Saturday, November 29, 2008

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’

As I mentioned a while back, my sister and I once wrote a song called ‘Wind Sand and Stars’ because this book was on a shelf nearby when we were trying to come up with ideas. We liked the title, though neither of us had read it. The first thing that struck me coming to it now was that the French title is Terre des hommes, which is clearly nothing like Wind, Sand and Stars. It seems a harder title, prouder, more (literally) grounded. Wind, Sand and Stars is more awe-struck, and is appropriate in different ways. It seems to say that the physical world is beautiful, wild and immense, whereas Terre des hommes, assuming this, stakes humanity’s claim to it – if not to controlling it, at least to appreciating it. And appreciating nature, and nature’s wildness, is something Saint-Exupéry sees as essential for... what? Certainly for his own happiness. When he tries to argue out from this point, that it is essential for mankind that some of its number take on storms and deserts – not for the practical benefits this can bring, but for its own well-being (almost its spiritual well-being), he loses me somewhat. But watching him get there is pretty inspirational, and it is both a tougher and a more ornate book than I was expecting.

The aeroplane is central. Wind, Sand and Stars is an autobiographical account of the early days of aviation, and underlying Saint-Exupéry’s high flown prose is the commercial imperative to open new mail routes. Here he describes the pilot Mermoz’s flight, ‘the first seaplane crossing of the South Atlantic’, when he encounters some tornados:

Waterspouts stood in apparently motionless ranks like the pillars of a temple. On their swollen capitals rested the dark and lowering arch of the storm, but blades of light sliced down through the cracks in the arch, and between the pillars the full moon gleamed on the cold stone tiles of the sea. (p. 13)

What excites him is that the aeroplane allows mankind to see and to take on nature in ways which were never possible before. The scale of the ground is altered forever once it has been seen from the air. Today we are used to this, and people make coffee table books on the subject, but what Saint-Exupéry captures is the amazement that was felt when the experience was new. He is sensitive, though, to the charge that he is merely a thrill-seeker:

It isn’t a matter of living dangerously. Such a pretentious phrase. Toreadors don’t thrill me. Danger is not what I love. I know what I love. It is life. (p. 98)

Spectacle, like crime, is not interesting. Or at least not for very long. So what does endure?

In my own childhood, my sisters gave marks to guests who were honouring our table for the first time. And when conversation lapsed, a cry of ‘eleven!’ would ring out in the silence, and only my sisters and I would appreciate its charm. (p. 45)

I love this passage. It has nothing to do with aeroplanes, except that he is reminiscing during a visit on his wide ranging travels to a family he has never met before (who live in a ramshackle house with an uneven floor, and vipers who nest under the dining table), and wondering what they make of him. He continues:

But the day comes when the woman awakes within the girl, with the dream of awarding a ‘nineteen’ at last. That nineteen is a burden on the heart. Then some fool presents himself. For the first time those sharp eyes deceive themselves, and light him in beautiful colours. If the fool speaks in verse, he is taken for a poet. Surely he understands the pitted floor, surely he loves mongooses, surely he is gratified by the intimacy of the viper swaying around his legs beneath the table. He receives a heart which is a wild garden, he who only loves trim parklands. And the fool takes the princess away into slavery. (p. 46)

This is great too, a fine description of the anxiety one can feel as a child that adult life can only intrude and make things worse. But what is the connection with flying? Consciousness and inspiration seem to be Saint-Exupéry’s true subjects, and it is almost incidental that the thing which inspires him and heightens his own consciousness is flight. Several times he tries to forge a link by saying that this or that spectacle is as nothing to the imagination of a little girl. That he can’t bear to be grounded for any length of time suggests that he is being disingenuous when he says ‘it isn’t a matter of living dangerously.’ In his introduction William Rees says of Louisa de Vilmon’s attitude to the author when they were lovers: ‘She found him impossibly intense and demanding’ (p. xi). To some extent this is how I found his book, but its vitality makes it an engaging read.

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