Painting by Daniel Kabakoff
Questioning the Little Prince
The other day on YouTube I came across a discussion of The Little Prince between HaRav Oury Cherky shlit”a, head of Brit Olam, and HaRav Haim Navon, who I gathered had written an article sharply criticizing this book. This reminded me that I had meant to write something for Sasson Magazine about The Little Prince.
For those not familiar with The Little Prince, it is a book written for children by the French author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1942, while in exile from occupied France. In the book (this paragraph contains spoilers) the narrator makes a forced landing in the desert and has enough water for a week. As he is trying to repair his plane, he is approached by the title figure, who, he learns, has been traveling the universe after leaving his own small planet. Through their conversations and the narrator’s reflections, a certain philosophy of life is expressed in a fanciful way. At the end the Little Prince vanishes again; the narrator succeeds in repairing his plane returns to the world but remains haunted by the memory of his enigmatic friend.
The Little Prince is a children’s classic in the Western world; many baalei teshuva seem to have read it; and from the debate between HaRav Cherky and HaRav Navon and some subsequent exploration via Google,
I gather that it has struck a definite chord in Israeli culture, so that these two thinkers felt the need to analyze and evaluate its appeal. To summarize their positions briefly, HaRav Navon views the Little Prince as a person who is narcissistic, arrogant, critical of others, unable to attach himself to anyone or to find a place in the world, obsessed with a fantasy about a flower on some other planet, and ultimately suicidal; while HaRav Cherky sees the Little Prince as one in search of the meaning of transitory things, and his decision to return to his planet as an expression of commitment to the flower that he left there.
I have mixed feelings about this book, corresponding to both sides of the debate. When it was first read to me — at summer camp, when I was about to turn eleven — I didn’t much like it. As a child, idealizations of childhood did not appeal to me. I resented the portrayal of the feminine through the flower (silly, frivolous, a bit cruel), and the Little Prince’s departure (via snakebite) gave me the creeps. Nevertheless, over the years The Little Prince has kept coming back to me.
At this point, I think I understand the story from the perspective of the narrator, to whom the Little Prince appears in the midst of a life-and-death situation that gives occasion for reflection on what is meaningful in life. Rav Cherky is surely right in seeing this figure as a projection of the narrator himself, an imaginary companion. The Little Prince leaves the narrator just when he has repaired his plane and is about to return to the world. He leaves no trace; his body vanishes.
What is it, then, that the Little Prince represents for the narrator? The phrase “inner child” comes up inevitably; one wonders, in fact, if The Little Prince was not the source of all this preoccupation with the “inner child”! But what, in turn, does that mean?
An older story comes to mind – Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which a pair of swindlers pretend to weave a suit of new clothes for the emperor, claiming that their clothes possess “the wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who was unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid.” In fact, the clothes consist of nothing, but everyone is afraid to admit that they them lest they be found unfit for their social position. The emperor goes so far as to “wear” them in a parade, and everyone pretends to see them until a child, who has no social position to lose, pipes up, “But he has nothing on at all.” The child is able to see the truth because he has not yet been initiated into the “groupthink” which pervades the world of the grown-ups. His perceptions have not yet been conventionalized.
The first incident which the narrator relates, when adults mistook his drawing of an elephant inside a boa constrictor for a hat, begins to illustrate this point. (I wouldn’t have passed this test even as a child, but never mind.) If you look closely, you can see the head of the snake. But people are used to the shape of a hat, and they identify the drawing with the shape they are used to.
A clearer illustration is the matter of the Turkish astronomer who spotted the Little Prince’s asteroid through a telescope and reported on it to an international conference. Because he was wearing Turkish dress, his information was discounted. A few years later he made the same report wearing European clothing, and this time “everyone was of his opinion.” This is typical of “grown-up,” conventionalized perception.
The narrator identifies a motive for this conventionalization of perception: the struggle for power and status that underlies adult interactions. He writes:
If you were to say to the grown-ups: “I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,” they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them: “I saw a house that cost $20,000.” Then they would exclaim: “Oh, what a pretty house that is!”
Grown-ups, he says, like numbers. Only that which is quantifiable is of interest. And this is somehow related to the evaluation of everything as a symbol of power and status, rather than as what it is.
Thus the narrator’s introductory remarks set up an opposition between the adult world of conventionalized perception, calculation and quantification, and the child’s perception of what we might call Being. The Little Prince’s travel adventures are variations on this theme.
Before he sets out on his travels, there is the prehistory of his life on his own small planet, which he keeps in good order by periodically sweeping out the active volcanoes and pulling up the shoots of baobabs. HaRav Cherky suggests that the baobabs represent the yetser hara which a person has to keep in check. The Little Prince’s world is a complete microcosm, suggesting a belief in a self that precedes socialization. A complication is introduced by the flower which springs up one day on his planet. He becomes attached to the flower, and she torments him with her caprices, until he decides to leave. She thus supplies the motive for his journey and also for his return, when he decides to go back to her. On the level of development, perhaps the opening of the flower stands for the awakening of love and connection with others.
