Thursday, November 27, 2014

The price of Fox's secret


The Little Prince is sad. He has left his planet and the rose he cared for. Now on Earth, he is devastated to find there are thousands of roses, when he thought his was unique.
    He meets a strange, pretty animal that greets him from under an apple tree. It is a fox.
    The Little Prince asks the fox to play with him. Fox tells him, "I cannot play with you because I have not been tamed."
    The Little Prince does not know the meaning of this word "tamed".
    He has to ask three times before the fox tells him that "to be tamed" is "to establish ties."
    How is that done? It takes time, the fox instructs. If the Little Prince wishes to tame him, he must meet him in the meadow at a certain time every day and sit at a certain distance. Each day, the Little Prince may move a little closer. In this way, the fox is eventually tamed and is able to reveal the secret of life.


It's a lovely story, from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's beloved fable The Little Prince, known to most of us from childhood. The secret the fox is about to give is one of the great moments of clear and simple revelation in world literature. But he can only give it when he has been "tamed".
     Now it seems improbable that any fox would ask to be tamed in the sense of being house-broken or put on a leash or made to obey commands. The critical word "tamed" is a correct, but imperfect, translation of Saint-Exupéry's original term apprivoisé. In French, “to tame” an animal (or person) in the sense of making them submissive is dompter; to turn something wild into a domesticated being is domestiquer.
     Apprivoiser
has a different lilt. In early medieval French usage, it means to make something  less savage (but not domesticated), to make something alien more familiar. For the poet-prince Charles d’Orléans, apprivoiser is to make someone gentler, softer, more tractable. The fox tells the Little Prince that the way to bring this about is créer liens, to make links or ties.
      Synonyms for apprivoisier might include “to gentle” or “to befriend”. As the fox uses the word, it is about establishing the kind of connection that will make your relationship unique.  Once gentled (apprivoisé) the fox is no longer one of a thousand foxes that hunt chickens and are pursued by hunters; he is your special friend. Once a rose has befriended you, it is no longer one of a hundred thousand roses; it is your rose.
     “Here is my secret,” the fox, befriended, says to the Little Prince. “It is very simple. You can only see clearly with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eyes."
     Fox has two more secrets, all of them things that humans have forgotten.
    “It is the time you lost for the sake of the rose that made the rose so important.”
    Then, never to be forgotten: Tu deviens responsible pour toujours de ce que tu as apprivoisé. “You are responsible, forever, for everything you have gentled. You are responsible for your rose.”

I think of an old white oak, a tree that I know that knows me. Its image shines in my mind as the Little Prince’s rose shines in his. When I need to know whether other thoughts or visions are to be trusted, I sometimes let the oak rise and rustle in my inner senses, to confirm or caution.
    I think of the red-tailed hawk who dropped from the sky to guide me and, as I came to know, to do something more: to befriend me and, in its own wildness, to gentle me.
Elle m’a apprivoisé.    
    I think of how Death has come to me, over and over, in personal guise, sometimes as a Hindu god who speaks in the accent of an Oxbidge-educated maharajah. In gentling me, Death has found it amusing to play the gentleman. Now I see the brilliance of the French translators of The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead in devising the title Apprivoiser la Mort par le Rêve for my book. “To Gentle Death through Dreaming.”  

Available from Éditions AdA

Graphic: Watercolor by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from Le Petit Prince

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