Unlike millions around the world, my first encounter with the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did not involve La Petit Prince; I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet read his most famous work. What I have read, and what continues to stay with me, was the man’s memoir and the inspiration for what is arguably one of the most beloved children’s stories in history.
Winner of the National Book Award and hailed by National Geographic as one of the Top Ten adventure books of all time, Wind, Sand and Stars (an English translation by Lewis Galantière of Terre des Hommes, or “Land of Men”) is a work I return to when I grow weary or unsure of life. In the brief tome I am lifted by the soaring spirit of a writer at the height of his craft, by a pioneer of an age past who saw a vaster picture and dared to ask the great questions. Within its pages, I find a soul who believed wholeheartedly in human potential, a man open to the simple joys of nature and communion, and a soul who treasured without reserve the miracle of life. Profoundly personal and universal, Wind, Sand and Stars is one man’s meditation on what it means to live.
Wind, Sand and Stars comprise a series of interconnected essays by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a famous French aviator and beloved author. Each of the book’s eight main chapters are accounts detailing his time as an international postal pilot during the 1920’s to 1930’s, when international flight routes were still being established and flying was a risky venture.
The opening chapter, “The Craft”, sets the stage for what flying meant to Saint-Exupéry. “The Men” describes the warmth and camaraderie he felt towards his fellow pilots. “The Tool” posits the airplane as a means to negotiate uncharted worlds in both body and spirit. His struggles against and respect for nature are front and center in “The Elements.” In “The Plane and the Planet”, Saint-Exupéry delves into how flying offers the perspective of seeing the world and universe at large. “Oasis” is an excursion into the curious minds and hearts of children. In “Men of the Desert”, he describes the various Saharan tribes and recalls a slave’s strange journey into freedom. His account in “Prisoner of the Sand” serves as inspiration for The Little Prince and is one of the most harrowing tales of desert survival ever written. Finally, the last chapter accounts his time in Barcelona and Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.
A Pilot’s Perspective
It was through flying that Saint-Exupéry came to formulate his worldview, as if the act literally and figuratively lifted him up from the mundane into higher and grander realizations. What attracted him most was not the thrill of adventure, but the journey to better understand the world and humanity at large. Direct experience informed his awe for the natural world. In “The Elements”, he wrote of his aerial struggles against Andean weather, noting nature’s ferocity and utter indifference to human dramas. On the flip side, his meditation in “The Plane and the Planet” noted life’s utter fragility, observing the earth as a “fundament of rock and sand and salt in which here and there and from time to time life like a little moss in the crevice of ruins has risked its precarious existence.”
“If you can see a thing whole,” he said, “it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”
– The Dispossessed, p.190
Yet it is in his fellow man that Saint-Exupéry craved most to understand. In the solitude and distance afforded by his vocation, Saint-Exupéry found the time and space to realize the incalculable value of human relation. By risking death on each flight, he came to treasure the friendships forged with his fellow pilots, believing that “nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions.” In a wondrous but lonely universe, he argued that it is these bonds of shared trials, forged between brethren, that constitutes genuine wealth.
The Paradox of Technology
“Contrary to the vulgar illusion, it is thanks to the metal, and by virtue of it, that the pilot rediscovers nature. As I have already said, the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.”
– Wind, Sand and Stars, p. 43
It is possible that Saint-Exupéry would have never cultivated his appreciation for nature and human connection if not for the use of the game-changing technology of the time. In “The Tool”, he noted the role the airplane can play in helping humanity chart frontiers that expand both body and spirit. Saint-Exupéry has harsh words for those are resistant to new technologies and new ways of seeing things:
“It is hard for me to understand the language of these pseudo-dreamers. What is it make them think that the ploughshare torn from the bowels of the earth by perforating machines, forged, tempered, and sharpened in the roar of modern industrial, is nearer to man that any other tool of steel? But what sign do they recognize the inhumanity of the machine?
Have they ever really asked themselves this question? The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the common weal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space.”
– Wind, Sand and Stars, p.44
His musings are fascinating to me because they challenge many of the ideas I gravitate towards as an environmentalist. We often blame technology as the cause of modern ills, that our civilization’s mechanistic focus has damaged our capacity for the spiritual. I can see why a romantic and adventurous spirit like Saint-Exupéry would take issue with this assertion, rebuking worldviews that look to the past. An explorer of both body and mind, he believed technology can serve as extensions of ourselves, affording us the freedom and opportunity to discover new horizons and gain new understandings. He also makes a fair point about how we can be hypocritical about the definition of technology: What is acceptable and what is not?
“It seems to me that those who complain of man’s progress often confuse ends with means. True, that man who struggle in the unique hope of material gain will harvest nothing worth while. But how can anyone conceive that the machine is an end? It is a tool. As much a tool as is the plough. The microscope is a tool. What disservice do we do the life of the spirit when we analyze the universe through a tool created but the science of optics, or seek to bring together those who love one another and are parted in space?”
