Good Advice From “The Little Prince” — Notes on Saint-Exupéry
June 29 marks the birthday of the French aviator and author whose most famous book has remained instructive and charming over decades.
Ahead of the birthday of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944), I treated myself to a new reading of his classic book for children and grownups. I first read “The Little Prince” years ago for a French class, making that one of the Tulane University courses I remember most fondly.
Since its initial publication in 1943, the book’s main characters, the little prince and the kind narrator, have been winning the hearts of readers. But Saint-Exupéry also created an impressive cast of secondary characters whom the little prince meets on his wanderings among planets.
***Spoiler alert — best to stop here if you have not yet read “The Little Prince.” I’d hate rob the charm of the characters with my short descriptions. Better to let Saint-Exupéry introduce you to them. ***
For many years, I have referred in conversations to Saint-Exupéry’s poor lamplighter. When the little prince meets him, the lamplighter is fated to constant work because the pace of his planet’s orbit has sped up. But the lamplighter sticks with his task without questioning it.
As Saint-Exupéry tells it..
“ ‘Orders haven’t changed,’ the lamplighter said. ‘That’s just the trouble! Year by year the planet is turning faster and faster, and orders haven’t changed.’ “/ (‘La consigne n’a pas changé,’ dit l’allumeur. ‘C’est bien là le drame! la planète d’année en année a tourné de plus en plus vite, et la consigne n’a pas changé!)
How often do we all do this? Allow ourselves to get so caught up by a task that we don’t question why we are doing it? Or stick to plans and mandates and outdated ideas of ourselves even as circumstances change?
Below is my quick sketch done in Google Keep of the lamplighter. Forgive me. I couldn’t find an image in the public domain to use here. Like the narrator of “The Little Prince,” I clearly ended my studies of drawing prematurely.
I’ve also thought over the years about the lessons in the tale of the astronomer. In the book, he makes a report in 1909 at an international conference on his discovery of Asteroid B-612. But, as Saint-Exupéry tells us, no one believes the astronomer at first because he wore clothes typical of the Ottoman Empire, including a red fez. Seen below is my attempt of a copy of Saint-Exupéry’s drawing of the astronomer in his 1909 appearance.
But then followed the rise of Atatürk, who is not named in the book but is certainly described well by Saint-Exupéry : a “Turkish dictator ordered his people, on pain of death, to wear European clothes/ un dictateur turc imposa à son peuple, sous peine de mort, de s’habiller à l’européenne .”
The astronomer repeats his demonstration in 1920, in a “very elegant suit,” and is believed, Saint-Exupéry tells us.
Two lessons here. You should be aware of the prejudices you bring to your conversations with other people. Are you hearing what they are saying? Are you reacting to the appearance or the tone of the speaker and missing the message? But there’s also a lesson here to be aware that people may more easily understand your message if you wear an elegant suit, or the equivalent of it. (I omit here my sketch of the astronomer in his 1920 appearance, wearing the elegant suit. That drawing fell short of even the low bar set by my first two sketches included in this essay.)
On this new reading of “The Little Prince,” the story of the salesclerk stood out for me. I didn’t remember that character at all from earlier readings of this book. Perhaps that’s because Saint-Exupéry did not draw us a sketch of him.
The sales clerk offers the little prince a pill to quench thirst, with the promise of saving 53 minutes a week. That’s the time normally lost on consuming beverages, according to the calculations presented by the sales clerk. His presentation sounds like the kind of timesaver tips offered today in many listicles. We’re always looking to rush through tasks of daily life. But to what end?
As Saint-Exupéry tells it, the little prince asks the sales clerk what can be done with the 53 minutes saved. To which, the clerk replies: “Whatever you like.”
“ ‘If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked’, the little prince said to himself, ‘I’d walk very slowly toward a water fountain’.” /” ‘(Moi, se dit le petit prince, si j’avais 53 minutes à dépenser, je marcherais tout doucement vers une fontaine.)’ ”