Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance (2016)
On Love, Briefly; or, What the Fox Knows
Antoine and Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, was born in 1900, which makes it very easy for us to know his age every year. I do not intend to present his entire biography here – enough has been written on that subject. Allow me to skip over plenty of unimportant stuff and go straight to 1926, the year in which he started working as a pilot and became one of the airmail pioneers. Saint-Ex, as his friends used to call him, worked the Toulouse–Dakar line, and if you’d seen his plane you’d probably have refused to join him on his flights. Just imagine a piece of junk with wings that hangs in the air in total defiance of the laws of physics. Saint-Ex was very fond of small planes that ran on Stone Age technology. As planes improved with time, Antoine used to say that their operators started resembling accountants more than pilots. He wrote about his dangerous adventures in Night Flight, a book published in 1931. But that wasn’t the most important thing that happened that year.
In 1931 Antoine de Saint-Exupéry married Consuelo Sunchín Sandoval Zeceña, a painter from El Salvador who’d been a widow for two years when they met. It was love at first sight. Looking at her pictures, it isn’t hard to see that Consuelo must have been a very charming lady, one whom men would easily have fallen head over heels for. Saint-Ex told his friends that he knew Consuelo would be his wife the moment he met her. Their love took them to Casablanca, Paris, Buenos Aires and New York. Their life together had periods of high passion and much tenderness, but also times of infidelity, separation and great pain. They could not live a day without each other, but were even less able to live together. Throughout their marriage, they broke up on several occasions, often for long periods, but always reunited, and they never stopped loving each other.
On 30 December 1935, Saint-Ex’s plane crashed in the Sahara Desert. It was during a flight in which he and his navigator, André Prévot, attempted to fly from Paris to Saigon faster than any other crew before them. Though they crashed after spending nearly 20 hours in the air, the two aviators survived. They did, however, experience four days of great misery. Marooned in the desert, they suffered from such severe dehydration that they stopped sweating and started hallucinating. On the fourth day, just like in a Hollywood movie, they were rescued by a local camel rider.
The Little Prince, the small, poetic and philosophical book that SaintExupéry wrote during his 1943 stay on Long Island, New York, was closely associated with that event, but mostly it was the prettiest present he bestowed upon his beloved wife, who appears in the book as the flower, the rose that the prince loved and cared for so much. In fact, the book is their only offspring. Consuelo wrote an answer, The Tale of the Rose, in 1945 – after her husband went missing on 31 July 1944 while on a Second World War mission. Consuelo never published the book. The manuscript was discovered and published in 1979, some 20 years after she died.
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
Wind and Fire
One day, a very special flower appeared on the Little Prince’s planet. Until then, all the flowers on his asteroid had been rather simple, with just a single row of petals. This flower, however, was different:
The shrub soon stopped growing, and began to get ready to produce a flower. The Little Prince, who was present at the first appearance of a huge bud, felt at once that some sort of miraculous apparition must emerge from it. But the flower was not satisfied to complete the preparations for her beauty in the shelter of her green chamber. … It was only in the full radiance of her beauty that she wished to appear. Oh, yes! She was a coquettish creature! And her mysterious adornment lasted for days and days.
Then one morning, exactly at sunrise, she suddenly showed herself.
And, after working with all this painstaking precision, she yawned and said:
‘Ah! I am scarcely awake. I beg that you will excuse me. My petals are still all disarranged ...’
But the Little Prince could not restrain his admiration:
‘Oh! How beautiful you are!’
‘Am I not?’ the flower responded, sweetly. ‘And I was born at the same moment as the sun ...’
By now, we all know that this rose was Consuelo, and you’ve probably guessed that the simple flowers were all the other women that Saint-Ex had been with before he met the one and only. The passage above also makes clear that the rose isn’t a particularly modest flower, and that the prince is in for a bumpy ride with her (as was reflected in the real story of Antoine and Consuelo). It’s also clear, however, that the new flower is a kind of miracle for the Little Prince.
