Of all the infinite possible ways of categorizing the people of this world, I have always found those conventionally adopted unimaginative and odd. Surely gender, age, height, and weight are not more descriptive of a person than their favorite smell, the sound of their voice, the side of the bed they sleep on, the lumps of sugar in their tea? So I developed a method of my own: I categorize people by storm names.
There are those who believe that storms are named after heartbreak: each storm is a lover lost, abandoned, a lover who has left. They are those who look at sea foam and see Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid, who died for love and turned into soft white bubbles floating on the surface of the sea.
Let us call them romantics.
Then there are those who read in some scholarly publication that storms are given names to make them easier for sailors to distinguish; an alphabetical list is drawn up at random by weather scientists each year. They are also those for whom sea foam is but decaying algal blooms, dissolved organic matter that the agitation of the wind and waves churns up.
Let us call them realists.
Realists see the world for what it is. Romantics, for what they want it to be. The terms were used to define two opposing trends in European intellectual life in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. Cultural romanticism came first, after the Napoleonic Wars. It glorified mysticism and emotions, and saw individuals as heroes with a manifest destiny to change the world. But the failed populist revolutions of 1848 shattered those idealistic notions, and from the gritty pragmatism that remained emerged a realism that shifted the focus to more concrete subject matters. Realists saw hardship and social injustice, and their art and literature reflected it.
Not unlike children and grownups, perhaps?
Seventy-two years and three days ago, a fascinating treatise was published on these two categories of people. It sold more than 150 million copies and was translated into 260 languages and dialects. The title in English: ‘The Little Prince.’
The book tells the story of a little boy’s travels to seven asteroid planets, including Earth, and his encounters with their inhabitants. He met a king, a conceited man, a drunkard, a businessman, a lamplighter, a geographer… but also a talking fox, a wise serpent, and a rose unlike any other in the whole universe, if only for the fact that he loved her.
Grownups and children, he found, were easily distinguishable by what they saw in a particular illustration, creatively named ‘Drawing Number 1:’
Children, of course, immediately saw an elephant inside a boa constrictor. Grownups saw a bowler hat, or worse, nothing at all, even with the help of explanatory ‘Drawing Number 2:’
'All grownups were once children, but only few of them remember it.’
- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Romanticism is beautiful, and childhood is sweet, but sooner or later, we grow up. A sad, inevitable byproduct of knowledge and disillusion. In time and with wear, we willingly put on the blinders that make us forsake whimsy for utility, possibility for security, boa constrictors for bowler hats. In a world that runs on hard facts, realism is the only guarantee of survival.
But there is a danger in leaving those blinders on too long; eventually, we lose sight of the world beyond them. Our occupations confine us, our self-set limitations trap us. The world, as it is, makes us bitter, and we slump into passivity. We forget we could once see elephants in boa constrictors too.
Realism shrinks reality, ‘attenuates it, falsifies it; it does not take into account our basic truths and our fundamental obsessions: love, death, astonishment. It presents man in a reduced and estranged perspective. Truth is in our dreams, in the imagination.’ - Eugène Ionesco
We may have our science, our figures and our facts, but we still need our romantics. We must nurture the artists and the daydreamers, the fortune cookie readers and the wildflower pickers, the well wishers and the sunset lovers, the eternal children. As the little prince said, their ability to see beauty is utility enough.
Once upon a time, I was fortunate enough to have known and loved such a child. A real little prince who saw the world in color, and me for much more than I was. His clouds were shaped like castles, his bright turquoise tennis shoes were magic, and the last time I saw him, he was building a rainbow machine. His world may not have been real, but it is the one I prefer.
© 2014-2015 Yara Zgheib All Rights Reserved
There are two categories of people in this world: those who see it for what it is, and those who, like you little prince, will always be seven years old. Happy birthday.