Mary Poppins Meets the Little Prince

The Little Prince Mary Poppins

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry masterfully shaped his story The Little Prince into a fairy tale, illustrated with his naïve, childlike drawings. However, despite the child-friendly appearances of the story, Saint-Exupéry did not, just as Pamela L. Travers, intend to write a children’s book. And, even if The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are enjoyed by children, both characters communicate the life experiences of their authors, and their hard-learned life lessons; they speak to the child within the grown-up reader, they talk about what these authors believed to be true in life.   

Nonetheless, The Little Prince and Mary Poppins are still, more often than not, perceived by many as whimsical stories unrelated to life as we know it, only meant to amuse children. And that is unfortunate. It is unfortunate that today we have no time to ponder on the real meaning of the fairy tales; as the fox in the The Little Prince remarks:

People never have the time to understand anything that is worthwhile. They buy everything ready made in the shops. That’s why people don’t have friends, because they can’t buy friends in the shops.

Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince during his exile in the United States in 1943. The story contains some biographical elements and we can interpret The Little Prince as the expression of the author’s feelings of loneliness and isolation in a world torn by war, a world populated by:

one hundred and eleven kings (including the African kings), seven thousand geographers, nine-hundred thousand businessmen, seven-and-a-half million drunkards, three-hundred-eleven million egoists; in other words, about two billion grown-ups.

And of course, needless to say, these numbers have largely increased since 1943.

But beyond the personal, the journey of the Little Prince can be viewed as an allegory of the death of the inner child; the loss of connection with one’s own heart and with that, the loss of the ability to truly connect with other human beings. All the grown-up characters in the story live alone on their separate planets, unconscious of their pathetic predicament, unconscious of their inability to fully embrace their aliveness and the vastness of the world beyond their limited conceptions.

The Little Prince had to leave the Earth because it was a strange place to live, “It’s dry and sharp and hard. And people have no imagination. They repeat whatever you say to them.

And that is a sad moral, unless of course one succeeds in transcending the death of innocence by keeping an eye on the stars…

Pamela L. Travers was also in the United States at the time when The Little Prince was published in April 1943, and it happened so that she reviewed it in an article that was published in The New York Herald.

Since Pamela L. Travers was a dweller of the fairy tales world, she knew that fairy tales are allegories of our human experiences and that their morals can be applied in our own existence. She wrote in her review:

The Little Prince certainly has the three essentials required by children’s books. It is true in the most inward sense, it offers no explanations and it has a moral. But this particular moral attaches the book to the grown-up world rather than the nursery. To be understood it needs a heart stretched to the utmost suffering and love, the kind of heart luckily is not often found in children.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

Pamela L. Travers also knew that precisely because of its allegorical style the story of The Little Prince had a chance to penetrate deeper into the inner world of the reader, beyond the confines of the mind, and reach the reader’s inner child homeland, the reader’s heart.

We can not go back to the world of childhood. We are too tall now and must stay with our own kind. But perhaps there is a way of going forward to it. Or better still, of bearing it along with us; carrying the lost child in our arms so that we may measure all things in terms of that innocence. Everything Saint-Exupéry writes has that sense of heightened life that can be achieved only when the child is still held by the hand.

Pamela L. Travers, The New York Herald on April 11, 1943

During the Second World War Pamela L. Travers was drawn into the national and international propaganda coordination effort between the Office of War Information Department of the Roosevelt administration and the British Ministry of Information. The network that formed between these two establishments reached out to contributors from the literary and journalist communities. And this is how Pamela L. Travers was asked to do some radio broad casting to all the occupied countries. Interestingly, she used in her radio programs the same communication tactics as the one employed by Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince:

How could I speak to anyone except speaking to their child? And so to every country I did broadcast on their fairy tales, their legends, their folklore.

Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valery Lawson

The Little Prince never explained anything, nor did Mary Poppins, nor Pamela L. Travers for that matter. But truth does not need explaining, what it needs is a childlike-heart because as the fox in the story tells us “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.

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Roses and Thorns, Thorns and Roses

 

Women of The Rope

I wish I could discuss roses with Pamela L. Travers. I wish I had the opportunity to ask her if she knew about Gurdjieff’s opinion of flowers? And if she did, how did she reconcile her spiritual teacher’s peculiar views with her own love for flowers and gardening.

Clearly, Gurdjieff hated flowers, he believed them to be dirty things, fake things.

