Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Living In Letters

Yesterday I finished reading The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It is a memoir by a French man, Jean-Dominique Bauby, a former magazine editor, who is almost completely paralyzed, after a stroke. He can move only his left eyelid.

To be honest, this was a book I was almost afraid to read. I was afraid that it would be too much -- too overwhelming, too sad.

One reason for my fear is that I am kind of a freak about death. The fact that I am going to die -- that anyone is going to die, has died, must die eventually -- strikes me as unbelievable, horrific, a complete and utter tragedy of infinite proportions. It is no solace to me that I am now healthy, or that I have some "good genes"; it's not the length of my life that I care about, it is the fact of its being finite.

What is the name for this? People talk about "fear of death," but I'm not afraid of death, exactly. Of pain and suffering, of sharks, of drowning -- of dying -- sure, but not of non-existence. Dread of death? That doesn't seem right either.

Anyway, I'll have to think about it more another time, because even though the book is kind of sad, it's not sad in the death way. It's just a quiet, reflective set of memories and little stories about life as a non-moving, non-speaking person.

I was amazed by how much the day-to-day life he describes is like any one else's. You'd have thought: boredom broken only by rage and frustration. But Jean-Dominique's life is weirdly familiar sounding: there are visits from friends; there's TV-watching; there is work; there is moping about the past and daydreaming about the future.

He wrote the entire book through a method devised by his "guardian angel" speech therapist -- the method he used for all communication. She would read the letters out, one by one, in order of the frequency of appearance in French, and he would blink his left eye when she got to the right letter.

I couldn't stop thinking about this while I was reading. I felt so absurdly greedy, gobbling up all those letters so fast when their production was so slow and laborious.

Then this morning I had a little half-awake dream image. I was surrounded by giant letters, made of metal. Letters about six feet high. I was trying to pick up an "E,", to try to put it in place, to try to make a word, to try to make a sentence.

Jean-Dominique Bauby died soon after the publication of the book. Outrageous! Who set this crazy system up, and where do I call to complain?

1 comment:

Captain Colossal said...

I'm with you about the complaining. For whatever reason, though, I always feel like the finite-ness is in some ways a bonus. Here we are, set loose in a world so totally inadequate to our desires and hopes; I guess I appreciate the fact that it doesn't go on forever. But, as I think we once discussed, I wonder if the world would seem more adequate to my desires if I didn't think I had a limited time to get what I could.

Anyway, either way you cut it it's all screwed up. Not that I'm not enjoying myself.