Monday, September 12, 2016

Prayer for the Lamplighter: The Little Prince as Essay


The Little Prince is now streaming on Netflix, and there was a movie version in theaters. The ads on my Facebook tell me this. I recoil at the mention of The Little Prince as a movie. And I have to ask myself why. It’s not because I don’t think books can be made into compelling films or because I think the subject matter is too precious. It just doesn’t feel right to me, the way cheddar cheese with ice-cream would be horrible. Sure, the two substances have lots in common, but something in the mixing surely must be awry.

The Little Prince is, of course, a beloved children’s book that has fans who insist it’s not really for kids. An aviator gets stranded in the desert and meets an other-worldly visitor in the form of a child. The child-prince tells the aviator of his problems on his home asteroid involving a conceited rose and his travels to various other asteroids, where he meets archetypes of adults, including a king, a drunk, and a businessman. The moral of the story is something like Only with the heart can you see rightly or Grown-ups are terrible creatures.

I’m being glib here because it’s hard to explain why the book matters to so many people and I include myself as one of those people, especially because of a strange time in my life almost a year ago.

I think the main reason behind this gut reaction of Oh no no no no no for the book being a film has to do with how I think of The Little Prince. There’s a plot and characters, sure, but it reads something like an essay, especially the middle portion with the archetypical adults. And no one wants to see the film-version of an essay by Montaigne or Camus. The book is often discursive, with the Little Prince going from asteroid to asteroid, interviewing different types of grown-ups, asking them what matters. And the pilot as narrator too reads something like an essay. He is looking back on a strange time in his life, trying to make it make sense, somehow. The whole thing is colored with memory and a deep sadness.

For example, in Chapter Four, the pilot discusses how adults would be loathe to believe his story of the other-worldly visitor in the following manner:
Just so, you might say to them: "The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, that is a proof that he exists." And what good would it do to tell them that? They would shrug their shoulders, and treat you like a child. But if you said to them: "The planet he came from is Asteroid B-612," then they would be convinced, and leave you in peace from their question.
Here, the narrator isn’t going over plot saying “This happened and then this other thing happened” but rather reflecting on the events as a whole. The Little Prince isn’t just the pilot telling the story; he’s reflecting back on events and looking at the act of reflecting. He is presenting a worldview here, one filled with melancholy and isolation because no one shares it with him. He presents what it means for something to be true: namely, personal experience.

It’s depressing that I think of The Little Prince this way, as an essay and not a book for children or book-for-children-but-not-really-for-children. The characters don’t seem real. An elephant inside of a boa constrictor just looks like a really stupid tattoo. And I think the Little Prince would cry, probably, if I told him he wasn’t a real character, just an matrix of thoughts and ideas. He would call me a grown-up and tell me I’m not seeing things rightly.

But it’s important that I think of the book this way, I think, because all analysis begins with description, and if you leave out that it’s at least part essay, you’ll run the risk of falling into the book, over-relating to it, acting like the book was made just for you, and buying tickets for what is most likely a very stupid movie.


With the idea of The Little Prince as essay in mind, let’s take a look at one discursive part in particular, Chapter 14, where the Little Prince meets a Lamplighter and a discussion ensues.

The Little Prince said that the Lamplighter could have been his friend, of all the people he's met, because he is the only one that thinks of something other than himself. That's an odd thing to say of someone who does nothing but complain the entire time of his need for sleep. That's an odd thing to say of someone who lives on a planet where there isn't any room for other people.

I wondered what it would be like to have such a silly-looking friend, hair sticking out like frying pans on either side of his head, a scarf that goes around and around. He must have sturdy shoes, although it's hard to see in the picture, and it's not discussed. And he could have been safe in those shoes, I'd bet, roots springing from the heels, to counterbalance a planet that speeds up. He could have stood by that lamp, carrying out orders, like the stiff, clown-doll he is.

I’m inferring a lot here, and I want to learn how not to do that. Because an analysis starts with description, and what I’m describing isn’t actually in the book. The book isn’t any of the things I’m trying to make it do to make it fit a strange time in my life; it’s too much of a meditation, of a rumination, on things I can’t see rightly.

The Lamplighter said that every minute there's a sunset (light the lamp) and every minute there's a sunrise (put out the lamp). He thought he was the hero. He thought he was the hero. Carrying out orders so adroitly.

The Lamplighter's planet is so tidy and has no plants. Clean and still. My house and garden are a mess. They're full of things I don't need and don't know how to take care of. But there's big a porch with a cheap chair that isn't heavy so I can move it around when I go out there after my dinner to smoke, and sunsets are beautiful when you're sad.

But I won't cry about it. Not this time.

Someone I thought I knew well did an appalling thing where he bought me a ring. And I, who I thought I knew well, said No and Get out and I don’t love you. After four years of trying to make it work. After four years of forgiving, of over-looking everything. After I bought a huge house for us, with the big back yard so he could garden. People keep telling me that they thought we were doing fine and try to give me food and let me stay on their couch. And that's the thing, isn't it? Fine isn't enough. You can be faithful and lazy at the same time.

And when I think about The Little Prince, and what the book really is, I once again am lazy and faithful. I want Chapter 14 to to be an image of my actions, to mirror my thoughts and ways, but it doesn’t work, no matter how hard I try to narrativize and impose my own justification. I can’t pretend the essay is other than what it is, but I can’t stop myself either. I want to say I was the Lamplighter and My lover was the light and write a sort of fan-fiction for a new ending for the Lamplighter, but essays don’t really get new endings.

My arms grow tired, and I don't know how to rest. And so I make up a new ending anyways, and pretend the book is a story so I can sleep better. I soothe my conscience through a false interpretation. And in the end, I’m no better than the filmmakers who’ve tried to make movie-versions of the book that eludes a simple transposition from book-narrative to film-narrative.

The ending for Chapter 14 that I wrote is this:

My hope, my prayer, for the Lamplighter, is that maybe a flock of birds will come for him too, like they did for the Little Prince. He'll jump up and hitch a ride to Earth, ridiculous scarf flying out behind him.

He will feel like he's lurching towards an abyss. He will feel like he's been bit by a snake for his abandonment. He will sit in train-stations and villages and desert places and feel like a piece of shit. He will call himself a cunt when he is very drunk, with all his friends around him in a very public bar. They will all say Shhh, Nadia, don’t call yourself that. He will have to learn about numbers and figures and maps and matters of no consequence.

But maybe, just maybe, if he can see rightly, he will meet a great astronomer (in Turkish robes) who will tell him about spin. How if an object is weighed down, it slows down. Picture a large top, the astronomer will say. Now glue a small object on the side, such as a snail or coin. The top careens off-course and doesn't go as fast as it ought.

And then the Lamplighter will think of his planet and that lamp he used to care for. And perhaps the planet is spinning a little faster every year, gathering much more speed without him and his rooted shoes. Soon, the planet will flicker like a candle between sunrise and sunset. Flickering faster and faster still, shorter amounts of time between sunrise and sunset. Soon, all will be light.


Nadia Wolnisty is a poet and performer in Dallas, Texas. Her work as appeared in several small, independent magazines. She can be seen performing with Bonehouse, Common Company, Dark Moon Poetry Arts, Mad Swirl, and Poets on X+. She doesn't like it when people include information about their pets in their bios.

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