‘The course of true love never did run smooth.’
Lysander, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare
As soon as she arrived in the world, the rose started bugging the prince:
‘I think it is time for breakfast,’ she added an instant later. ‘If you would have the kindness to think of my needs …’
And the little prince, completely abashed, went to look for a sprinkling-can of fresh water. So, he tended the flower.
So, too, she began very quickly to torment him with her vanity – which was, if the truth be known, a little difficult to deal with […]
‘At night I want you to put me under a glass globe. It is very cold where you live. In the place I came from …’
But she interrupted herself at that point. She had come in the form of a seed. She could not have known anything of any other worlds. Embarrassed over having let herself be caught on the verge of such a naïve untruth, she coughed two or three times, in order to put the little prince in the wrong.
‘I was just going to look for it when you spoke to me …’
Then she forced her cough a little more so that he should suffer from remorse just the same.
So the little prince, in spite of all the good will that was inseparable from his love, had soon come to doubt her. He had taken seriously words which were without importance, and it made him very unhappy.
‘I ought not to have listened to her,’ he confided to me one day. ‘One never ought to listen to the flowers. One should simply look at them and breathe their fragrance. Mine perfumed all my planet. But I did not know how to take pleasure in all her grace […]
‘The fact is that I did not know how to understand anything! I ought to have judged by deeds and not by words. She cast her fragrance and her radiance over me. I ought never to have run away from her … I ought to have guessed all the affection that lay behind her poor little stratagems. Flowers are so inconsistent! But I was too young to know how to love her …’
A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
To love someone is to know that person really well, and love them nonetheless.
A love that is based on ‘because’ or ‘thanks to’ will not last long if that love doesn’t include ‘despite of’ too.
All love that is dependent on a particular thing, when the thing ceases, the love ceases. All love that is not dependent on a particular thing, it will never cease.
Ethics of the Fathers
One of the most fascinating questions I can think of is whether unconditional love exists.
Either way, when the rose blossomed into the Little Prince’s life, he knew nearly nothing about love. He failed to realize that it was a miracle, that it was grace that gave him that flower. When he did finally understand that much later, it was too late.
Earlier in their relationship the Little Prince had left his rose and gone travelling, which is a good opportunity for me to present you with a criterion that will help you know whether a love you encounter is true love. I call it ‘The Wind and Fire Criterion’.
It goes like this. When a fire is weak, a gust of wind can put it out; but if the fire is strong, a blowing wind will only fan the flames, and the stronger the wind, the bigger the fire will grow and the wider it will spread. It’s the same with love and separation. If it isn’t true love, a long separation will wash it away. If it is true, however, separation will merely reinforce it.
This is not my invention. Though I’ve been unable to discover who made it up, it’s mentioned in various versions in numerous sources. The poem below is my favourite rendition of the idea:
Distance does to love
What wind gusts do to fire
A small flame gets blown out,
A large one grows much higher.
The Little Prince learned that truth first-hand. He nearly went out of his mind, missing and longing for his rose.
If someone loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, ‘Somewhere, my flower is there ...’ But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened ...
Alas, once the prince had come to understand all that, it was already too late.
On Love: Top Ten Quotes (actually a personal selection of 14 favourite insights)
Before you start reading my selection, please take a moment, think about it and write your own sentence beginning: ‘Love is …’
Now let us start our countdown.
Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love. I rose in it.
I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart).
E E Cummings
My eighth place is shared by two poets: one who was born in the Land of the Rising Sun, while the other lived and wrote in the Land of Hope and Glory. Japanese poet Basho wrote a haiku:
O brightest moon of autumn.
All night long I’ve strolled around the pond, in search of song.
This is a love song that doesn’t mention the words we usually use in that context. Perhaps nothing could express love better than the picture of a man walking all night long around a pond. Perhaps, despite the countless words written and spoken about love, it cannot be put into words? Perhaps Raymond Carver was right when he wrote: ‘It ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we’re talking about when we talk about love.’
