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The Strange Triumph of 'the Little Prince' _ the New Yorker

The Strange Triumph of 'the Little Prince' _ the New Yorker

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Published by Marienburg
The Strange Triumph of 'the Little Prince' _ the New Yorker
The Strange Triumph of 'the Little Prince' _ the New Yorker

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Published by: Marienburg on Jul 29, 2014
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April 29, 2014
The Strange Triumph of “The Little Prince”
Posted by
 Adam Gopnik 
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CloseRedditLinked InEmailStumbleUponOf all the books written in French over the past century,Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Le Petit Prince” is surely the best loved in the most tongues. This is very strange, becausethe book’s meanings—its purpose and intent and moral—stillseem far from transparent, even seventy-five-plus years after its first appearance. Indeed, the startling thing, looking againat the first reviews of the book, is that, far from beingwelcomed as a necessary and beautiful parable, it bewilderedand puzzled its readers. Among the early reviewers, only P.L. Travers—who had, with a symmetry that makes thenonbeliever shiver, written an equivalent myth for England inher Mary Poppins books—really grasped the book’sdimensions, or its importance.Over time, the suffrage of readers has altered thatconclusion, of course: a classic is a classic. But it has alteredthe conclusion without really changing the point. This year marks an efflorescence of attention, including a full-scaleexhibition of Saint-Exupéry’s original artwork at the MorganLibrary & Museum, in New York. But we are no closer to penetrating the central riddle: What is “The Little Prince”
about 
?Everyone knows the basic bones of the story: an aviator, downed in the desert and facing long odds of survival,encounters a strange young person, neither man nor really boy, who, it emerges over time, has travelled from hissolitary home on a distant asteroid, where he lives alone with a single rose. The rose has made him so miserablethat, in torment, he has taken advantage of a flock of birds to convey him to other planets. He is instructed by awise if cautious fox, and by a sinister angel of death, the snake.It took many years—and many readings—for this reader to begin to understand that the book is a
war story
. Not an
 
allegory of war, rather, a fable of it, in which the central emotions of conflict—isolation, fear, and uncertainty—arealleviated only by intimate speech and love. But the “Petit Prince” is a war story in a very literal sense, too— everything about its making has to do not just with the onset of war but with the “strange defeat” of France, withthe experience of Vichy and the Occupation. Saint-Exupéry’s sense of shame and confusion at the devasation ledhim to make a fable of abstract ideas set against specific loves. In this enterprise, he sang in unconscious harmonywith the other great poets of the war’s loss, from J. D. Salinger—whose great post-war story, “For Esmé—withLove and Squalor” shows us moral breakdown eased only by the speech of a lucid child—to his contemporaryAlbert Camus, who also took from the war the need to engage in a perpetual battle “between each man’s happinessand the illness of abstraction,” meaning the act of distancing real emotion from normal life.* * * We know the circumstances of the composition of “The Little Prince” in detail now, courtesy of Stacy Schiff’sfine biography, “Saint-Exupéry.” Escaped from Europe to an unhappy, monolingual exile in North America, engagedin petty but heated internecine warfare with the other exile and resisting groups (he had a poor opinion of DeGaulle,who, he wrongly thought, was setting the French against the French, rather than against the Germans), Saint-Exupéry wrote this most French of fables in Manhattan and Long Island. The book’s desert setting derives fromthe aviator Saint-Exupéry’s 1935 experience of having been lost for almost a week in the Arabian desert, with hismemories of loneliness, hallucination, impending death (and enveloping beauty) in the desert realized on the page.The central love story of the Prince and Rose derives from his stormy love affair with his wife, Consuelo, fromwhom the rose takes her cough and her flightiness and her imperiousness and her sudden swoons. (While he had been lost in the desert in ’35, Schiff tells us, she had been publicly mourning his loss on her own ‘asteroid,’ her table at the Brasserie Lipp.) The desert and the rose—his life as an intrepid aviator and his life as a baffled lover— were his inspiration. But between those two experiences, skewering them, dividing them with a line, was the war.In the deepest parts of his psyche, he had felt the loss of France not just as a loss of battle but also as a loss of 
meaning 
. The desert of the strange defeat was more bewildering than the desert of Libya had been; nothing anylonger made sense. 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, he fled Europe like so many other patriotic Frenchmen, travellingthrough Portugal and arriving in New York on the last day of 1940. But, as anyone who lived through it knew, whatmade the loss so traumatic was the sense that 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.Searching for the causes of that collapse, the most honest honorable minds—Marc Bloch and Camus among them —thought that the real fault lay in the French habit of abstraction. The French tradition that moved, and still moves, pragmatic questions about specific instances into a parallel paper universe in which the general theoretical question —the model—is what matters most had failed its makers. Certainly, one way of responding to the disaster was tosearch out some new set of abstractions, of overarching categories to replace those lost. But a more humaneresponse was to engage in a ceaseless battle against all those abstractions that keep us from life as it is. No one putthis 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 continuallyconcerned 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 from the experience of something as devastating as the war. But itwasn’t merely intellectual, an amateur’s non-combatant epiphany. At a purely tactical, military level, the urge toabstraction had meant the urge to fetishize fixed, systematic solutions at the expense of tactical fluidity andresourcefulness. The Maginot line was an abstract idea that had been allowed to replace flexible strategy andcommon 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?”: “Our generals? They’re the masters at the Ecole des BeauxArts!” Picasso responded, meaning men possessed by the same rote formulae and absence of observation andobsessive traditionalism as the academic artists.From an experience that was so dehumanizing and overwhelming—an experience that turns an entire human being

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