Flower is dirty thing, is the poison of the earth, is masturbator thing. You know why created? For helping Kundabuffer. In old science it had evil reputation, it was material for black magic. Flowers not grow lawable.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

After lunch he went over to a pot of dead flowers and smelled them. Gurdjieff: Finish. Nothing they have. Involution. Never was otherwise. Never active element they have, such dirty thing. From birth was only involution. Always they are false.

Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 29, 1938

The quotes above are excerpts from the transcripts of certain meetings with Gurdjieff recorded by lesbian writers Kathryn Hulme and Solita Solano, published in 2012, Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope.

My habit was to rush out to the café across the street everyday and write down everything while still fresh in my mind. Katie also, when she was in Paris, did the same. We would then combine our recollections and establish sequences.

Solita Solano in Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope

These women were part of a special group which met regularly with Gurdjieff during the period between 1935-1939. On the back of the cover of Gurdjieff and The Women of The Rope one reads:

In allegory he explained: You are going on a journey under my guidance, an “inner-world” journey like a high mountain climb where you must be roped together for safety, where each must think of the others on the rope, all for one and one for all. You must, in short, help each other “as hand washes hand”, each contributing to the company according to her lights, according to her means. Only faithful hard work on yourselves will get you where I want you to go, not your wishing.

Among themselves they called their group The Rope

There was a link between The Rope and Pamela L. Travers. The link was one of Gurdjieff’s disciples, American publisher Jane Heap, who was also the co-editor of the literary journal The Little Review.  The members of The Rope were part of Heap’s lesbian entourage in Paris, before she left for London on Gurdjieff’s instructions, in the fall of 1935. Valerie Lawson, Pamela L. Travers’s biographer, reports that in the spring of 1936, Pamela and Jessie Orage (the widow of A.R. Orage, Gurdjieff’s emissary in New York) attended Heap’s study group of the Gurdjieff’s teachings in London. And, it was in March 1936 that Pamela and Jessie visited Gurdjieff in Paris at his favourite Café de la Paix, and then went to his flat where some of the members of the Rope were present.

It is possible then, that at some point Pamela became aware of Gurdjieff’s radical views on flowers. Luckily for her (she had a special affection for roses) Gurdjieff’s take on roses was more nuanced.  In Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope the image of the rose appears on three different occasions; in one instance as a figurative conduit for Gurdjieff’s idea of objective love, and on the other two occasions, as an illustration of his concept of the process of the acquiring of a human soul (according to Gurdjieff men are not born with a soul).

Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love

Alice: And roses, even roses? The Bible often speaks of roses.

Gurdjieff: For certain things roses are good-but must be in combination. Roses in the Bible are always mentioned with thorns. There is an old saying: ‘You can understand and love me only when you love -have a passion-for my thorns. Then only I am your slave.’ In old poetry, not your poetry but religious poetry, there is a very beautiful song that the nightingale sings to the rose: ‘Even though I hate your dirtiness, I must love you and sing to you.”

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, July 29, 1936

It seems that for Gurdjieff objective love is attained only when one is aware of the flaws in the object of one’s affection, a love that encompasses the good and the bad, conscious unconditional love. At least this is how I interpret his allegory.

Then somewhat in contradiction with his previous statements about flowers:

The rose is king of flowers. Always in Eastern literature is put with nightingale. Rose is loving-loving rose. And besides loving, rose can have many another emotion which idiot English have no name for. Yes, even nature can feel loving-like woman.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, January 30, 1937

Gurdjieff and the creation of the Soul

In Café de la Paix Gurdjieff started talking about roses, roses, how he felt, how next week would be thorns, thorns when the fourteen thousand franks becomes due on the car. But thorns, thorns in outer world were good because then there are roses, roses in the inner world. ‘Is law-for one dissatisfaction, always a satisfaction.’ Then he asked which I think would he rather have roses, roses in his inner world or in his outer world… then when I answered, he decided that was too complicated a question. He said, better I tell you one thing. This will make you rich for life, richer than your Mr. Rockefeller. There are two struggles – inner world struggle and outer world struggle, but never can these two make contact. (…) Only one thing –must make intentional contact between outer world struggle and inner world struggle. Then can make data which crystalize for third world of man, sometimes called world of the soul.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, February 2, 1936

After roses, roses come thorns. Only then with thorns can have man a possibility for happiness.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris, June 12, 1936

In this case, Gurdjieff associated roses with his idea of the reconciling factor in our human suffering. The only way to transcend the pain we experience in our dualistic world is to become conscious of the struggles and use this awareness to work persistently on improving the self. Only by conscious suffering and voluntary work can one acquire a soul, or a rose in the inner world. Which means that one must accept that roses come with thorns. As Gurdjieff puts it, for every dissatisfaction there is a satisfaction. And vice versa.