On each of the small planets which he visits after leaving his own, the Little Prince encounters a figure who represents adult society. The king thinks he controls everything, the vain man thinks everyone must admire him, the drunkard is caught in a loop of drinking because he is ashamed of drinking, the businessman believes that by counting the stars he comes to own them, the lamplighter compulsively carries out orders that no longer fit his situation, and the geographer is not interested in seeing the world, only recording data. (To Rav Navon, who criticizes the Little Prince for criticizing everyone, one might observe that Kohelet takes a similarly dim view of human activity.)
The geographer asks the Little Prince to enumerate the features of his planet. The Little Prince mentions the volcanoes, which the geographer duly records. Then he mentions the flower, which the geographer dismisses on the grounds that the flower is ephemeral. The Little Prince protests that the flower is the most important thing on his planet. He asks the geographer for a definition of ephemeral, and the geographer responds: “Menaced with imminent disappearance”.
I think here of Paul Celan (see my earlier essay “Poet and Hasid”), who is said to have liked this book, and who exclaimed toward the end of his “Meridian” speech: “Poetry…that infinite valuation of what is transitory and in vain!” Toward the end of his life he was involved with a literary magazine called L’Ephémère.
Transience, as we know, is a property of all living things. Each living being is a momentary manifestation of natural laws that have operated since the beginning, and will go on operating until the end, of Creation. We feel that the living being has some value, some quality, which cannot be expressed in terms of those laws, and it is with this that poetry has always been concerned. But this value does not interest the scientific world-view—nor, for that matter, the worlds of commerce and power; we feel that the geographer, interested only in data, is a kindred spirit to the king who thinks he controls everything and to the businessmen who thinks he can own the stars. Life, life as we experience it, is threatened not only by its brevity, but also by the increasing domination of a quantitative way of thinking in which the things that give value to life have less and less importance. The evanescence of the Little Prince himself serves to underscore this point.
On the recommendation of the geographer, the Little Prince arrives on Planet Earth, where, as the narrator mordantly remarks, the dramas of the king, the vain man, the drunkard, the businessman, and the geographer are played out hundreds, thousands, and millions of times over. Here the Little Prince encounters another problem of Being, when he comes upon a garden of flowers, all of them exactly like the flower on his planet, who had told him that she was the only one of her kind in the universe. The flowers tell him their generic name – rose – so that the flower becomes one member of a category. The Little Prince reflects:
“I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose. A common rose, and three volcanoes that come up to my knees−− and one of them perhaps extinct forever… that doesn’t make me a very great prince…”
I gather that some interpreters see this as a commentary on the choice of one partner amid many. But I remember being reminded of this episode on a different occasion – in Berkeley, where a lot of my friends were writing poetry which I had to admit was at least as good as mine! I was forced to admit that my poetic talent, to which I attached so much importance, was nothing rare. And of course, the same is true not only of any particular talent but also one’s individuality as such.
The Little Prince’s problem is partially resolved by the Fox who now appears. The fox, like the prince, is lonely, and asks the prince to tame him. Taming involves the creation of habits; through habitual actions a bond is established, until each is indeed unique for the other. And out of this relation grows responsibility. The fox’s final words to the Little Prince are: “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose…”
It is a very “existentialist” (“existence precedes essence”) view of love and being. The love between the Little Prince and the rose is not based on any unique affinity between their essences, but upon their actions. Nevertheless, once the bond has been established, it changes the relation not only between the two parties, but between each of them and the world. A field of wheat becomes meaningful to the fox because it is the color of the Little Prince’s hair; the stars become meaningful to the Little Prince because on one of them is the rose he has cared for. Similarly, at the end of the story, the stars will acquire new meaning for the narrator because of the Little Prince. The world becomes meaningful through associations.
Poetry, of course, operates through associations. The poem expresses a feeling or an idea not just by stating it, but by mustering words and images around a central concept. Take for instance
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
The poem’s statement – love is not transitory but constant and inalterable – is reinforced by images of tempest, bark, star, rose, sickle, even the “edge of doom.” Concrete things are made to bear witness, as it were, to the truth of the statement. And for the reader, the experience of the words tempest, bark, star, etc. is subtly altered by their appearance in the poem. Some of the energy of the poem’s affirmation clings to them. The reading of poetry affects our experience of language, and through it the world. (Of course, when people stop reading poetry….)
The final word of the book is not a word but a picture of the landscape where the Little Prince was last seen. The narrator says that he has drawn this landscape, where the Little Prince appeared and disappeared and perhaps might reappear, so that the reader will recognize the place if he should ever happen upon it. But it is an abstract desert landscape – two curving lines and above them a single star. There are no distinguishing signs, no landmarks by which the place could be recognized. There is a mournful irony in this, but perhaps also an invitation to the reader to go out to his or her own desert and encounter his or her own inner truth.
