The distance between people is increasing, obviously. It can help to get the message from an almost 80-year-old book hammered home.
DEBATE: What gives color and nourishment to life was on the agenda at Wednesday’s breakfast meeting in the Nationaltheatret. Former Linn Stalsberg, Ylva Østby, Kaja Melsom and Kjersti Haugen.
Photo: Joachim Waade Nessemo
– Maybe we can find the meaning of life before nine o’clock, projects speaker Linn Stalsberg, to laughter from the audience.
It’s still dark outside, but on Wednesday morning the National Theatre’s audience foyer is full of people eating croissants. The mood in the room seems to be more expectant than at most morning meetings in most companies around the city.
At the end of November, the National Theater premieres the play “The Little Prince”, one of the greatest classics of children’s literature. But “the child’s banal perspectives are transformed into a great revelation for the adult”, says the description of the breakfast meeting “The Prince and Eternity – about existential awakening”, which UiO: Life Science is co-organiser. Here, a philosopher, a neuropsychologist and a director will, over one hour, discuss the meeting between the child’s and the adult’s world, how modern people prioritize their time: “Are we sufficiently present in our relationships, or do we waste too much time on screens ?”, ask the organizers. The very meaning of life “hangs in the balance”. It is no small mission they have set for the panelists, at eight in the morning.
The basis of everything
The play’s director, Kjersti Haugen, begins by quickly describing the action in Antoine Saint Exupery’s book: A pilot’s crash in the desert, the meeting with a little prince, who himself has traveled through the universe and met all kinds of adults with all kinds of strange motivations, the desire to travel back to a rose on a tiny planet. But what is the book about? really about, according to philosopher Kaja Melsom? Loss, fear of death and loneliness.
– What is exceptional about the book is that the author writes about serious topics and shows that painful aspects of life are also the basis for everything that makes life beautiful and meaningful. Loneliness is painful, but it is also what drives us towards others.
Melsom goes on to talk about longing, about fear of death as the basis for all love.
– It is incredibly fascinating to hear philosophers talk about such things, says neuropsychologist Ylva Østby.
For her, the book is a lot about memories and nostalgia, “the reminder that she belongs somewhere”.
– It is difficult to get hold of who you were as a child. We have lived so many years, clothed in layers upon layers of adult understanding. We shape memories and who we are. When you get small glimpses of something from your childhood that comes outside of it, it gives you strong nostalgia, says Østby. Everyone has been a little prince once.
Meet the world from the place of wonder
It is difficult to talk about the book without immediately ending up in “the grown-up booth”, says director Haugen. “It is difficult to use words without being reductive”:
– But one word that is important is imagination. Imagination. It is closely related to spirituality.
When she imagines that there is a little prince out there on a star, she can go inside herself and get in touch with “a little princess, who looks after something valuable in there”.
– From that place, I would like to meet the world. From the wondering, curious place. If you meet the world and people from there, I feel that you can get a real connection. With nature, the wind, the tree, a cat, says Haugen, who tries to reach that place as she talks. She admits that it can be difficult to combine being a director and supervisor at the same time.
The one who counts
Further from linguistic images, the panelists gradually enter into a social critique that the book carries with it into a new millennium.
– The child’s eyes recognize things immediately. What is important. That which may be lost, the older one gets. Children immediately know “I want us to be together, play, look each other in the eye, be happy”. Adults are so instrumentally oriented, says Melsom.
She talks about the drive for efficiency, to-do lists, a fascination with always counting things.
– To explain something to adults, you have to say what number it has. If adults wonder how the nursery is going, they ask “how many friends do you have”, not how the friend laughs or what it’s like to be with, says Melsom.
The background is the businessman in the book, who counts the stars without knowing what he will use them for. It has become worse, considerably worse, since the book was published in 1943, she believes.
– We are obsessed with counting everything. We count likes, newspapers are full of clickbait, we count steps. It’s almost like we can’t relate to life without having spoken it. It is very relevant social criticism.
The children’s show, which is staged at the Kanonhallen in Løren, has an audience that is used to being around screens all the time. Should the play offer a contrast to that, Stalsberg asks the director.
Haugen responds by pointing to James Williams, who quit Google because he wanted to study philosophy.
– He feels deeply distracted and claims that media technology takes away all light from us.
First the spotlight disappears, then the daylight, and finally the starlight, she reproduces. In other words, the concentration, the ability to see clearly and criticize society and the ideals that offer direction and meaning.
– There is a resistance movement underway, and we are part of it, that is.
The message to knock on
The book was published in 1943.
– Then everyone thinks “then everything was idyllic”, says Melsom, to laughter from the audience.
If you are to put the book in the context of today’s people, the core message is that “everyone needs close relationships”, she believes.
– It is what gives color and nourishment to life.
In the book, a fox asks the little prince to tame him. It means coming in every day and getting a little closer each day.
– We spend less and less time with each other. We sit with the family in the living room and look down at each of our mobile phones. When we go to parties, to connect with people, many are more concerned with taking selfies with the right people to show those who are not there that they are having fun, rather than talking to those who are there. We need to get the message hammered in, we need to look each other in the eye more, says Melsom.
The inner child is locked inside
But in order not to sound like a bunch of dinosaurs, there is nothing nice about the new technology, asks Stalsberg. Isn’t social media also a way to get closer to people?
– Absolutely, but I think the book is a reminder that most things people do can be nice, but quickly derail.
All the adults the little prince meets in the book have lost sight of the goal, she believes.
– They only deal with the remedy. They collect money to make more money, but what are they going to spend the money on? Modern people lose sight of the goal. I think social media can certainly be used for a lot of positive things, but we must always remember that we are there to get in deeper contact with people. You quickly become preoccupied with likes and get an objectifying view of yourself. It quickly becomes self-absorbed.
And young people are more quickly drawn into an adult way of thinking about efficiency now, Melsom believes. Haugen agrees.
– The inner child is locked up earlier now.
But is there too much or too little emotion at play in our time, asks Stalsberg.
– Feelings of guilt for a lot that is wrong, but are often signals that are rational in a context. They say something about what is at stake. The criticism of emotions is when you act on them without thinking about it, says Østby.
The book conveys that emotions are a source of important insights, Melsom believes.
But what should the audience go home with from the show?
– That there is hope, even now, when there is so much difficulty. That love exists, Haugen believes.
Then it’s ready for the public to wander confusedly around Karl Johan, go the wrong way to work and look for stars, predicts Stalsberg.