Thoughts / What I'm Reading

Beyond the chatter

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Photo by Evelyn Cheng

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker disappointed me when the Morgan Library and Museum announced that he would speak on “The Little Prince and the Big War” for an event on Tuesday, February 25. I didn’t want to associate The Little Prince with war. I couldn’t let the charming prince, the wise fox and the conceited rose fall under the dissecting lens of modern literary analysis. As much as I admire Gopnik’s writing, The Little Prince had entranced me as a third grader with the notion of an adult who actually understood how children felt. Future readings in sixth grade, high school and college reinforced my esteem for author Antoine Saint-Exupery’s strong sense of what is essential to life. Connecting the book’s mystical characters with something so crude as war would shatter everything for me.

But I could not resist the opportunity to hear Gopnik speak in person. His book, Through the Children’s Gate, had resonated with me when I read it last fall. Here was someone who had the idyllic New Yorker’s life that I dreamed of, who had a heart for his kids and tried to understand their life’s dilemmas. In Gopnik’s book I saw my own childhood through the eyes of an adult and I reveled in how my nostalgia was expressed so neatly in words. More importantly, reading his book last year had revived in me the inspiration I’d needed to emerge from the overwhelming demands of academics.

I decided that I had to attend the lecture, even if Gopnik was associating The Little Prince with war. I had to see the writer in person. He was shorter than I’d expected, and definitely looked older, but wiser, than his profile picture on the book jacket (He graciously signed the cover page for me!). But as a writer on children and children’s literature, Gopnik knew, like Exupery, that “anything essential is invisible to the eye.”

The war Gopnik discussed did not involve the strained controversies that revolve around the Vietnam or Iraq wars. Rather, the war crushed a national spirit that Exupery grappled with as an expatriate in New York after the fall of France to the Nazis during World War II. To Gopnik, The Little Prince was a fable of the war story expressing conflict, isolation, fear and exile. Only specific speech, like the fox’s words, and intimate love alleviate these troubles, he said.

From these points, I finally understand the emotions that enabled Exupery to write such a classic. I look at the sparse drawings that he made of the Little Prince gazing out over a shaggy mountain range, of the Little Prince tethered to a flock of birds and of the Little Prince lying at the foot of a tree. These images evoke a desolate, uneasy heart that is seeking comfort. Yes, as Gopnik said, France had lost something bigger than political clout when the Germans took over. I remember Exupery’s vivid description of the helpless, fleeing French people in Flight to Arras. The book had no pictures, yet I remember the page as if it were a picture, so clearly did Exupery write of farmers struggling to keep wooden wheels on wagons, of horses straining through the crowded roads, of the few automobiles, of the general chaos and confused silence of the masses. They were a noble people forced to the road.

Gopnik compared this broken spirit to the shock that filled Americans, particularly New Yorkers, on 9/11. “Some fundamental thing that you believed in for continuity was lost,” he said.

So yes, The Little Prince is about war. It is about the cultural pain caused by war, not the actual fighting itself. These emotions as expressed in the book have much to do with France’s love of abstraction, Gopnik said. Any issue can be detached from humanity and reduced to statistics before becoming a formula, the theorist says. But Gopnik said Exupery fights against those numbers and abstraction. He dramatizes the loss as a love story. “You cannot love roses, you can only love a rose,” Gopnik said. It’s a “journey from a general experience to a specific experience.”

This specificity, the realization that there will be few outstanding people and that we’re actually all very much the same, hurts initially. But it is a way to cope and show that you really don’t need to care if there are 100 million more of you. It doesn’t matter if a Google search turns up thousands of others with your same name, because, taking a line from the prince’s fox, you are the one you’ve invested time in: you’re the one that matters.

The general chatter of society on the Internet doesn’t appreciate this specificity. The online world feels as if everyone must know everything and have an opinion on it all the time. This “everything” only includes what you already know in your own circles. Despite our ability to connect to the whole world, study after study show that online users tend towards websites that only reinforce their own opinions, as well as showing that viral articles are the shallow ones. Multiple articles ranging from the hidden meanings of Frozen to some celebrity’s most embarrassing moments of social media flood my news feeds, and I’d just rather not log in.

The lack of space and time to think is frustrating. No one has time to really appreciate what needs careful chewing and mulling over. I want to throw away the Internet, throw away smartphones, and end the ridiculous, virtual and vacuous talk about nothing. Our society has become cloaked in euphemisms and trite phrases and every time we say something we hope that without much effort it will take off. That’s not the way to think. Speaking on how specific works of children’s literature captured the mood of France in the 20th century, Gopnik said that “any interesting book has a core emotion.”

What’s the core emotion of 17 things that show you’re a true New Yorker? What if you don’t meet all 17 criteria? Are you not a New Yorker? No quiz will beat E.B. White’s essay “Here is New York,” which still holds true decades later.

We must “distinguish between the literary marketplace and the community of readers,” Gopnik said. Not everything worthwhile is immediately seized upon (i.e. viral). Many critics, he said, originally labeled works like The Little Prince as “sentimental” and other works like it as “pretentious.” Rather, we must understand that these classics are “emotionally direct” and “ambitious,” as Gopnik put it. The rapidly burgeoning world of the Internet has suppressed our capacity for appreciating much beyond top 10 lists and videos of kittens. Let’s enjoy their lightheartedness, but be sensitive to the world’s greater stories.

Beneath its cheesiness, Saving Mr. Banks showed that behind the frigid P.L. Travers were layers of emotions that even she could not un-peel. Gopnik pointed out that the same P.L. Travers was the only one who could appreciate The Little Prince when it first came out in 1943. Children’s books and their writers often come closest to what is most powerful. But this category is often overlooked in favor of adult genres. When I heard Gopnik speak last Tuesday, I wanted to cry. Here was an entire auditorium filled with adults who cared about something I’d known and loved. Few others I know appreciate The Little Prince to that depth and with that evening’s discussion, I felt validated.

Children, wrote Exupery, are the only ones who care to look outside the window of a moving train. They are sensitive because every moment is one of wonder for them. That’s why Gopnik said the story of 20th century France existed in Babar, the Gallic comic book character Asterix and the Little Prince. One showed the French royalist sentiment; the other, the nation’s independent spirit and the last, the desolation of war.

This ability to capture accurately the aurora of an age is evident whenever I return to children’s bookstores. Those books introduced the world to me. From Francis to Frog and Toad, the titles that I’d seen hundreds of times at the library welcomed me when, cold and hungry, I wandered into a Seattle children’s bookstore. I felt the same warmth when I walked into the Strand Bookstore another evening and saw Madeline, The Saturdays, Nancy Drew and Ballet Shoes. The straightfoward, simple world of those stories deal with what really matters, and few today seem to appreciate the value of that life. Obviously the comfort of children’s books represents a nostalgia that even BuzzFeed is happy to tap into, but I believe the stories are powerful for deeper reasons.

They are, what Gopnik called in closing, “the irresistible value of small particles.” The Little Prince is not about battle. It is about the essentials of life that war forces us to think about.

Children’s books are beautiful things.
There’s a difference between a painter and an artist.
There’s a difference between an author and a thinker.
There’s a difference between a speaker and a leader.

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