Explorers and adventurers have always fascinated me and there are endless books in this genre. Robert Scott’s tragic diary, the tale of the USS Jeanette and Captain James Cook’s travels are all personal favourites. What drives us to seek adventure or take enormous risks, when we have but one life to live?
Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, a memoir of his time as an aviator in the early days of flight, tries to answer this and many other questions. What do we derive meaning from? What is a life well-lived? The writing itself provides his answer, as he approaches the world with a child-like sense of awe, the pages dripping with majestic imagery and metaphor, often reflecting a sense of pure joy. If he must choose specificity (dates or other particulars) or beauty in recounting his experiences, he opts for beauty and wonder. Where Orewell’s Homage to Catalonia, a memoir from the same era (both men were in Spain during the civil war), reads like a log of his time, mixed with withering analysis, Wind, Sand and Stars is a piece of art where light on a plane’s wing radiates “in the form of a bouquet of pink flowers.” The titles reflect this difference best.
Though not an explorer, aviation itself was in its exploratory stages. Saint-Exupéry flies by sight and map, with only rudimentary controls, in small planes that feel the full brunt of nature’s effects. Navigating by the stars, his course dictated by the wind, he crosses the Pyrenees and the Andes, sails through typhoons, crashes in the Sahara and nearly runs out of fuel over the ocean. When thought lost for dead in the Sahara he notes that he has “gambled and lost” but has no regrets. He states clearly that “it is not danger I love. I know what I love. It is life.”
Life isn’t shuffling papers in a government office or earning a certain arbitrary amount of money. Man is not “cattle to be fattened for market.” Man’s fulfillment is not to be found in logic, it is to be found in what culture, activity or scale of values brings self-fulfillment or awakens an inner spirit. For Saint-Exupéry the plane was a means towards experience. One does not die for air mail, the same as most men in a war do not die for whatever banner they happen to fight for. Far from escapism, shirking off daily drudgery for something more is the embrace of reality. Finding beauty, in music or art, is reality. Love is experiencing this with another person. This is the only way to realize one’s full potential, to test one’s self, to experience freedom.
Consumerism and technology are a constant backdrop to this book. Saint-Exupéry initially is supportive of new technology, noting that over time it is eventually accepted. The plane, he notes, doesn’t divorce man from nature or feeling, it puts man in touch with nature. At the time this was quite true as he flew in a tiny plane, feeling the cold, rain, his vision obscured by clouds, his destination governed by wind that flew in his face. But what would he think of a modern airplane, on auto-pilot for 90% of the flight, the pilot not feeling the wind or viewing the stars, but instead a series of knobs and monitors? Of a world where any place on Earth could be viewed with the click of a button? Where, like his prisoner digging a hole for punishment, work is neither purposeful nor enriching? Where a car drives itself? This is what I wondered as I finished the book.
It seems I may have received my answer as I then read that Saint-Exupéry went missing in his plane in 1944, just as airplane navigation became heavily dependent on reading instruments, which he was not enamoured with. When a French fisherman pulled his nets in 2004 he found a bracelet with Saint-Exupéry’s name inscribed and his plane was found shortly after. It had no bullet holes and appears to have flown directly in to the sea, with suicide strongly suspected.
I suspect Saint-Exupéry would hate much of the modern world, as it eliminates wonder and joy. For being a world divorced from reality. One wonders if he hasn’t got to the reasons for why our modern world, despite its benefits, is so full of depression, anxiety and isolation? Where men in droves seek nothing as they see nothing offered in return. Perhaps the technology is no longer a means, as his plane was, but an end itself.
A truly brilliant book and I’d highly recommend reading this back to back with Orewell’s Homage to Catalonia. Was Orewell truly fighting mainly to rid Spain of fascism? In favour of socialism? As he states he joined mainly as it was the thing to do in Spain and his best justification at the end of the war for choosing his side and being shot in the neck is a weak plea that no war is without a difference depending on the victor. I suspect Saint-Exupéry understood better than he what brought Orewell to arms.