As human beings, stories make up our world. Insofar as our raw senses allow us to cognitively perceive the world for what it is, we cannot help but find ways how it should be instead.
And so we conjure stories, and we tell them to one another. Communication of facts cannot make others see as we do; it is only through narrative that we may charge facts with meaning, and to us, it is only with meaning that life could be worth living at all. The way we view the world as a community, a society, and a civilization depends primarily on the stories we tell (and retell) each other; the ‘shared myths’, as some would put it, which allow us to cohere, and gradually, to progress1Harari, Yuval Noah; Vintage (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. ISBN 9780099590088..
As such, it is difficult to understate the importance of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, one of the most widely read stories of the modern world. Excluding religious texts, it has come to be one of the most best-selling books of all time, and perhaps the best-selling single fiction book2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books#More_than_100_million_copies. It is also the most translated book (second only to the Bible), having been written in some 382 languages and dialects3https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-translated-author-same-book. This short, whimsical children’s book stands alongside such literary giants as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and for those who have had the pleasure of reading Le Petit Prince, it is no mystery why. The novella contains a marvelous tale of adventure for children, while at the same time managing to submit a poignant commentary of modern society for “the grown-ups” (as Saint-Exupéry would put it).
On the surface, a simple story: An aviator (who used to aspire to become an artist) crashes his plane into the Sahara desert, with a week’s worth of drinking water. He encounters a little boy, the titular Prince, who turns out to be from a distant planet. They strike up a conversation; the man learns that the Prince departed his home planet due to a row with his lover, the Rose (literally), and has been to various planets other than earth, where he met with comical adult figures obsessed in ‘matters of consequence’, which are depicted as trivial and absurd. Upon arriving on earth, the Prince crossed paths with a snake who talked in riddles and promised to return the Prince “to the earth from whence he came”, a bush of roses who reminded him of his own Rose, and a Fox, who taught him the time spent with those we love are what makes them precious to us.
Having spent the week in the desert, on the brink of dying from thirst, the man and the Prince come across a well, and they drink and quench their thirst. Later, having repaired his engine, the man finds that the Prince, too, intends to go home, to return to his Rose. They say their final goodbyes, and the Prince is bitten by the Snake, after which he collapses and vanishes. The man writes the book in memory of the Prince, hoping to one day see him once more.
I, for one, having never read the book as a child, could not help but find myself struck by the wisdom of the story – new pathways of interpretations constantly opened itself up to me as I kept reading. By the middle of the book, I saw clearly the first layer of argument: It is a reminder of the importance of sweet, sacred childhood innocence. By this interpretation, the Prince’s departure (or death, for the pessimists among us) signifies how this innocence will eventually be taken away from each of us, along with a somber understanding of the world’s harshness. A coming-to-terms, rather than a coming-of-age story.
By the end of the book, however, this superficial reading of the tale did not satisfy me. I was certain that this story contains something more – deeper than the conflict between the innocent youth and jaded adulthood, I believe this story depicts a deeper struggle, one that better defines and encapsulates the human condition. Saint-Exupery believes that we are misguided, in that we do not realize what is really important in life. Through The Little Prince, this is what he attempts to teach us.
Act 1: Self-actualization
“The grown-up’s response, this time, was to advise me to lay aside my drawings … and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic and grammar.”
I find that The Little Prince can be broken down into three separate acts, each with their own distinct argument. The first act, which is up until the Prince tells the story of his arrival on earth, lays the philosophical foundation for the rest of the story. The narrator talks of grown-ups, who are deeply concerned with what they consider to be “matters of consequence” – yet, the narrator notes, these matters seem patently trivial to him. Grown-ups, he describes, are obsessed with numbers: any matter of consequence should therefore be quantifiable (or at least, structurable). By this tenet, he explains, one would assess the character of a man by how much money he makes, or how old he is, and the beauty of a house by how much it costs. Oh, an exaggeration, perhaps (yes, we are not that shallow), but so is everything else: almost all arguments in this book are made through hyperbole.
