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Locked In

I am afraid to own a Body— I am afraid to own a Soul— Profound—precarious Property— Possession, not optional—

Double Estate, entailed at pleasure Upon an unsuspecting Heir— Duke in a moment of Deathlessness And God, for a Frontier.

—Emily Dickinson

1. A Cage

One of the most dominant images of the body in the history of Western philosophy involves imprisonment. We inherit this image from Plato, who calls the body “that living tomb which we carry about.” He continues, “We are imprisoned in the body, like an oyster in its shell.”1 The body is a burden, a heavy, awkward cage in which the soul is helplessly confined. In the Allegory of the Cave we might read the cave itself as a body one must escape. Inside the prisoners are tied and bound, unable to move. It is dark and hot. When one is released, she gropes her way upward toward a bright light—first to the fire at the wall (as if climbing up the throat) and then to the mouth of the cave, to be spit out in the dazzling light of day. Of course she needs her legs—her own locomotion—to leave the cave, as if one needs a body to surmount a body, as if one body calls for another.

There are times when this picture—the body as a tomb, a prison, or a shell—is more or less convincing. When? Not when we feel light and agile but, rather, in cases of sickness, disability, pain, or discomfort. Then the body might feel like a cage inside of which the real, essential “I” is trapped.

It is true that we have come a long way since Plato’s relegation of the body to the transient, insubstantial realm of sensation. Philosophers have recently, and increasingly, granted new prestige and centrality to the body. As Mark Johnson [End Page 145] puts it in his paper, “Judging from mainstream Anglo-American Philosophy, thirty years ago people did not have bodies. But today, almost everybody has a body.”2 Philosophy has shown itself capable of thinking about bodies. But has it shown itself open to bodies that defy categorization or exist on the margins of holistic accounts of embodiment? In what follows I consider some challenges raised by one particularly complicated body. My example comes from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a 2007 movie by the painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. It is a movie based on a real-life story—a fiction derived from a reality, or a reality projected through fiction.3 One subplot of these considerations is that fictional and metaphorical bodies (bodies of work, for example, but also bodies of water, animal bodies , and political bodies ) are important for expanding and complicating the implications and meanings of embodiment. What it means to be embodied cannot be separated from living among and together with many kinds of bodies. Schnabel’s film invites us to inhabit a body. In issuing this invitation, he also asks us to appreciate the degree to which every body is itself a plurality inhabited by multiple bodies.

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Sometimes bodies impinge with more urgency than others. In terms of one’s own body, such urgency might indicate a rupture or change in the fluidity of thought, locomotion, sensation, or motor control. Things that once seemed unproblematic suddenly require effort. The coherence of a whole body falls out of joint, confounding the idea that any body is seamlessly whole or entirely pulled together.

This is a situation described by Jean-Dominique Bauby in his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le scaphandre et le papillon). Bauby, a journalist and the editor of French Elle, suffered a massive stroke and emerged from a coma with “locked-in syndrome.” This is a rare condition in which a patient has lost (nearly) all ability to move and yet remains entirely conscious. From the outside the condition appears indistinguishable from a persistent vegetative state. The difference is that the locked-in patient suffers no loss of cognitive function. In French this condition is called maladie de l’emmuré vivant, “walled-in alive...