's Fragility

Sometimes, People can seem to be a very discouraging proposition.

Maybe it's because someone truly sad and disturbed went more or less unnoticed and unaided until he did something truly horrific.

Or because so many people have no problem treating each other so rudely and unkindly on a daily basis--and each always blames the other for it. 

Or maybe it's just because someone keeps saying it isn't really his fault if he behaved like a complete scumbag, since he didn't realize there are these things called "morals" and that they're actually important.

Apparently, the argument is that it isn't really fair to hold a person accountable for their words and actions, if their only mistake was not realizing that someone else is actually an ethical person.

Anyway, when I find myself "growing grim about the mouth" (as one of Melville's famous protagonists put it) or "laughing through clenched teeth" (as one of Dostoevsky's famous protagonists put it), I have a few solutions.

One is to put Elvis Presley's "Burnin' Love" on high volume and continuous play and see if a few repetitions of that helps me out of my funk.  (It usually does the trick.)

But when that doesn't work, I reread The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

In December of 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a rare and devastating stroke that affected his brain stem. 

It left him a victim of "locked-in syndrome"--he was completely paralyzed, yet mentally unaffected.  As a result, he could communicate only by blinking his left eyelid.

Bauby's speech therapist subsequently designed a "code" or revised alphabet for him, based on the frequency of each letter's use in French.

With the aid of this alphabet and an assistant to transcribe his words, Bauby mentally composed and then painstakingly blinked a memoir of his thoughts and condition, both past and present.

Yes, that's right.  He blinked it.  One letter at a time.

In part, he wanted to prove to the world that he was not, as rumor had it, a "complete vegetable."

It is a beautiful and incredible book.  To some, it will no doubt seem unbelievably depressing that a witty and accomplished man in his mid-forties is forced to live out what might very well be everyone's worst nightmare, a "life in death," as Bauby himself phrases it.

It is a measure of the poise and poignancy of Bauby's prose that he is continually able to balance the cruel irony of his condition alongside of a compelling (and in some cases, profound) appreciation of the inherent beauty of life.

Out of something so terrible, under circumstances so improbable, Bauby crafts a narrative that reconstructs his identity and constantly reminds those of us reading it of the incredible fragility of so many of the things we take for granted.

Jean-Dominique Bauby died in 1996, two days after the publication of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."