TORO! :: bull by the horns

an online compendium of culture and commentary

this halloween, something to really fear

Posted by rollinsloane on 28 October 2007

In December of 1995, the editor-in-chief of French Vogue suffered a heart attack so massive it rendered him almost entirely immobile. Jean-Dominique Bauby would spend the next year and a half (his last) as a living vegetable, able only to blink his left eye. Thankfully, he managed to eek out a short account of his time incapacite, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a literary memoir (“Of Life in Death”) that ends all too soon. His simple, lyrical narrative voice leaves you wishing he had been equally articulate about his more mobile time in life, when the Paris high life and management of big-name magazine occupied his full attention. Here are a series of brief snippets, moving and horrifying in turn, that demonstrate the sharp bleakness of Bauby’s humor and the detailed observation of that lone eye:

In the past, it was known as a “massive stroke,” and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move.

*

I have known gentler awakenings. When I came to that late-January morning, the hospital ophthalmologist was leaning over me and sewing my right eyelid shut with a needle and thread, just as if he were darning a sock. Irrational terror swept over me. What if this man got carried away and sewed up my left eye as well, my only link to the outside world, the only window to my cell, the one tiny opening of my diving bell? Luckily as it turned out, I wasn’t plunged into darkness. He carefully packed away his sewing kit in padded tin boxes. Then, in the tones of a prosecutor demanding a maximum sentence for a repeat offender, he barked out: “Six months!” I fired off a series of questioning signals with my working eye, but this man — who spent his days peering into people’s pupils — was apparently unable to interpret a simple look. With a big round head, a short body, and a fidgety manner, he was the very model of the couldn’t-care-less doctor: arrogant, brusque, sarcastic — the kind who summons his patients for 8:00 a.m., arrives at 9:00, and departs at 9:05, after giving each of them forty-five seconds of his precious time. Disinclined to chat with normal patients, he turned thoroughly evasive in dealing with ghosts of my ilk, apparently incapable of finding the words to offer the slightest explanation. But I finally discovered why he had put a six-month seal on my eye: the lid was no longer fulfilling its function as a protective cover, and I ran the risk of an ulcerated cornea.

*

Nowadays [the hospital] tends to concentrate more on the sufferings of the aged, on the inevitable breakdown of body and mind; but geriatrics is only one part of the picture I must paint to give an accurate idea of the hospital’s denizens. in one section are a score of comatose patients, patients at death’s door, plunged into endless night. They never leave their rooms. Yet everyone knows they are there, and they weigh strangely on our collective awareness, almost like a guilty conscience. In another wing, next door to the colony of elderly and enfeebled, is a cluster of morbidly obese patients whose substantial dimensions the doctors hope to whittle down. Elsewhere, a battalion of cripples forms the bulk of the inmates. Survivors of sport, of the highway, and of every possible and imaginable kind of domestic accident, these patients remain at Berck for as long as it takes to get their shattered limbs working again. I call them “tourists.”

*

I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

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