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Sketching Grief

The Inspiration

Sketch of Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Special exhibit, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City

The Matter

In a series of fortunate accidents, a business trip initially planned for San Francisco was moved to New York City. Though I was disappointed I wouldn't get to visit The City I love on the West Coast, I was bolstered by the fact that I knew my favorite book, The Little Prince, had been penned near NYC. Once the trip was finalized, I rooted around online to find points of interest concerning the 1940's novella but came up relatively empty-handed.

The house where Saint-Exupéry (whom I'll refer to as St-Ex) wrote the bulk of the beloved book is a registered historic place, but not open to the public. A library near the home has a one-of-a-kind statue of the book's titular character, but that's all I could find.

Until I stumbled across a notice from The Morgan Library & Museum, situated in Midtown on the island of Manhattan. As luck would have it, they had curated an exhibit called the Saint-Exupéry Dossier. It was a collection of sketches, news clippings, letters, and other artifacts from St-Ex's life collected by Joseph Cornell, an artist and friend of the author's.

One of the items is an early sketch of the Little Prince. I stood in front of this relic, this icon, this near-archaeological find and felt my spirit shift. I want to talk about that more, but first please indulge me in a little history lesson.

St-Ex was already an accomplished author by the time he created his final work. Sadly, the writer would never see Le Petit Prince become the phenomenon it did. Shortly after he finished it, he was called back to war, where he later died.

The Little Prince is a very sneaky story. On the surface it's a quirky tale about an alien boy (though he's never referred to as such) who is far more philosophical than one would expect. The running theme of the tome being that children are wiser than adults because adults get too distracted by "matters of great importance." But in the story's final act, St-Ex's real intention hits you and captures your heart like the undercurrent of a trickster river.

Depression, grief, and managing the fear of death. That is what St-Ex was really writing about. Perhaps his experiences as a military pilot inspired the fictional efforts at terror management. Or maybe he expected he'd be called back to WWII and wrote about the fair-haired child as a way to cope with the most probable outcome of such a future.

The recent animated adaptation really beats you over the head with the lessons that the book communicated in more understated ways. It's tragic but seems almost fitting that St-Ex died immediately following its completion. I only recently learned that he died at the cataclysmically young age of 44. This is of particular note because my favorite chapter is one wherein the Little Prince reveals to the aviator that 1) he loves sunsets, 2) his planet is tiny enough that you can watch a brand new sunset by merely moving your chair forward a few feet, and 3) one loves sunsets when one is sad. After a small stretch of silence, he confides that he watched the sun set 44 times one day.

The aviator asks whether that means the boy was sad on the day of the 44 sunsets, but the youth never replies. But how prescient! Forty-four sunsets, one for every year of St-Ex's life.

If I'm being honest, it was a long time before I finally realized that The Little Prince was a fable about death. For decades I interpreted the final act in quite a different manner. St-Ex clues us in on how to cope with others' passing and prepare for our own, but it's packaged neatly inside brief anecdotes from the Little Prince that communicate what I would call "pocket wisdom." Though the chapters leading up to the books mournful conclusion are decorated with vivid and at times comical events, they're really serving the ultimate purpose of establishing a love and emotional connection between the little boy and everyone else (the aviator and all of us readers) so that when he bids us all adieu - the aviator directly, the audience indirectly - the real lesson is laid bare.

When this profound meaning clicked, literal decades of countless read throughs came rushing back to me. My synapses flooded with a bit of an awakening and gave St-Ex's labor of love a new and even more profound meaning.

So when I saw this sketch, one of the original illustrations of the classic character, it was a real and true religious experience. Moved to tears, I stood there paralyzed. My eyes gently roamed over the surface of the page and took in all the lines, dots, & dashes, as well as the wealth of love that still radiates off that page even after 70+ years.

I couldn't verbalize exactly what I was experiencing. Feelings. Impressions. Senses. Words failed me then, and they fail me yet again today. Peace, love, sadness, acceptance, fear, grief, joy... It all coursed through me at breakneck speeds and somehow so slowly. If that kind of impact isn't what art is all about, then I don't know what is.

The Art

Ode To St-Ex

by jpk

You are that star, bright, laughing like sweet water quenching a parched and desperate throat.

Gone but not forgotten, tending to your lonely prince just as he tends to his lonely rose, just as the aviator tends to his lonely heart, just as we all tend to our lonely lives.

Are you still flying? Away from a war you wished would end and up into the sparkling but ominous field of stars, straight on to your prince's little home where you can both watch as many sunsets as you can stand?

Or are you only an echo, pushing slowly but insistently through a vacuum that adults concerned with matters of great consequence will tell you does not echo? (With sounds or with souls.)

But you prove them wrong every time, reaching my eyes, ears, heart, spirit, none the worse for wear, still tasting so sweet, so sad, so necessary.

The Portrait

[Artist's note: Though I have been using the self-portrait section of my blog posts to explore my creative side in the visual arts, I'm leaving this photo as-is. The sketch moved me, and I tried to capture that, though my tears are (mercifully) obscured within the shadows and dim lighting of the gallery. I love this photo because it dances next to a moment that is one of my lifelong favorites.]