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Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2004 - All Rights Reserved.

Copyright Ian Ellis-Jones 2004 - All Rights Reserved.

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  • 1. THE LITTLE PRINCE A SEARCH FOR MEANING by IAN ELLIS-JONES ADDRESS DELIVERED BEFORE THE SYDNEY UNITARIAN CHURCH SUNDAY, 12 DECEMBER 2004My favourite book is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Thebook, written ostensibly for children, but also for adults (who, in the view of theauthor, understand very little), is a classic of 20th century humanistexistentialist literature. In many ways, the book is very "Unitarian", as I hopeto explain.Saint-Exupéry was born into a French aristocratic family in 1900, but in"reduced circumstances". Educated for the Navy, he was ultimately called upfor the Air Force and became a "prose poet of the air". The centre of all ofSaint-Exupérys thinking and writing was Humanity ("Man"). His view of lifewas "founded on reverence for man present in all men".The Little Prince, written by Saint-Exupéry a year before his untimely death in1944, concerns an air pilot who, having made a forced landing in the SaharaDesert, meets a little prince. The little prince tells the pilot lots of stories aboutthe planet where he lives and about other planets and their rulers. Moreimportantly, the little prince shares with the pilot something extremelyimportant - something the little prince learned from a fox.First, a very brief outline of the story, which, Im sure, is well-known to many ofyou.The narrator, an airplane pilot, first narrates his childhood. He recalls howdisheartened he became with so-called grown-ups who are only interested insupposedly important things such as getting a job, making a lot of money andotherwise being a commercial success - so-called "matters of consequence".Things of the spirit, such as the free use of imagination, and the arts, are seenas unimportant by the grown-ups, because they are not "useful". Perhaps the
  • 2. saddest line in the entire book occurs at the very beginning of the secondchapter, which has the pilot saying: "So I lived my life alone, without anyone that I could really talk to ... ."That was until the narrators plane crashed in the Sahara Desert. A very longway from home, and facing a life or death situation, the narrator hears an oddlittle voice. It said, "If you please - draw me a sheep!"Eventually the narrator and the little prince become friends. It turns out thatthe little prince came from a very small asteroid, about the size of a house,called Asteroid B-612. The little prince used a flock of migrating birds to leavehis home, and made his way towards earth. We are not told exactly why hecame to earth. Perhaps there is no real answer to that question. It doesntmatter. What is important is what happens later. So it is for us.The little prince encounters a king living on a neighbouring asteroid, the first ofsix planet-inhabitants the little prince encounters before arriving on earth. Theking calls the little prince his subject and commences to order him around, butthe little prince refuses to be ordered around, for he takes "orders" only fromhimself. He quickly leaves, and moves on.The little prince then encounters a conceited man. The conceited man asksthe little prince to first salute and then admire him. The conceited man wantspraise, in order to prop his ego. The little prince doesnt quite understand themeaning of the word "admire", and soon loses interest and departs, nextencountering, on the third planet, a drunk - a "tippler" - who claims that he isdrinking to forget that he is ashamed of drinking. The horrible self-destructivecycle of addiction is revealed. (As for the little prince, he knows to clean outhis volcanoes and to keep the baobabs in check. Discipline is the price wemust pay for freedom.)On the fourth planet the little prince meets a businessman who is absorbed, ofcourse, in "matters of consequence" - counting all the stars in the sky, whichhe claims he owns. The little prince cant understand how it is possible to ownsomething when one is of no use to that thing. (The little prince takes care ofhis rose.)
