WIND, SAND AND STARS
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
A critical paper by
Lawrence N. Siegler
Is it a plane? Is it a star? Is it fiction? Is it biography? Well, it's not too important. France is where the “Theater of the Absurd”, where Dada, Surrealism, and more recently Deconstructionism are actually taken seriously and have roots in fertile soil. The difference between things means much and then at the same time less. This is the land of plus ça change as well as vive la différence!
We can then understand how Henri Bordeaux, on May 25, 1939, convinced his fellow members of the Académie Française to award Terre des Hommes, the French version of Wind, Sand and Stars, Le Grand Prix du Roman. Bordeaux, a World War I veteran and biographer met St.-Exupéry in March 1939 in Germany where both were guests of Nazi propagandists. Both men left Germany a few days later when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia.
Bordeaux challenged the Academy to answer several questions. He supplied his own answers and, voilá, the book was pronounced the novel of the year. The 69 year old academician asked his colleagues: What other book written that year showed such eloquence of language as this work? The quest for le mot juste is very important to the French. What other book written that year imbued its characters with so much life and its narrative with so much zest? Are not these qualities the sine qua non of the novel? No one disputed as Bordeaux answered his own questions in the affirmative.
No plot, he continued? Does the human condition need a plot? The term "la condition humaine" has had a powerful meaning to the French even before the time of Balzac. His questions and his answers went on. Are not the characters in this book merely fleeting and incomplete? True, but these are such grand characters, with just enough for appropriate impression. And there are such superb entrances and exits – so dramatic and vivid.
With arguments such as these and because apparently not much else of merit was published in France in 1938-9, the Académie Française gave Terre des Hommes the prize for the best novel of the year.
The book was published by Gallimard on March 3, 1939. The U.S. version was released in June 1939 and became the Book of the Month Club's Summer offering. It also won the National Book Award in the United States for, oddly enough, non-fiction. In this country we certainly know non-fiction when we see it.
The difference between the two versions is that the French edition is more philosophical and the U.S. more concrete. The French title for example, Terre des Hommes or Territory of Mankind was changed to the less metaphysical, Wind, Sand and Stars.
In the English translation some of the heavy imagery and lushness of language disappears. The translator Galantière requested better transitional passages between chapters. This was needed as an introduction or bridge to the "Machine" chapter and especially for the "Barcelona and Madrid" chapter.
Chapter 4, "The Elements" which contains a superb description of flying through a cyclone was added to the American edition. There is more about flying in the U.S. version. There is also less nuance. It is much like the difference between a French and English cookbook. In English, we like to know exactly how much there is in a soupçon.
St.-Exupéry did not want the book to be merely an adventure story like those of Roy Chapman Andrews and Lowell Thomas. He tried to achieve a kind of moral call to arms. He tried to cut much from the U.S. text that he considered too literary and falsely poetic. He cut far less from the U.S. edition than he wished because his translator, Galantière, persuaded him against it. The translator believed that the author was a very poor judge of his own work.
Chapters of Wind, Sand and Stars had already appeared in various French periodicals such as Paris-Soir, Marianne, and L'Intransigent between 1935 and 1938. After St.-Exupéry's almost fatal crash-landing in Guatemala in 1938, his friends Jacques Prevost and Leon Werth suggested he form these various items into a book. St.-Exupéry combined and refined these articles into essays augmented and tied together with profound thought.
One must recall the father of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, in the late 1500's wrote his personal experiences and interlaced them with many observations and thoughts. The pensée is a familiar and frequently found form of French literature. (e.g., Pascal, Rousseau and even Descartes). André Gide encouraged St.-Exupéry and gave him a copy of Conrad's Mirror of the Sea, also a series of sketches and thoughts.
Wind, Sand and Stars is the longest of St.-Exupéry's rather short works. On its release in France, the work was exuberantly praised. “... not since le Visconte de Chateaubriand ... has poetry from prose been accomplished.” Comparisons were made to Plutarch, Emerson, Columbus and even Magellan of his skill in creating poetic prose. One reviewer called the book Homeric. He said it had a robust nudity and compared the work to a marble column, “... a plain, stout, porous column absorbing sunlight glowingly”. This Gallic critic's sumptuous symbolic effusion is evidence of the book's positive reception in France.
The New York Times Book Review on page 1 said, “... a beautiful and brave book ... read against the confusion of the world ... worthy if only to retain our pride in humanity ...” The Herald Tribune said “St.-Exupéry is awake while most men are asleep.” The English Spectator felt the book “... showed God-like tolerance for the pettiness and folly of mankind ...” The Times Literary Supplement said: “... he touches nothing which he does not illuminate ... a book of dreams and visions ... a hymn ... a poetic adventure in prose rhapsody.”
One way to learn what St.-Exupéry wanted to express is in the French edition's introduction. This introduction was excluded from the United States edition as too metaphysical. I must add it is too flowery also. The introduction portrays the pilot using the airplane to overcome problems, to accomplish his mission, to learn of the world and himself, and thereby like the carpenter and farmer serve a noble purpose while on earth.
There are several elements which develop from this philosophy. One is that a certain spirit is necessary to overcome a challenge. To do so man must lift himself by sheer force of will.
For St.-Exupéry manhood or validity is not given but acquired by virtue of what one creates. Adversity, challenges, sacrifice, and years of experience form the human being. Overcoming the typhoon, the crash in the desert, the liberation of Bark, the slave and Guillaumet's astounding walk out of the Andes all required special force of will.
The last line in the book: "Only the spirit, if it breathe upon the clay, can create man", (Seul l'esprit, s'il souffle sur la glaise, peut créer l'homme.) is a concrete expression of this element of St.-Exupéry's philosophy. The force of will (l'esprit) lifts man above himself.
