Telling stories about illness is to give voice to the body.
– Arthur Frank –
I have just read The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly which is the memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, trapped inside his body in what is known as Locked-in Syndrome. In this paralysed and speechless state, it is solely the blink of one eyelid that mediates communication. Bauby’s story is told with the help of Claude Mendibil who painstakingly, letter by letter, using the ESA alphabet in order for Bauby to express himself, patiently waits for a blink of his eye to indicate which letter she needs to select. The letters run as follows:
E S A R I N T U L O M D P C F B V H G J Q Z Y X K W
One would expect that a person ensnared in their own body would use the singular life-line thrown at them to tell their story of illness, as the sociologist Frank says. Or, at the very least, use the more-than-limited opportunity of communication to express trapped feelings of helplessness, anger, anxiety, frustration and isolation. Yet Bauby does not choose this space, but rather one where his thoughts are brought to light despite overwhelming odds. Using the analogy of butterflies, Bauby’s thoughts are able to surface only when ‘blessed silence’ returns:
I can listen to the butterflies that flutter inside my head. To hear them, one must be calm and pay close attention, for their wing beats are barely audible. Loud breathing is enough to drown them out. This is astonishing: my hearing does not improve, yet I hear them better and better.
I can relate to thought as butterflies, and the preferred silence in which such thoughts are able to be heard. I have become acutely aware of the onslaught of sound and the impact such noise has on my own thought processes, most especially with regards to listening. It would not be strange, I think, to imagine Bauby’s locked-in state as one of solitude and silence. Yet Bauby too must become calm within himself in order to fully listen and hear the barely audible wing beats of thought.
In the process of tracking or tracing my own thought processes, I am also starting to hear better and better. The awareness that my thoughts are an entirety on its own has been nothing short of enlightening! The visualization of this process allows me to observe a kind of mind-traveling. If, as Frank says, that telling stories about illness gives voice to the body, then the story that my thoughts tell is one of movement.
In Living, Thinking, Looking Siri Hustvedt speaks of thoughts – in the form of essay writing – and the elastic and accommodating manner in which this exists. Using language to describe a very visual occurrence, Hustvedt says:
It can proceed with rigorous precision or meander into surprising terrain. Its shape is determined exclusively by the movements of the writer’s thoughts …
The terrain of my thought-drawings are strongly determined my factors such as mood, memory and sound. Various patterning suggests either tighter or looser thought-tracking, often weighted by a central denseness. The subliminal exploration of this narrative process is, as Hustvedt says ‘a mental movement in time.’
- Jean-Dominique Bauby:
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2008) Harper Perennial Publishers, ISBN: 978-0-00-713984-2
- Siri Hustvedt:
- Living.Thinking, Looking (2012) Hodder & Stroughton Ltd, ISBN: 9781444732641