February 20, 2008

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

From my review in The American Conservative:

Despite deserved Oscar nominations for Best Direction, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, and Cinematography, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a sophisticated Triumph of the Human Spirit movie, hasn't yet been able to break out of the art house ghetto. Its ponderous title, which is both too literary and too literal (and mistranslated to boot), can't have helped.

The film is based on a charming memoir written, incredibly, by a man able to move only his left eyelid. Jean-Dominique Bauby, the 43-year-old editor of the fashion magazine Elle, suffered a massive brain stem stroke while test-driving next year's model BMW. When he awoke from his coma, he was informed that he suffered, permanently, from "locked-in syndrome."

The unfortunate title (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon in this subtitled film's original French) comes from Bauby's metaphorical contrast of his body, which felt like it was encased in one of those vintage pressurized diving suits -- not a "diving bell," which is an open-bottomed structure -- with his mind, which could float like a butterfly through his luxurious memories. He could even relish new sights and (being French) smells. Indeed, The Diving Bell is an ode to the French genius for enjoying small pleasures.

"Blink" would have been a simpler, more evocative title because his speech therapist taught him to communicate using his eyelid. She would repeat the alphabet (re-sorted in order of frequency of use in French) until he blinked his one good eye to stop her at the right letter. ...

Bauby composed his text in his head each morning, memorized it, and then dictated it to a secretary for three hours per day for two months. His short book of about 25,000 words was published in 1997 to rapturous reviews two days before his death.

It's a wonderful story, but is it true? Reporter Susannah Herbert has raised doubts in The Times of London, pointing out that Bauby's "secretary," the self-effacing Claude Mendibil, is a professional ghostwriter who refused to show her the original notebooks.

I calculate ...

And here I provide the results of a spreadsheet I built to see if Bauby could have blinked out 25,000 words in the time allotted. (How can you review movies without using Excel?) To find out the answer, you can buy The American Conservative, at a newsstand near you.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Diane Ackerman's husband has "some word signifying the inability to recall words facilely", aphasia! Maybe, and she's been trying to publish it, but I guess it's just too weird. It is weird, but people buy the BS stories, like "Tuesdays with Morrie," before the fact, since they're life-affirming, right? Anyway, aphasia Ackerman is a little too distressing...a little too attuned to the chaotic, messed-up undertones of human cognition.

Ghost-writer stuff for the dramatic situation...just what the doctor ordered!

Anonymous said...

Why didn't he learn Morse code? That would surely have been much faster.

Steve Sailer said...

I asked the same question in my review. After all, POW Jeremiah Denton blinked T-O-R-T-U-R-E when put on North Vietnamese TV.

But I think I have an answer: Morse Code would have been too hard for Bauby's visitors to learn. It doesn't look like it in the movie, but (according to his book) he actually had a fair number of visitors drive down from Paris. They could pick up the alphabetical system for deciphering his blinks much faster than they could pick up Morse Code.

Anonymous said...

The Northern NJ paper The Bergen Record used to have a regular feature where local residents wrote autobiographical profiles. One was written by a fellow who had the "locked-in" syndrome. He was a high school music teacher who was going out to pick up bagels one Sunday and suffered a massive stroke. When his profile was published, he was living in a nursing home. He used the blinking method to communicate too, but since conversing was difficult that way, he'd 'dictate' a message every morning to one of the nursing home aides, and the aide would call his wife and read it to her.

- Fred

Anonymous said...

The Japanese title is "The Diving Suit that Dreampt it Was a Butterfly."

Different, too.

Anonymous said...

When I saw the film, I thought the way that they used was too slow. What they should have done is create a 5 by 5 grille then fill it in with the alphabet (French doesn't use w or k, or you could amalgamate two letters, i and j, say) in order of frequency. For instance in English the first row would be ETAOI, second row NSHRD, etc. Suppose Bauby wanted to say 'NO', the secretary would have read out '1, 2 ...', (Bauby blinks, meaning the letter is in row 2), then '1, ...', (Bauby blinks, meaning that the letter is in column 1 of row 2, ie it's N, etc. This would have been way quicker. When I saw the film I kept on wondering why no one ever thought of this. You could also drop vowels, like in Arabic and Hebrew, and write in telegraphic style.

Steve Sailer said...

Great idea.

Anonymous said...

Nick, I thought of the same thing because table-driven look-ups are always faster.

What I really wondered, though, was, why didnt they use a computer navigated by eye/pupil movements? These things have already been developed. They could place the table you mention on the upper half of its screen, then place vocabulary words at the lower half (arranged, again, according to frequency). Batting your eyelids on the upper lookup table could navigate to the word on the list below. Then after you reach the vicinity of the word by say first few letters, you'd navigate the rest by looking at the word. Finally, you'd double-bat your eye to enter the word. Way way quicker.


Anonymous said...

Steve you may have heard about Christopher Nolan the Irish poet and author?

He had a different condition but he could inspire such a story.

Anonymous said...

Well, being French, I suppose they might have used the alphabet-blink method in homage to Alexandre Dumas, one of whose characters used it to settle a critical inheritance question in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Kai Carver said...

I wanted to try out an online subscription to American Conservative magazine, but it didn't work. :-(

No doubt I'll try again some time.

I don't want to subscribe to the paper edition because:
- I don't read paper anymore;
- a subscription to France is a bit pricy;
- they probably don't send the mag in a plain unmarked envelope. Subscribing to something with the words "American" and "Conservative" could get me killed in my neighborhood.

(that last item is a joke)

michael farris said...

Well surely people involved in this looked for shortcuts.

That is, I'd assume that any secretary taking notes this way would be making guesses (and that they had a basic yes/no protocal worked out).

I R - E - M












Anonymous said...

At 3 hours per day, I come up with it taking over 180 days assuming perfect ability to recite the letters and blink.

Anonymous said...

Just a random aside: there's a whole well-developed field involving the best way to do this sort of thing. If you assume no context (that is, you don't change encodings based on what the previous letter was), you can construct an optimal code for a given set of letter frequencies using a pretty simple algorithm. Go look at the Wikipedia entry for Hamming codes if you want to see this. The codes can get more efficient if you take previous letters into account in the encoding, in various ways, but that will quickly get too complicated for a human to do in his head.

Anyway, I think Morse code is not too bad, as this goes. It would surely be faster for someone to stay near him who can understand Morse code, and have them translate. Besides, if none of the guests understand Morse code, you can just have the "translator" be the ghostwriter.

Wasn't there some kind of fraudulent treatment for seriously bad-off autistic kids, several years ago, like this? The specialists would "help" the kids express themselves somehow. I seem to recall having heard claims that it was woo, but I don't know much about it....

Anonymous said...

The method for blinks nick speaks of is very similar to that Russian prisoners have historically used-Arthur Koestler describes it in Darkness at Noon, and I've seen it in other sources.

Planetary Archon Mouse

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall several cases, a few years back, in which some people claimed to be able to communicate with deeply autistic children. As I remember, there was no evidence that they were doing anything more than just making up stuff they thought the parents wanted to here.

Then of course, there are dog psychologists and dog psychics, who claim they can tell you what your pooch is thinking.

The things people will believe....

Anonymous said...

I loved "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", but the movie I'd rather see is "My Stroke of Insight", which is the amazing bestselling book by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor. It is an incredible story and there's a happy ending. She was a 37 year old Harvard brain scientist who had a stroke in the left half of her brain. The story is about how she fully recovered, what she learned and experienced, and it teaches a lot about how to live a better life. Her TEDTalk at TED dot com is fantastic too. It's been spread online millions of times and you'll see why!