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Please, draw me a sheep!

August 28, 2011 14 comments

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 1943.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I was eleven and I loved it. This summer I decided to read it along with my children. The Narrator – possibly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – is an aviator whose plane is out-of-order in the desert. He’s trying to repair it when a little boy with golden hair comes to him and asks « Please, draw me a sheep » The Narrator draws the sheep and starts chatting with the Little Prince. He comes from a tiny planet with three volcanos and a rose. The Narrator assumes the planet is the Asteroid B612. The Little Prince left his planet because he thought his rose was too demanding. He relates his journey to the Earth, going from one planet to the other and meeting with strange people. All the issues are still relevant or have become bigger or more urgent since 1943. Through a candid Little Prince and his exploration of foreign planets, Saint-Exupéry questions the exploitation of natural resources, our greed, our respect for processes until absurdity, the domination of the West on other cultures, the dictatorship of appearance.

My favourite ones are the businessman and the lamp-lighter.

The businessman thinks he owns the stars and spends his time counting them. The Little Prince is rather puzzled:

– Comment peut-on posséder les étoiles? – A qui sont-elles? Riposta, grincheux, le businessman.- Je ne sais pas. A personne.- Alors elles sont à moi, parce que j’y ai pensé le premier.

– Ça suffit?

– Bien sûr. Quand tu trouves un diamant qui n’est à personne, il est à toi. Quand tu trouves une île qui n’est à personne, elle est à toi. Quand tu as une idée le premier, tu la fais breveter: elle est à toi. Et moi je possède les étoiles, puisque jamais personne avant moi n’a songé à les posséder.

How can you own the stars?  – Who owns them?, the businessman retorts curtly– I don’t know. Nobody.– Then they are mine because I thought about it first.

– Is that enough?

– Of course. When you find a diamond that doesn’t belong to anybody, then it’s yours. When you find an island that doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s yours. When you’re the first to have an idea, you take out a patent for it. It’s yours. And I own the stars since before me, nobody ever thought of owning them.

Aren’t there people who now sell parts of the moon?

The lamp-lighter has to light the street lamp at night and switch them off in the morning. He can’t sleep because on his planet one day lasts one minute, so he spends his time switching on and off the street lamps. It was different before, days became shorter but the man lives according to the book. It says to switch the street lamps on and off once a day and that’s what he does whatever the cost or how absurd it is. He can’t adjust or use his good sense and act differently.

Then there’s the part on Earth. In our times of frantic social networking and calling « friend » a person met by a random click on Facebook, children should all read The Little Prince and discuss with an adult the passage with the fox. The Little Prince encounters a fox who wants to befriend with him. The fox says « you must tame me »

– Je cherche des amis [dit le petit prince] Qu’est-ce que signifie « apprivoiser »?- C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens… »- Créer des liens?-Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde… – I’m looking for friends, [the Little Prince says] What does ‘to tame’ mean?– It’s a long forgotten thing, the fox says. It means « to create bonds… »– To create bonds?– Of course, the fox says. For me, you’re still a little boy, similar to 100 000 other little boys. And I don’t need you. And you don’t need me. For you I’m only a fox similar to 100 000 other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. To me, you’ll be unique. To you, I’ll be unique…

Friendship is not a declaration (or a click), it needs time to settle, to build and that’s what the fox teaches to the Little Prince. In that chapter, the Little Prince also learns about love. He discovers that his rose is unique and that friendship and love go along with some responsibility. You receive love but you have to care about who gives it to you.

I had forgotten about the businessman but I remembered this part. I recalled this book as full of light. Years later, I still think it’s a fantastic tale, a concentrate of humanism and goodness. Saint-Exupéry wrote this in 1943, during dark ages for Europe. I wonder if it was a way to forget the war and its horrors. He was lost at sea in 1944. He probably never knew about the Holocaust. I wonder what this knowledge would have done to his faith in humanity.

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