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Suppose a Sentence: The irresistible thirst I have to fly

September 15, 2023

“As for me, nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, no one knows where, a sheep we never saw has or has not eaten a rose …” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “The Little Prince.” 

The best sentences are like constellations, their words shining stars strung together to create stories. Or so Brian Dillon posits in “Suppose a Sentence,” his collection of twenty-seven essays on twenty-seven sentences. In the weeks to follow, I will reflect on my own favorite sentences, which come to this column from my scattered notes in the backs of journals and scribbles in the margins of books.

If sentences are constellations, what could be a better start to this series than one about an explorer of the stars? This sentence appears on the final page of “The Little Prince,” as the narrator reflects on the six years since his little prince returned to Asteroid 325. The prince had sought to reunite with his beloved rose and protect her from the sheep trying to eat her.

Above all, “The Little Prince” is a book about imagination. Saint-Exupéry’s narrator, an aviator stranded in the Sahara Desert, first asks the reader to imagine that an amorphous lump shape is a diagram of a boa constrictor that has eaten an elephant. The diagram is clear to a playful mind, but to a dreaded grown-up who casts creativity aside, it may be simply a hat.

In the above sentence, likewise, Saint-Exupéry calls one to imagine the fate of the prince and his rose. An imaginative investigation is so vital, he writes, that “nothing in the universe can be the same” based on its result. Beginning the sentence with this assertion and closing it with ellipses contrasts certainty with possibility—everything will change but anything could happen.

Ellipses suggest endless opportunity: a hat could be a boa constrictor that has eaten an elephant; a prince could love a rose; the world could be full of whimsy. In a remembrance of its author in The New Yorker, journalist Selina Hastings writes that, “The Little Prince” grew popular largely among “the sixties generation of dropouts and flower children,” many of them, like Saint-Exupéry, artists with a playful worldview.

In her 1994 Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of the Frenchman, Stacy Schiff recounts Saint-Exupéry’s distaste for grownups who saw the world as a literal and limited place. Saint-Exupéry, instead, saw possibility. He attempted to build a flying bicycle at the age of twelve. In a letter from adulthood, he echoed his childhood dreams, writing: “Maman, if only you knew the irresistible thirst I have to fly.”

When France entered World War II, Saint-Exupéry was given his chance to fly. He became a renowned army aviator and wrote a number of cockpit memoirs. At one point he even found himself stranded in the Sahara, inspiring “The Little Prince,” first published in April of 1943.

Under Nazi occupation of France, “The Little Prince” did not rise to immediate fame. It was printed instead by regional booksellers, producing deviations in the text. In versions first printed in Paris, the prince came from Asteroid 3251, in New York and London (and in my copy, a gift from my grandmother) from Asteroid 325.

Translations also vary: other versions phrase this sentence differently, asking instead “if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has—yes or no?—eaten a rose …” Translators took some liberty in their language; after all, the imagination tends to run away when it comes to words.

As I write, I find myself challenged by grown-up definitional constraints. This sentence ends in ellipses but lacks a period. Is it self-containing, then? Does it fit all the characteristics with which I will measure my chosen sentences to narrow the bounds of this column? Of course it fits, if one only uses one’s imagination! Its form—whimsical, winding—displays the very traits of the story itself and thus proves the character sentences can hold.

Saint-Exupéry would not live to see the end of the war or his story’s mass acclaim, for he disappeared while flying over southern France in 1944. But his spirit—full of playfulness, wit and wonder—lives on in his books and in the imagination they inspire. Perhaps Saint-Exupéry lives on in the stars, reunited with his little prince, now knowing for certain whether a sheep we never saw has or has not eaten a rose …


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