Lessons from The Little Prince
Once upon a time there was a famous writer named Antoine de Saint-Exupery whose country was being devoured by war and he fled to America, and there he felt helpless and lonely. Besides this, he was struggling with his marriage and also with the memory of the near-fatal crash of his airplane years earlier in the Sahara desert. A friend of his noticed his unhappiness and the agitation that seemed to possess him entirely, and she suggested that perhaps he consider writing a children’s story. Maybe that would help.
Once upon a time there was a sweet little person—a little prince—who lived far away from our planet, on an asteroid. There, in the depths of space, he was very clear about several things. One of them was the quiet pleasure of looking at the sunset, which, given the size of his asteroid, he could enjoy as many times as he liked.
He was clear on that, and he was also very clear on the need for what might be called planetary hygiene. “They sleep deep in the heart of the earth’s darkness,” the little prince says of seeds, “and some one among them is seized with the desire to awaken. Then this little seed will stretch itself and begin—timidly at first—to push a charming little sprig inoffensively upward toward the sun. If it is only a sprout of radish or the sprig of a rose-bush, one would let it grow wherever it might wish. But when it is a bad plant, one must destroy it as soon as possible, the very first instant that one recognizes it.” Note the tone of urgency here. It’s because the bad plant he’s talking about is the baobab, which “is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces…” It is “a question of discipline,” he says. “When you’ve finished your own toilet in the morning, then it is time to attend to the toilet of your planet, just so, with the greatest care.”
No wonder the issue of the sheep was so pressing to him. Sheep eat the shoots, sheep are part of the discipline….
The little prince was very clear on some things. But on other things: not so much. One day a seed sprouted and it was unlike any other small sprouts on his planet. At first he worried that perhaps it was a new kind of baobab, but it wasn’t. She was a rose. She was stunning in her loveliness. “Oh, how beautiful you are,” breathed the little prince when she bloomed. Her fragrance perfumed his entire planet. But she did not feel solid in herself. She did not feel her beauty as an intrinsic part of her. That insecurity led her to play games with the little prince, and it frustrated him. It disturbed him. He did not know how to love her, even though he wanted to, and he was so unhappy….
That is why he left his asteroid. That is what spurred him on to take a journey into the unknown…
And the first leg of it involved encounter after encounter with people he ended up not liking. At all.
One was a narcissist. Everybody else became an extension of his own self-centered personal drama. It was outrageous to him if people did things that he didn’t like, because how dare they spoil his plans? That other people have an actual independent existence—he just couldn’t imagine that.
Then there was the businessman, and the little prince disturbed his furious counting because naturally the little prince wanted to know exactly what it was he was counting so furiously but the businessman didn’t care, all that mattered was owning it, whatever it was, and knowing how many.
Then there was the lamplighter, whose life was reduced to utter absurdity because the orders he was given years before no longer made any sense to his radically changed world but he refused to deviate from them because “orders are orders.” It did not matter how miserable the orders made things. “Orders are orders.”
The little prince met these people and others as well, and every time, he went away saying something along the lines of “The grown-ups are very strange,” or “They always need to have things explained,” or “They are like that. One must not hold it against them.”
What this leg of the little prince’s journey did for him is add greater clarity to his life. He was already very clear about the value of sunsets and planetary hygiene, and now he was clear on the kind of person he couldn’t admire, which is the person whose life has been utterly taken over by some kind of narrow purpose. Something has taken firm root inside them, and what was once a whole round personality has been split into pieces and now compulsively mistakes what is inessential for what is essential.
They have become less-than-human, inhumane.
All of this is trying to shine a light into the shadow places of our lives. We know people who act exactly like narcissists and businessmen and lamplighters. We have been to their asteroids too.
There is a reason why The Little Prince story is the 3rd most-translated book in the world and one of the best-selling books ever published….
When The Little Prince was published in 1943, people didn’t get it. They were flummoxed. It was a children’s story they were expecting, which for them meant something sweet and simple addressed to a certain chronological age. Yet here was a story that spoke to the youth in adults, even as it spoke to children. It was multilayered and nuanced and disturbing at times and full of the struggle and pain Saint-Exupery was feeling….