  • 3. The little prince goes on his way again. On the fifth planet - the smallest of all- he meets a lamplighter who must light his lamp and put it out every minute.The little prince remarks: "It may well be that this man is absurd. But he is not so absurd as the king, the conceited man, the businessman, and the tippler. For at least his work has some meaning. When he lights his street lamp, it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower. When he puts out his lamp, he sends the flower, or the star, to sleep. That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful."It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.The little prince tries to help the lamplighter but, regrettably, the planet is toosmall for two people. Life is like that. Some relationships cannot succeed -for a variety of reasons. It is time to move on again.On the sixth planet the little prince meets a geographer, who is extremelybusy. He knows and records the location of all the seas, rivers, towns,mountains and deserts. The little prince tells him about his flower, but thegeographer says that he isnt interested, for he doesnt record things that are"ephemeral". The little prince is surprised to learn that his rose will not lastforever and feels regret at having left her.Each of the six planet-inhabitants has a distinctive characteristic thatepitomises some disturbing aspect of modern life: the desire for power andauthority over others (the king), vanity (the conceited man), addiction (thetippler), crass materialism (the businessman), frenetic pace (the lamplighter),and possession of book knowledge as opposed to actual experience (thegeographer).The little prince seeks the advice of the geographer as to which planet to visitnext. "The planet Earth," replies the geographer. "It has a good reputation."Well, it is on the planet Earth that the little prince finally meets the fox, whoasks the little prince to "tame" him. The little prince learns from the fox that to"tame" means to "establish ties". It takes time to form a relationship of
  • 4. friendship or love. We are told that humans no longer have friends becausethey try to buy them in shops and that cannot be done.Eventually, the time comes for the little prince to leave. The fox cries, and thismakes the little prince sad. As they separate, the fox tells the little prince asecret - "[his] secret, a very simple secret": "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."The narrative returns to eight days after the pilots accident in the desert. Thepilot and the little prince find a well, and drink from it. It is like the fountain ofliving water referred to in the books of Jeremiah and Revelation. For Saint-Exupéry the "new life" is found in the desert of life itself, and not outside of it: "What makes the desert beautiful, said the little prince, is that somewhere it hides a well ..."It is something that each of us must discover for ourselves. No one else cangive it to us. It is there waiting for us, but we must make the effort and do the"inner work". There is no "saviour" except our own desire for health andwholeness.The little prince is anxious to return to the place from whence he came. Hechooses to die and seeks out the snake that bites him and kills him. (Thesnake had earlier told the little prince that he [the snake] solves all riddles.)The little prince goes through a great transformation in his "return" to AsteroidB-612 (his homeward journey, his "ascension", if you like, to the serpent): "There was nothing there but a flash of yellow close to his ankle. He remained motionless for an instant. He did not cry out. He fell as gently as a tree falls. There was not even any sound, because of the sand." "Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: Is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes ..."
  • 5. "Then, if a little man appears who laughs, who has golden hair and who refuses to answer questions, you will know who he is. If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back."Victor E Graham, in an article appearing in volume 10 of Children’s LiteratureReview, has written of the book’s “fairy-tale transposition of certain episodesin the life of Christ”. For example, the little prince arrives on earth in thedesert beneath “his” star during a time of spiritual conflict. He is professed tobe without sin, even by the serpent, the biblical symbol of evil. Like Christ inthe temple, the little prince astounds the author with his precocity. The littleprince finds water in the desert. He sacrifices himself because of his love forhis rose. We are told that the time of his departure from the earth waspreordained. He tells the author that he will look like he has died, but will liveon. His body cannot be found, but we are left with what Graham calls “a sortof Holy Ghost – his star in the heavens and his memory”, with the aviatorwriting down his “gospel” to pass on to others.Be all that as it may, it needs to be stressed that although Saint-Exupéry wasquite familiar with the New Testament he had all but abandoned his Catholicfaith when still quite young, and had embraced humanism as an alternativefaith – something that is clear from even a cursory perusal of his variouswritings. The book The Little Prince is, as I’ve already mentioned, very"Unitarian". It affirms the supreme worth and dignity of the individual. Itaffirms that this life, rather than some future life, is or at least ought to be ourmain concern. It affirms, as Krishnamurti often pointed out, that truth is a"pathless land" and that you cannot approach it by any creed or pathwhatsoever. Direct perception of truth is, however, possible, when there ischoiceless awareness of life as it really is. The important thing is life itself.Whatever "it" may be, it is all here now, and all we have to do is to learn toperceive it here and now. We need to see each thing as it really is - as a newmoment.The Little Prince reminds us of the following five truths: 1. Life can be meaningful if one gives it meaning. 2. Life is one and interdependent.
  • 6. 3. Life is a journey. 4. Life is solitary. 5. Life is all around us but also hidden from us.I will deal with these truths in turn.
  • 7. 1. Life can be meaningful if one gives it meaning.The Little Prince shows the emptiness and futility of so much of humanexistence. Each planet visited by the little prince is a miniature theatre of theabsurd, inhabited by some solitary figure who is condemned to repeat someunbroken series of pointless acts. The king has no subjects, only a rat whomhe must alternatively condemn and pardon, so as to exercise his authority.The businessman counts stars which he can only nominally claim to owning.The drunkard drinks incessantly in order to forget that he is ashamed ofdrinking. The geographer counts mountains and rivers he has never seen.The conceited man wears a hat for saluting people, but no one ever passeshis way. The lamplighter follows disembodied orders, lighting up andextinguishing as his planet turns more and more rapidly on its axis.Life - a "great mystery" - only becomes meaningful when we cease to be self-obsessed and give of ourselves to others, for whom we are responsible: " It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important. " " I am responsible for my rose, the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember."We must learn to "create ties" and "tame" each other. There is no joy in lifeexcept in human relations. Further, like the little prince, we must learn tolaugh, and to ask questions. The little prince constantly asks questions,something that annoys the pilot who, after all, is only an adult. The importantthing for us is to ask questions, and challenge everything. The answersseldom come. That doesnt matter. The question is the answer.2. Life is one and interdependent.Unitarianism affirms that all life is one and interdependent. There is only onelife manifesting itself in all things as all things. There is only one order or levelof reality, that of ordinary things in time and space.The Little Prince contains many examples of the "one": one sheep, one rose,one well. Yet Saint-Exupéry offers us no monistic or pantheistic view of life.
