Flying with Saint-Exupéry

I rarely am moved to tears by something I read. Our emotions are constantly tugged this way and that by the sea of media in which we live, and most of us have learned to swim against those currents, for they rarely take us anywhere meaningful.

But I just finished a chapter in “Wind, Sand and Stars,” the masterful memoir by the aviator-philosopher-poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and with the final sentence, as I’m sure he intended when he set it down almost 80 years ago, he got me, all unawares, and I sat blubbering into my Kindle.

I’ve always loved flying as a passenger (once actually aloft and free of the multiform torments of airports), and have always regretted that I never learned to fly, imagining, as I imagine many of us do, that I would have had an instinct and aptitude for it (I love scuba, for instance, another application of technology to navigate an alien medium that requires calm and touch). By way of consolation, I read a great deal about flying, not so much about the technology of flight (which I understand better than most non-pilots, having spent much of my career financing commercial aircraft, visiting airline headquarters and aircraft manufacturers, and rubbing elbows with those whose business it is to vault large numbers of people through the heavens on a daily basis), as about what it is to be in command of a flying machine.

I came to Saint-Exupéry by way of other, later, pilot-authors whom I admire and who refer and defer to him in their writing: James Salter, William Langewiesche, Beryl Markham. From them and their rare ilk, I learned that Saint-Exupéry had paved the way in establishing the experience of flying as a legitimate subject of serious, non-technical literature. I finally got around to reading him rather than just reading about him.

Saint-Exupéry is best known in America as the author and illustrator of The Little Prince, supposedly a children’s book, but full of the kind of philosophical rumination that permeates all his writing. In his homeland France he was and is an icon, revered as only the French revere their great artists. There is really no comparable figure in American culture — Hemingway, perhaps, but without the bluster and the dissolute end. Lindbergh, perhaps, but without the self-promotion and the fascism. Amelia Earhart (with whom he shared a pilot’s fate), perhaps, but with the voice of a poet.

First if not foremost, he was a commercial and military aircraft pilot in the 1920s and ’30s, when aviation as we know it today was just beginning to take shape, when aircraft made of metal were a new thing, and when meteorology and map-making were as much art as science. In these conditions he routinely piloted mail carriers and military craft across some of the most forbidding and then-uncharted reaches of the earth: northern Africa and southernmost South America. He crashed a lot, and seems to have viewed these events, for the most part, as minor interruptions in his duties. This is what the French mean by insouciance. His end was a natural coda to the narrative of his life: he disappeared in the midst of a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in 1944.

“Wind, Sand and Stars,” is a collection Saint-Exupéry’s essays describing not only his adventures and mishaps as a pilot, but also flying itself: what it is like to pilot a plane in good conditions and bad across parts of the earth few men had laid eyes on, let alone flown over, and the emotions that attend the act of flying and the harrowing risks it sometimes entails. He of course wrote in French, so the prose in the edition I’m reading exhibits the affectations not only of period but of translation. Yet his language is startling, by turns gripping and lyrical, sometimes both at once:

When the night is very fine and you are at the stick of your ship, you half forget yourself and bit by bit the plane begins to tilt to the left. Pretty soon, while you still imagine yourself in plumb, you see the lights of a village under your right wing. There are no villages in the desert….You smile at the way your mind has wandered and bring the ship back to plumb again. The village slips into place. You have hooked that particular constellation back in the panoply out of which it has fallen. Village? Yes, village of stars.

Elsewhere he writes:

Pilot, mechanic, and radio operator are shut up in what might be a laboratory. They are obedient to the play of dial-hands, not to the unrolling of the landscape. Out of doors the mountains are immersed in tenebrous darkness; but they are no longer mountains, they are invisible powers whose approach must be computed….

So the crew fly on with no thought that they are in motion. Like night over the sea, they are very far from the earth, from towns, from trees. The motors fill the lighted chamber with a quiver that changes its substance. The clock ticks on. The dials, the radio lamps, the various hands and needles go through their invisible alchemy. From second to second these mysterious stirrings, a few muffled words, a concentrated terseness, contribute to the end result. And when the hour is at hand the pilot may glue his forehead to the window with perfect assurance. Out of oblivion the gold has been smelted: there it gleams in the lights of the airport.

In another piece he muses at length about the tragic folly of the Spanish Civil War, which he observed firsthand, and the folly of war in general. He was clearly in love with the austere people and inhospitable terrain of North Africa, and devotes long, insightful essays to their characteristics and travails, including a remarkably touching portrait of a black tribesman from Marrakech enslaved in Morocco whose eventual freedom was purchased by Saint-Exupéry and his fellow pilots, but who still had a different kind of freedom to find in himself.

And finally, he offers one of the most powerful and succinct survival stories that one is likely to read in his description of a terrifying crash in Egypt that left him and his navigator lost, on foot, in the middle of the desert without food or water and no way to communicate with the outside world except to burn their plane. It is at the end of this chapter that I burst into tears, the final sentence bringing into perfect, sudden focus all the relief and joy that the gritty narrative preceding it had rendered so thoroughly improbable. It seems to me that all subsequent literary depictions of survival in mountains, deserts and seas that I’ve read owe something to the harrowing realism that Saint-Exupéry establishes in these pages.

But he is above all a humanist, and a student and explicator of humankind. This is nowhere better captured than in the passage in which he describes (no spoiler here) the solitary Bedouin who saved him and his companion from the Egyptian desert:

You, Bedouin of Libya who saved our lives, though you will dwell forever in my memory yet I shall never be able to recapture your features. You are Humanity and your face comes into my mind simply as man incarnate. You, our beloved fellowman, did not know who we might be, and yet you recognized us without fail. And I, in my turn, shall recognize you in the faces of all mankind. You came towards me in an aureole of charity and magnanimity bearing the gift of water. All my friends and all my enemies marched towards me in your person. It did not seem to me that you were rescuing me: rather did it seem that you were forgiving me. And I felt I had no enemy left in all the world.

Would that we earthbound writers were capable of such flight as this.

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