“Look at it carefully so that you will be sure to recognize it in case you travel someday to the African desert. And, if you should come upon this spot, please do not hurry on. Wait for a time, exactly under the star. Then, if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back.”
The Little Prince has died (or returned to his world), and the narrator has returned to society, where, we are given to understand, he remains solitary, with only a memory of friendship. Yet in the very last words he reaches out in friendship, as it were, to the reader. It is only “as it were,” though I imagine Saint-Exupéry must have received a lot of letters! Nevertheless, one can find here a suggestion of the possibility of a fellowship based on a recognition of one another’s inner Little Prince.
But that is only an afterthought, and one that is contradicted by the next-to-last episode in the Little Prince’s travels before he meets the narrator. After he has received from the fox the lesson of responsibility, he is confronted with a representative of mass society – the Switchman. Asked by the Little Prince what he does, the Switchman replied: “I sort out travelers, in bundles of a thousand … I send off the trains that carry them; now to the right, now to the left.” For us this has eerie associations (and Saint-Exupéry was writing this in 1942), but it is intended chiefly as a representation of modern life, in which the passengers on the lighted trains “are pursuing nothing at all…They are asleep in there, or if they are not asleep they are yawning. Only the children are flattening their noses against the windowpanes.” But, one might object, every passenger on the train has some purpose. Perhaps they are traveling on business, but perhaps they are traveling to see the ocean or a friend, or to discharge some human responsibility. It is too facile to sum them up in the metal shape that rushes by. Just as the threshold of adulthood and responsibility is reached, the whole enterprise is dismissed. Perhaps it all seems just too much to “sort out” in a manner consistent with our perceptions of being. We throw up our hands – and the train thunders on.
On the level of the story’s mechanics, there is a constraint of plot. The Little Prince has learned that he is responsible for his rose. But it is the rose that will draw him away from the complex society of Earth, back to his asteroid! This gives grounds to Rav Navon’s position that The Little Prince is a manifesto of the antisocial individualism that he identifies as the fatal disease of Western society. For me too, as I said at outset, there has always been something morbid about that ending.
Rav Cherky, however, identifies one figure in the book that points in our direction – the Lamplighter, who keeps on carrying out “orders” to light his lamp at sunset even though his planet now revolves once every minute. The Little Prince reflects that at least the Lamplighter is concerned with something besides himself, and that what he does – lighting a star – is “beautiful” and therefore “truly useful.” He even considers joining the Lamplighter on his planet but concludes that the planet is too small. Herre HaRav Cherky identifies a perception of Judaism; he connects this with the fact that The Little Prince is dedicated to Léon Werth, a close friend of Saint-Exupéry who was Jewish although assimilated.
There’s little question in my mind that Judaism would have been good for Saint-Exupéry. It would have helped him uproot some of the baobab shoots in his own nature. It would have taught him that the rose is also a symbol of community. He would surely have found consolation in the prayer for revival of the dead; evidently the death of the Little Prince is related to the death of a beloved younger brother at the age of 15. And it would have helped him to know that he was really helping to light a star.
The perceptions that the lamplighter’s orders are outdated and his planet too small are not only those of n outsider but also reflect discomforts within the Jewish community, as Rav Cherky noted in the discussion. As if in continuation, Rav Cherky begins a recent statement with the words: “The Jewish state, and the Jewish people as a whole, need a big Torah” (by which he means a development of the universalist aspect of Judaism and application of Torah principles in all fields, in continuity with the thinking of HaRav Kook zts”l and of HaRav Leon Ashkenazi [“Manitou”]) zts”l.
Yet smallness is an intrinsic part of the vision of The Little Prince, and we might take his return to his planet as a reminder that any expansive effort (Paul Celan would back me up here) must stay in touch with the microcosm of the individual, the perceptions of the self, uninflected as yet by the conventions and considerations. Perceptions most often expressed in poetry…
Note: At one point in the debate HaRav Navon remarked, “I don’t know how well the book is known outside the U.S. and Israel.” A Google search turned up the abstract of a monograph entitled “The Image of The Little Prince in Hebrew Poetry,” with a table of contents listing a number of works by Israeli writers . The examples I’m familiar with are a poem by Meir Wieseltier in which the Little Prince is drafted into the army, provided with a submachine gun and informed that the lamplighter is a terrorist and that he’d better take care of those sheep or they’ll take care of him; and a song by Yonatan Gefen mourning the Little Prince as a prototype of the many young men who have fallen in Israel’s battles. In these works, the Little Prince represents an innocence that is threatened, spiritually and physically, by Israel’s ongoing situation.