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How a Smile Saved Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Life: A Soul-Stirring Meditation on the Shared Humanity of Our Universal Language

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“Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed.”

Though researchers since Darwin may have spent considerable effort on the science of smiles, at the heart of that simple human expression remains a metaphysical art — one captured nowhere more beautifully and grippingly than in a short account by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, found in Letter to a Hostage (public library) — the same exquisite short memoir he began writing in December of 1940, a little more than two years before he created The Little Prince on American soil, which also gave us his poignant reflection on what the Sahara desert teaches us about the meaning of life.

In a creative sandbox for what would become Saint-Exupéry’s most famous line in The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — he writes:

How does life construct those lines of force which make us alive?

[…]

Real miracles make little noise! Essential events are so simple!

One such essential event in Saint-Exupéry’s life had to do with the mundane miracle of a simple smile, a gift he so poetically describes as “a certain miracle of the sun, which had taken so much trouble, for so many million years, to achieve, through ourselves, that quality of a smile which was pure success.” He once again channels the spirit of his famous Little Prince line and writes:

The essential, most often, has no weight. The essential there, was apparently nothing but a smile. A smile is often the essential. One is paid with a smile. One is rewarded by a smile. And the quality of a smile might make one die.

Indeed, in a subsequent chapter, Saint-Exupéry recounts an incident that rendered a smile very much the difference between life and death — his life and death. One night during his time in Spain as a journalist reporting on the Civil War, he found himself with several revolver barrels pressed tightly into his stomach — the militia of the rebel forces had snuck up on him under the veil of the dark and captured him in “solemn silence,” staring at his tie — “such a luxury was not fashionable in an anarchist area” — rather than his face. He recounts:

My skin tightened. I waited for the shot, for this was the time of quick trials. But there was no shot. After a complete blank of a few seconds, during which the shifts at work appeared to dance in another universe — a kind of dream ballet — my anarchists, slightly nodding their heads, bid me precede them, and we set off, without hurry, across the lines of junction. The capture had been done in perfect silence, with an extraordinary economy of movement. It was like a game of creatures of the ocean bed.

I soon descended to a basement transformed into a guard post. Badly lit by a poor oil lamp, some other militia were dozing, their guns between their legs. They exchanged a few words, in a neutral voice, with the men of my patrol. One of them searched me.

Saint-Exupéry didn’t speak Spanish, but understood enough Catalan to gather that his identity documents were being requested. He tried to communicate to his captors that he had left them at the hotel, that he was journalist, but they merely passed around his camera, yawning and expressionless. The atmosphere, to his surprise, wasn’t what one would expect of an anarchist militia camp:

The dominant impression was that of boredom. Boredom and sleep. The power of concentration of these men seemed exhausted. I almost wished for a sign of hostility, as a human contact. But … they gazed at me without any reaction, as if they were looking at a Chinese fish in an aquarium.

(One has to wonder whether that desire for contact, whatever its nature or cost, might be a universality of the human condition — the same impulse that drives trolls to spew the venom of hostility as a desperate antidote to their own apathy and existential boredom. Aggression is, perhaps, the only form of contact of which they are capable, and yet it is contact they crave so compulsively.)

After a tortuous period of observing his captors wait for nothing in particular, Saint-Exupéry grew increasingly exasperated with a longing for contact, for the mere acknowledgement of his existence. He paints the backdrop of the miracle that would take place:

In order to load myself with the weight of real presence, I felt a strange need to cry out something about myself, which would impose upon them the truth of my existence — my age for instance! That is impressive, the age of a man! That summarizes all his life. This maturity of his has taken a long time to achieve. It was grown through so many obstacles conquered, so many serious illnesses cured, so many griefs appeased, so many despairs overcome, so many dangers unconsciously passed. It has grown through so many desires, so many hopes, so many regrets, so many lapses, so much love. The age of a man, that represents a good load of experience and memories. In spite of decoys, jolts, and ruts, you have continued to plod like a horse drawing a cart.

Saint-Exupéry was thirty-seven at the time.

But what happened next had nothing to do with the achievement of age, or the gravitas of maturity, or any other willful self-assertion. Instead, it was driven by the simplest, most profound form of shared humanity:

Then the miracle happened. Oh! a very discreet miracle. I had no cigarette. As one of my guards was smoking, I asked him, by gesture, showing the vestige of a smile, if he would give me one. The man first stretched himself, slowly passed his hand across his brow, raised his eyes, no longer to my tie but to my face, and, to my great astonishment, he also attempted a smile. It was like the dawning of the day.

This miracle did not conclude the tragedy, it removed it altogether, as light does shadow. There had been no tragedy. This miracle altered nothing visible. The feeble oil lamp, the table scattered with papers, the men propped against the wall, the colors, the smell, everything remained unchanged. Yet everything was transformed in its very substance. That smile saved me. It was a sign just as final, as obvious in its future consequences, as unchangeable as the rising of the sun. It marked the beginning of a new era. Nothing had changed, everything was changed. The table scattered with papers became alive. The oil lamp became alive. The walls were alive. The boredom dripping from every lifeless thing in that cellar grew lighter as if by magic. It seemed that an invisible stream of blood had started flowing again, connecting all things in the same body, and restoring to them their significance.

The men had not moved either, but, though a minute earlier they had seemed to be farther away from me than an antediluvian species, now they grew into contemporary life. I had an extraordinary feeling of presence. That is it: of presence. And I was aware of a connection.

