“What’s freedom for? To know eternity.”

Parallel lines (Photo Credit: Martin WellerCC BY-NC 2.0)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Le Petit Prince) and Anthony de Mello (The Way to Love) might both have been mystics—even iconoclasts—whose names also happened to have contained a preposition; but when it comes to other matters, they seem to have been at odds.

Or were they?

In Le Petit Prince, Saint-Exupéry explores the practice of specific, meaningful attachment. In The Way to Love, de Mello is concerned with realising—in both senses of that word: “coming to figure out” and also “causing to happen”—happiness through detachment—from everyone, everything, everywhere.

Saint-Exupéry has the Prince speaking to the other roses about “his” rose:

“You are beautiful, but you are empty,” he went on. “One could not die for you. To be sure, an ordinary passer-by would think that my rose looked just like you—the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”

Further on, he gives us:

“Men have forgotten this truth,” the fox said. “But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.”

De Mello, meanwhile, has:

If you learn to enjoy the scent of a thousand flowers you will not cling to one or suffer when you cannot get it.

These ideas are from a section in which the author proposes an almost Buddhist-like detachment. (A Jesuit priest, he was held in some contempt by the Church for his Eastern leanings—an unsurprising fact, given his cultural background: he was Indian by birth.)

Saint-Exupéry later writes:

If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night. All the stars are a-bloom with flowers....

...yet also:

If some one loves a flower, of which just one single blossom grows in all the millions and millions of stars, it is enough to make him happy just to look at the stars. He can say to himself, “Somewhere, my flower is there...” But if the sheep eats the flower, in one moment all his stars will be darkened… And you think that is not important!

It almost becomes about knowing and not-knowing. If he doesn’t know the flower has been consumed—but he knows it is somewhere among all the stars—then all is not lost. And yet, what is the difference, practically, between a specific flower—which one has watered and tended—known not to exist any longer, and that same flower, known to exist, but in an indeterminate somewhere?

The contemplation of such questions begins to put one in mind of a kōan: perhaps that is, indeed, the point.

I am fascinated whenever I discover a parallel between two works, whether they be works of music or writing.

In Theodore Roethke’s poem, “I Knew a Woman,” the line:

What’s freedom for? To know eternity.

...seems to parallel the tone of Thornton Wilder’s lines in Our Town:

EMILY. ...Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?
STAGE MANAGER. No. [Pause.] The saints and poets, maybe they do some.

If you’ve ever seen a production of Our Town, you know the finality of the Stage Manager’s “No.” It’s softened, a little, by his musing about saints and poets. The Stage Manager is almost angry, then wistful; but the finality stands.

Roethke somehow asks the same question: “What’s freedom for?” He answers the question with certitude, simultaneously softening it in one go: “To know eternity.” In contrast, Wilder’s version is more abrupt: “No.” followed by a slight admission that, well, maybe a few people do realise what life is about.

To me, such parallels leap out, revealing a unitary collection of essentially elegiac artists. Roethke, Cummings, Wilder, Salinger, Ravel, Bradbury, Saint-Exupéry, Prokofiev, Anderson, and Rilke are but a few who strike me in much the same way—even while their respective works are in other ways very different from one another.

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