– Wind, Sand and Stars, pp.44-45
If he were alive today, I think Saint-Exupéry would express joy at many of our modern-day accomplishments. Landing on other worlds. Cracking the genetic code. Forging a global network. I think Saint-Exupéry would hold in high esteem those fellow pioneers who followed their life`s calling and subsequently changed the world forever.
Yet, I also think he would be aghast at how many of us treat technology as an end in and of itself. He would be dismayed at how some forms of technologies have exacerbated the culture of isolation and hyper-individualism: The urbanite amongst millions mired in loneliness; the couch potato who prefers life indoors and insular; the smartphone user who constantly texts while out with friends. Are we using technological tools to better appreciate and connect with the greater world, or are we employing them to numb ourselves from the full range of the human condition? I suspect that Saint-Exupéry would applaud the former, but be saddened by the latter.
Empire and Empathy
I cannot write about Wind, Sand and Stars without acknowledging that Saint-Exupéry was a product of his time. An aristocrat with the luxury of pursuing his dreams, and many of Saint-Exupéry`s ideas grew out of a place of privilege. He believed in the benefits of French imperialism and worked for colonial interests. His antiquated attitude on race is sometimes disconcerting to read. He wrote strictly in a man’s tongue. As with most historical figures, he made claims that prove hilariously wrong in hindsight. My favourite is his dismissal of Gandhi’s efforts to lead India to independence:
“[He] had a try at this sort of revolution: he was as simple-minded as a child trying to empty the sea on to the sand with the aid of a tea-cup.”
– Wind, Sand and Stars, p.43
Yet in many ways, Saint-Exupéry was far ahead of his contemporaries from the last heroic age of exploration. In “Men of the Desert”, he recounts with tenderness the story of his freeing of Bark the slave. In “The Oasis,” he lamented the possible loss of two extraordinary girls he met to dull marriages. Wind, Sand and Stars was not written by a racist, a misogynist, or even a common man of the time. Always there is an effort by Saint-Exupéry to include and empathize with the Other. He held fast to his belief that each human being is a treasure, that the loss of one equates to a loss of an empire entire, leading to the diminishment of us all.
You Can Be More
“Here, in Spain, a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas are not our ideas.”
– Wind, Sand and Stars, p.182
Perhaps this disdain for waste is why Saint-Exupéry chose to end Wind, Sand and Stars with a strong anti-war message. In the final chapter, he described events in Madrid and Barcelona during the Spanish civil war simply, without bravado or hyperbole, capturing the humanity`s capacity for warmth and cruelty. Soldiers on opposite sides wishing each other a good night’s sleep. A man leaving behind his half-drunk glass to be escorted to the firing squad. A sergeant ordered to certain death only to have the order rescinded at the last moment. A girl fleeing shot, betrayed by a tree root.
Always the loss of human potential is what Saint-Exupéry found most tragic. This not only extended to war with its erasure of lives, but also to daily drudgeries of industrial life, which destroys the body and suppresses the creative spirit. If there is a central idea to Saint-Exupéry’s life philosophy, it is that humanity can and must waken to realize that life can be better. In the opening chapter of Wind, Sand and Stars, he writes the following:
“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 an errant planet and do not ask yourself questions to which there are no answers. 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.”
– Wind, Sand and Stars, p.11
For me, this is the most soul-stirring passage in the entire book. How comfortable I am behind the rampart of my own making! How easy it is to settle into inertia, to wrap myself in the warmth and ease of day-to-day pleasures. Yet when I reread Wind, Sand and Stars, I sense the sweet breeze that slips past the walls of my drafty fort, and I remember to look up, to dare to ask more of myself. How terrifying and wondrous life can be!
“What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered… Only the Spirit, it breathe upon the clay, can create Man.”
– Wind, Sand and Stars, p.229
Saint-Exupéry casts humanity as objects to be shaped. By what? Not as clay fed into the “common stamping machine”, but perhaps as dough in a baker’s hands, a rose under a gardener’s care, or a mind illuminated by words that sows new thoughts and reveals the temper of one’s own soul.
Stirring and elegiac, Wind, Sand and Stars is both a tribute and lament for humanity. With lyrical prose and vivid imagery, Saint-Exupéry risks on each page what he risked in life, always seeking with an open heart to understand the full spectrum of the human condition. He is an explorer in the truest sense of the word, and his work beams with an insuperable zeal for life.
How you choose to take in Wind, Sand and Stars is up to you. I can understand how Saint-Exupéry’s musings, written from a place of privilege, can come across as elitist, patronizing, and overly fanciful. But I choose to take the man at his word, to take flight with him on another wind, and see with unclouded eyes humanity’s possibility.
- From the Tidepool to the Stars: Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez
- Here, Home, Us: Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot
- A Cognitive Shift: The Overview Effect
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. (1939). Wind, Sand and Stars. Translated by Lewis Galantière. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974) The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, Eos Paperback Edition, 2001.
Featured image credit: Gezy-Pics on Flickr.