Star quality

Just as its enigmatic author predicted, nothing in the universe can be the same for those who love 'The Little Prince' -- but why?

Topics: France,

One day last September two fishermen were hauling nets off the
coast of Marseilles when they found a silver chain bracelet tangled in
their lines. Amid much controversy, the bracelet was identified as
belonging to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the legendary aviator and
author of “The Little Prince,” who flew into the skies off the coast of Bastia
in 1944 and never returned. This talisman dredged up from its undiscovered watery grave (years of searching for the site of Saint-Exupéry’s plane crash had been in vain) set off a flurry of stories in France on what remains one of the great stars in the firmament of children’s literature.

More than 50 million copies of “The Little Prince” have been sold since
its publication in 1943, the year before its author’s disappearance; every year an additional 1 million copies are
bought. The book has been translated into 102 languages and dialects,
including Esperanto, Congolese and Sardinian. Several film versions have
been produced (a Paramount film with Bob Fosse and Gene Wilder, and a
Nickelodeon cartoon series, among others), and the likeness of the little
prince can be found on the new French 50-franc bill, on CD-ROMs and
videos, and on bed linen, watches, address books, figurines, dolls,
wallpaper, postcards, backpacks, notebooks and keychains.
Editors at Gallimard, France’s biggest publisher and home to “The Little
Prince,” are stumped by the book’s unflagging success over the decades. “We
really can’t explain the phenomenon,” says Philip Lezaud. “It’s one of
those mysteries. The book has an aura about it. It is almost inexplicable.”
Indeed, how does a seemingly simple tale about an infinitely melancholic
little boy on a tiny asteroid compete in the antic and overcrowded zoo of
children’s marketing?

Part of the mystery lies in the enduring appeal of fables,
universal tales that underscore human foibles and follies with a dose of
morality thrown in. In the little prince’s case, the stupefying characters
he encounters on his travels through the universe, consumed by their meaningless preoccupations, could very well
be you and me: the businessman who administers stars without accounting for
their beauty, the king who rules over nobody, the train switchman who
operates speeding trains full of people “pursuing nothing at all” or the
merchant who sells pills that save time — exactly 53 minutes –
by quenching thirst. (“As for me,” says the prince, “if I had fifty-three
minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure toward a spring of
fresh water.”)

Grown-ups are perplexing at best, and downright dangerous at
worst. In the celebrated first paragraph of the book, our narrator explains
how, as a young child frustrated by adults consistently misconstruing his
drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant as a picture of a hat, he gave up “what might have been a magnificent career as a painter” to pursue the
sensible professions endorsed by adults. In so doing, he surrendered his
own powers of childlike vision. “Alas,” he says, unable to see through the
walls of boxes like the little prince, the odd yellow-haired child who appears before him one morning in the Sahara desert, “I am a little like the grown-ups. I have had to grow old.”

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Duped by images, obsessed with the inessential, adults are unable
to truly see. And seeing is precisely the point, for the little prince
trades in the currency of the invisible. “The eyes are blind,” he tells our
narrator, “one must look with the heart.” “The thing that is important is
the thing that is not seen.” “Beauty is something that is invisible.”
Like the children who see angels in Wim Wenders’ film “Wings of Desire,” the little prince lives in that pristine realm of childhood where values dwell in the heart and the invisible reigns — that heady, dreamy universe that dissipates when we grow up and succumb to the furious imperatives of the concrete, of matter.

Cast upon our planet only to find that the Earth is nonsensical and as curiously bleak as his own desolate asteroid, it’s no small wonder that the little prince is sad. In fact, he is filled with unrequited longing and nostalgia. His melancholy is so expansive that even the narrator is stricken by an undefinable “sense of grief,” and it is this very sadness that
challenges the persistent notion that children are, and must be at all
times, happy.

