Friday, November 18, 2016

Caring for the Rose: Environmental Literacy and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince

by Liam Heneghan

If you happen to crash-land on a desert island with your child—let’s say, to soften this traumatic vision, that this is a beautiful and gently undulating hot-air balloon descent—I hope that your copy Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (1943) survives the incident. Saint-Exupéry, an early aviator, was no stranger to crash-landings in deserts. Indeed, the inspiration for this beloved novella came, in part, from an airplane crash in the Libyan desert on 30th December 1935 when Saint-Exupéry’s attempted to break the speed record for a flight from Paris to Saigon. Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic, André Prévot, miraculously survived. The duo endured several increasingly hallucinatory days before being rescued by a Bedouin traveler who revived the Frenchmen. For all its gauzy fairy tale quality, The Little Prince is, nonetheless, erected upon very real sands, and if some find in it an almost unbearable inclination to fatalism, and to intimations of mortality, these too are based upon the concrete realities of Saint-Exupéry’s life. Unsurprisingly, he died relatively young (44) when on 31st July 1944, his reconnaissance airplane took off from a Corsican airbase and disappeared into thin air.

Not only is The Little Prince one of the few books that on each fresh reading resonates for adults and children alike, it has also attracted considerable academic attention. It’s not clear, to judge from Saint-Exupéry’s dismissal of the geographer occupying a little asteroid in The Little Prince as a remote pedant who “does not leave the desk,” that he would be all that impressed by his reputation among the professors. The Little Prince is undeniably a stirring tale but it is philosophically chewy besides, hence its academic reputation. As you sit beneath the palm tree (recall that you’ve survived a trauma-less balloon crash and are now on an island) and read the story to your child over and over again, not only will this reading foster tender and unforgettable moments for both of you but should it becomes necessary for your child to recreate everything important in our world once they leave the island (perhaps your misadventure portends apocalyptic times,) The Little Prince can provide the blueprints. For this novella contains in staccato a complete guide to understanding our responsibilities in caring for the world. And though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is no ordinary environmentalist this is a book that clears a path towards comprehensive environmental literacy.

Saint-Exupéry is represented in The Little Prince as the aviator who has crashed in the “Desert of Sahara.” He is also, to some extent, the eponymous Little Prince too, though the prince is also, in part, modeled on Saint-Exupéry younger brother, François, who died of rheumatic fever at age 15. When the Little Prince passes from this world and the aviator observes “He fell gently as a tree falls. There was not even any sound”, these were words Saint-Exupéry first wrote in reference to his brother’s passing. The Little Prince whose romantic entanglements with an inordinately vain, though undeniably intriguing, rose had begun to overwhelm him, traveled from his home asteroid—B-612—and winds up on Earth, in the desert, and he appears to the stranded aviator. The aviator has no immediate prospect of rescue and works on his plane while engaging with our extraterrestrial prince.

A center-piece of the story’s charm is its dismissal of adult pretensions and of materialistic values. For all of this, it is, of course, written by an adult and the tension between the Little Prince’s impatience with “grown-up and their ways” and the fact that this message is filtered through Saint-Exupéry, a grown-up, albeit an idiosyncratic and gifted one, provides the distinctive mood of the work.  The novel is nostalgic for lost innocence: innocent ethical values to be sure, but also for unblemished landscapes, for the clarity that the desert brings, and the quiddity of all basic human needs. “It was a matter of life and death for me,” says the aviator in the story who is facing a imminent dehydration. What is it to be human? What is it to be human? Saint-Exupéry is not to first, nor will he be the last, to address the question, but this is, besides, first and foremost an ecological question.