Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Six Primitive Egos in 'Le Petit Prince'

Before the Little Prince arrives in the desert on planet Earth, and meets the narrator-aviator representing the author Antoine de St. Exupéry, he visits six other planets. Each of these planets is inhabited by a primitive ego, a single adult character who has lost the innocence of childhood.

1. The king who gives orders to the universe, and tailors these orders to be reasonable so that the universe obeys and his illusion isn't broken.

2. The showman who wants to be admired.
3. The drunkard who drinks in order to forget the shame of his drunkenness.
4. The businessman who believes he owns every star he sees and spends his days counting and re-counting them.
5. The lamplighter who follows his primordial orders to re-light and extinguish the lamp on his planet each morning and evening, despite the change of circumstances of his planet that make this task exhausting and futile.
6. The geographer who studies the world second-hand through the comparison and assessment of the character of witnesses, but never sees it himself.

The Little Prince himself is not without ego. Ironically, our first encounter with him is the sound of his voice ordering "draw me a sheep!". This is reminiscent of the king, from the first planet he visited, in whom the prince unwittingly provoked a crisis by not obeying. 

The Little Prince also feels a sense of ownership towards a flower on his planet, whom he loves very much, and towards his planet generally, but unlike the businessman, his ownership involves looking after and being useful for the things that he owns. 

Unlike the six primitive egos that he meets, that the narrator tells us are so numerous on Earth, the sense of ego of the Little Prince is child-like, innocent and unselfish. More important though, it is without self-importance, even more so when he comes to see how little he really is compared to the vastness of the universe.

What gives his life importance then is not his sense of ego, but his love, his sense of place, his friendship, his rituals, his own experience. He learns all this from the wise fox, and in turn passes it on to the narrator after he befriends him. The narrator in turn passes this wisdom on to us.

It is sad that the book ends with the Little Prince leaving Earth, as if his childhood innocence could not survive any longer on this planet.

Postscript: I once had the idea of four primitive ego types: the master (1), the slave (5), the idol (2) and the idolator (3, 4, 6). Exupéry, however, distinguishes three types of idolatory in the drunkard, the businessman and the geographer. Perhaps these correspond to the three roots (the mental states that cloud the mind) of self-hate, selfish greed, and self-delusion. The geographer is like the university professor who writes books about books, but never perceives reality itself. On the subject of which I hope that, unlike the geographer, anything I write about a book is an exploration of truth (and beauty). 

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