This is Shakespeare’s attempt to describe the indescribable:
All days are nights to see till I see thee, And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 43
I met in the street a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat worn, his cloak was out at the elbows, the water passed through his shoes, and the stars through his soul.
Love is trembling happiness.
The Lebanese poet is probably right. One cannot love without trembling. Every mother who loves and cares about her children knows that. Romantic love trembles for other reasons: it might evaporate with time; jealousy might kill it; habit might put it to eternal sleep.
Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.
And the Final Four:
You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.
And even if we do spoil ourselves and doze off every now and then, we could open our eyes and say the old cliché: ‘You’re the first thing I think of when I wake up, and the last thing on my mind when I fall asleep.’
Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi even wrote a poem that combines love, sleep and God:
When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for those two insomnias!
And the difference between them.
The third place is shared by a company of three with quite similar insights: a French writer we met above, a Russian poet, and a wise woman who was a great actress and will be forever blonde:
The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved – loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.
To love a man is to see him as God had planned him, not as his parents shaped him.
I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control, and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.
The second place too is occupied jointly, by a great sci-fi novelist and a famous actress – a very pretty woman who offers a deep correction of the novelist’s profound insight. We’ll let the sci-fi novelist go first:
Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
Robert A Heinlein
And now the new and improved version is:
You know it’s love when all you want is for that person to be happy, even if you’re not part of their happiness.
Clearly, Ms Roberts is absolutely right, but the requirement she presents here seems to be much too difficult for mere mortals such as ourselves.
And now, my all-time favourite quote from my favourite writer, Count Leo Tolstoy. It appears in Chapter 14 of Part V of Anna Karenina – a novel that, according to Oswald Spengler, is not only the best ever written, but also the best that can ever be written.
Opening that chapter, Tolstoy relates:
Levin [the similarity to Lev, Russian for Leo, is by no means accidental] had been married three months. He was happy, but not at all in the way he had expected to be. At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness.
One day, Levin is half an hour late coming home because he made an unsuccessful attempt to take a short and unfamiliar way, and got lost.
He drove home thinking of nothing but her, of her love, of his own happiness, and the nearer he drew to home, the warmer was his tenderness for her.
His wife Kitty gives him a cold welcome, which quickly turns into a jealousy scene. Yet it’s after that first fight the couple find themselves engaged in that Levin realizes something profound:
He felt now that he was not simply closer to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began.
This is my best ever love quote. It would not lose its beauty or depth even if it were printed on a cheesy Valentine’s Day card.
The Prince in a Garden of Roses
Travelling around the universe, the Little Prince reaches Planet Earth. The most traumatic experience he has on our planet is finding a rose garden. His rose had told him she was the only one of her kind in the entire universe. She said she was unique, that she was born with the sun, and that her petals were the most beautiful. Suddenly, the Little Prince discovers ‘five thousand of them, all alike, in one single garden!’
What if there are, in fact, even more gardens like this one?! The horror!
‘She would be very much annoyed,’ he said to himself, ‘if she should see that. ... She would cough most dreadfully, and she would pretend that she was dying, to avoid being laughed at. And I should be obliged to pretend that I was nursing her back to life – for if I did not do that, to humble myself also, she would really allow herself to die …’
Then he went on with his reflections: ‘I thought that I was rich, with a flower that was unique in all the world; and all I had was a common rose ...’
And he lay down in the grass and cried.
Your first love is magical because when you’re in love for the first time, you’re certain this is your last time too. Furthermore, you’re certain that the person you love is the only one in the world with so many graceful and wonderful qualities.
When you fall in love for the second time, it’s far less magical, because you know you’ve felt it all before, and still it ended. How can you be sure this time will be any different? Well, you can’t. And when you subsequently love someone else, a third and a fourth and all the rest, you no longer ask such questions because you know that love can end in a split second. This is very sad, but very true too.