Here, the narrator is making a point about the old epistemological debate; that of rationalism versus empiricism. According to the rationalists, knowledge can only be derived from reason, and a hallmark of solid logical reasoning are numbers, which represent objective truth about the world4Lacey, A.R. (1996), A Dictionary of Philosophy, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. 2nd edition, 1986. 3rd edition, Routledge, London, UK, 1996. p. 286. Rationalism is the foundation of science, which in turn becomes the basis of our technologically (and supposedly, intellectually) advanced society. A ‘smart’ person is good at maths, and makes sound business decisions. He counts his taxes properly and pays his mortgages; he chooses jobs which pay him well, so that he takes enough home to feed his family.
The narrator does not explicitly condemn these things; indeed, there is nothing wrong with them. He merely argues that these things are not essential. And what is essential? Upon meeting a new friend, the narrator would rather ask questions such as “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?”. Evidently, these things are not describable by numbers; yet, they might tell us more about the character of a person than his age or income. This is an argument for the opposing philosophical position of empiricism, which posits that true knowledge can only be obtained by subjective experience5Psillos, Stathis; Curd, Martin (2010). The Routledge companion to philosophy of science(1. publ. in paperback ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 129–38. ISBN 978-0415546133.. As experience is unique to each person, it is pointedly non-objective; we cannot make other people see as we do.
To quote one of the fathers of empiricism, David Hume: “Reason is, and only ought to be the slave of the passions”6Hume, David (1888). Selby-Bigge, L.A. (ed.). A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.. Sure, reasoning is useful, and we are better at it than other animals. Yet, reason is not an end in itself: they serve us only to the end of our passionate and emotional desires. And what desire is that? According to the narrator, this seems to be the desire to create; indeed, as a child does with haphazard doodles. Truly, creative endeavors such as art are the attempt to manifest our subjective inner worlds into reality, and a good piece of art will yield more truth than any cold, calculated work of rationalist science.
Alas, the grown-ups are not interested in such endeavors. And why not? The Prince shows why, through his journey to the six planets. He visits a king, who is obsessed with power; a vain man, who is obsessed with self-image; a drunkard, who drinks to forget his worldly misery; a businessman, who is obsessed with wealth; a lamplighter, who is obsessed with doing his job; and a geographer, who is obsessed with his (narrow) field of science. These illustrations are examples of man, shackled and constrained by superficial boundaries the world sets upon them, and perhaps, that they have set upon themselves. They presume themselves to be concerned with ‘matters of importance’; yet this presumption blinds them from seeing the higher, ultimate form of perception and expression.
Friedrich Nietzsche paints an image of man as a bridge between animal and God7Pippin, Robert. “Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, University of Chicago, 2006. ISBN 0-521-60261-0.. We are fundamentally animals, primed to pursue base desires for food, security, power, and self-esteem. According to him, these desires are what lock us into place in “eternal recurrence”, forever in pursuit of that which will never satisfy us8Hatab, Lawrence J. (2005). Nietzsche’s Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-96758-9.. From a functional perspective, these instincts serve to help us survive and reproduce, as a species, as animals. Rationality serves the same purpose. Yet, Nietzsche also saw within humanity the potential to transcend these boundaries. Only humans have the intrinsic “will to power” which can enable us to set meaning for ourselves, and determine our own fates. To transcend our animalistic nature is to become the Ubermensch, or Superman, something akin to a God who can bend the world to his will and to truly be free. As we call God “The Creator”, so too is our drive for creative endeavors the key to unleash this inner potential. Nietzsche, and Hume before him, agrees with Saint-Exupery: this is what is truly important.
Act 2: Love and friendship
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Creative pursuits are inherently personal in nature; it is a portrait of each man as an individual, who should strive to manifest himself through self-actualization. The second act of the book makes the case for another thing which is perhaps equally important, and equally essential to the human condition.