As for Pamela, she loved roses and was moved by their mysterious, secretive nature. She loved the way in which, layer by layer, the rose’s petals protect its center, revealing its inner world only at the very last moment. In Pamela’s writings the rose appears as a symbol of womanhood, by opposition to the daisy, which she perceived as a child’s flower because of its openness.  This is why she chose to name the princess in her retelling of her favourite fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty, Rose:

For instance, the Beauty, who has never before been given a name, is here called Rose-having regard not only to the Grimm’s “Dornroschen” (Rose in Thorns or Briar Rose) but also to Robert Graves’ Druidic language of the tress in The White Goddess, where he speaks of the ‘erotoc’ briar.

All the known versions of the story have in them this strong element of eroticism. Indeed, it can be said with truth that every fairy tale that deals with a beautiful heroine and a lordly hero is, among many other things, speaking to us of love, laying down patterns and examples for all our human loving.

Pamela L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty

For Pamela, as for most of us, love and sex are intertwined while Gurdjieff’s concept of objective love excludes sex. It seems he deemed it to be something dirty. Or maybe he was talking about how sometimes we mistake lust for love.

But conscious love, that is real love. You have only love based on sex; it is sickness, a weakness. You cannot have love. That which perhaps your grandfather had. Today, for everyone, love is based on sex and sex on polarity. So, if a person has a nose like this you love her; if she hasn’t a nose like that, you don’t love her.  Real love is objective; but in Paris objective love doesn’t exist. You have made the word sentiment for sex, for dirty things; you have forgotten real love.

Gurdjieff and the Women of The Rope, meeting in Paris,

Although it would have been really interesting to discuss Gurdjieff and flowers with Pamela, what really tickles my curiosity is Pamela L. Travers’s own secretive nature.  Did she believe the only way to entice and keep a romantic partner was to remain elusive and mysterious? Or was this obsession with concealment reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s admonition to his pupils to never reveal their inner world, to be like actors on the stage of Life? 

Feathered Omens

 

Picture of the feather

At twenty-four Pamela L. Travers was determined to be the master of her own destiny. Strong headed, propelled by the need to escape the limited existence commanded by the needs of her family, Pamela decided to leave it all behind and search for that elusive “something else”.

And as I grew, amidst all the abundance, I began to feel a wanting. Lacking nothing, I came to now lack – a longing, even nostalgia for something I had never known. In all the completeness, I was incomplete, a cup only half full. This ache, this lonely weight of heart came upon me always at sunset, when the long rays lay across the earth like stripes on the back of a zebra. ‘There must be Something Else!’ I would say. Achingly, I would say it. But all, I knew, was Here and Now, and if all, then within the all that Something Else awaited me, infolded, implicate. Was it an answer to an unheard question? If a question, how would I know the answer?

Pamela L. Travers, Now, Farewell and Hail, 1985

The call to adventure, in Pamela’s case, the call to Ireland, was too compelling to be ignored. And according to her, it urged her from her early childhood:

Brian Sibley:       You said to me earlier that from the moment you were born you knew that you would be leaving Australia and you would be coming back to Ireland. What was it that put that idea into your head?

P.L.Travers:         How do you know the idea was put in my head. I am perfectly convinced that I was born saying “Get me out of here.”

Brian Sibley:       But you were happy there?

P.L.Travers:        Very.

Brian Sibley:       So, was it something about Ireland that was calling you as it were?

P.L.Travers:        Well, you like to make that assertion, I don’t. It was just in me, that I wouldn’t be staying there, the others would say we’ll do this and do that when we are grown up and I used to say calmly but I will not be here. And I was always laughed at.

P L Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

At the time of the recording of this conversation, Pamela L. Travers’s biography was not yet written, and not much was known about the details of her life in Australia. And, Pamela disclosed only what she wanted to disclose which, it turned out, was often slightly misrepresented, especially when it came to her father. There are different possible interpretations for the reasons of these distortions, but what is now certain is that her father exerted great influence upon her young and impressionable mind.

By reciting Irish poetry and recounting Celtic myths, her father, quite unknowingly, planted a special seed in Pamela’s oversensitive imagination. The seed grew deep roots of fascination with Ireland and these roots, eventually, reached the Irish soil. As soon as Pamela arrived in Ireland, she contacted George William Russell (A.E.) who not only responded to the poem she sent him but also introduced her to his close friend, the legendary, W.B. Yeats. This is how Pamela, almost by magic, entered into the Irish literary establishment of that time. 