Philosopher Alain de Botton, who was born in Zurich and studied philosophy and history at Cambridge, said that we may even meet the love of our life just before we die, or on our very last day on Earth. How will we know that they are the one? Anyone who has ever loved knows that just as love can suddenly appear, so it can end any minute, and a new love suddenly shine upon us. (Incidentally, if you’ve never read Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Dog’, or if you’ve read it fewer than five times, you must do so the first chance you have.)
We left the Little Prince lying on the grass and crying. He can’t understand what was so special about his rose that made him love her so. The question to which he is actually trying to find an answer is the ageless one: what is love?
Does love even exist? Perhaps – in a paraphrase of an adage by François de La Rochefoucauld – ‘love is like the ghosts in ancient English castles: everyone talks about them, but no one has actually seen them.’ Let’s give the Little Prince a helping hand.
The Better Half
Plato’s The Symposium describes a meeting of several very wise men who discuss the eternal question: ‘What is love?’ Each participant gives a speech, presenting his take on the subject. To me, the prettiest speech of all is delivered by Aristophanes, who was born in Greece in 446 BC (which really was a long time ago: he was a contemporary of Socrates and, in fact, the two even knew but didn’t really like each other). He wrote plays for a living, and if you enjoy the theatre you may want to catch his Lysistrata, The Frogs, The Clouds or The Birds.
Aristophanes opened his speech with a most dramatic announcement. In the distant past, he said, the human race did not comprise two genders, as it does today, but three: there were men attached to men, women attached to women, and men attached to women. These twofold people lived happily and well, but then in hubris they decided to rebel against the gods. Unsurprisingly, Zeus did not appreciate this mutiny, and so he decided to punish them. At first he thought he would just kill them all, but even the mighty Zeus knew that gods exist only when there are people to believe in them, and so he switched to Plan B: he took an axe, cut these twofold people in half, and scattered those halves all over the place.
Now watch this: a story that starts out sounding completely absurd suddenly begins to make perfect sense. I mean, we fall in love because we are not whole. We all miss that mythological other half, and spend our entire lives looking for them. (Incidentally, this myth explains the origins of homosexuality and matches the current view, held by many scientists, according to which sexual tendencies are basically innate.)
What are your chances of finding that other half? Perhaps you’re lucky and have already found it? How can you tell?
Aristophanes has the answer, which I shall word as follows. If, by some miraculous chance, Hephaestus the blacksmith god should appear before you and offer to weld you and your current partner so that you are reunited forever, as you were before, and will never part again, then note your own reaction. If you refuse, this is not your real other half. If you hesitate before you accept, this is still not your other half. Only if you leap into the air with joy can you be sure that you’ve already found your missing half.
But who could meet such a criterion? It’s terribly harsh. If you ever want to hang out with your friends instead of spending time with your beloved – even for just one evening – you’re out!
How could the Little Prince know the rose was his other half?
It seems that Antoine and Consuelo knew they were two halves of the same entity but were unable to live together for very long nonetheless.
As my grandfather used to say: ‘Perfect pairs exist only in shoe stores.’
Dante, Beatrice, Paolo and Francesca
The great Italian poet Dante Alighieri concluded his Divine Comedy with the following phrase:
L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle.
I give it to you in Italian because for me Italian is the most beautiful language in the world, and because, very often, you don’t have to speak Italian to understand it. Try to guess what this phrase says.
It says: ‘The love that moves the sun and the other stars.’
In Yiddish they say: ‘Love may not make the world go round, but it gives meaning to its spin.’
All his adult life Dante loved Beatrice. According to La Vita Nuova (‘The New Life’, but isn’t the translation redundant?), Dante only met her twice and nine years elapsed between their meetings (which I doubt: they both lived in Florence, and anyone who has spent some time there knows that everyone meets everyone all the time). Dante was married and Beatrice had a husband too (he was a banker, but we forgive her), but still he loved her all his life, even after she died at the age of 26. Describing their second meeting, the great poet relates how he almost died with joy and excitement when she said hello. He said she was ‘gentilissima, benedetta, la gloriosa donna della mia mente’.