  • 8. There is the one, but there is also the many ... the rose garden .. the cornfields ... . The one becomes the many, but the essence of life, its livingness,is and will always be one.The Little Prince does not offer any hope of an afterlife, only the remembranceof someone who once lived, and who lives on in memory and by way of anassociation of ideas: "Here, then, is a great mystery. Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: Is it yes or no? ..." " In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night ... You - only you - will have stars that can laugh! "I am reminded of some beautiful words from This, My Son, by Joan Kinmont: "Then your dear, distant voice Broke through the night ... Seek me in the world If you would have me near; Seek me in the light. Darkness and defeat Entomb me hear. Dear, lift your eyes above To beauty and the sky. Seek me in the light. Death is not the end. There is no death. Your voice spoke in the night."Ultimately, as former Unitarian Universalist Association president Dr WilliamSchulz has written: "...[T]he paradox of life is to love it all the more even though we ultimately lose it."
  • 9. 3. Life is a journey.Life is, or can be, a journey, for truth is never static. L B Fisher once saidsome words about Universalists that I like: "Universalists are often asked where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move."The little prince moves from planet to planet ... to grow, to learn, and to live.He knows when to move on. How often in life do we get "stuck" in someplace, in some relationship, and do not know how to move on. (Usually, its acase of our not wanting to move on!) Read The Little Prince and you willlearn how to move on. You simply see things as they really are, in theirtotality, in their actuality, without opinion, without judgment, but with completeattention. That is the ending of sorrow ... and the getting of wisdom.As Unitarians we must be prepared to move, move on and journey. We aredenied the comfort of fixed and absolute truth. The search for truth isendless. As Unitarian minister George N Marshall, author of Challenge of aLiberal Faith, has written: "[T]he Bible of tomorrow has not been written, is not completed."4. Life is solitary.The Little Prince is about exile and loneliness. The six planet inhabitantsappear as isolated and solitary figures. The desert is a lonely place. The littleprince is lonely. The fox is lonely. So is the pilot: "So I lived my life alone, without anyone that I could really talk to ... ."The snake reminds us that "it is also lonely among men." At the end the littleprince says, "Let me go on by myself." Our final journey is something each ofus must embark upon alone.Saint-Exupéry says that we must create ties in order to give life meaning. Lifeis not intrinsically meaningful. The little prince loves a rose, but the rose is
  • 10. fickle and conceited. Yet the little prince learns that it is the time he has"wasted" for his rose that makes his rose "so important".5. Life is all around us but also hidden from us.I must be careful here. Neither I nor the author am suggesting that there issome inner, esoteric "secret" to life. No, not at all. Life is all about us andaround us, ready to be experienced in all its fulness. Yet the story has somany things that are "hidden" or "concealed" - the unspoken, the elephantinside the boa constrictor, the sheep inside its box, the seeds in the earth, thefox in its hole, the secret well in the Sahara, and so forth. Life may be allaround us, but what is truly important is not visible to the naked eye. It is thelivingness of life itself ... not some illusory life force, but simply living things inthe process of living. That is the essence of life, the one life.Dr William Schulz has written: "...[T]he Sacred or Divine, the Precious and Profound, are made evident not in the miraculous or supernatural but in the simple and the everyday[.]"Yes, what is important are those little everyday things that help to make lifemeaningful. The stars, the flowers, the animals, and other people. They areto be treasured and enjoyed, not escaped from. They are not to be counted.They are not to be owned. They are very visible, yet they are often alsohidden from us, because we are looking for something else. What is essentialis invisible. It is the very livingness of life itself.Lets not forget that, ultimately, The Little Prince is a story about love andfriendship: "To forget a friend is sad. Not every one has had a friend."Yet love and friendship dont just happen. One must "tame" and be tamed: "One only understands the things that one tames ... ." "You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed."
  • 11. However, we are ultimately alone, from birth to the grave. There is laughter,but there are also tears. There are many tears in The Little Prince. Further,as the Unitarian and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out inhis Self-Reliance: "We must go alone. Isolation must precede true society. But your isolation must not be mechanical, but spiritual, that is, must be elevation. ... No one can come near me but through my act."I urge all of you to read this book, if you havent already done so. If you have,read it again ... and again. -oo0oo-