The very thing that started the Prince’s journey was a spat with his love interest, the Rose. Objectification of women aside (it was a different time), the Rose is a thinly-veiled representation of Saint-Exupery’s wife Consuelo, a once-divorced, once-widowed Salvadoran writer and artist. In her own memoir, aptly titled The Tale of the Rose, she tells a bitter account of their 13-year marriage: “[Antoine] was cruel, negligent, greedy, self-centered and wasteful. He abandoned [her] in a psychiatric hospital; and, when [they] were living separately, tricked [her] into letting him sleep in [her] house to scupper divorce proceedings, because he depended on the fortune [she] inherited from Gomez Carrillo (one of her former husbands)”9Saint-Exupery, Consuelo. (2003). The Tale of the Rose. Random House Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 9780812967173.10Webster, Paul. Flying Into A Literary Storm: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Author Of The Little Prince, Was Born 100 Years Ago. The Celebrations, However, Have Been Marred By His Widow’s Bitter Account Of Their Marriage, London: The Guardian, June 24, 2000.. The truth behind many details of the memoir are disputed, but one thing verified by biographers was that Saint-Exupery did indeed engage in numerous affairs during his frequent travels. This marriage was certainly not a smooth one. To return to The Little Prince, the fact that Saint-Exupery wrote the book during an exile from France after the German invasion in 1940, away from Consuelo, we can see the parallels of the Prince’s departure from the Rose with what transpired in the real world.
On earth, the Prince comes across a garden of roses, which he notes to be very similar to his own Rose. He muses that perhaps, his Rose was never special; after all, there are so many just like it! This clearly relates to Saint-Exupery’s own travels around the world as an aviator, for he must have seen that the world is so full of women, and so many just like his own Consuelo. At this moment, he meets the Fox, who persuades the Prince to “tame” him. “Taming” here surely means friendship, or companionship; some form of exclusive social relationship which bonds people to one another. “One only understands the things that one tames”, the Fox says. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready-made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore.”
And so the Prince tames the Fox, and the Fox cries as the Prince must leave him. And the Prince exclaims, if the Fox would now be sad, “then it has done you no good at all!” But the Fox says, “It has done me good.” And the Prince finally understands the meaning in friendship: “I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.” He applies the same understanding towards the garden of roses: “You are not at all like my Rose … 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 she is my Rose.”
Through the encounters with the garden of roses and the Fox, the Prince has now learned the second thing which is essential: love, and friendship. To view these things from a rationalist perspective would mean that the value of a relationship should not be dependent on the time spent building it, but instead on how we might benefit from such a relationship in the future. Indeed, focusing on how much we “invested” into the relationship would be viewed as a “sunk cost” that should be ignored, which, if you have ever been in love, or been close friends with someone, would be clearly absurd. A purely ‘rational’ man would be a cold, calculating machine of a person, devoid of empathy and feeling.
In line with the book’s empiricist inclination, the message is that we should not be so pragmatic in love; we should not let rationality have free rein over passion, lest we become sociopathic ‘homo economicus’ with no regard for human feeling. Yet, the pragmatic grown-up tends to view such ‘matters of the heart’ as emotional, irrational, which have become almost dirty words. Despite this, if you had an ounce of feeling in you, you would know that this is not so, and there is no need to explain further.
Act 3: Meaning in suffering
“The desert is beautiful … What makes the desert beautiful, is that somewhere it hides a well…”
We have learned two distinct aspects of what is essential: the individual, and the communal. Now we arrive at the final argument of the story, the one which ties everything together.
The narrator and the Prince are near the end of their journey. Their water supply has run out, and they have become thirsty. The man has become frantic and desperate; in the end, even the Prince admits that he, too, is thirsty, and they should try to look for water in the arid desert. This thirst symbolizes the hard truth of the human condition: After all is said and done, we are tied to mortality, and to our base animalistic needs. Even if we were to transcend shallow desires, as Nietzsche dreamed, we would still need to fill our stomachs, and in a sense, this is the world exerting its final force over us, telling us that in the end, we can never be free.
To quote the legendary pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim”11Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Presentation, trans. Richard E. Aquila in collaboration with David Carus (New York: Longman, 2008).. In his view, suffering and misfortune is the general rule in life, not the exception; suffering is the positive state, the default. Any happiness is then merely a temporary absence of suffering, the way drinking water provides only for a temporary absence of thirst.
Eventually, they chance upon a deus ex machina of sorts; a solitary well, with a pulley and bucket, filled with water. The narrator focuses a great deal of attention and detail on the scene of the pair drinking from the well: “It was as sweet as some special festival treat … its sweetness was born of the walk under the stars, the song of the pulley, the effort of my arms.” This scene is purposefully drawn out, as it makes a crucial point. “The men where you live,” the Prince says, “raise five thousand roses in the same garden, and they do not find in it what they are looking for. And yet what they are looking for could be found in one single rose, or in a little water.”