I will not translate that. Just read these words out loud and you’ll know exactly what Dante felt for her. That feeling, however, helped the poet make an important discovery: he realized that the most romantic love of all is the love that never materializes, and that imagination beats reality every time.
I was moved by the description in The Divine Comedy’s Inferno (Circle 2, Canto 5) of Dante’s meeting with Francesca da Rimini. Here, Francesca tells Dante how she cheated on her husband with his brother Paolo, and how they were both murdered by the husband (all based on historical fact, by the way; Francesca was the daughter of the governor of Ravenna and was Dante’s contemporary). While Dante is going to Heaven to unite with Beatrice, he envies Paolo and Francesca whose souls circle around and around in a terrible storm without a moment’s rest. Dante gathers that it’s better to be with the one you love in Hell than to be in Heaven with someone who does not and will never love you.
While on the subject, here is one of the finest definitions of hell I’ve ever read:
What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.
Note that hell is not when nobody loves you, but when you’re unable to love. A person who loves no one or nothing in this world is indeed in hell.
What Is Love?
‘What is love’ was the most searched phrase on Google in 2012, when this book was written. This made me very happy. I’d feared that people were no longer looking for love and was thrilled to discover that many do. Furthermore, I was moved by the fact that after millennia of songs and poetry, folktales and philosophies, hieroglyphs and movies, we still don’t know for certain what love is. It would appear that the quest for love is a thing that matters.
Simone and Vladimir
As far as split humans go, it’s interesting to note that it does sometimes happen that two people who did not know each other and never read each other’s works write the very same phrases.
A fine definition of love was phrased by both philosopher Simone Weil and philosopher, mystic and poet Vladimir Solovyov: ‘To love someone is to understand he exists.’
We’ll be able to understand this statement better after reading my loose translation of a passage from the opening paragraph of Anton Chekhov’s ‘Rothschild’s Violin’ (or ‘Rothschild’s Fiddle’ in some translations):
Yakov Ivanov, whose nickname in the street was Bronze, lived in a poor way like a humble peasant, in a little old hut in which there was only one room. In this room he had the coffins he built, a bed for two, a pair of winter shoes, his wife Marfa, a stove, a bench, and other domestic possessions.
Did you notice where Marfa is placed? She’s somewhere between the shoes and the stove. She doesn’t really exist. She’s in Yakov’s background, part of the setting (and if you, my reader, have philosophical tendencies, you’re welcome to think of Yakov as a solipsist).
To love someone, Vladimir and Simone told us, you need to understand that they exist just like you do, to feel their joy when they are happy, sympathize with their sadness when they are down, and ache with them.
Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.
Solovyov wrote a philosophical essay entitled ‘The Meaning of Love’, in which he presents numerous exciting and far-reaching conclusions. It can be found in certain specialty bookstores, but I must warn you that despite its straightforward title it is not an easy read.
In any event, one of Solovyov’s conclusions is that there is only one force that can transcend the pathological egotism we are all afflicted by: the power of love, and even more so, erotic love. To love someone is to want to live with them and no one else for the rest of your life.
To love someone means that one’s willing to grow old besides that person.
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith ‘A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!’
Robert Browning, ‘Rabbi ben Ezra’
A Chinese Legend, with Homework
In Cinema Paradiso, the Italian film by Giuseppe Tornatore, old Alfredo tells Salvatore (who was the little boy nicknamed Toto who had just fallen desperately in love with a girl) an old legend. Below I present you with my version of that legend, followed by a mental exercise.
The Soldier and the Princess
One day a simple Chinese soldier happened to see the famously beautiful Princess Sun-lu as she passed him by in her carriage. That split second, that single glimpse, struck the soldier dumb. Instantly he fell head over heels in love with her. But what can a simple soldier do when he falls in love with a princess? What chance does he have? Still, when you love someone truly, you do extraordinary things, so the soldier decided to go to the royal palace, wait for an opportunity to see the princess again, and confess his great love to her.