Perhaps this is exactly parallel to the opening discussion of the book, where the narrator speaks of his Drawing Number One, which was that of a boa constrictor which had swallowed an elephant whole, and he’d show the picture to grown-ups, and all they’d see is what they were prepared to see, which was a picture of a big hat that tended to flop to one side.
The Little Prince is like Drawing Number One. The essential stuff is invisible to the naked eye. You have to read it with your imagination and your heart.
For example, the baobab seeds. “Children,” says the book, “Watch out for the baobabs!” “It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots.”
Concern about this is what motivates the little prince’s very first words: “If you please—draw me a sheep…” Sheep eat the baobab shoots.
But why this intense and unrelenting insistence on planetary hygiene?
It’s Saint-Exupery’s way of touching on the great tragedy of his era. Nazism sweeping over Europe, and his beloved country of France falling so quickly in the form of the Vichy state and the Occupation. This sort of this happens because people are of a certain type. They are strange grown-ups. They are narcissists, or businessmen, or lamplighters. They have lost something essential that would cause them to resist evil. Instead, they don’t blink an eye at it. Something tragic has happened to their minds and hearts. A baobab seed has sprouted there. Not so much a physical seed as a spiritual one.
Consider Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who was responsible for transporting millions of Jews to the death camps. He was a major organizer of the Holocaust and yet he was not fanatical, he was not bloodthirsty, his was not mentally ill, anti-Semitism was not a choice but just something that he grew up with and carried forward as a part of his heritage. He had little more on his mind than following orders. Orders are orders. Making the trains run on time was his priority and it didn’t matter whose lives he made miserable.
What a strange grown-up. Remarkably similar to the lamplighter character…
He didn’t pluck out the baobab seed sprouting in his heart. There was no sheep to chew it up. The sweet child he had once been: gone.
I think it can be safely said: every character that the little prince encounters on an asteroid can be seen as someone whose heart has been ripped apart.
Now, a quick side note: the final version of The Little Prince is miniscule compared to the initial draft which was hundreds of pages. If you go to the Morgan Library in Manhattan, you can see how the draft pages are covered with fine lines of handwriting, and much has been crossed out. There are pages where only a single sentence stands out because every other word has been scribbled through. Most of what he wrote never made the final cut.
When I came to learn this—and specifically, when I came to learn that Saint-Exupery had put many more asteroids and many more strange characters into the draft version of the story than we meet up with in the final, it got me thinking…. There’s a lot of people today that would make perfect asteroid inhabitants whose hearts are ripped up. And we are not so different from the little prince, in the way we might encounter them and then walk away, remarking on how strange the grown-ups are….
For example, the TV news anchor. On his asteroid, we encounter him wearing a shiny suit, sporting a $200 haircut, and he’s lily white. He’s reflecting on the shooting last week at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. “It’s more likely,” he says, “a matter of rising hostility against Christians in this country because of our biblical views. A sick act by someone who was mentally ill. That’s what we really have here. Why are people talking about a hate crime, or even terrorism? That’s crazy liberal talk. Besides,” the TV news anchor says, “no less than the entire Wall Street Journal editorial board agrees. Here’s what they had to say (and the news anchor pulls out the paper and reads): ‘Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists. What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity. It is no small solace that in committing such an act today, he stands alone.’ That’s what the editorial says. It’s the act of a lone shooter, in other words. Not racism. Racism no longer exists.”
That’s the TV news anchor on his asteroid. How strange the grown-ups are.
Or consider yet another asteroid inhabitant. He is a Supreme Court Justice. We encounter him shrouded in his black justice robes, and he’s frowning. His colleagues—the majority of them—just did something that has changed the course of American history. A watershed moment in all our lives. Marriage equality. Love wins. But this is his rebuttal. He says, “[H]uman dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. […] The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.” This is what the Supreme Court Justice says.
And it is astonishing logic. Of course human dignity is innate, but it can most certainly be prevented from flourishing by inequitable policies. People are vulnerable; brutality gets underneath the skin. How possibly can the Supreme Court Justice, whose own personal heritage bears the scars of slavery, demonstrate such thorough tone-deafness towards another people who cry out against oppression?
