Monday, April 25, 2011

King Lear enters _The Little Prince_

[After the social worker who visits my mother once every two or three weeks wrote to say she'd been showing mom a pop-up version of The Little Prince, I ordered one. Over the past few days I read the book, which is as gorgeously made as it was written by Antoine de Sainte-Exupery, alongside King Lear. And then a small character with a yellow scarf came to tell me the story of how King Lear entered the little prince's world . . . Much language is taken from Ste-Exupery and Shakespeare. The mistakes are all mine, as we say in acknowledgments.]

It took me a long time to understand where he came from. King Lear, who asked so many questions, never seemed to hear the ones anyone else asked him. It was things he said quite at random that, bit by bit, explained everything. For instance, when he first caught sight of an airplane . . . he asked: "What's that thing over there?"

When told that the plane had fallen out of the sky, he asked what planet it was from.

"Of course," he said of the airplane, "that couldn't have brought anyone from very
far . . . " And he fell into a reverie that lasted a long while. Then, taking a sheep out of his pocket, he plunged into contemplation of his treasure.

"You see me here, you gods a poor old man
As full of grief as age, wretched in both."

Something about his daughters was amiss but he would not draw them, nor even the castles they lived in. Another, I suspected, was houseless, wandering in a foreign (oh hard-to-spell!) land, exiled in more than word.

Lear liked the fox and the flower, but not the drunkard or the vain man who looked only and ever for approbation. He was vain, but he was also wise like the fox, lonely like the flower; his sense of place was a dark planet ("cerebral and dark," according to Netflix) on which he propped himself, bare and unforked. The drunkard and he could have talked story: what is it about shame? I'd have asked them, but neither drunk nor King could look beyond his bottle or word hoard. For a demented man, Lear sure seemed to carry around a lot of language. Paranoia's a fertile muse, but she also enters the drought years, rendering earth a cracked slab unbefitting to a sovereign's looping locution.

But the master sees himself not so. "Here I stand your slave, / A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man." He cannot count the stars, nor possess them, because he owes them his jangled moods, his love of piercing light, his debt to eyes that stay in his head. Sad news about his buddy Gloucester: the dead holes in his head, the failed (if ably assisted) suicide, the inability to die even when you or he ordain it. If to be sovereign means you get to choose, then neither Lear nor his friend are so.

Enter the lamplighter. We more than suspect he's Edgar, playing another's self (ragged beyond nounship), cold in the vog of a farther micro-planet. He cannot not light his lamp; his lamp cannot not go out in the dark. Does Gloucester know this? Gloucester cannot see, but Edgar is a more than able narrator. "Father, for you are that, this planet's always on the limn of darkness, save the man who cannot sleep for lighting the lamp."

Lear abhorred snakes, took refuge on mountaintops. He fancied himself a thinker, unprovoked by daily needfulness. But the snake kept slithering, and two daughters passed notes from desk to desk, conspiring havoc. They were not flowers, at least not those he wanted on his nightstand. So many thorns, as if they needed protection from him. From him? He was just a sojourner, a man who gave things away, making inheritance while the sun shone on his white beard.

The railroad seemed one way out, though it hardly crossed the planet borders without enormous slings. Bad engineering made them slingshots, and trains transgressed the very skies, bearing screaming children, angry commuters, releasing coal as acidic rain in tunnels between stars. Don't tell the businessman; he might become more generous with his constellations.

Lear got off at a distant station. No one worked in the building. A water fountain had died long ago. The filing cabinets were full of old teaching aids: How the Pilgrims Came to Plymouth Rock, The Pioneers in Wagons, one with a picture of a sad chief. This did not seem right, nor did it satisfy any thirst he had. He left the station and its paper heaps and walked out into sand fields. A pilot appeared, accoutered in cap and leather flying bag. He too was lost.

There was a happy ending, at least for a time. Using dowsing sticks, they found a spot, unmarked by stone or twig, dug until they reached a vein of water. They drank from the same bucket, sharing more than the cold water. But then the daughters came, and their retinues, and their resentments, even the youngest one's recovered love. There were swords and bitter words, nothing water could wash away, not yet. Only the pilot escaped, muttering something about ripeness, about extremity, about trumpets. He took with him what memories there could be, left the stage a motley fool. What Lear had not already forgotten, forgot Lear.

And no grown-up will ever understand such a thing. Never.

[See Old Women Look Like This for more experiments in which very old people are put in children's stories.]

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