The Little Prince Was Born in the U.S.A.

Of all the books written in French over the past century, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is surely the best loved in the most tongues. Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes is as well loved in France, but mostly unknown elsewhere. Camus’ The Plague and The Stranger are better known elsewhere but not exactly loved. Only Saint-Exupéry’s book is both universal and cherished.
© Olivier Tallec

And this is very strange (as the Walrus and Carpenter might have said) because the book’s meanings, its purpose and intent and moral, still seem far from transparent, even seventy five plus years after its first appearance. Indeed, the startling thing, looking again at the first reviews of the book, is that, far from being welcomed as a necessary and beautiful parable, it bewildered and puzzled its first readers. Among the early reviewers, only P.L. Travers – who had, with a symmetry that makes the non-believer shiver, written an equivalent myth for England, in her Mary Poppins books – grasped the books dimensions, or its importance.

Over time, the suffrage of readers has altered that conclusion, of course: a classic is a classic. But it has altered the conclusion without really changing the point. This year marks an efflorescence of attention, including a full-scale exhibition of Saint-Exupéry’s original artwork at the Morgan Library in New York. But we are no closer to penetrating the central riddle: What is The Little Prince about? It is obviously a parable of love and loss and innocence – the little prince leaves his own planet to come to ours, in order to understand something about the nature of love. He gets educated, arrives at a conclusion – and then pays for the lesson with his life, even if a mystical rebirth seems held out as a possibility.

The elements of morbidity and romantic passion mix oddly with the more obviously child like and satiric elements. In the now classic film, My Dinner With André, André Gregory, unpacking his years of spiritual pilgrimage, reveals that he spent a year or so trying to put on a production of the Saint-Exupéry’s book on in the desert itself, though he then quickly feels compelled to confess that “I think there’s a very fascistic thing under The Little Prince, you know, a kind of SS totalitarian sentimentality in there somewhere. I can just imagine some beautiful SS man loving The Little Prince. You know, I don’t know why, but there’s something wrong with it. It stinks!”

This double sense – that it’s the most appealing of books, but that there’s something strange, unlocated, illegible about it persists. Few classics have been so easy to love, without being at all easy to read, in the academic sense; few have inspired so much other, peripheral art, and yet so little intelligent commentary. The existence of good criticism is not proof of literary quality, of course – but the absence of it points to something slightly puzzling or lost in the original text.

As it happens, I have spent a great deal of time in the past year, working on my own dramatic adaptation of it – writing a scenario for the National Ballet of Canada, to be choreographed by the extraordinary young dancer Guillaume Côté. I never find that it stinks, but it does become opaque, and one struggles to be sure that it has a spin to go along with its sweetness. Everyone knows the basic bones of the story: An aviator, downed in the desert and facing long odds of survival, encounters a strange young boy, neither man nor really boy who, it emerges over time, has traveled from his solitary home on a distant asteroid, where he lives alone with a single rose.  The rose has made him so miserable that, in torment, he has taken advantage of a flock of birds: he was instructed by a wise if cautious fox, and by a sinister angel of death, the snake.

Struggling to do more than simply repeat the book’s central action, it took a while for me get what is the core emotion of the book: It is a war story. Not an allegory of war, but a fable of it, where the central emotions of conflict – isolation, fear, and uncertainty are alleviated only by intimate speech and specific love. That The Little Prince is a war story is true in a very literal sense – everything about its making has to do not just with the onset of war but with the “strange defeat” of France, with the experience of Vichy and the Occupation. Saint-Exupéry’s sense of shame and confusion at the defeat, led him to make a fable of abstract ideas defeated by specific loves. In this enterprise, he sang in unconscious harmony with the other great poets of the war’s loss, from J.D. Salinger – whose great post-war story, For Esme – With Love And Squalor, sings a similar song of moral breakdown eased only by the speech of a lucid child – to his contemporary Albert Camus, who also took from the war the need to engage in a perpetual battle “between each man’s happiness and the illness of abstraction,” meaning the act of distancing real emotion from normal life.

We know the circumstances of composition of The Little Prince in detail now, courtesy of Stacy Schiff’s fine biography, Saint-Exupéry. Escaped from Europe to an unhappy, monolingual exile in North America, engaged in petty but violent internecine warfare with the other exile and resisting groups, Saint-Exupéry wrote this most French of fables in Manhattan and Northport, Long Island. Its initial impulses, two in number, are easy to specify: The desert setting derives from the aviator’s 1935 experience of having been lost for almost a week in the Arabian desert, with his memories of loneliness, hallucination, impending death (and enveloping beauty) of the desert realized on the page. The central love story of the prince and the rose derives from his stormy love affair with his wife Consuelo from whom the rose takes her cough and her flightiness and her imperiousness and her sudden swoons.  (While he had been lost in the desert in 1935, Schiff tells us, she had been publicly mourning his loss on her own ‘asteroid,’ her table at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris.) The desert and the rose – his life as an intrepid aviator and his life as a baffled lover, those were his inspiration. But between those two experiences, skewering them, dividing them with a line, was the war.

