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What I’m reading: Paul Feeney - The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

What I’m reading: Paul Feeney - The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly
 DAMIEN MEYER / AFP

I think we all reacted to the lockdown earlier this year in our own way, but nobody I spoke to found it easy.

Following one of my video updates to colleagues at Quilter, in which I must have spoken about my own lockdown challenges, I was sent a book from one of our financial advisers in Quilter Financial Planning called The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly.

It is written by a Frenchman called Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine.

At age 43 he had a massive stroke and he got locked-in syndrome; he was completely paralysed from head to toe and the only muscle he could move to communicate with was his left eyelid. With that he wrote a book, indicating each letter with blinks of his eye using a process called ‘partner-assisted scanning’. It apparently took around 200,000 blinks of his eye.

The book is a triumph of the human spirit. It demonstrates that you can create a life of meaning and purpose under the most appalling conditions. It is inspirational and, despite the subject matter, is not a dark book at all.

The perspective this book offered during our Covid-19 imposed lockdown was acute. That this man could create something so incredible – and such a gift – while he was locked inside himself gave me huge inspiration. It’s incredible how not a single ounce of self-pity is present in this memoir, considering the author’s huge loss.

It is a celebration of life, full of lessons and observations that force us to question our attitudes towards so many things. For instance, Mr Bauby’s cruel imprisonment is juxtaposed against the vitality of his young children, which leads one to question one’s attitude towards older people or those with physical disabilities who are unable to communicate well.

Those of us who are fortunate to be able-bodied, of course tend to take the body’s most simple functions for granted. To live momentarily in Mr Bauby’s world, where the conscious effort of a blink of an eye is the only means of communicating, is uncomfortable and devastating if we linger too long on the thought.

Yet Mr Bauby’s voice is full of joy and wonder. There is also humour, sometimes wry. For example, he says: “I’ve lost sixty-six pounds in just 20 weeks. When I began a diet a week before my stroke, I never dreamed of such a dramatic result.”

However, all the time the writing is coloured by the spirit that remains in his mind (the butterfly), even as he is locked in his physical body (the diving-bell).

It is a short book – just 140 pages, consisting of a series of non-linear vignettes that deal with his life, both before and after the stroke. He speaks of those caring for him; former lovers and old friends. As he memorised each chapter, he was forced to be concise.