As children, small pleasures gave us endless delight. One of these was solving picture puzzles, identifying objects depicted in a drawing or photograph. A regular puzzle in our children’s magazines required us to recognize an everyday object from a close-up of it. For example, this close-up:
Children see things differently. Remember the opening of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in which the narrator discussed his Drawing Number One and Drawing Number Two (below)? In Drawing Number One, what was obvious to him as a child was opaque to the grownups, so he created Drawing Number Two, in which the meaning was transparent. Still the grownups were not satisfied and advised the boy to stop wasting his time with such nonsense. But when, as a grownup himself, he met the little prince and showed him Drawing Number One, the boy recognized it at once.
When I was about eight one of my school friends showed me the drawing below and asked me what it was.
Like the little prince, I gave the correct answer without hesitation:
“A pen nib in a box.”
“Yes, it is,” replied my friend, seemingly unsurprised by my penetrating eye. Perhaps she, too, felt that it was the obvious answer.
Do children play such simple games anymore, games that require no money, employ no electronic devices or equipment of any kind, and have no special effects? Even if they did, would they even recognize some of those objects, little more than a generation later? What’s a bath plug? What’s a pen nib? I pray that a generation from now, children will not have to ask, “What’s an elephant?”
Those games taught us not only how to see but different ways of seeing. Close up, or seen from an unfamiliar angle, the most ordinary household objects could be unrecognizable. We found that we needed to re-focus, to change our perspective, in order to see them anew. The drawing my friend showed me counted on most of its viewers seeing the cozy picture of a light in a curtained window. They wouldn’t generally expect to see into a dark box, revealing the pen nib lying within. Somehow, I did, although I’ve always been more of a verbal than a visual person (perhaps I had just filled my pen: see My Ink-Smudged Youth); but asked the same question today, I might not trust my first thoughts; instead, I might be more inclined to say what I knew most people would expect me to see.
We learn to hood our eyes, to blinker our vision, so that the world becomes opaque to us. The little prince, in his clear-eyed innocence, reminds his young readers how precious their fresh perspectives are, and—unless they remain very attentive—how short-lived.