Monday, May 21, 2007

Thoughts that should just go away

When I was a child, I was terribly marked [in an interior way, because I've never mentioned this anecdote up until today] by an image of horror related to a news item. Two young kids had come upon a discarded refrigerator in a municipal dump. They scrambled inside. The door shut. And they suffocated to death.

In our house at Grafton, we had one of these self-shutting refrigerators. I came to hate it. Even today, more than half a century later, I'm terrified when I discover, for example, a village butcher's shop in which the unwitting butcher could shut himself into a cold room and freeze to death. On the other hand, I hasten to relativize what I'm saying, in that I've never developed any abnormal tendency towards claustrophobia. But I've never been tempted to go for a ride in a submarine or a bathyscaph, and I have no desire to get involved in the sport of speleology, which delights some of my Choranche neighbors.

In another domain, as a child, I was alarmed at the thought that kids my own age, suffering from polio, might be expected to survive in a newly-invented respiratory device named an iron lung. Here's a photo [circa 1953] of an entire ward of such gadgets in an American hospital:

In a related realm, I found it hard to fathom [no pun intended] that certain individuals would wish to earn their living by donning a diving bell, such as this one in my hometown museum in Grafton:

No, in general, I prefer to spend my time with my head out in the open air... which explains why I like living here at Gamone.

Now, why am I saying all this? Well, ten years ago, the French intellectual world was stunned by the publication of an autobiography by a 46-year-old man about town [of the kind that French media people would now refer to, in crazy English, as a people] named Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby's 140-page book informs us that he was struck down on 8 December 1995, in an abrupt and totally unexpected manner, by a cardiovascular accident. When he woke up in hospital, he was terrified to find himself a victim of a mysterious condition referred to as LIS [locked-in syndrome]. What this meant is that Bauby, while totally conscious of his situation and predicament, could no longer communicate with the outside world. Happily [the adverb is unseemly], Bauby's body retained a single functioning element: his left eye. He could flap his eyelids like the wings of a tiny but beautiful butterfly. Over a period of two months, with the help of a literary Florence Nightingale named Claude Mendibil, Bauby used the open/closed eyelid movements of this left eye as a binary semaphore device enabling him to transcribe his tale onto paper. Of an afternoon, Bauby's female alter-ego would read out aloud to her literary partner: the daily press, or even Zola.

In November 1996, Claude Mendibil read out to Jean-Dô (as he was called affectionately) the final version of their typescript. Reaction of a tired but contented Bauby: "I could never have written another line." The best-seller was born. And Jean-Dô disappeared into the diving bell of Eternity exactly four days after its publication.

Since then, his book has appeared in English. And today, a film on the awesome drama of Jean-Dominique Bauby is being shown at Cannes.

I was wrong in thinking, once upon a childhood time, that there are thoughts that should simply go away. In thinking of such unthinkable thoughts, we unlock the locked-in world. In writing about the unwritable, we achieve, not only art and enlightenment from anguish, but profound freedom.

1 comment:

  1. Hello.
    Excuse me, but I must correct you. Jean Dominique passed away 10 days after his book was released and not 4, as you can see at the end of the film.
    Best regards.