recently listened to a podcast by writer and teacher Maryama Antoine, called, “Toni Morrison, on the pursuit of goodness.” Ah, that word, “goodness.” And when I wondered which French text had to do with goodness, I thought of The Little Prince by French poet Antoine de Saint Exupery, published in 1943, a text that happens to be the most widely translated book after the Bible. Briefly, it’s a story of an aviator whose plane crashes in the Sahara, where he is visited by a little prince from a tiny planet, who keeps him company in the course of the repairs. At the end, the little prince disappears, and we are all keeping a look out for him, hoping that he makes it back to his flower and his planet.
As some of you know, I returned to upstate NY, the place where I was born, after having lived 20 years in France. I decided to teach a couple of classes at a small liberal arts college here. (For French reader’s, college here is university level, not middle school). The motto of this particular college is “Teach me goodness, disciple and knowledge.” I was struck by this idea and the order of it, so for the students’ last paper, a short, reflective piece, I asked them to write a ranked argument. They had to make a case for the order they thought most compelling and to add a fourth term if they thought it was necessary.
I asked them to interview other students to see if there were any consensus. (My mother said I would poll the universe to get all the opinions I need on a certain matter. This is because I do not make decisions easily, but also because it is a lot of fun. You can’t tell students to poll the universe, but you can say, interview your classmates.)
I realized how necessary a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary was to this project. (Miss, couldn’t we just Google the etymology of the word, asked one student. Even the librarian said that Google was pretty good with that. Oh, no, said the Captain, namely yours truly. Onward!) Thankfully, in the school’s database, we almost had access to the OED. We did have to join the NYC Public Library, which hosted the OED. Of course, we had to each get individual library cards, and receive an access code, which we had to enter each time, and then hunt around to find the OED in their database. No, not the scanned version (Good lord, thousands of pages). We found the digital version. We were explorers! It was ridiculous!
Once you arrive on the shores of the OED, you are bathed in the richness of the language. The earliest utterances of the word are cataloged. In this case, goodness was first used in Old English in AD 524 in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which I actually read in modern English to give context to medieval values in our study of Chaucer. (The title gives you the overview, for those few not interested in reading the work.) In the OED, the first meaning of goodness is 1. “virtue, worthiness.” The second definition is 2. “Desire for the happiness of another; kindness, generosity; benevolence, beneficence.”
This second definition seemed like a more promising one to react to, and one I had not necessarily associated with goodness. Much better than the more static view of the term as basically not getting into trouble, or being, “nice.”
The students were quite interesting in their responses, often prioritizing “discipline,” because naturally as college freshmen it was imperative that they have a lot of discipline. The best paper, though, in my mind, argued for the essential, core nature of goodness. In her interviews, the subjects interviewed generally put goodness last. And yet for her, it was the lodestar, a living essence, more than a quality.
As you might imagine, thanks to this student, I’ve been thinking about goodness and its role as we live out our days. So rarely do we see this word mentioned. Maryama’s podcast inspired me to think more about goodness in Godot terms. (We will hear from Maryama about Toni Morrison in our near future.)
WHY LE PETIT PRINCE?
I think there’s a sweetness to this story that I apparently associate with goodness. The adult narrator has a sensitivity to children and learns from the little prince. Here’s a part I love, where the poor aviator is trying to fix his plane and the prince has other ideas for the man’s attention.
The little prince is concerned about the one most beautiful flower and the only flower left behind on his planet. He doesn’t understand why the flower would have four thorns that are of no use to her. And he especially worries that the sheep will unthinkingly eat the flower. “Why does the flower have thorns?” the little prince asks. And our aviator replies that she has grown them out of spite. No, the little prince protests, flowers are fragile, and the thorns are something they need. He asks the aviator if he really believes what he said about the flowers. And in response, the aviator pleads for peace and quiet to repair his plane, because he is occupied with matters of consequence.
Well! The little prince is livid. Of no consequence to investigate the warfare between sheep and flower, of no importance to understand why these thorns come about? And, in fact, he was thinking of the flower he loved on his planet. In the midst of his frustration, the little prince burst into terrible sobs. The aviator lets his tools fall from his hand. “Of what moment now was my hammer, my bolt, or thirst, or death?” the aviator asks. “On one star, one planet, my planet, the Earth, there was a little prince to be comforted.” The aviator promises to draw a muzzle for the sheep or a railing to put around the flower. “I did not know what to say to him,” the aviator says. “I felt awkward and blundering. I did not know how I could reach him, where I could overtake him and go on hand in hand with him once more. It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
In this passage we see much of our definition of goodness: “desire for the happiness of others.” That, together with his generosity of attention, the aviator tries to learn how to be of comfort. I think that’s good, don’t you?
The vagabonds want to go, do not go, want to go. Le cercle vicieux (the vicious circle, although in these works, the circle doesn’t seem vicious, it just goes around and around, sometimes sadly, sometimes not so sadly). Here’s an example of Godotian logic in Chapter 12.
The little prince narrates his arrival in the desert. He has visited three planets before landing in the Sahara near the author and his downed plane. On the third planet, he finds what he calls a “tippler,” and after this short visit he was plunged into “a deep dejection.”
Here is the discussion in full.
“’What are you doing here?’” the little prince said to the tippler, whom he found settled down in silence before a collection of empty bottles and also a collection of full bottles.
“‘I am drinking,’ replied the tippler with a lugubrious air.
“’Why are you drinking?’ demanded the little prince.
“’So that I may forget,’ replied the tippler.
“Forget what?’ inquired the prince who was already sorry for him.
“’Forget that I am ashamed,’ the tippler confessed, hanging his head.
“’Ashamed of what?’ insisted the little prince, who wanted to help him.
“’Ashamed of drinking!’ The tippler brought his speech to an end, and shut himself up in an impregnable silence.
“And the little prince went away, puzzled.
“’The grown-ups are certainly very, very odd,’ he said to himself, as he continued on his journey.”
This kind of tautology, where the definition becomes the outcome and back again, certainly has the flair of Godot. The prince’s sympathy for the “tippler,” or the addict, is a real commiseration, the same kind of commiseration that the vagabonds have with each other for being in this state we call life.
“What are you doing here?” the little prince may well ask Didi or Gogo.
“We are living.”
“Why are you living?” the little prince may well ask Didi or Gogo.
“So that we might forget.”
“Forget that we are ashamed.”
“Ashamed of what?”
“Ashamed of living.”
That Samuel Beckett, author of Waiting for Godot, gets us to think like this is a sign that he is worthy of all his literary accolades, another aspect of goodness, right?
Reader: Can’t we just say Beckett is a good writer? And Saint Exupery too, for that matter?