He had felt in the deepest parts of his psyche the loss of France not just as a loss of battle, but also as a loss of meaning. After the defeat, nothing any longer made sense. The desert of the strange defeat was more bewildering than the desert of Libya had been. Saint Ex’s own war was honorable: He flew with the GR II/33 reconnaissance squadron of the Armée de l’Air. And, after the bitter defeat, fled Europe, like so many other patriotic Frenchmen, through Portugal, arriving New York on the last day of 1940. But as anyone who lived through it knew, what made the loss so traumatic was the sense that it implicated the complete undermining of a civilization’s values. The entire underpinning of French civilization, not merely its armies, had come, so to speak, under the scrutiny of the gods and, with remarkable speed, collapsed.

And, searching for the causes of that collapse, the most honest honorable minds – Marc Bloch and Camus both come to mind – thought that the real fault lay in the French habit of abstraction. The entire Cartesian and Colbertian tradition that had for so many centuries been so brilliantly successful in its effort at moving specific questions from the realm of the pragmatic to the realm of the systematic had failed its makers. Certainly, one way of responding to the disaster was to search out some new set of abstractions, of over arching categories to replace those lost: Jean Paul Sartre attempted this. But a more humane response was to engage in a ceaseless battle against all those abstractions that keep us from life as it is. No one put this better than the heroic Bloch himself: “The first task of my trade (i.e. of the historian, but more broadly the humanist properly so called) consists in avoiding big-sounding abstract terms. Those who teach history should be continually concerned with the task of seeking the solid and concrete behind the empty and abstract. In other words, it is on men rather than functions that they should concentrate all their attention”

This might seem like a very odd moral to take out the experience as something as devastating as the war. It wasn’t merely intellectual, an amateur’s non-combatant’s epiphany. At a purely tactical, military level, the urge to abstraction had meant the urge to fetishize fixed, systematic solutions at the expense of tactical fluidity and resourcefulness. The Maginot Line was an abstract idea that had been allowed to replace flexible strategy and common sense. (One recalls Picasso’s comment to Matisse, when the troubled French painter asked him, in 1940, “But what about our generals, what are they doing?” Picasso responded: “Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts!”), meaning men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation and obsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.

From an experience that was so dehumanizing and overwhelming – an experience that turns an entire human being with a complicated life history and destiny first into a cipher and then into a casualty – Saint-Exupéry wanted to rescue the person, not the statistic. The statistics could be any of those the men on the planets are obsessed with, the ‘counting’ fetish that might take in stars if one is an astronomer or profits for businessmen. The richest way to see The Little Prince is an extended parable of the kinds and follies of abstraction – and the special intensity and poignance of the story is that Saint-Exupéry dramatizes the struggle against abstraction not as an a philosophical subject but as a life-and-death story, and as a love story – a war story. The book moves from asteroid to desert, and from fable to comedy to enigmatic tragedy, in order to make one recurrent point: You can’t love roses. You can only love a rose.

For all of the prince’s journey is a journey of exile, like Saint-Exupéry’s, away from generic experience towards the eroticism of the particular flower. To be responsible for his rose, the prince learns, is to see it as it really is, in all its fragility and vanity – indeed, in all its utter commonness! – without loving it less for being so fragile. The persistent   triumph of specific experience can be found in something as peculiar, as idiosyncratic and bizarre, as the opening image of a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, which, the narrator tells us, the grown ups can only see as a generic object. This is where Saint-Ex and the Surrealists who admired him – a tracing of his hand appears in one of the issues of Surrealist journal Minotaur – touch. What Rene Magritte’s painting always suggests, with their very similar obsession with middle-class hats, is that every time you see a bourgeois derby, there may be a boa constrictor inside. The X-ray of every hat reveals a boa constrictor in every head. (That could be the motto of every Surrealist exhibition.)

The men the prince meets on his journey to Earth are all men who have, in Bloch’s sense, been reduced to functions, and their functional role has become who they are. The businessman, the astronomer, even the poor lamplighter, have become their occupations, and gone blind to the stars. It is again, the essential movement we find in Camus, only in The Little Prince shown to us as comic fable rather than realistic novel. The world conspires to make us blind to it; our work is to see the world again.

