Antoine de Saint – Exupery: Wind, Sand and Stars

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.

George Orewell: Homage to Catalonia

I’ve known that Orewell fought in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Republicans, but my knowledge basically ended there. It was mostly a historical tidbit to me.  Homage to Catalonia, a recounting of his time in Spain, fills in the blanks, both for this period and as explanation for 1984 and Animal Farm.

A memoir of his time spent in Spain fighting on behalf of the Republicans in the Civil War, Orewell’s time is split between the front and behind the lines in civilian Republican Spain, mainly Barcelona.

Orewell rates his own time at the front as nothing but boredom and drudgery; at best he shoots fruitlessly at a fascist over no man’s land, more to ease his own boredom than with a hope of actually shooting a fascist. You’d think someone as insightful as Orewell would spend his time in deep thought, but he notes that “when I get mixed up in war or politics – I am conscious of nothing save physical discomfort and a deep desire for this damned nonsense to be over.”

The most interesting part of the war to Orewell and the reader is the internal strife on the Republican side, which was a hodge podge of different left-wing factions.

At the beginning when Orewell arrives Spain is viva la revolution! Women fight with men, all dress identically, military ranks are abolished. Comrade is the only available title. There was a “feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.”

This unity of purpose begins to splinter. After the Republican side loses a position Orewell notes that “it was the first talk I had heard of treachery or divided aims…hitherto, the rights and wrongs had seemed so beautifully simple…it set up in my mind my first vague doubts about this war.”  This reminded me of the Great Gatsby and the exact moment when infidelity is suspected, in horror, by an aggrieved spouse.

As the war progressed the Stalinist and conservative elements within the Republican side ultimately banned their own “comrades”, the anarchists and the far-left Trotskyists, which Orewell was a member of.  Upon returning to Barcelona from the front Orewell is visibly struck by the change as it becomes clear the bourgeoisie were mostly feigning revolution out of fear of the proletariat, not solidarity. As time ticked forward and they felt safer, the wealthy reasserted their status. The worker’s revolution was not a new beginning, just a fleeting jubilant moment in time, like a drunken escapade.

At the end of the book Orewell reflects on the propaganda used against the Republicans and to justify crushing the far-left. The reporting on the war, fed by the fascists, labels the Republicans as traitors, murderers, cowards and spies.  The Republicans then spread the same lies about the anarchists, calling them traitors, fascists, saboteurs and enemies of the people, arresting them en masse. These are men, some as young as 15, that Orewell has seen killed or horribly wounded fighting for the people.

Lie after lie is told retold, to the point where it becomes truth. A man fighting for the poor is called a fascist, a man wounded in battle a coward. It “gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world.”  A history of the war, given the volume of lies, would be “unreliable on every minor point.”  A basic sense of fairness is destroyed as as “practically the law was what the police chose to make it…it was no use hanging on to the English notion that you are safe so long as you keep the law.”

A world without truth, without reality, where up is down and left is right, supposing it fits ones agenda, is madness. The aim of mankind, since the earliest philosophers, has been to uncover truth. To say that it no longer exists or to divorce oneself from it is to deny the main benefit of being human. We see this in the United States, where inconvenient information is labelled “fake news” or a conspiracy.

The most disturbing part of Trump is that there is no pretense of truth. Watching the Republican convention the volume of lies being spouted was obvious. More sickening was to see these lies given credence as CNN attempted to provide “balance.” Trump stating that Obama bugged his home, with no evidence, is given equal weight to Obama stating he hasn’t. Those who know the truth, which ought to be the entirety of the Republican Congress, cast the truth aside in favour of propaganda and personal gain.

The US left is better, but not without fault. As Orewell notes “one feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections among the intelligentsia, including some of the left-wing political intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against Fascism.” Just yesterday in the wake of a shooting by a madman who was once part of Bernie Sanders campaign, the NY Times, as Glenn Greenwald noted, were quick to defame Sanders’ ideas and campaign (https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/875176196237127680).

As Orewell states, the lowest class of society is the only one that can’t be permanently bribed. To win the working class the standard of living has to be improved, something fascists and sometimes capitalists can’t do. Eventually the lower classes will (or should) see through the trick that has been played on them, no matter how ignorant.

In the context of the USA the Trump lies were meant to appeal to the lower classes, though without any realistic way of delivering. These people were too ignorant to understand this. The Clinton candidacy didn’t try to appeal to them in any meaningful way, so it isn’t shocking that she lost. The only candidate honestly trying to solve their problems, Sanders, was castigated by the establishment.

As Orewell notes, what the working class wants is a “fight to win a decent life they knew to be their birthright.” Whomever offers this most convincingly stands to reap a reward, but if it is an authentic attempt it will be opposed by elites that rule the parties, media and money. So it seems the only path to equality is through some sort of perverted double-cross intended to trick the disenfranchised and the rich simultaneously.

Thinking of my own province, the Liberal party, uncaring towards the poor for years, have tried to save their political hide by offering, only after more than ten years in office and the impending prospect of being voted out of power, a 30% increase in the minimum wage and subsidized electricity. It remains to be seen if this bribe will be accepted.

I didn’t mean to write so much on this, but Orwell packs a mountain of ideas into a small space. The other things that struck me were:

  • The homogeneous nature of journalists. Compare your average “personality” on TV or in print, nearly all of whom have similar views (or parrot party lines to a tee in faux disagreement), to an Orewell, later a journalist, who served in the police, taught at a school and fought in a war. Whether you agree with them or not some of the best journalists today are Glenn Greenwald (civil rights lawyer), George Monbiot (zoology) and Malcom Gladwell (barely graduated university). I also consider Mark Styen (disc jockey), though often deliberately disingenuous, a brilliant writer. Monbiot himself makes such an observation about broadcasters here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/13/election-tories-media-broadcasters-press-jeremy-corbyn.
  • The level of inequality in Spain was striking (the poor were almost completely illiterate), as was the absence of any concept of due process or rule of law. Recently on a Freakonomics podcast (Earth 2.0) on income inequality it was argued that this is in large part an explanation for the differences between North America, based on the British system, and South America, colonized by the Spaniards. The English tended to integrate workers into their systems of production and trade, whereas the Spanish sought solely to extract as much wealth as possible. I find this argument compelling as in the absence of basic fairness and opportunity, society devolves into warfare for control, as we saw in 1938 Spain and in much of modern Latin America. Aside from warfare the only other option is a depressed form of nihilistic fatalism.  Say what you want about the British, but if you have been aggrieved you at least have a chance for a mostly impartial hearing, governed by laws.  See: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/earth-2-0-income-inequality.

Orewell demonstrates powerfully the need to pursue truth, freedom, fairness and equality. None will ever be realized, far from it, but it is far more advisable than not trying at all.