“The world conspires to make us blind to its own workings; our real work is to see the world again.”
– Adam Gopnik (in his commentary on The Little Prince)
The 2015/16 film The Little Prince, directed by Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda), is based on the 1943 novel by French writer Antoine de Satin-Exupery. New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik, described the popular children’s story as “the best loved in the most tongues”. Gopnik goes on to describe the significance of this cross-cultural context by also noting the strangeness of the story itself, suggesting that, “it still seems far from transparent, even seventy-five-plus years after its first appearance.” It would be Stacy Schiff’s biographical account of Exupery that helped open a door to the circumstance and inspiration that marked the writer’s world, offering some necessary insight in to it’s apparent strangeness.
A War Fable
It is from this biography that Gopnik determines The Little Prince to be a sort of “war fable”, born out of the experience of Vichy and the Occupation of France. Even more intriguing is his recognition of The Little Prince as a reflection on the tensions of Post-War French abstraction, which helped play a role in re-claiming France’s national artistic identity during a time of cultural and national devastation.
If pre-war perspective was fleshed out in more concrete forms, it is the abstract that allows us to wrestle with the interpretation of these concrete events as it plays out in our individual context. Abstract art is intended “… to make us aware of different possibilities of being and living, or even just imagine that there are alternative ways of understanding our relationship with what is…” (Michelle Kamhi)
The true beauty of The Little Prince, which is an absolutely charming, wonderful and endearing on-screen adaptation, is the way it takes a concrete event (the literal war) and weaves it in to a modern day parable about the consequences of (the figurative) wars that wage inside of us all. It is through the reality of war, then, that Exupery experiences the common human language of love, loss and anxiety over an unknown future, which allows his parable to resonate across cultural experience and circumstance, whether on a spiritual, emotion, physical or social level.
We might not understand the war itself, but we can understand the consequence of war.
The Battles That Define Us
At one point in the film The Aviator laments, “I wanted to find someone to share the story with. But I guess this world just got too grown up.” Exupery in-fact wrote his story from the shores of Manhattan after having been exiled from his homeland, and thus speaks as someone who has essentially lost a large part of his identity. Who am I is a question that permeates this tension between the concrete reality of this loss and the abstract reflection of what this loss means for him personally. The story of The Little Prince demonstrates his need to share his own story from the shores of a foreign land.
We all have a need to hear and be heard. It is in the midst of the tough reality, the endings and plot twists that we perceive shaping our stories in to false and tragic endings, that we need to find ways of telling our stories, our own war fables, in ways that can help them make sense, not just to us but to others in the midst of their own false and tragic endings as well.
- In The Little Prince we see the story of a single mother who is desperately trying to plan out her daughter’s life according to the expectations of the world around her, while also trying to support her through a job that demands all of her time. This is her battle.
- We see the story of a little girl auditioning and failing to get accepted to a prestigious school, and trying desperately to live up to the expectations of her mother while also discovering her own childhood. This is her battle.
- And we find the story of an Aviator, a man who has waited a lifetime for someone with whom to share his story, a man desperate not to forget his own past. This is his battle.
Each of these battles is personified in the story within a story, the tale of The Little Prince who finds himself mourning the loss of his own childhood innocence from the pressures of grown-up expectations.
Eventually we are all forced to grow up.
The Grown-Up Dillema
I think the older we get the more daunting these social pressures can become. At the very least they become harder to resist. We must learn to live life on the world’s terms, terms that become frighteningly familiar in the opening sequence of the film: a pre-determined grid-like neighbourhood of sameness which inspires a calculated life-board of pre-laid plans.
And yet, the dilemma that persists is the truth that life itself rarely ever follows the path it promises. It is consistently driven off course by the unexpected, the stuff that intrudes the places we depend on and the plans we conform to. This might be a war, or an economic crisis, or even a lost audition as the film portrays. More often it comes in the intrusive neighbor who pokes a hole (literally and figuratively with a propeller) in to these social norms and the tightly guarded life plan. The neighbour symbolically stands as the one house on the block that looks different than all of the rest, the small anxieties that creep in to everyday life. I can’t help but feel like this is a picture of how Exupery must have felt being exiled in Manhattan, or even lost and stranded in the desert, a lost soul in a sea of others that look different than him, trying to share his story of an imperfect life in the midst of imperfect circumstance, in a world that seemingly doesn’t understand and is unable to hear from the noise of it’s own tightly guarded routine.
Ultimately it is the Aviator that reminds us that it is how we respond to these unwelcome intrusions that is important. This is true no matter which side we are on, whether we are the ones who need to see the neighbour or the lost soul exiled on our shoreline, or if we are the lost soul looking to be heard. When our story goes off script, it is about the ways we learn to grow up without forgetting the past that brought us here, the past that made us who we are. It is about allowing the struggle between past, present and future to shape us in to something unique, different and valued instead of mourning the way it deviates us from the world’s short sighted vision.
Understanding My Own War Story
As I approach that ever-nearing intersection of 39 and 40, I find myself with both feet floating over the brake, making nervous glances to the right and left in anticipation of what intrusion might sideswipe my current vulnerability.
Who am I?
As I do so, I keep a persistent eye on the rear view mirror, trying to make sense of a past that feels far too littered with failure, and a future that feels far too calculated and unsure. It is here that I encounter the stuff that makes me want to pull over on the side of the road, shut off the key and park it in the shadows, if only for a little while.
