Why the French philosopher-pilot Antoine de Saint Exupery is “note-worthy”
Wind, Sand and Stars
Author: Antoine de Saint Exupery (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0-14-018767-7/978-0-14-018767-0 (UK edition)
NOTAM: This autobiography of a professional pilot covers his involvement in the early years of airmail service but will appeal to those who appreciate history, and meditative observations of what drives us.
By Paul Jansen
The French are very proud of their contributions to the world. Their country has produced a rich crop of philosophers, artists and scientists, among others, and these have sparked revolutions from the political sphere to the physical one.
One way in which France honours its giants is to put them on its currency notes. This seems apt. After all, just as the intrinsic value of each note exceeds the mere cost of producing it, the exposition or breakthrough of each selected Frenchman or woman goes beyond benefiting just the country’s nationals.
Against this backdrop then, it is clear how much the republic’s citizens hold Antoine de Saint Exupery in their hearts. An artist’s impression of the late French pilot and writer and his drawing of the Little Prince, the protagonist in his book of that name, were put on the obverse face of the 50 franc note in 1993.
The Government, in doing so, put him among the ranks of:
- physicist Marie Curie (1867-1934), who won two Nobel prizes (one with her husband Pierre),
- political philosopher Baron de La Brede Montesquieu (1689–1755), who argued for the separation of the judicial, legislative and executive bodies of state,
- polymath Blaise Pascal, after whom a programming language, the SI unit of pressure, and a principle of hydrostatics has been named because of his discoveries,
- artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), whose iconic works are sought the world over, and
- composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918) whose “impressionist” compositions have been heralded as one of the most dramatic developments in music in the last century.
On the reverse side of the Saint Exupery note is an image of the Breguet 14 aircraft flying over the desert, which he did at great risk to deliver the mail.
To understand how a professional French pilot, once even accused by patriot Charles de Gaulle of being a supporter of war-mongering Germany, became a national and international cultural hero, you have to read his books.
Flying over desert and mountains, even at night, at a time when aircraft had few instruments, he pioneered international postal flights for the airline Latécoère on treacherous routes. In fact, he famously complained that the newer, better-equipped planes made aviators more like accountants than pilots.
What marked him out was not just his flying skills and derring-do, but his powers of observation as he recorded his experiences. To an audience still in awe of those who created a career in the skies and for whom aviation was still a fantastical enterprise, Saint Exupery was practically a godsend: a hero who survived crashes, first while creating new postal routes, then during World War II, and could describe for them the view from the open cockpit.
Eternal romantics that the French are, they embraced the philosopher-pilot and bought his books by the boatload.
I was introduced to him through a friend who gave me a copy of Saint Exupery’s novella The Little Prince, years ago, shortly after I began flying.
The allegorical tale of a pilot who crashes in the desert and meets strange and wonderful characters was written after Saint Exupery himself was forced to land in the Sahara desert in Libya. He and his navigator lived on meager rations until they were rescued four days later.
But The Little Prince was more than just a survival story. Saint Exupery wrote and illustrated the book such that it could be read on different levels: as a child’s bedtime story or as a penetrating look at our foibles.
Decades after I first read the book, I still remember the truism uttered by the “Fox” who advised the Prince:
“Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Fascinated at how cleverly he used The Little Prince to highlight the human condition, I sought out Saint Exupery’s other books. It did not take me long before I had them all. I was hooked.
Among my favourite passages are those at the beginning of Saint Exupery’s autobiographical Wind, Sand and Stars, when he gives a vivid description of how tough it was to be a pilot on the Toulouse to Dakar route, over the Spanish mountains. He was a student airline pilot at the time, in awe of the veterans, who to him, had to face black dragons of foul weather guarding the mouths of the valleys and lightning clusters crowning the skies.
“I remember once, a homecoming of Bury, he who was later to die in a spur of the Pyrenees. He came into the restaurant, sat down at the common table, and went stolidly at his food. Shoulders still bowed by the fatigue of his recent trial. It was at the end of one of those foul days when from end to end of the line the skies are filled with dirty weather, when the mountains seem to a pilot to be wallowing in slime like exploded cannon on the decks of an antique man-o-war.
I stared at Bury, swallowed my saliva, and ventured after a bit to ask if he had had a hard flight. Bury, bent over his plate in frowning absorption, could not hear me. In those days, we flew open ships and thrust our heads out around the windshield, in bad weather, to take our bearings: the wind that whistled in our ears was a long time clearing out of our heads. Finally, Bury looked up, seemed to understand me, to think back to what I was referring to, and suddenly he gave a bright laugh. This brief burst of laughter, from a man who laughed little, startled me. For a moment, his weary being was bright with it. But he spoke no word, lowered his head, and went on chewing in silence.
And in that dismal restaurant, surrounded by the simple government clerks who sat there repairing the wear and tear of their humble daily tasks, my broad-shouldered mess-mate seemed to me strangely noble; beneath his rough hide I could discern the angel who had vanquished the dragon.”
Aside from giving us a peek into what it was like in the early days of flying, including his near death experiences, the book contains many passages which will resonate with any flyer today.
For example, as a pilot, I have often been advised of the risks in flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC).
But never in the poetic way that Saint Exupery is warned. Told the night before that he has been rostered to fly the next day, the field manager cautions:
“Navigating by the compass in a sea of clouds over Spain is all very well, it is very dashing … but you want to remember that below that sea of clouds lies eternity.”
His adventures are exciting in themselves, but they are burned into our minds by the beauty of his writing. Wind, Sand and Stars begins with him bumbling along as a novice flying mailman over France, Spain and Africa, and takes us through to when the Spanish civil war breaks out.
He puts us in the cockpit in a day when the wind whipped your face and you navigated by the stars. When wandering Bedouins would take pot-shots at you as you passed overhead. When the perils of each working day was not measured in thankless bosses, difficult clients or uncooperative colleagues, but a sputtering engine on high, deathly downdrafts, or the siren call of an impossible mission.
It is a book as much about what drives us, as it is about our weaknesses in the face of unforgiving nature.
Saint Exupery is a man who knew disappointment. He did not pass his exams at his preparatory school and entered a college to study architecture. In 1921, he joined the army and was sent for flight training. But when given the chance to transfer to the air force, he had to turn it down because of the objections of his fiancee’s family.
Fortunately for posterity, they broke up. He returned to flying in 1926, as a pilot in the French mail service. When World War II began, he signed up with the French air force and flew a Bloch MB.170 on reconnaissance missions until his country capitulated to the Germans. He fled to the United States and continued his writing there.
He later flew a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, one of the first fighters to exceed 400 mph (640 km/h), with the Free French Air Force. However, a crash grounded him for eight months. Already 43, and suffering the after effects of the crash, his flying future looked dim. But General Dwight Eisenhower personally approved his return to the cockpit. This did not please the self-appointed leader of the French Free Forces, General de Gaulle.
It was in this role, as a reconnaissance pilot, that Saint Exupery disappeared on the evening of July 31, 1944. France, and the world, mourned. It was not until 1998 that evidence of his crash into the sea surfaced. A fisherman found his bracelet, engraved with his name, his wife’s and his publishers. Two years later, his P-38 Lightning was found by a diver.
A young man or woman on the cusp of making a decision on whether to take up a career in aviation, or deciding whether to learn flying as a sport, would gain from reading Saint Exupery’s work and about his life.
But his books would equally serve anyone seeking to enter the world of the passionate. Seekers of schadenfreude should fish elsewhere. Where Saint Exupery writes of misery, it is only to set apart the brightness of a life lived to the full from the gloom in which men with more mundane appetites toil.
He has earned his place in French and aviation history.