So many baobab seeds sprouting, even in this time of triumph. So many strange, strange grown-ups.
Even as we celebrate, we must continue the work. Planetary hygiene. Spiritual hygiene.
Where is a sheep when you need one?
We are now at a critical point in The Little Prince story. He has encountered plenty of strange asteroid characters through his journey, and now he has come to our earth. There, he happens upon a garden full of roses. Listen:
“Who are you?” he demanded, thunderstruck.
“We are roses,” the roses said.
And he was overcome with sadness. His flower had told him that she was the only one of her kind in all the universe. And here were five thousand of them, all alike, in one single garden!
[To himself he said,]”I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose… that doesn’t make me a very great prince…”
And he lay down in the grass and cried.
This is when the story goes to an even deeper level. Because this is where it’s fully revealed: evidence of a baobab seed growing in the little prince’s own heart, growing towards the point where it would rip apart his capacity to love. Now, we have seen how great a critic he is towards the grown-ups, and why not? It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. So, how completely ironic that Saint-Exupery would reveal the little prince to be a kind of grown-up in his own right. The kind of grown-up who is overwhelmed by all the beautiful people in the world and can’t seem to rest in the love of one beautiful person. Or, to shift metaphors, the kind of grown-up who is homeless because gorgeous house after gorgeous house entrances them and they can’t commit to living in any one in particular.
Do you know grown-ups like this?
Saint-Exupery was certainly one of these, thus his struggles in his marriage. “I was too young to know how to love her,” the little prince says, and Saint-Exupery says it with him, and maybe we do as well. He had not yet learned the lesson that “it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
This is the insight that no baobab seed can survive.
And this is the insight that the fox gives him. Sheep merely eat, but foxes are wise. Listen:
“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”
“I am a fox,” said the fox.
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince. “I am so unhappy.”
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“Ah! Please excuse me,” said the little prince.
But, after some thought, he added:
“What does that mean– ‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. It means to establish ties.”
“‘To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”
“I am beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think that she has tamed me…”
Some time after this, the little prince returns to the garden of roses, and listen to what he has to say:
“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he [says to the roses]. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you– the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or ever sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”
The spiritual baobab seed wants to rip apart our capacity for love, but the medicine that the fox gives the little prince is the insight that establishing ties with another being—the taming process—changes everything. A concrete example: the proportion of Americans who reported knowing someone gay increased from 25 percent in 1985 to 74 percent in 2000, and the percentage is even higher today, and you have to know, this has been a major factor in our achievement of marriage equality in this nation. Knowing gay people strongly predicts support for gay rights. Knowing people of a different color and culture predicts support for antiracism and multiculturalism. Friendship makes for justice.
The result of taming and being tamed, at whatever level of life, cannot be overestimated. You know whose you are. There are people you really would die for. “My life is very monotonous,” says the fox:
“I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. 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…”
Listen to that: “I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…” Everything serves to remind you of the one who’s tamed you. Whenever I eat pretzel M&M’s or make grilled cheese sandwiches, the presence of a loved one is summoned up for me, and it is wonderful, the sun has indeed come to shine in my life. The whole world carries signs of the ones you love. Monotony is replaced by richness. The whole world becomes personalized with the ones you love. It does not matter that passersby can’t see what you see. The richness of your life is still valid and real. You are seeing with the eyes of the heart. What is essential is invisible to the physical eye.
“Grown-ups are mushrooms,” says the little prince. Thanks to the fox, he will escape this fate. Now he knows what love means. Now he can return to his rose and he can do so with clarity. Now he is completely clear. Now he can go home.
And this is the children’s story that the famous writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, once upon a time, when his country was being devoured by war, and he was an expat in America, feeling helpless and lonely. This is the story he wrote, once upon a time, to process his near-disastrous airplane crash in the Sahara and the way his marriage was also crashing. He took his friend’s advice. Write a children’s story.
Did it help? Does it help?
I think it did. I think it does.