Like most people, I knew of the author Antoine de Saint-Exupery because of his famous petite children’s book The Little Prince. I had to laugh today when I went back to re read this small prose poem many years after I first encountered it, and thought anew that it read like it had been written by someone under the influence of ample and exotic pharmaceuticals. But it’s sold over 140 million copies worldwide and is often described as one of the most beloved books of the twentieth century. It turns out that it isn’t the only book inspired by his years as a pilot flying from Europe to Africa and across other parts of the globe in the early days of manned flight.
I had never read any of Saint-Exupery’s other books until now. His memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars is stunningly exceptional. If you had asked me whether I might be interested in a book about early airline pilots delivering the mail and an occasional passenger between France and Northern Africa in the 1920s and 30s, I would have thought that to be a little far afield of my normal fascinations and concerns. But what a surprise! This is a book about adventure and life. It’s about fear and courage and commitment. It’s about focus and meaning and love. It’s about making our way through a world that’s often terribly harsh and then also lovely beyond words. It’s about our nature and our condition. As I read, it occurred to me that the book would be an ideal companion read to my own short novel, The Oasis Within, due to not only their shared stories about the Egyptian desert, but also their truly surprising overlap in deeper themes and insights.
Saint-Exupery sees all of us as something like the dispossessed members of a royal family, a royalty of the spirit that too many of us have left behind and sadly forgotten as we make our way in the world. He sees a spark of greatness in us that we need to fan into the flames that are meant for us, within our souls. You find this view intimated in several passages and informing many others. In one place, he’s reflecting on the life of a slave who has been kidnapped into service and is happily doing his job well. Saint-Exupery writes:
<<This man before me is not weighed down with chains. How little need he has of them! How faithful he is! How submissively he forswears the deposed king within him!>> (110)
In a later part of the book, we come across this statement:
<<If a particular religion, or culture, or scale of values, if one form of activity rather than another, brings self-fulfillment to a man, releases the prince asleep within him unknown to himself, then that scale of values, that culture, that form of activity, constitute his truth.>> (175)
We are all, in his view, royalty of the spirit. And we too easily lose our feel for this origin and destiny. One stormy morning early in the book, our guide is on his way early to an airfield for what’s to be his first piloted flight with the mail. He’s riding a bus with other men who are going off to their own apparently dreary office jobs in town. He listens in to what strikes him as their banal and mindless chit chat. In it, he catches a glimpse of the prison that is their daily lives and, musing on it, he directs his thoughts to one of the men, addressing him with sympathy and concern:
<<Old bureaucrat, my comrade, it is not you who are to blame. No one ever helped you to escape. You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars. You have chosen not to be perturbed by great problems, having trouble enough to forget your own fate as a man. You are not the dweller upon a errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. You are a petty bourgeois of Toulouse. Nobody grasped you by the shoulder while there was still time. Now the clay of which you were shaped has dried and hardened, and naught in you will ever awaken the sleeping musician, the poet, the astronomer that possibly inhabited you in the beginning.>> (11)
In another passage on how most people seem to live, he exclaims:
<<How shallow is the stage on which this vast drama of human hates and joys and friendships is played!>> (67)
We shrink our lives from what they could have been, from what they’re meant to be, into a small shadow of their potential. We play out our days in what we consider the safest place we can find to hide, and so we miss the greatness we could have inherited. He says:
<<With more or less awareness, all men feel the need to come alive.>> 219
Our poet pilot believes that our happiness will never be found in solitude, but in community, in friendships and partnerships together. Early on, he remarks:
<<Happiness! It is useless to seek it elsewhere than in the warmth of human relations.>> (29)
Each of our lives is a part of a bigger picture. And it’s crucial for us to see that picture well.
<<It is only when we become conscious of our part in life, however modest, that we shall be happy. Only then will we be able to live in peace and die in peace, for only this lends meaning to life and to death.>> (222)
Some of Saint-Exupery’s deepest insights are to be found in his remarks on danger, fear, and courage. He first thinks of danger not as just a feature of flying in his time, be as a pervasive truth about the world and mentioning the desert bandits, or razzia, to be encountered in North Africa, he says:
<<We might believe ourselves secure; and yet, illness, accident, razzia—how many dangers were afoot! Man inhabits the earth, a target for secret marksmen.>> (92)
No matter what we confront in this life, our philosopher believes we can handle it. He even thinks that the extreme concepts of horror or terror never apply within the immediacy of experience, but only after the fact, and on the part of those who merely see or hear about the dangerous or harrowing incident that can be lived through with courage. He says, aphoristically:
<<Horror does not manifest itself in the world of reality.>> (49)
He always says:
<<Nothing is unbearable. Tomorrow, and the day after, I should learn that nothing was really unbearable.>> (147)
In fact, he views our hardships as providing a necessary condition for our deepest and highest growth. He writes:
<<But men are like this: slowly but surely, ordeal fortifies their virtues.>> (197)
He also believes that danger can bring us together in a distinctive way. He’s seen it and lived it. In fact, the deepest friendships evolve over time and endurance and memory:
<<Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.>> (27)
Saint-Exupery believes that we best make it through the hardest challenges and the worst situations by means of a focus that will not be shaken. One of his friends, a man named Guillaumet, had survived a harrowing ordeal and Saint-Exupery was subsequently offended that some journalists portrayed the man as if he were something like a careless insouciant rebel who merely laughed at danger. He saw his friend’s approach to the traumatic much more deeply. He says to us:
<<There exists a quality which is nameless. It may be gravity, but the word does not satisfy me, for the quality I have in mind can be accompanied by the most cheerful gaiety. It is the quality of the carpenter face to face with his block of wood. He handles it, he takes its measure. Far from treating it frivolously, he summons all his professional virtues to do it honor.>> (30)
This is the focus that allows us to move forward in the worst circumstances. He quotes his friend Guillaumet himself as having said, “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.” (38)
<<And I thought: If we were to talk to him about his courage, Guillaumet would shrug his shoulders. But it would be just as false to extol his modesty. His place is far beyond that mediocre virtue.
If he shrugs his shoulders, it is because he is no fool. He knows that once men are caught up in an event they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes the known.
Especially if it is scrutinized with Guillaumet’s lucid gravity. Guillaumet’s courage is in the main the product of his honesty. But even this is not his fundamental quality. His moral greatness consists in his sense of responsibility. He knew that he was responsible for himself, for the mails, for the fulfillment of the hopes of his comrades. He was holding in his hands their sorrow and their joy.>> (39)
In all things, we can grow through our ordeals shared with our fellows, through the bad times and the good. Finally our advisor says of another friend named Mermoz and the craft of flying, or any craft in our lives:
<<This, then, is the moral taught us by Mermoz and his kind. We understand better, because of him, that what constitutes the dignity of a craft is that it creates a fellowship, that it binds men together and fashions for them a common language. For there is one veritable problem—the problem of human relations.
<<We forget that there is no hope of joy except in human relations. If I summon up those memories that have left me an enduring savor, if I draw up the balance sheet of the hours in my life that have truly counted, surely I find only those that no wealth could have procured me. True riches cannot be bought. One cannot buy the friendship of a Mermoz, of a companion to whom one is bound forever by ordeals suffered in common. There is no buying the night flight with its hundred thousand stars, its serenity, its few hours of sovereignty. It is not money that can procure for us that new vision of the world won through hardship—those trees, flowers, women, those treasures made fresh by the dew and color of life which the dawn restores to us, this concert of little things that sustain us and constitute our compensation.>> (27-28)
But I quote too much. The book overflows with poetic insight into the deepest truths of our lives. I recommend it highly.
For the book, click HERE.