Friday, August 7, 2009


"Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed: my imagination and my memory."
-Jean-Do Bauby, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon

Stop reading this blog and go watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

Right now.

Still reading? Tush!

It's a wonderfully inspiring film, documenting the paralysis of a man's body, and the liberation of his mind. Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle, suffers a stroke, and when he wakes he has lost all sensation in his body, save for his left eye. His brain, miraculously, remains unaffected, leaving him with a rare condition called "locked-in syndrome." His immovable body becomes a prison for his desperately active consciousness. The major part of the movie deals with his struggle to accept his situation, and his attempt to trade his lonely diving bell for butterfly wings. (Oh! It makes sense now!)

I've been reading Letters to a Young Poet, and I was surprised by the discrepancy in Rilke's view of isolation and Bauby's view of it. Rilke stresses, again and again, the need to remove oneself from the world, to become as foreign as a child in a land of adult thought. That, he proposes, is the sole method by which we truly comprehend "self." Bauby unquestionably found that solitude after his stroke, but was unable to live a life without some form of communication. I agree with Rilke that the most intimate understanding of myself is found at the end of a path which only I can follow, but without some interaction with others, I've lost all standards for comparison. I mean, could I define myself without the people who have given me basis for not only desire and appreciation, but loathing and detestation as well? Would I really want to?

I have always advocated a degree of isolation (though I rallied under the banner bearing the title, "self-efficiency"), but perhaps not as vehemently as I would like to believe. I write, don't I? That in itself is a cry for human interaction, a cry to be known. It's my attempt to draw those around me into my lonely world of dreams and beauty. I want to give them a set of lenses to see the world as I see it, and once they have, we can sit back together and savor the spice of whispered secrets.

I suppose that, as with all things, a balance must be obtained. I've got to keep one foot in the real world, and one in the world of my mind, and be cautious to never (or very rarely) stray completely into one or the other for any extended length of time. By dancing around the borderline, I can live as both the natural, uncensored creature of my consciousness, and the tame, civilized woman of society. I have the beautiful opportunity to select the building blocks of my own reality, which is, assuredly, as real as any other, since I opt to make it so.

Now, what shall I choose?

1 comment:

  1. I think for the most part most of us lean one way or the other fairly inherently and have to tug ourselves gently in the other direction for balance (I, for instance, am pretty inherently social and have to push myself into these forays into isolationism like I was on earlier this summer). Rilke, though, seems to have found power for himself by pushing his seemingly inherently isolationist self further into introversion to be able to be free. Yet (and I am no Rilke scholar, sadly) he seems to have drawn heavily from written things of society, writing not only letter but also drawing heavily from things like mythology, being almost social through the written word with people like the ancient greeks and romans, etc. Also, I wonder if by pushing himself to extremes he found a better way to create (as artists often do in somewhat self-destructive cycles) but that somehow, even that seems like a balance to me in the long run, because by creating something so beautiful and memorable that generations of people read for decades and now almost centuries after his death, he is contributing to that same literary social circle.
    Yet even Rilke talks about relationships and how important they are, though in terms of solitude. One of my favorite quotes from that book (Letters) is where he says a marriage shouldn't be a hasty communion, but trusting someone else with the guardianship of one's solitude. That rings very true for me. So even in his solitude he sees the power of relationship.
    My fear with true hermitism is that without some kind of a stabilizing influence of social interaction, you can also go really off the deep end. Our brains are not built to stay sane in total isolation.