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Literature and Medicine 20.2 (2001) 183-208

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Narrating the Unspeakable:
Interdisciplinary Readings of Jean-Dominique Bauby's The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly

Valerie Raoul, Connie Canam, Gloria Onyeoziri, James Overboe, and Carla Paterson


The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby, recounts the author's experience of "locked-in syndrome" (LIS) following a massive stroke in December 1995. 1 This book has achieved exceptional success: translated from French into twenty-three languages, it sold over a million copies in a remarkably short time. Its popularity may be attributed in part to the author's high profile as editor of the French version of Elle magazine and to the extreme and horrific nature of the sudden transformation of his life. Yet the book's popularity may have as much to do with the form of the story he tells, the style and tone with which it is conveyed, and the way the account is recorded. The inaudible voice of the paralyzed narrator reaches us in spite of almost insurmountable obstacles, thanks to a code that enables him to communicate by blinking his one mobile eyelid. A man bereft of almost all that previously defined him, including his voice, manages to convey the unspeakable. He redeploys his skills as a professional writer, producing a text located at the intersections of literature and medicine.

The authors of this collaborative article are members of an interdisciplinary research group that focuses on narratives of disease, disability, and trauma. 2 The aim of the project is to examine various types of narrative (written, oral, visual; published or unpublished) from [End Page 183] multiple perspectives to understand how such narratives function for both authors and readers. Our readings are inflected by our assumptions, priorities, and interpretations molded by our disciplinary and professional formation. Two of us (Onyeoziri and Raoul) are trained in literary narrative theory. We are also both specialists in francophone literature and aware of the role of the French context of Bauby's account and issues related to translation. Two others of our team have backgrounds in the use of narrative analysis in qualitative research in the health and social sciences (Canam in nursing and Overboe in sociology). The fifth contributor (Paterson) is a historian of medicine, currently working on narratives of immigration and illness. The fact that two of us (Onyeoziri and Overboe) have a disability adds yet another relevant dimension to our analysis of Bauby's text.

Bauby's account forces the reader to redefine the limits of what is communicable and to rethink the functions of communication. The model for communication developed by Roman Jakobson provides a theoretical framework in which to situate our individual readings of this text, highlighting the ways in which our various disciplines usually privilege some of the functions of the communication process at the expense of others. 3 The juxtaposition of our readings of a personal account that deals with the intersections of disease, disability, and trauma has heightened our awareness of the range of issues raised by such texts. We will summarize in the conclusion what made this experiment a transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary learning experience rather than simply a multidisciplinary cumulation of individual readings of the same text.

Jakobson's Model of Communication

Jakobson developed this model with the aim of showing the distinct elements and their functions in poetic or literary texts, as compared with other types of linguistic messages. Yet his examples show that the various elements and functions that predominate in one type of text are present in all communication situations: it is the degree of importance we attribute to each that governs our interpretation of the message and our assessment of its efficacy. For example, Bauby's account will be read very differently if the value assessed is assumed to be primarily literary, medical, or something else. Jakobson identifies six elements of any communication process: (1) the addresser (sender/speaker/emitter: source of the message)--in the case of a...


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