The Little Prince, and Outer Space

I do hope you have heard of, if not read, The Little Prince, a delightful children’s novel by French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It begins with a story of a pilot who has to land his plane in the desert to make repairs (Saint-Exupéry was himself a pilot). There he meets a child who claims to live on an asteroid called B-612, and who came to earth by hitching a ride with a flock of birds and a comet. I adored this novel, as well as the animated television series which ran when I was myself a child.

So, with great excitement, a few weeks ago my partner and I watched the 2015 film based on the novel. Where we discovered, as did pretty much everybody who saw the film, that it had almost nothing to do with the novels.

I suppose the film producers thought to themselves, “We can’t just make The Little Prince. We have to make a 21st century version of him. So, what if we made a film about The Little Prince all grown up? Hey, it worked for Peter Pan in Hook (1991). And we can make the pilot who found him as en elderly man: eccentric, funny, loveable, shunned by his community because he preserves his child-like heart, and a mentor figure to another young child and that child’s parent, who must learn some Important Life Lessons about retaining child-like imagination. Throw in a message about the soullessness of consumer capitalism, for the GenXers in the audience who remember the 80s, and for the millennials who are woke to socialism. Yeah, let’s do that. And if we make the New Child and Parent into a girl and a woman, then we can tick off our diversity checkboxes at the same time, too.”

Yeah, and we can also tick off the audience. Because the film became, well, not a film about The Little Prince. It was a film about why everything childhood is good and everything adult is bad. And that’s a proposition we have to examine, and I think reject.

Frankly, there’s a lot of things I like about being a grown-up. For one thing, my own childhood from about the age of 8 onward can be mostly described a psychological endurance run, because of the bullying, the verbal abuse, the cold-shouldering, the neglect, the discrediting of my interests, the disvaluing of my accomplishments, from my peers as well as some of the adults around them. And the physical beatings from bullies that were authorised by adult authorities (ie. the same bullies who verbally taunted me by day could physically beat me up during karate class twice a week at night). No wonder, then, that I escaped to the forest of the Elora Gorge as often as possible, to enjoy some independence in solitude. By contrast: now that I’m an adult, if someone wants to bully me, I can sue them. Or call the police on them. Not only that: I can also read the great books of civilization and understand them. I get my own money, and I decide how to spend it. I get to have sex with any consenting adult partner I want. I get to travel the world – I’ve been to fifteen countries so far. (I’m especially fond of central Europe.) I get to write books and share them with people who will make an honest attempt to understand them. My life as an adult has been an order of magnitude better than my life as a child. (Though I still protect my solitude, and in the Gatineau Hills park I have a new forest.) So, stories that privilege childhood innocence and childhood wonder always strike me as patronizing and wrong.

But that reduces to psychology an argument that deserves treatment on its own merits. So here’s another way in, by way of a counter-argument and some questions.

Someone might say: “sure, childhood often sucks, but adult life sucks even more. The world of adults in 2019 is a soul-crushing circus of commercialism, global warming, poverty, and resurgent fascism. If you insist upon letting go of childhood things, might there be no space left for wonder? Might there be no space left for child-like (not child-ish) innocence and magic in our lives and in our stories? No space left for us for escape (I don’t say escap-ism) from the nightmare of our time?”

A reply: That space is still all around you. It is, to my thinking, impossible to eradicate. Though it can be temporarily suppressed, it can always break through and demand attention. However much of the world we enclose within the frame of the human, there will always, always, be realms beyond the frame which summon us to amazement and beauty. And to terror. And in either case, to the sublime. Such is the nature of the Immensity. (A word with deep philosophical significance to me, and which features often in my books.) Let me introduce you to an example of it: the Hubble Deep-Field photograph.

My god, it’s full of stars!

Basically, every dot in that photograph is an entire galaxy. Scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at an area of space where they thought there was nothing, and they opened the aperture at that space for about ten days. They had no idea what they would see. It was possible they wouldn’t see anything. But they gave ten days to looking at nothing just to see whether or not it might turn out to be something. And it did. It turned out that the universe has galaxies everywhere. That we are dwelling within a universe that is probably infinite, and in which there’s something to discover in every direction. That’s every direction, in three physical dimensions out to billions of light years, and in two temporal directions, past and future, out to billions of millennia. We live in a world that’s astonishingly, overwhelmingly, unthinkably beautiful. And facing that immensity is not a childhood thing. It is a grown-up thing.

If I was driving to any kind of point in this not-well-crafted argument, it’s that we should reject the proposition that all things childhood are good and all things adult are bad, because some sources of magic and wonder available only to adults are better than those available to children. Or, better than those which we as adults think are available to children who live in perfect worlds, like the world that the characters in the 2015 Little Prince film lost.

Let me explain why that world is not lost. Or, more to the point, why the world we actually have is better. In fact: here’s composer Eric Whitacre, who wrote an orchestral piece inspired by that photograph; let him explain it.

Anyway, photographs like the Hubble Deep Field, and artistic creations inspired by it, are places where I can feel my sense of wonder and magic inspired and preserved in me, whilst at the same time remaining an adult. I shall always love Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince; but I prefer to imagine that the boy grew up to become a man, and that his rose grew up to be a woman, and they’re both still out there, exploring the galaxy, but maybe with a telescope now. Or an Alcubierre drive.

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