Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)

… I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have like to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep . . .”
To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.
For I do not want anyone to read my book carelessly. I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories.

I have let far too much time go by without The Little Prince in my life; I’ve always said everyone should read this book once every decade (more often would turn it into patter). It needs to be read with a certain wisdom that comes from accumulated experiences, and ten years seems to me to be about the right amount of time to take a look back so as to see where you’ve drifted off course.

This seemed like the moment to read again, and I found, instead of a course correction, a kind of affirmation. My life, by most standards, is a mess, but if I can see the sheep in the box, I must be doing something right. I need to keep in mind: what would the Little Prince notice about me, should he visit? Would he think I am obsessed with trivial matters, that I’m overlooking what’s important?

By coincidence, as I was getting ready to tweet quotes from the book, one a half hour, throughout the day (I hope I didn’t annoy anyone), a link came through my Twitter feed from three different sources: Matt Damon delivering the Howard Zinn speech which includes: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience…. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” The consequences of seeing what’s important go far beyond a children’s book.

I love the reminder that everyone sees the world in a particular way – including the Little Prince himself, who keeps forgetting he is on a planet much larger than his home. It’s the hammer problem: if all I’ve got is a hammer, I can be forgiven for considering everything a nail, but maybe I’ve just forgotten about the screwdriver and the wrench and a hacksaw – or maybe I’m just too lazy to dig them out, so I go on with my ineffectual thwacking.

I’m more familiar with the structure of the Hero’s Journey than I was last time I read. The story is a blending of two Hero’s Journeys, and switches back and forth between “Young man sets out” and “A stranger came to town” points of view. But I’m not that interested in detailed analysis; I just breathed the book.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said…. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”

Saint Exupéry was a pilot, and had a deep love of flying. It is said his wife was the model for the rose of this story – difficult, yet beloved. They had, by all accounts, a tumultuous marriage; both of them committed various indiscretions. Consuelo de Saint Exupéry wrote her own story of the marriage in The Tale of the Rose; I haven’t read it, because I prefer to leave the Prince and his Rose in the fictional setting. I think his love for her comes through in this book. I’m not sure it’s enough, but it wasn’t my life, so I couldn’t say.

He died a year after the The Little Prince was published, which tinges things with a special poignancy. He’s the author of one of my favorite quotes: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The more MOOCs I take, and the more students – and exceptional teachers – I come in contact with, the more convinced I am that this is something that should be recited every morning by every teacher in America. If you can get someone to want to build a ship, believe me, they’ll learn the necessary skills.

The uncertainty we’re left with at the end of The Little Prince is among the many things that raises this from just another kid’s book to a real treat:

Here, then, is a great mystery. For you who also love the little prince, and for me, nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has–yes or no?–eaten a rose . . .
Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes . . .
And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance!

I know at least one grown-up who will.

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