The prospect of her long trip across the ocean to the other side of the Earth must have been unsettling for young Pamela, even if the departure was desired. Fears and doubts must have been her companions, after all she was making a leap of faith towards the unknown. What made her answer the call to adventure? It is an arduous task, shun by most of us. How did she overcome these uneasy feelings? Was it the explosive combination of her inherent rebelliousness along with some youthful naiveté that allowed her to push through her doubts? One thing we do know is that she relied on the guidance from a feather.

A few days before Pamela sailed to England a bird’s feather drifted down to her feet as she was walking on the street. She stopped and scooped it up. Her biographer Valerie Lawson writes “Soft, but finely shaped, the tail feather might have come from a magpie. She tucked it into her handbag. This omen was to travel with her, those fifty days to London.”

The feather remained with Pamela for much longer than the trip to England. She kept it for the rest of her life.

The fact that Pamela saw in it a good omen, a sort of a sign of protection from above, confirms both that she needed reassurance and guidance at that moment in her life, and also that she was sensitive to the spirit world. Shamans believe that a feather from a bird can connect a person with the specific archetypal energies of that bird. Did the magpie have something to communicate to Pamela?

Interestingly enough a magpie is believed to indicate an encounter with the spirit realm and the metaphysical world but in a rather unusual way. Now this strikes me as a “funny” coincidence because Pamela did encounter the spirit world right from her arrival in Ireland. George W. Russell was a member of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society founded by the controversial Madame Helena Blavatsky. And he also claimed to be able to see fairies and enjoyed painting his visions.

As for W.B. Yeats, well, he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to the study of the occult, metaphysics and paranormal activities. Not surprisingy then, Pamela’s literary initiation was strongly influenced by the esoteric beliefs of George W. Russell and W.B. Yeats.

But that was only the prelude to her spiritual journey. The most unusual spiritual encounter, and the most influential one, was her meeting with the spiritual master and magi G.I. Gurdjieff.

Gurdjieff

The least that can be said about Gurdjieff’s esoteric system and his teaching methods is that they were unconventional. He himself presented his system as The Fourth Way by distinguishing it from the other three known spiritual paths, namely those of the fakir, the monk and the yogi which all require “the most difficult thing, (…) a complete change of life, with a renunciation of all worldly things.” Gurdjieff’s Forth Way, which he also qualified as esoteric Christianity, did not require such renunciation from his pupils, his followers remained in the usual conditions of their lives.

The teachings, known as The Work were transmitted orally during meetings, often times preceded by a meal and Toasts to the “Idiots”, a ritual remotely reminiscent of the Masonic Toasts. Gurdjieff believed that “Alcohol opens, it shows many aspects of your interior; it is very important for knowing someone”. The Work consisted of these meetings and individually crafted exercises of self-observation and the performance of sacred dances, which Gurdjieff choreographed to music he himself composed with the help of Thomas de Hartmann.

According to Gurdjieff’s theory the average man functions on automatic pilot mode pushed by external circumstances. In order to transcend this ordinary unconscious state of existence, one must first awake to one’s nothingness and the fact that one lacks unity from within. To get his pupils to come to that realisation he used some questionable techniques of humiliation and applied mental shocks. One of his techniques to encourage his pupils to pursue their journey on the path of the Fourth Way was to convince them that man was born without a soul, and unless they developed one they would die as dogs and become food for the moon. He taught that the prerequisite for the development of the individual soul is the achievement of a unified sense of self, which is acquired by practicing self-remembering and total detachment from outside influences. The self-remembering as taught by Gurdjieff consists essentially of the practice of entering into oneself and sensing simultaneously with the body, the emotions and the mind one’s existence. As for attaining detachment, Gurdjieff instructed his pupils to “Create an ideal for yourself. This will save you from automatic attachments. Thinks about this consciously and automatically this will grow and form a center of gravity.”

Did Gurdjieff’s teachings help Pamela find the answers to her existential questions? Nothing is less certain, but he did teach her to be a questioner. Her friend, author Brian Sibley, says that she was an endless questioner and someone who never gave any straight answers. She was an adept of knowledge acquired through experience.

It is doubtful that young Pamela interpreted the appearance of the feather as a sign of her upcoming spiritual journey. She needed hindsight to see the connection. But don’t we all? Doesn’t this seem to be our human predicament? Things often make sense only with hindsight.