I’m sure you are very familiar with this phrase. You’ve either said it or thought it, and if you haven’t, then, at least, you’ve sure heard it said.
Sometimes somebody expresses a view, or behaves in a way, that is so different to how we would view or do something that it can feel as if they don’t actually live in the same world as we do.
Saint-Exupery, in “The Little Prince”, has this theme running right through his brilliant, thought-provoking little story. The philosopher, Ravoux, says that the main theme of “Le Petit Prince” is the difficulty we find in making connections. We all experience the world from the first person perspective, and we have no way of experiencing the world from another person’s perspective. Not wholly. Not fully. We use language and fashion stories to try to convey our views and our experiences to others. We use imagination and empathy to try and put ourselves in others’ shoes, but it’s not easy.
The Little Prince visits six, very small, planets. In fact, the planets he visits are so small (really they are asteroids) that only one person can live on each of them. Saint-Exupery uses the common device of pushing each example to an extreme to make it more clear (Deleuze favours this technique, stating that we should push something to its extreme point to reveal its true character).
On the first planet lives a king. He needs to be in control of everything. But he isn’t stupid. He knows his limitations and has rationalised his experience to fit with his need. He only commands to happen what he knows will happen. The Little Prince sees that this is what the king does and finds it absurd, but lots of people are like this. The important issue of them is of feeling in control of everything. The need for control lies deep within us all. When it becomes all-consuming it becomes the standard against which everything is experienced.
The second planet is inhabited by a man who needs to be told that he is the most handsome, most admired man in the world. When The Little Prince points out that there is nobody else on this man’s planet, the man dismisses the point, saying “admire me anyway”. In our present time the cult of celebrity runs very, very strong. It doesn’t matter what you’re famous for, as long as you’re famous. Admire me! Admire me! Notice me!
The third planet is the world of a drunkard. He tells The Little Prince he is ashamed because he drinks so much and he drinks to forget. Forget what? Forget that I am ashamed! Alcohol and drugs as a way of life? You sure know people like this.
The fourth planet is inhabited by “the businessman” who sits at his desk, counting his possessions and ordering them. He claims he owns all the stars in the universe, and when challenged about how this can be so, he shows the pieces of paper which represent his ownership. It’s not the actual stars which matter, it’s the owning them! The Little Prince finds this idea equally absurd.
The fifth planet is where a lamplighter lives. His planet is so small that day and night are only a minute long each, so the poor man is trapped in a constant cycle of lighting and extinguishing the lamps. The Little Prince points out that if he walked slowly round his planet following the light, he could have a break from the continuous cycle of his work, but the man can’t do that. He says it’s important to follow the rules and that’s what he is doing. He is following the rules. Lots of people only feel safe when they strictly follow the rules.
The sixth and final planet is the one where The Little Prince finds a geographer. This man sits at a desk writing down all the reports which people bring him to create the complete knowledge of the planet. However, he never leaves the desk to go and experience the planet for himself. The Little Prince finds it strange that someone can think they can know everything about a place without experiencing it.
We are all different and we are all unique. I can never know if what I experience as “red” when looking at a red rose, is what you experience as “red”. But we can both agree to give our experiences the same name.
Owen Flanagan explores this issue with his idea of “spaces of meaning” where he makes it clear that we each have different ways of making sense of the world. Mary Midgley argues the same point with her analogy of the aquarium which we can only see into through the small windows which are personally available to us.
So, if we really all are on our own planets, with our own sets of values and ways of making sense of things, each of us with our individual world views, then how can we connect? How can relate to other people in their other worlds? Well we need to hear their stories because only they can tell us what they have experienced. And we need to hear their stories using something fundamental and special, Saint-Exupery tells us, and that is LOVE.
It’s LOVE that allows us to connect, to see, hear and understand each others’ worldviews, and it takes LOVE to break down the barriers of isolation and loneliness.