`The thing that is not seen'

SOMETIMES it is possible to actually be put off by someone else's enthusiasm for a thing.

Years ago a friend said to me: ``You mean to tell me that you've never read `The Little Prince'?'' She said it in a tone of such disbelief at my ignorance, culturally starved upbringing, and lack of general savoir-faire that I immediately took a strong and lasting dislike to Antoine de Saint-Exupery's small classic. Without reading it, of course.

The same friend also recommended, and with a similarly incredulous advocacy, Don Marquis's ``archy and mehitabel.'' I did try, for a few moments, to read that. But I quickly decided that typewriting insects were neither funny nor illuminating, just misguided.

However, now, in a show of solidarity with New York's Pierpoint Morgan Library, I have actually, at last, read every single word of ``The Little Prince,'' from ``Once when I was six years old...'' to ``...send me word that he has come back.'' I felt I should. After all, it was published exactly 50 years ago, so it's probably time I did, and there's nothing like an anniversary.

The much-respected library is doing its part as well by exhibiting (through Jan. 2, 1994) the book's original manuscript and illustrations, now in the Morgan's collection. Also on view are photographs of Saint-Exupery by former Life photographer John Phillips, first editions of ``The Little Prince,'' and other works by its author, and even a love letter to his wife. This is the same wife who, according to Saint-Exupery biographer Stacy Shiff in The New York Times Book Review, was ``known to propel plates from her end of the dinner table to the other if her husband monopolized their guests' attention.'' Presumably the love letter predated his discovery of this propensity of hers for domestic missile-launching.

``The Little Prince'' has been a classic success. The library describes it as ``a source of delight for millions,'' but also as a ``haunting fable.'' This seems to come somewhat closer to the strange atmosphere of the misleadingly whimsical little work - on the one hand coy, on the other instilled with a deadly earnest, apparently written for children, yet certainly full of meanings and morals for adults.

When one of its earliest readers in France, who knew Saint-Exupery, first read ``The Little Prince'' she was overcome with tears. Biographer Schiff writes: ``She realized she was crying not over the book but for Saint-Exupery, who had poured so much of himself into it.''

The book was also seen to have prefigured Saint-Exupery's death. He disappeared flying on a reconnaissance mission over southern France during World War II, only two years after completing ``The Little Prince.'' At the end of the book, the princeling from outer space also disappears, though in rather a different way. This book, which began with a lighthearted, childish, adult-baffling drawing of an elephant inside a boa-constrictor that looks to the unperceptive like a hat, ends in aching sorrow.

``The Little Prince'' was not quite the immediate success some of Saint-Exupery's other books had been, books connected with his experiences as an aviator. It must have been something of a surprise to his admirers. From the dips I have made into some of his other writing, now that ``The Little Prince'' is on my list of special books, too, it is clear that he was a writer who commanded words, who made a prose that was close to poetry, who punctuated a free-flow of description with sudden, quick insights that one immediately recognizes as true but hadn't even formulated as thought or word.

Although heroism, courage, loyalty, and duty were among Saint-Exupery's themes, merely thrilling excitement and adventure were not. He learned through his own experience that bravery was not, perhaps, quite the admirable quality it might be commonly thought to be. What he reiterates is the overriding importance to him of human relationships, and he shows how the nuance and sensitivity of human contact and understanding can be made intense by the most lonely and dire straits that courageous men sometimes find themselves trapped in.

As an aviator, he seems to have been forever falling out of the sky in one way or another. He called these occasions ``minor mishaps,'' observing (in ``Wind, Sand and Stars'') that ``in those days our planes frequently fell apart in mid-air.'' His compelling and magical descriptions of early flying give back an original and stimulating awe to what has today become little more than a calm interruption of our earthbound routines, scarcely more interesting than a bus trip. He reminds us that man has in fact found a way to be like a migratory bird, with both the intense exaltations and wild dangers that can entail.

Out of his unplanned landings, in fields, on desert plateaus, wherever, arise experiences that are revelatory.

Saint-Exupery, as a writer at least, seems forever on the edge of the revelatory. His ``Little Prince'' (which appears to be very simply written, but apparently cost him considerable effort) makes a refrain of one idea in particular: That ``the thing that is important is the thing that is not seen.'' Like the elephant in the boa constrictor. The child can see straight away what the drawing means because the invisible is no mystery to children. All the adult can see is a drawing that looks like a hat.

Saint-Exupery as an illustrator is a naif. He knew he was, and felt that his attempts had what his story needed rather than the art-schooled illustrations of a professional. Without these fay, weak, eccentric little drawings (the princeling himself is particularly cute and unbelievable) his fable would certainly not have been what it is. The drawings are, anyway, more than illustrations. They are essential parts of the narrator's imaginative development of the tale. ``The Baobabs'' for instance, by the narrator's own account in the book, cost him a great deal of trouble. (He is, after all, an aviator, not an artist.) But this trouble was worthwhile because it was at the prompting of the little prince that he made this drawing - as a warning to others.

Today the symbolism of this warning might appear to be ``green.'' It might just mean: ``Care for the natural.'' But it might equally apply to any number of other aspects of human doings and thinkings. Baobabs are trees that ``you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to [them] too late.'' They may start small, but they can take over whole planets. They can split small planets into pieces with their roots. That is why the diminutive dauphin requested the narrator to draw him a sheep - to help him, when he returns to his own small asteroid, to control the baobabs.

The drawings of the sheep, however, do not please the minuscule heir to the throne. The first wasn't well, according to him. The second had horns, and the undersized son-of-a-king pointed out that this meant it wasn't a sheep but a ram. The third drawing was pronounced ``too old.'' And, at last, the slow-witted adult gets the point. He draws a box. He explains: ``This is only a box. The sheep you asked for is inside.'' And this, at last, pleases the princelet. He bends over the drawing and observes: ``Look! He has gone to sleep....''

The best drawings, like the best writings, are those that admit that it is impossible for them to describe the invisible. Antoine de Saint-Exupery was one to understand this. I see that now.

* ` ``Saint-Exupery's ``The Little Prince'' ' will be on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York until Jan. 2, 1994.

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