He went there the very next day and waited by the great stairs that led to the palace. When he saw the princess taking noble steps down the stairs, he fell to her feet and told her how he felt. Her guards immediately attacked him, but just before they beheaded him the princess said with the faintest of smiles: ‘Look, if you want me so badly, I’ll let you be with me – provided that you stand underneath my window for 100 days and nights. If you do that, I will be yours.’
The entire entourage and guards burst out laughing at the clever words of the witty and pretty princess, but the soldier did not laugh. ‘That I will do,’ he asserted. He went to her garden, positioned himself underneath her window, and stood and stood and stood there. The princess was the first thing on his mind when he woke up in the morning and the last thing he thought of when he fell asleep at night.
He stood there while the sun scorched his face and while heavy rains drenched him and chilled him to the bone. Kind citizens gave him some food and water, and he stood there and did not move for a month, two months, three months. He was totally worn out, but he kept standing, driven by the power of his great love. Night turned into day and day into night, and the soldier stood there, totally devoted. He was still there on the 99th night.
On the 100th day, one night before the princess was about to be his, he looked at her window for the last time, turned around and walked away. No one ever saw or heard of him again.
Question: Why did the soldier abandon his post one day before completing his mission?
Hint: There may be a few correct answers.
The Secret of the Fox
It was then that the fox appeared. […]
‘Come and play with me,’ proposed the Little Prince.‘I am so unhappy.’
‘I cannot play with you,’ the fox said.‘I am not tamed.’ […] ‘What does that mean – tamed?’
‘It is an act too often neglected,’ said the fox. ‘It means to establish ties.’
‘To establish ties?’
‘Just that,’ said the fox. ‘To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world ...’
‘I am beginning to understand,’ said the Little Prince. ‘There is a flower ... I think that she has tamed me ...’
The Little Prince begins to understand the lesson that the fox has taught him. Note the use of the verb, to tame. Taming is a process that takes a very long time and is based on training, ceremonies and trust. The fox tells the Prince that only when you tame someone do you really know them, and the only people who really know you are those who have tamed you. Now, the Little Prince is beginning to understand that his rose indeed is unique and singular, the only one for him.
The fox sends the Prince to see the roses again, and promises to teach him a great secret on his return. So the Little Prince goes back to the rose garden and understands what the fox has taught him – that his rose is nothing like the other roses. They are all beautiful, of course, but mean nothing to him. He also understands that his rose means nothing to other people, those who don’t know her. For the Prince, however, she is the one and only. He has watered her, put her under a glass globe, sheltered her behind the screen, saved her from the caterpillars that wanted to harm her beauty, listened attentively when she was silent, when she grumbled, and when she boasted. He has heard her every complaint, cherished her beauty, made her breakfasts and admired her fragrance. ‘She is more important that all the hundreds of you roses … because she is my rose,’ the Little Prince tells the garden roses.
When he returns, the fox teaches him another important lesson: ‘You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.’
To love someone is to tame him or her, and let them tame you. It’s all about the daily rituals of having coffee in the morning, made just the way you like it, and reading together from the same book at night. It’s the trust that forms over the years. To love someone is to know the fragrance of their hair every hour of the day, to know how their pillow smells when they go to work before you do. To start whistling the same tune even though you are in different rooms. To want to see the world through their eyes. To know that she is the one and only one for you in the whole world. (You simply must see Cherry Blossoms, the most romantic film by Doris Dörrie!)
Perhaps the feelings that we experience when we are in
love represent a normal state. Being in love shows a person
who he should be.
The Little Prince loves the rose very much, but as often happens with love he doesn’t really understand her, and she (the rose) doesn’t understand him at all. When he reaches the deep insight that ‘women should be loved without trying to understand them’, it is already too late.
And just before the Little Prince goes away, the fox reveals yet another very important and very simple secret to him:
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.