Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Little Prince, The Alchemist, and the Promptings of the Spirit

For ages, I have had a huge problem with one of the ways the universe is run. I refer specifically to separateness, or the existence of barriers of space, skin, knowledge, or emotions that exclude things from one another. This problem of barriers (often specific to those between God and man) has consumed my philosophical life, and as a result many of my blog posts concern it. This will be another. Here, I will examine two very similar works of fiction, the Little Prince and the Alchemist, and try to see what they have to say on the aforementioned subject.

We begin with the Little Prince.

 The Little Prince, a novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1943, is easily a candidate for my favorite book of all time. I say this because it is, so to speak, insightfully dense: it has the most insights into spirituality or human experience per page of any book I have ever read.

The book begins with the narrator's lament of his wasted potential as an artist. He begins by describing how he, as a child,  made an odd yellow shape as a drawing.

As a quick aside, what do you see? One's initial reaction is to call it a hat, which is exactly what the "grown-ups" to whom the narrator showed it thought. In reality, it is a boa constrictor that has swallowed an elephant, as demonstrated by his next drawing:

When they saw this clarifying sketch, the grown-ups quickly told the narrator that he should cease drawing, and focus on more "useful" subjects like geography, grammar, etc.. Though he followed their advice, he continued to show the first drawing to everyone he met on his travels, and ask them what they saw. The answer, inevitably, was a hat. 

The main story begins many years later, as the narrator crashes in the Sahara desert. There, he meets the Little Prince, a boy dressed in strangely regal attire. He asks the narrator to draw him a sheep, but he gives him the aforementioned first drawing instead. To his shock and awe, the Little Prince correctly states that it depicts an elephant-boa, and asks him again to draw him a sheep. The narrator makes a first attempt, but is rejected. Apparently, it is "too sickly". He tries again, but the Prince notices that this second drawing has horns, and is therefore not a sheep, but a ram. He tries yet again, but this time the sheep is "too old". Finally, the narrator gives up, and makes a drawing of a box, saying that the sheep is inside.

Coming as a complete surprise to the narrator, this makes the Little Prince content. This encounter has a profound effect on the narrator, making him realize that not all people are like the grown-ups. But, sadly, he realizes that he is a grown up, as explained in the following quotation: 

"My friend never explained anything to me. He thought, perhaps, that I was like himself. But I, alas, do not know how to see sheep through the walls of boxes. Perhaps I am a little like the grown ups. I have had to grow old."

Here the book states explicitly the issue with which I began this post: we cannot see through the walls of boxes, or into the bellies of snakes. In other words, we can't connect with people or other entities beyond the boundaries that separate us from them. However, if we are to believe this novel, apparently some people can. But how?  Luckily, the novel solves the problem. Near the end of a prolonged flashback of the Little Prince, the narrator recounts his encounter with a very wise fox, who says this:

"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye"

This quotation seems to suggest that our normal way of looking at things is deficient, and is thus responsible for our inability to connect across barriers. But what alternative is there? That is to say, what does the Fox mean by "the heart"? For the answer, we must turn to our next book.

The Alchemist is a book written by Paulo Coelho, first published in 1986. While nowhere near as subtle as the Little Prince, it rivals it in the profundity of its insights, if not the quantity. It tells the story of a young Spanish shepherd boy named Santiago, who, following an omen from his dreams, travels to the Egyptian pyramids in search of treasure.

The book makes many metaphysical observations, but they all revolve around a central concept: the Soul of the World. Some of these observations follow:

"Intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it's all written there."

"[The] Soul of the World allowed them [the alchemists] to understand anything on the face of the earth, because it was the language with which all things communicated."

"Listen to your heart. It knows all things, because it came from the soul of the world, and it will one day return there."

These seem to suggest another solution to the first problem posed above, and illuminates the Fox's previous answer. If we can connect to the "Soul of the World", we can by understanding traverse the barriers that separate us from other things. But what is this soul, really? The connection to intuition in the first quotation makes me think of something probably very familiar to most readers. For to what do most Mormons attribute sudden flashes of insight? The answer is nothing less than the Holy Spirit.

By comparing the Little Prince, the Alchemist, and Mormon doctrine, I hypothesize that the promptings of the Spirit allow us to see into the mind of God, at least for a moment. By following our divine inner natures, or our hearts, we are able to experience flashes of God's insight, which connect us to other things. But the key here is that they do not come through regular perception. To have this experience we must learn to use an entirely different sense, one of pure love, which is as impossible to describe to another as sound would be to a deaf person. That's why I would never be able to tell you what I experienced through this second sight. But it is definitely achievable, and that alone gives me comfort.

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