A couple of days ago I watched "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". It tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby who survives a stroke and an accompanying coma at the age of 43, but is paralyzed, except for his left eye, suffers from locked-in syndrome, and cannot speak.
A therapist teaches him to communicate by blinking when he hears letters he wants for the words he forms. The movie tells the story of the book he wrote which has the same title as the movie.
The image I posted is the movie's central metaphor, as I see it. It's a person in a diving bell, immobile, suspended in the depths of a sea. The sea serves as a figure for consciousness, all of it, subconsciousness, unconsciousness, waking consciousness. First in his comatose condition and then in his paralyzed condition, Bauby is portrayed as in a diving bell, immersed in the sea of his perceptions, dreams, memories, fantasies, regrets, and observations.
His condition is ours. We, too, live in the constant companionship of the many dimensions of our consciousness, but speech and mobility give us ample opportunity to distract ourselves from all that occurs in our consciousness.
Bauby doesn't have this luxury of distraction and the movie portrays his relationship with the external world, but more so, the workings of his consciousness and his acute state of awakedness to all that he's inescapably submerged in the midst of. It's a profoundly internal movie.
I've twice been submerged in my consciousness this way, trapped in a diving bell.
The first time was when I was 19 and seriously injured by intense exposure to sulfur dioxide gas at the Bunker Hill Zinc Plant. That was thirty-five years ago.
The second time was more recent. In 1999, I contracted bacterial meningitis and was in a coma for about seventy-two hours. I'm never sure how long I was removed from the waking world, but seventy-two hours neither seems to me to exaggerate or understate how long I was comatose.
In both cases, absent my usual ways of having contact with the outside world, I dove inward; I'd say it was a reflexive action. I didn't choose it. I didn't say to myself, "Raymond. You're blind. Time to look at the scraps and rubble that have been your life for the last nineteen years." Nor did I say, "Oh, what a blessing! Meningitis is trying to kill me. It's not a problem. It's an opportunity! I'll dive into the depths of my being."
Both experiences were cinematic. When I was nineteen, the magic lantern of my consciousness projected images of emptiness, nothingness. Chasms. Deserts. Huge, often dark, starless skies. Looking back, it's as if my blindness led me to the deepest truths of both existentialism and the Tao (and other texts of mysticism). It was my first step in my life long experience with contemplating non-being, learning about the many ways I do not exist.
We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.
Tao de Ching
Much of what I am, I started to learn, is empty. I am an unfinished person and these chasms of emptiness are yawning with the promise that these spaces can have for learning, union with the divine, relationships, moments of ecstasy and a host of other experiences to be poured into them. This nothingness is the essence of life. Without this void, we are finished. There's nothing left to do.
It's terrifying as well as liberating to know that we are largely non-being, in formation, undone. The existentialists helped me, the next couple of years after my accident, understand the burden of freedom, the dread that responsibility for one's existence can rouse in us. It took the diving bell of blindness to help me begin to see and start to understand this nothingness.
The images the magic lantern of meningitis projected were much dreamier, much sharper, as if I were the most fully alive to the world of physical beauty I've ever been. I had moments of waking up and the nurse across the hall or the physican's aid, up in my face, loudly asking me if I knew where I was, all seemed alive in a kind of Eden, where no matter what a person's appearance, as judged in the waking world, in this world it was beautiful and perfect.
When I came out of my coma, this sensation of the world being an almost unbearably beautiful place persisted for a few days. One morning, I looked out my window and fog rested over Hendricks Park. The several stories of architectural obscenity, Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, on the University of Oregon campus, dominated the foreground, but in my post-coma diving bell, the building came alive with vivid memories that suddenly seized me, memories of the studying I'd done there, the friends I'd enjoyed, the classes I'd taught, the learning I had done. I nearly wept, so intense were the feelings of sublimity, triggered by November fog and institutional bricks.
The movie has had me thinking a lot the last couple of days about how we are always submerged in the sea of our consciousness as well as the collective human consciousness while confined in the diving bell of our own skin. Our degrees of being awake to the memories and images and teachings of what lies within us vary. I've never been as awake as I was when blind or during the first several days of having meningitis.
I don't long to be blind or ill again. But sometimes I long for what I saw and what I felt and I do wonder just what I was given a glimpse of during those times in the diving bell.