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Imagination Takes Flight

What moves me so deeply about this little prince sleeping here is his loyalty to a flower, the image of a rose shining through his whole being like the flame of a lamp, even when he is asleep. I found him to be more fragile still. Lamps should be protected with great care: a gust of wind can extinguish them.

In one of the more poignant moments of Michael Jackson’s memorial service, actress Brooke Shields, a close friend of the pop star, said that Jackson was not “The King”—the title he appropriated—but “The Little Prince.” She quoted the above passage from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous book, along with its most memorable lines: “It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

The fact that nearly 70 years after its publication The Little Prince is mentioned at the funeral of one of the most famous men on the planet is a testament to its enduring popularity and the universality of its themes. It is also a tribute to the remarkable French aviator-poet who disappeared 65 years ago on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean.

Saint-Exupéry’s work, with its bird’s eye view of humanity, contains some of the most profound observations on the human condition ever written. “A person taking off from the ground,” he said, “elevates himself above the trivialities of life into a new understanding.”

Born into an old French family at the turn of the century, he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. According to his biographer, Curtis Cate, Saint-Ex’s passion for aviation was stimulated when he was 9, when his family relocated to Le Mans, the city where American flying pioneer Wilbur Wright had moved a year earlier. At the age of 12, he was taken up in the air by a flying ace, and the event moved him so deeply that he wrote a poem about it.

He trained to be a pilot, but after breaking his skull in a crash gave in to pressure from his family and took a desk job in Paris, working as a production supervisor at a tile-making company. But at the age of 26, he returned to the air, becoming one of the pioneers of early postal flight. The job, which entailed opening up new routes in Africa and South America across mountains and deserts, was extremely hazardous, but Saint-Ex, bored of the artificiality of Parisian society, had found his calling. “Despite the dangers of the work, and in a sense because of the dangers, the next five years were to be the happiest and most secure of his life after his exile from the magical domain of childhood,” writes William Rees, one of the writer’s English translators.

Saint-Exupéry’s flying adventures also provided a rich source of writing material. His first book, Courrier Sud (Southern Flight) appeared in 1929. But it was the publication of Vol de Nuit (Night Flight) two years later that made his name. The book, which became an international bestseller, tells the story of an airmail pilot sent to deliver mail in life-threatening weather conditions. The theme of brave individuals putting their lives on the line for the common good and achieving fulfillment through a sense of duty resurfaces throughout Saint-Exupéry’s work.

He contrasted the selflessness and heroism of the early air pioneers with the pettiness of those left on the ground. In his 1937 memoir, Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars), there is a wonderful passage in which he relates the time when he and his radio telegrapher were lost over the sea with their fuel running out. With their lives in mortal danger, they received a delayed message from a government official at Casablanca airport, from where they had taken off, which stated, “Monsieur De Saint-Exupéry, I am obliged to advise Paris to take disciplinary action against you for banking too close to the hangars on take-off.” Saint-Ex responds,

It was true, I had banked too close to the hangars. It was also true that a man was doing his job by getting angry. In an airport office I would have received such a reproach with humility. But here it reached us where it had no right to reach us. It was out of place here among these scattered stars, this bed of fog, this threatening taste of the sea. We held our destiny in our hands with the destiny of the mail and of our vessel, we had trouble enough just steering to stay alive, and that man was purging his petty spite on us. Yet far from being annoyed Neri and I felt a vast and sudden exultation. …We read once more that message from a madman who claimed to have some business with us, and tacked towards Mercury.

In Terre des Hommes, Saint-Ex also relates the story of the pilot Guillaumet, who crash lands during a snowstorm in the Andes. Guillaumet walks for five days and four nights “with no ice-axe, no rope, no food, scaling passes fifteen thousand feet high, crawling along vertical walls with bleeding hands and knees and feet in forty degrees of frost.” All his exhausted body wants to do is sleep, but he knows that if he stops walking, he will die. What keeps him going is the responsibility he owes to others: “If my wife believes I’m alive, she’ll believe I’m on my feet. My comrades believe it, too. They have faith in me. I’m a cowardly bastard if I don’t keep going”.

Guillaumet’s greatness, says Saint-Exupéry, lies in his sense of responsibility—“responsibility for himself, for his mail, for his comrades. To be a man, is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to know shame at the sight of poverty which is not of our making. It is to be proud of a victory won by our comrades. It is to feel, as we place our stone, that we are contributing to the building of the world.”