This exchange drives home the final message: that man will find meaning only in relation to the suffering he goes through. And we must remember that this suffering is closely tied to our animal nature – God does not suffer, as God is free from the constraints of the world. This principle is directly applicable to the two “essential things” we have learned thus far: in order to engage in meaningful creative activity, an artist must be prepared to suffer for his craft. In order to partake in meaningful intimate relationships, a lover must be prepared for the pain that will replace the bliss when loss comes (this pain is directly proportional to the amount of bliss obtained prior).
In this way, the “essential things” proposed in the prior two acts can only become meaningful for humanity, and nothing else. Humanity, who is half animal and half God; humanity, who is chained to the world’s suffering, yet has the will within itself to transcend it, in rare, isolated moments of infinite bliss. Truly, this is the true essence of man that the Prince finds at the end of his journey.
I believe that the purpose of this story never was to sanctify childhood innocence and demonize adult rationalism (or rather, adult “knowledge” of the world). Children may become as selfish and shallow as any adult, while an adult may learn to see as clearly and naively as a child. This dichotomy does not reveal the full picture – the sheer scope of the wisdom contained inside this short fable. And I believe that this is by no means an “over-reading” of the material; it is documented that Saint-Exupery dedicated an immense amount of time and energy on each painstaking detail. The famous aphorism, “It is only with the heart that one can see…” was reworded and rewritten in its original French some 15 times before achieving its final phrasing, and the original manuscript has been distilled to less than half of its original size through laborious editing sessions. Multiple versions of its many pages were created and its prose then polished over several drafts, with Saint-Exupery occasionally telephoning friends at 2:00 a.m. to solicit opinions on his newly written passages12Galantiè, Lewis. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1947, pp. 133–141. Retrieved 6 April 2014.. He knew exactly what he was doing; and what he was certainly not doing was “just writing a children’s book.”
By telling a tale exceedingly sparse and almost completely symbolic, Saint-Exupery managed to construct a timeless and perhaps eternally relevant piece of literature. Such a work will not be constrained to the period, or even the author, from which it was birthed. Rather, it will perpetually find ways to become relevant and tell its message to different audiences, with different contexts. In the case of The Little Prince, I believe the message it sends is a timeless one, and aimed squarely at us: Humanity.
“It is just as it is with the water … what you gave me to drink was like music. And at night you will look up at the stars … You know, it will be very nice. I, too shall look at the stars … All the stars will be wells with a rusty pulley. All the stars will pour out fresh water for me to drink…”
Editor : M. Daffa Nurfauzan, Rama Vandika, A. P. Islamilenia
Illustrator : Akmal Haikal Rahadian
Referensi [ + ]
|1.||↵||Harari, Yuval Noah; Vintage (2014). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. ISBN 9780099590088.|
|4.||↵||Lacey, A.R. (1996), A Dictionary of Philosophy, 1st edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976. 2nd edition, 1986. 3rd edition, Routledge, London, UK, 1996. p. 286|
|5.||↵||Psillos, Stathis; Curd, Martin (2010). The Routledge companion to philosophy of science(1. publ. in paperback ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 129–38. ISBN 978-0415546133.|
|6.||↵||Hume, David (1888). Selby-Bigge, L.A. (ed.). A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.|
|7.||↵||Pippin, Robert. “Nietzsche: Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, University of Chicago, 2006. ISBN 0-521-60261-0.|
|8.||↵||Hatab, Lawrence J. (2005). Nietzsche’s Life Sentence: Coming to Terms with Eternal Recurrence. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-96758-9.|
|9.||↵||Saint-Exupery, Consuelo. (2003). The Tale of the Rose. Random House Trade Paperbacks. ISBN 9780812967173.|
|10.||↵||Webster, Paul. Flying Into A Literary Storm: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Author Of The Little Prince, Was Born 100 Years Ago. The Celebrations, However, Have Been Marred By His Widow’s Bitter Account Of Their Marriage, London: The Guardian, June 24, 2000.|
|11.||↵||Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Presentation, trans. Richard E. Aquila in collaboration with David Carus (New York: Longman, 2008).|
|12.||↵||Galantiè, Lewis. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1947, pp. 133–141. Retrieved 6 April 2014.|