Thursday, April 08, 2004

Anything essential is invisible to the eyes


"So I lived alone, without anyone I could really talk to, until I had to make a crash landing in the Sahara desert six years ago..."
(The Little Prince)

My cousin calls me from the other room: “French find Saint-Exupery’s plane.” He reads the news from the BBC web site. I am reading Lolita in Tehran so my mind immediately connects what I hear to my own life in post-revolutionary Tehran. It reminds me of the literary circle my friends and I had in the mid-80s. We were a bunch of boys and one girl who for different reasons had fallen in love with the book The Little Prince. We used to get together every week and talk about different ways of interpreting the book.
At first glance The Little Prince was a book for children, nothing more. Most of us had read it back in our childhood. But reading it again in Iran of the mid-80s’ was a different experience. In that environment reading every thing was a different experience. I remember how in my mind the Moscow of Master and Margarita seemed so similar to Tehran under Khomeini. D├╝rrenmatt’s The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi became the story of Islamic revolution and the disillusionment with Marxist and Islamist revolutionary ideas. I saw D├╝rrenmatt’s play six times in "Taa'aatr-e Shahr - the City Playhouse.
They were the years of Mysticism too. All of a sudden Sohrab Sepehri became popular and his collection of poems -Hasht Ketaab (Eight Books)- was printed more than 10 times during a three years period. Finding mystic meanings in The Little Prince was not a bad alternative to the failed ideologies which claimed to change reality the way instant coffee changes hot water. We sought changes in supposedly deeper levels.
Finding Saint-Exupery’s plane somehow erased the beautiful mystery that unified The Little Prince with Exupery himself. At the end of the story the Little Prince disappears in a semi-religious way. He travels to his own planet through a process that is very similar to the self-death of an enlightened dervish. “You understand. It’s too far. I can’t take this body with me...” The religious tone of the book is so powerful that one can compare it to Rumi mystic stories in Mathnavi. Amazingly Saint-Exupery’s disappearance in the Mediterranean Sea a few years later was extremely similar. “Look at the landscape carefully to be sure of recognizing it, if you should travel to Africa some day, in the desert. And if you happen to pass by here, I beg you not to hurry past. Wait a little just under the sun! Then if a child comes to you, if he laughs, if he has golden hair, if he doesn’t answer your questions, you’ll know who he is...”
For 60 years the metaphysical language of this piece somehow mystified Exupery’s own death. As an old fan, I should admit I enjoyed the mystery of his disappearance in the sky. I enjoyed his angel-like “ascension”. It was today’s news about finding his plane that made me notice how anyone (even a person like me, with a sense of dislike towards any thing and anyone “Saintified” and sacred) can fall into the same trap.
But is it really a trap?
Maybe mystifying is a form of involving imagination in understanding reality. Imagination makes the reality bearable by making it beautiful, and making it sensible by adding imaginary meanings to it. So why should I be against it when I know both the meaning and the beauty are imaginary? After all the process of mystification is the process that any great work of art passes through.
Maybe my dislike of mystified objects and people comes from my years of “torture/life” in Iran. Religion in power makes you hate any kind of imaginary sacredness. Maybe because religion wants you and forces you to change the reality based on those imagined meanings, instead of just interpreting it. I never forgot the political slogan I used to see every day on the front wall of my high school. It was an aphorism by Khomeini: “Islam is what we all have to be sacrificed for.”
Saying all this, I still miss the years Exupery’s plane was hidden. It gave a meaning to the ocean, the same way the well in the book gave a meaning to the desert.

* For reading and listening to Ahmad Shamlou's translation of The Little Prince in Persian go here.