The boy who had smiled at me, and who, until a few minutes before, had been nothing but a function, a tool, a kind of monstrous insect, appeared now rather awkward, almost shy, of a wonderful shyness — that terrorist! He was no less a brute than any other. But the revelation of the man in him shed such a light upon his vulnerable side! We men assume haughty airs, but within the depth of our hearts, we know hesitation, doubt, grief.

Nothing had yet been said. Yet everything was resolved.

Original watercolor for The Little Prince by Saint-Exupéry. Click image for more.

Saint-Exupéry ends with a reflection on the sacred universality and life-giving force of that one simple gesture, the human smile:

Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed. We communicate in a smile beyond languages, classes, and parties. We are faithful members of the same church, you with your customs, I with mine.

Four years after he wrote Letter to a Hostage, which is a sublime read in its totality, Saint-Exupéry disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. Popular legend has it that Horst Rippert, the German fighter pilot who shot down the author’s plane, broke down and wept upon hearing the news — Saint-Exupéry had been his favorite author. What a tragic form of contact, war.

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Mr. Bliss: Tolkien’s Little-Known Children’s Book for His Own Kids, Lovingly Handwritten and Illustrated by the Author Himself

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“‘What color?’ said Mr. Binks. ‘Bright yellow,’ said Mr. Bliss, ‘inside and out.’”

J.R.R. Tolkien firmly believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and yet, unbeknownst to most, he joined the ranks of famous authors of literature for grown-ups who wrote little-known children’s books — including Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein — and actually penned a book specifically for kids. He wrote Mr. Bliss (public library) for his own two children when they were small — much like the fairy tales E.E. Cummings wrote for his only daughter, Sylvia Plath’s verses for her kids, and the controversial story Faulkner penned for the daughter of the woman he’d later marry. Though it is unclear precisely when Tolkien created Mr. Bliss, the tale was inspired by his first car, which he purchased in 1932. It was published posthumously exactly fifty years later. Tolkien went on to use two of the character names from the book, Gaffer Gamgee and Boffin, in The Lord of the Rings.

The book, affectionately handwritten and illustrated by Tolkien himself — who, also unbeknownst to many, was a dedicated artist — tells the story of Mr. Bliss, a lovable eccentric known for his exceptionally tall hats and his “girabbits,” the giraffe-headed, rabbit-bodied creatures that live in his backyard. One day, Mr. Bliss decides to buy his very first motor car (and to my personal delight, as someone strongly partial to yellow, he proclaims to the salesman that he wants it to be “bright yellow, inside and out.”) But his first drive en route to a friend’s house soon turns into a Rube Goldberg machine of disaster as he collides with nearly everything imaginable, then gets kidnapped by three bears.

The ending, of course, is equal parts joyful and quirky.

As far as lesser-known children’s books by famous authors of “adult” literature go, Mr. Bliss is a winner. Complement it with Tolkien’s gorgeous art, then revisit some more fairly obscure children’s books by Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, Aldous Huxley, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, T. S. Eliot, and John Updike.

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Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit

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A beautiful illustrated celebration of women’s journey toward creative freedom and mobility.

Amid a children’s book ecosystem marked by a lamentable lack of ethnic diversity and gobsmacking presence of female protagonists in only 31% of books, here comes Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit (public library) — a heartening antidote from the young artist-storyteller Amrita Das and Tara Books, the remarkable Indian independent publisher who for the past two decades has been giving voice to marginalized storytelling through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on Indian folk traditions.

Das’s story is both semi-autobiographical and universal, a celebration of the “sliver of chance” that came her way and catapulted her into a life of creative independence, the same serendipitous happenstance that every so often makes life so strange and wonderful for each of us.

A young girl leaves her tiny village and goes to the town of Chennai to learn art. On the train, she meets another girl from a poor family and in her eyes she sees not only her own story, but the wider story of what it means for a girl to blossom into a woman’s life, free to make her own choices and speak for herself in a culture where women are routinely spoken for.

Das’s gorgeous artwork is based on the Mithila tradition — the same folk art style that gave us the superb Waterlife — but subverts it to unusual ends for a result that is both radical and respectful of its cultural heritage. Sometimes symbolic, sometimes humorous, sometimes imbued with metaphoric commentary on culture, her drawings become succinct visual epiphanies that explore the boundary between the known and the unknown, the given and the earned.

From the tangle of train tracks to the commuter chaos of the city street, Das’s drawings extend beautiful and poignant visual metaphors for the plight of mobility amid social conventions designed to keep women static.

The poor do have pride. They don’t ask, and they have nothing to offer in return.

In an inquiry pursued more directly in the wonderful Drawing from the City, Das also explores what it means to be a young, independent woman in the city. And though the specificity of the narrative weds it to the context of Indian culture, implicit to it is the broader question of what it means to be a member of a marginalized group — any marginalized group — in a mainstream society designed to limit your options and oppress your opportunities for self-actualization.

A girl’s life is hard, especially if you’re cursed to be poor. It’s gone even before you start on it. There’s all the work, but even more than being tied to these endless tasks, it’s the mean and hurtful way people speak to you.

If you dream for a moment, you’re asked why you’re twiddling your thumbs.

You’re not supposed to want anything, let alone allow your heart or your self to travel. No one lets you forget that you’re born a girl, not a boy.

Freedom. What does that word mean to us?

Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit is impossibly wonderful from cover to cover, both as an aesthetic experience and an emotional journey. For more of Tara’s treasures, see The Night Life of Trees, a breathtaking handmade homage to Indian mythology, Waterlife, a collection of exquisite illustrations of marine creatures inspired by Indian folklore, and I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, a Victorian “trick-poem” illustrated with stunning die-cut Indian art.

Images courtesy of Tara Books

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