Who am I?
In my last two posts I started to look more closely at my own war story. I recognized a dreamer, an optimist that somehow and somewhere had learned to stop dreaming. In Exupery’s story, I found the image of losing sight of the stars is a striking one that affirmed this notion.
The stars represent our forgotten identities, the dreams that both distinguish us as individuals and unite us as community. As we encounter the lonely “star counter” living alone on his ambiguously titled asteroid, we find the image of a modern society that is using it’s own misguided expectations to capture our dreams and mould them for it’s own purpose. It is helpful for me, as I imagine the stars I have lost sight of along the way: confidence, faith, optimism, identity- to recognize that the image I find in the world is not the true image of me.
Learning to dream again, learning to see the stars, is a big part of finding myself again at 40, of seeing myself as other than the labels the world has given me in my 4 decades of living. Yes, it requires me to keep moving forward, even if it means getting out to walk instead. It requires seeing the intrusions of my past and knowing what to do with them. But it also involves coming to a greater understanding of who I am moving forward with this intrusive neighbour in tow.
Again, as The Aviator says, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.”
Finding Uniqueness in the Midst of our Commonness
There is a point in the story of The Little Prince where the daughter insists to her mom that she is trying to make her in to who she wants her to be, not who she actually is. She cares more about the life board than she does about her. The mother insists this is absolutely not true. She cares equally for the life board and her daughter, because, in her eyes the two are the same thing.
Feeling invisible and unheard, the daughter eventually goes off looking for The Little Prince as her new friend The Aviator, the only one who actually sees her and hears her story for who she is, suddenly becomes sick and hospitalized. The story he has been sharing with her over the course of this relationship remains unfinished, side swiped by the intrusion of the old man’s illness. It cannot end this way. It’s not supposed to end this way. And so the little girl insists that she must find The Little Prince so that she can help make the story right, to help reunite The Little Prince with his one true love, The Rose. She must do this so that she and her friend (The Aviator) can have hope in their story as well.
She finds The Little Prince, grown up and having forgotten who he is in a world that has placed its expectations on his shoulders. The world has made him in to something that he is not, and she must help him remember.
No matter who we are, no matter what our circumstance, all of us face these pressures, the push to become a statistic, a number and a faceless title. As I look in the review mirror, I am coming to recognize that, for me, a big part of my current struggle with turning 40 is my in-ability to recognize who I am as a grown man in a world that has had a lot to say about what a grown man is not. I am a statistic: middle aged, middle-classed, tax-payer, all of which make me indistinguishable from the faces of my neighbours that live two doors down.
There is a powerful scene where we are first introduced to this Rose, someone whom The Little Prince helps grow in to something beautiful. “I know you’ll be miraculous, I know you will”, he insists. It is a hope I think we all imagine being placed on us in our birthing room in one form or another. And yet it is later, when he encounters a field full of similar looking Roses, that his vision of the Rose becomes dismantled. “She was just a common Rose” he laments. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
And yet, in all of this sameness, the persisting ideology of the story (the abstraction if you like) is that it is in community that our commonness becomes uniqueness. It is when I learn the name of my neighbour and hear their stories that they, and I, become distinguishable. It is the fox that helps the Little Prince see this truth, suggesting that it is in friendship (in the taming of the wild, indistinguishable fox) that we can say, “To me you shall be unique in all the world, and to you I shall be unique in all the world.” In the same way, she is not just a Rose, “She is his Rose.”
The beautiful thing about this truth is that is also flows in the other direction: It is in our uniqueness that we can also celebrate our commonness.
The Continued Journey
The page is about to turn on my 40th birthday. I am about to cross this intersection with my past in tow. As I do so, the story of The Little Prince continues to resonate with my spirit in a way that I feel inclined to push further. There are two basic truths of my own battle story that emerged as I watched this film, my act of remembering if you will. The first has to do with the notion of community. The second has to do with the notion of who I am in the midst of this community. My hope is to continue this journey in Part 2 and 3 of this blog on The Little Prince story.
“What makes the desert beautiful, is that somewhere it hides a well.”
The Little Prince is about how we see the world around us. In the midst of difficult and troubling headlines of war, tragedy and conflict that hit is every day, it is important to remember that in the midst of it all there is still meaning, something that makes life matter.
It is also important to remember that what makes life matter are the stories we have to tell, our story and the story of others. The ways in which we persist in telling these stories is important, as this is what keeps us from forgetting. The ways we carry and respond to the intrusive parts of our stories, of learning to approach the tension between the concrete and the abstract, matters even more.
The Little Prince is about how we see ourselves in the world around us. To see the stars again in the calculated mess of our lives is to find the beauty that the routine, responsibilities and social obligations tend to disguise. It is about letting go, learning to get off the roller coaster ride every once in a while and trust that the world will move forward on it’s own. It’s learning to see the places where our world intersects with the world of others. It is learning to see how another’s experience of the world impacts our own.
To hear and be heard. We all have a story to tell, we all have a story to share. We are all more than just a statistic. We are all something beautiful.
2. Understanding Contemporary Art by Michelle Marder Kamhi
4. Saint-Exupery: A Biography by Stacey Schiff