Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who writes popular lyrics for your favorite student literary magazine and mine, The Nation, has discovered a St.-Exupéry quotation much loved by corporate motivationalists, PowerPoint apostles, strategic planners, and the consultants who run "visioning" retreats:
I was recently reminded of a famous quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the classic text The Little Prince. Saint-Exupéry offered a particularly relevant lesson for our current politics: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." I believe Americans are in need of a refresher course on how to long for the sea.But this is a very strange translation indeed. And by the way the quotation my be apocryphal. "Drum up people together"? Huh? It's like something babelfish would've produced ten years ago. The (possibly) original French:
Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.Which is more accurately and idiomatically translated as:
When you want to build a boat, don't start by gathering wood, cutting planks, and assigning jobs, but rather revive in men's heart desire for the great big sea.In other words, before you start chopping wood, you've got to remind people that they love the ocean. But you've still got to build the fucking boat.
Melissa is not in any case quite up to the task of drumming up people together. Her prose reads like it was written by an algorithm cooked up by one of The Nation's IT interns: disaffected . . . steeped in rhetoric . . . social safety net . . . emerging populist backlash . . . election cycle . . . sixty-plus majority . . . reasonable cause for concern . . . robust disagreement . . . ideological difference . . . tenuous bridges across partisn divides . . . short-term policy agenda . . . When will it end, Oh Lord, when will it end?
Plow through, and you arrive at a bizarrely infantile appreciation of the Declaration of Independence. "I am always excited to lecture my students about the Declaration of Independence." Doesn't she teach at Princeton? She sounds like Miss Breon, who I had in the third grade. She intently contrasts the Declaration ("an extraordinary document that surpasses Jefferson"), which she inexplicably calls "a social contract" with the Constitution ("a feeble and flawed document"), which actually is a social contract, and this fact, by the by, explains why the mere act of reading the damned thing is less "ennobling" than getting off on the Declaration's robust anaphora. It's a legal document. Of course it's boring.
Thus reassured, we are back to killer jargon. "An opportunity to introduce meaningful structural reform . . . unintended negative consequences." Sing, muse! Finally, a stemwinder:
Many Americans joined the Obama coalition because the 2008 campaign consistently reminded us of the distance we had traveled as a nation and encouraged us to long for the endless immensity of a fully realized democratic promise. In January 2009 the work of shipbuilding began, and with it came the predictable disagreements about the specifics. We cannot fear these battles; without them we would build nothing. But even as we build, we must keep lifting our eyes to the horizon to renew our yearning for something greater than our own narrow victories.That has got to be the most confused figurative language this side of Tom Friedman's merkin. How can a fully realized promise be an endless immensity? How do "predictable disagreements" become "battles," and by the way what is this metaphoric ship we're building? Is it the "democratic promise," or is it "meaningful structural reform," or is it the "long-term national interest," which of course we must remain "cognizant" of. And what's this shit about lifting our eyes and looking beyond our narrow victories? Weren't the victories won in the battles over building the ship, and wasn't the shipbuilding the result of our longing for the endless immensities? Waitress, where's mah eggs? Where am I? What are you doing in my apartment? Are you my mother?