After France’s armistice with Nazi Germany in 1940, Saint-Ex emigrated to the United States, and it was in a rented Long Island mansion that he wrote his most famous work, Le Petit Prince. The novella has been translated into 180 languages and has sold more than 80 million copies, making it the 14th bestselling book of all time. But to evaluate The Little Prince in facts and figures goes against its very message.

The book’s inspiration was Saint-Ex’s astonishing experience in the desert following a crash in 1935. He and his co-pilot survived four days in the Sahara, with only one day’s supply of liquids. On the third day, they started to hallucinate and see mirages. But on the fourth, they were rescued by a Bedouin tribesman.

The Little Prince tells the story of an aviator who also crashes in the desert. A prince emerges from a far away planet and tells him about his travels through the asteroids. There the prince met six characters: a king; a “conceited individual” desperate to be admired; a drunkard who drinks to forget that he is ashamed of drinking; a businessman who claims to own over 501 million stars; a lamplighter; and a geographer who never leaves his office to see the beauty of the world. The prince finds them all absurd—all except the lamplighter. “That man would be despised by all the others, but he is the only one who doesn’t seem ridiculous to me. Perhaps it is because he is not only concerned with himself.”

In The Little Prince, Saint-Ex doesn’t merely express his contempt for selfishness and materialism, he shows how life should be lived. It’s the Prince’s encounter with a desert fox, whom he meets and befriends, that proves most illuminating. The fox instructs, “Men have forgotten this basic truth. But you must not forget it. For what you have tamed, you become responsible forever. You are responsible for your rose.” It is he who utters the book’s most famous line: “On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur.

Sadly, Saint-Exupéry did not live to see the extent of the book’s success. His belief in “contributing to the building of the world” led him to volunteer to fly reconnaissance missions for the Allies. On July 31, 1944, at the age of 43, he set off from an airbase in Corsica never to return. His disappearance remained a mystery for years, but in 2000, wreckage of his plane was found in the sea near Marseilles, and in March of last year, an 85-year-old former Luftwaffe pilot claimed that he had downed a plane of that description, on that date, in the area where the wreckage was found. The pilot also claimed to have been a great admirer of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s writings.

“Perhaps it was just as well that Saint-Ex died when he did, being thus spared the spectacle of a world which would have pained him even more than the one he had actually experienced,” wrote Curtis Cate in 1970. I’m sure Saint-Ex would think even less of the world of 2009. Like the German social philosopher Erich Fromm, he feared that global capitalism and mass-production techniques would destroy the human spirit and turn us all into money-obsessed automatons.

He would also have been dismissive of the frequent misuse of the word “freedom” by liberal democrats and neoconservatives. “Real freedom consists in the creative act,” he wrote in 1938. “The fisherman is free when his instincts guide his fishing. The sculptor is free when he sculpts a face. But it is nothing but a caricature of freedom to be allowed to choose between four types of General Motors’ cars or three of Mrs. Z’s films. Freedom is then reduced to the choice of a standard item in a range of universal similitude.” He saw clearly that modern capitalism, in its tendency toward monopoly and greater standardization, by making man serve the economy rather than the other way around, actually reduces freedom.

The man who wrote, “there is only one form of wealth, that of human contact” would be aghast at a world in which friendship, like almost everything else, has been transformed into a commodity, with “friends” becoming something we collect on websites, only to be deleted when we grow tired of them.

He would also be deeply saddened at the advance of militant atheism, the world’s newest religion. For Saint-Ex believed that without God, human brotherhood—the ultimate aim—was impossible. “I am appalled by the difficulty of having authority derive from something else than God,” he wrote. “One needs seeds from above.” Cate writes, “Although he was not a regular church-goer Saint-Ex was imbued with a Christian philosophy of love; a philosophy of love recast in a kind of Platonic mould.”

From 10,000 feet above, Saint-Exupéry gazed down on the world, observed the “scattered lights” of humanity across the globe, and came to the conclusion, “We must surely seek unity.” In these grasping, narcissistic times, when Western societies have arguably never been so lacking in a spirit of camaraderie, and when division is the order of the day, we urgently need to rediscover the ideas of a man of whom it was said, “He wasn’t of this world” and to learn the Little Prince’s fundamental truth: what is most essential is invisible to the eye. 


Neil Clark is a UK-based writer and regular contributor to The Guardian and The Australian, among other publications.

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