Posits psychoanalyst Thomas Szasz, “Happiness is a condition
formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by
adults to children.” The zany mechanical glee and frenetic happiness of
most children’s products are no match for the feelings of emotional
disenfranchisement and disenchantment that come hard and early in the
playgrounds of youth. It doesn’t take much for children to realize that the
world is not full of happy purple dinosaurs and obsessively cheerful
friends endlessly repeating their ABCs. (Thank God. To quote Aldous
Huxley, “There is something curiously boring about somebody else’s
happiness.”) The little prince, in his quest for meaning in a seemingly
meaningless world, offers children something that falls between the artifice of entertainment and the disappointments of the real world, a tiny foothold on
the slippery shoals of reality. In this he bears the stamp of the country
and time that bore him: Saint-Exupéry and Jean-Paul Sartre were
contemporaries, after all, and so was Martin Heidegger, who called “The
Little Prince” “one of the great existential books of the century.”

But the little prince goes beyond existentialism for kids and into the mystical. In challenging the conventions of happy endings, he does what storybook heroes are not supposed to do: He dies.

Or does he?

“I shall look as if I were dead,” the little prince says of his
imminent departure, “and that will not be true.” Of his ultimate
destination he adds, “You understand … it is too far. I cannot carry this
body with me. It is too heavy.” Compared to an old abandoned shell, his body disappears by daybreak. But where exactly did it go? Is it the same place
(your child might ask) where Grandma went when she left? Will you go there too? And the terrible, inevitable corollary: Will I go there, too? “A
couple generations ago,” explains Penelope Leach in “Your Baby & Child,” “the
most general taboo was ‘the facts of life.’ Now, it’s the facts of death.”
These may be ironic words in a culture where death is a frequent if not
regular prime-time guest in everyone’s living room. But just as our
relentless insistence on being happy is often a means for abating a looming
fear of being depressed, so too does our overwhelming preoccupation with
death (from cartoon indestructibility to cinematic carnage)
underscore deep-rooted feelings of despair in the face of the Big End. “The
Little Prince” may not tackle hardcore mortality issues, but it does offer
a transcendent perspective on the question with overtones that have been
interpreted by some as quasi-religious. “A fairy-tale transposition of
certain episodes in the life of Christ,” is how literary critic Victor
Graham describes it, referring to the prince’s planetary peregrinations –
his wanderings through the desert followed by his star, his implicit
preaching of brotherly love, his transcendent purity and predetermined
death.

Christian metaphors aside, “The Little Prince” suggests that we
belong to a much vaster realm than the tiny sphere we inhabit; that our
passage on Earth is but a momentary detour on a mysterious journey
Elsewhere. In this itinerant cosmology a celestial road map exists: “I
wonder,” ponders the prince, “whether the stars are set alight in heaven so
that one day each one of us may find his own again.”

Stumbling upon our narrator in the middle of the desert, the little prince
recalls the ancient belief that strangers encountered by chance might in
fact be mystical emissaries, “a god in disguise,” according to T.V.F. Cuffe.
These powerful and fleeting encounters with strangers, through some
ineffable and startling communion, can change one unequivocally, shift
the course of one’s path, present a metaphor for something lost or deeply
sought after. As a wayward, lonely planetary traveler searching the
universe for answers, the little prince is a sort of curious reflection of
our own condition in time: The 20th century began and may very well end
with the Titanic in the collective mind — a symbol of the hubris of human
beings in their quest for dominion over nature. Interestingly, on the night
the Titanic sank it was so still and clear that the ship, according to
passenger reports, was entirely surrounded by stars, lit by starlight above
and below, by stars reflected on the ocean’s surface.

With this haunting metaphor of almost childlike extravagance, we have literally sailed into the stars throughout the century: We have “rediscovered” our universe — collected rocks on the moon, found water on Mars and organic matter on Jupiter, discovered galaxies blooming like strange flowers across
the light years. If we were to suspend grown-up disbelief for just one moment and walk back into the country of childhood, we might recognize our home Earth
(“the loveliest and saddest of landscapes”) in the context of an even
greater world, and offer our children metaphors for their journey into the
unknowable future. We could take them outside and stand together in the dark, turning our eyes upward to the night sky. Look up, we might say, pointing to the stars. That is, we could tell them, where you came from.

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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