The comparison of Saint-Exupéry and Camus may seem ambitious. But then both are humanists, drawn to the desert, and not coincidentally drawn to North African landscape as the theater of action – and both are romantics in the narrower erotic sense: men whose lives are bounded by their love affairs. Both are trying to restate a simple idea: that abstract action without tangible subjects is meaningless – but also that romantic love without responsibility is dangerous. We must have one thing at hand – “Algeria is my mother”; the cosmos is one rose – but we must also love what’s there, rather than what we want to be there. There’s passage from Saint-Exupéry’s masterpiece, easily overlooked, that I think is the key to the whole. It concerns the prince’s encounter with a railroad switchman:

“Good morning,” said the little prince.
“Good morning,” said the railway switchman.
“What do you do here?” the little prince asked.
“I sort out travelers, in bundles of a thousand,” said the switchman. “I send off the trains that carry them: now to the right, now to the left.” And a brilliantly lighted express train shook the switchman’s cabin as it rushed by with a roar like thunder.
“They are in a great hurry,” said the little prince. “What are they looking for?”
“Not even the locomotive engineer knows that,” said the switchman. And a second brilliantly lighted express thundered by, in the opposite direction.
“Are they coming back already?” demanded the little prince.
“These are not the same ones,” said the switchman. “It is an exchange.”
“Were they not satisfied where they were?” asked the little prince.
“No one is ever satisfied where he is,” said the switchman.
And they heard the roaring thunder of a third brilliantly lighted express.
“Are they pursuing the first travelers?” demanded the little prince.
“They are pursuing nothing at all,” said the switchman. “They are asleep in there, or if they are not asleep they are yawning. Only the children are flattening their noses against the window-panes.”
“Only the children know what they are looking for,” said the little prince. “They waste their time over a rag doll and it becomes very important to them; and if anybody takes it away from them, they cry . . .”

If Camus makes an often abstract, or aphoristic case against abstraction – the language of Pascal in the pursuit of the ideas of Popper – Saint-Exupéry achieves his book in the simpler haunting form of fable. Camus was the master of an aphoristic style that allowed him to help emancipate us from the hold of the intoxications of style. He was able to think abstractly in ways that helped cure of us of abstraction’s curse. Saint-Ex used fable and children’ story as Camus used aphorism – to take us out of the desert of the academic and administrative and into the small walled garden of the real.

I have said that Le Petit Prince is the best beloved of modern French texts – but it is no accident that it takes the form of a “children’s book.” For one of the things that children’s literature does uniquely well is to distill the temperament of a nation into a fable. There are, I like to think, three central texts of this kind in modern France, meant superficially for children but speaking resonantly of the national condition. The first, from the twenties and thirties, are Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar books, which, as I have written before, are a perfect fable of the pre-war complacency of French bourgeois colonial vision: Green suits and department stores and classical Haussmannian city planning are capable of turning any savanna into a version of Paris and a département of France. After the war, we have the great gift of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Astérix, the equally perfect fable of French civilization besieged by the dim witted Romans (i.e. Americans) – brought down in power, but triumphant and undefeated  nonetheless, and, above all, self-amused, self-possessed in a way that Romans can never be. It is the Gaullist universe as a comic strip. (Indeed, astonishingly, we learn that De Gaulle amused himself by calling his cabinet ministers out by names taken from Astérix!)

But between them, deeper than either, if more mysterious and unclear, is the great fable of the war that intercedes between them, and that is the story of The Little Prince. The exile who can win his way back to his own country only by learning again, painfully, the names of specific things, stripping away the false comfort of numbers and lists and occupations for the actual love of a rose, the dangerous wisdom of a fox.

And, indeed, we began to put the war into our Canadian ballet it began at last dance. The fox becomes a German pilot, the Rose a woman waiting (at the Brasserie Lipp, too) in Paris. By replenishing allegory with realism, the poetry of dance reappears. From the actual experience of absurdity – the experience of war and defeat – comes an allegory of love for one rose in an otherwise empty cosmos.

One last, perhaps unduly personal note – but of what does the particular consist except the unduly personal? When the French franc still existed, and I was having and raising my children in Paris, Saint-Exupéry’s face, and that of his prince, was on the fifty-franc note. I still keep two, folded and worn, bearing the years of my children’s birth, in my wallet, to remind me of the inestimable value of small particulars.

Article published in the February 2014 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.