Large Problems For Little Minds

One of the things I love best about children’s books is how they manage to make complex, mature concepts fathomable to young minds. I was raised in part by “The Phantom Tollbooth,” and Milo and Tock were my childhood companions long before Calvin and Hobbs. It has been some time since I last read it, but I remember certain conceptual gems in Norton Juster’s writing: encountering personifications of Rhyme and Reason, watching a conductor rally a silent orchestra for a daily performance of the sunrise, and meeting a boy perched three feet in the air, his head in the clouds as a youth and his feet growing towards the earth as he ages. I will have to rustle up another copy to read anew.

In the meantime, I am reading The Little Prince in English for the first time. I started reading the original French text in my last year of high school, but was unable to grasp a signifiant portion of the meaning. I am glad for the chance to absorb it now.

The next planet was inhabited by a drunkard. This visit was a very brief one, but it plunged the little prince into a deep depression. 

“What are you doing there?” he asked the drunkard, whom he found sunk in silence before a collection of empty bottles and a collection of full ones. 

“Drinking,” replied the drunkard, with a gloomy expression. 

“Why are you drinking?” the little rinse asked.

“To forget,” replied the drunkard. 

“To forget what?” inquired the little prince, who was already feeling sorry for him. 

“To forget that I am ashamed,” confessed the drunkard, hanging his head. 

“What are you ashamed of?” inquired the little prince, who wanted to help. 

“Of drinking!” concluded the drunkard, withdrawing into silence for good. And the little prince went on his way, puzzled. 

“Grown-ups are certainly very, very strange,” he said to himself as he continued on his journey. 

Had I read this as a child, I would have never guessed that one day I would be gathering several dozen empty cider bottles (shoved beneath dorm-issued beds, within desk drawers, above closet shelves, and behind the doors of bathroom cabinetry), the perpetrator avoiding my eyes as I cleared away his accumulation of shame. Loyal always to my family’s emphasis on self-reliance and moral superiority, I believed that “drunkards” were inherently weaker beings bereft of both willpower and logical capability. My righteous childhood self would have been offended at any implication that I would later associate with them and become one myself.

But as I navigated the excesses of college life abroad, I came to realize that grown-ups were (and, by extension, growing up was) very, very strange indeed, so strange as to be hopelessly imperfect. How else could I explain how, in the infinite and ever-expanding universe of human experience, I came to colonize that tiny asteroid where life is unbearable with alcohol and unlivable without? In that minute territory, my isolation was complete.

Had he met me as I was, stranded upon my continually diminishing sphere of influence and control, the little prince would have abandoned me too.

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