What one might call molding and overcoming is another element of action in St.-Exupéry's thought and life. It is action-adventure and responsibility that helped St.-Exupéry transcend himself. He found self fulfillment through action.
Wind, Sand and Stars is an amalgam of personal experience and personal statement. The book takes the reader from action to meditation. It specifically makes meditation the fruit of action.
Wind, Sand and Stars is then a song of praise for the man of action. It was Bark whose own actions allowed him to escape to liberty. We see it again in Mermoz and Guillaumet, men of action overcoming obstacles.
This same praise is found in Night Flight (Vol de Nuit), published in 1923 and again in the posthumously published Flight to Arras (Pilot de Guerre). His disdain mentioned in the first and last chapters of this book, of the men in the omnibus going to work, was because this was routine, stultifying and non-creative behavior. It seems that St.-Exupéry is influenced by the Sociologist, Émile Durkheim whose concern was routinisation and anomie in the modern world.
The concept of active responsibility is linked in St.-Exupéry's philosophy to fellowship, cooperation and human relations. The first two chapters outline the concept of Fraternity – Fraternité, the third of the 3 French eternally politically correct words: Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité. Even the Académie Française's report stated that they much admired the book's "virile affection for companions".
The airplane is a tool, another machine which does not isolate man but plunges him more deeply into life. The airplane is a metaphor for any tool man uses to bend nature to his own needs. It is emblematic of modern industrial society. It is the dignity of Labor and responsibility to one's work that is St.-Exupéry's optimistic view.
The metaphor of the airplane is particularly apt because it represents an uplifting, and a transcendence of gravity and inertia. It provides an overview of the world – sometimes in tranquility and sometimes in chaos. St.-Exupéry poetically and almost mystically recasts the work ethic, the ethos of fraternity, self-fulfillment, courage and dedication in a modern idiom.
In the 1920's and 30's it took courage, wit, ingenuity and skill for a pilot to succeed and survive. There was much that was unknown. There were few instruments and maps. The chapter entitled “Prisoner of Sand” and especially St.-Exupéry's earlier book, Night Flight (Vol de Nuit), are especially vivid describing the dark unknown of the night and the primitive development of airplanes at that time.
Early flying very much depended on prominent landmarks and the position of the sun. At night determining the position of the stars was not easy nor reliable. We realize what enormous courage it took then to fly at night. Even so, one wonders what prevented St.-Exupéry from taking a radio on his nearly fatal trip from Paris to Saigon in 1935.
So it is the use of tools, with fellowship, responsibility and courage that lifts man from his base beginnings. The pilot responsible for the mail is dedicated to his mission. The spirit of Mozart and Marmoz lie within us all. We must mold ourselves invoking this spirit. The young Polish boy on the train, in the last chapter, must break from his restraints to find his destiny. Sadly, he probably won't.
In 1940, the newspaper Le Figaro suggested that every French soldier take Terre des Hommes to the front, demonstrating in a temporal context that this is a sustaining text. Simone de Beauvoir wrote Jean-Paul Sartre that this was the first book in a long time that made her dream. Sartre's response to this book was that he felt homesick for a life not known and nostalgic for a life he did not live.
St.-Exupéry is very much in the humanist tradition, i.e., man is master of himself. Man reflects under discipline. St.-Exupéry adds that the progress of the machine reflects a gradual liberation of mankind. He above all lived his work and like authors from Balzac to Malreaux, he is involved or engagé. He is a moralist and not merely a "casanier "or "stay at home."
St.-Exupéry sees a possibility of man's perfection, describing the world in a divine light. He is indeed an heir of Montaigne. It is a special pleasure to read his insights so poetically and philosophically set. Orson Wells and Jean Renoir both wanted to set the book in film. Each was unable. Renoir could not get Zanuck to support him and Wells was turned down by Walt Disney, to do an animation augmented film version. However, Wells did do some readings from the book on radio.
There is a certain grandeur in this book. Superb descriptive passages transport us to the scene of action. The specially written chapter for the U.S. edition entitled “The Elements” contains an extraordinarily vivid and involving account of flight through a cyclone.
Chapter V, “The Plane and the Planet” also has a wondrous description of the lava flows and peaks of the southern Andes. How sensitive was his description of lying on his back on a sand plateau and looking upward at the stars. Many of us have done the same. Could we describe it as well?
St.-Exupéry has an extraordinary ability to capture geography and circumstances in a graphic, poetic and impressive manner. It is certainly with grandeur that he is able to communicate.
We can believe the courage and dedication of men like Mermoz and Guillaumet to explore the physical challenges confronting the pilots of the 1920's and 30's. To this St.-Exupéry adds his own pleasure of flying, his sensing the wind, air, clouds, and even the ground below. How well he relates the joy of rolling over while flying and imagining the stars are lights from below.
In Chapter IV, “Men of the Desert”, St.-Exupéry expresses his great satisfaction in understanding the weather-predictive behavior, the secret language of a green butterfly and two Dragonflies. Events like these are made vivid, personally sensitive, and impressive. We know how very well he enjoys his métier.
As early as 1938, St.-Exupéry saw how little effect the horrible motion picture war scenes of Shanghai and Guernica had on viewers. He makes this observation: The physical drama cannot touch us unless someone points out its spiritual sense. Something with the force of the spiritual must be connected to the event or it is merely transient and ineffectual.
St.-Exupéry's defense of new technologies and people's nostalgia for the old days is clear and lucid. He tells us that language and folklore must catch up with technology. The new tools and their practitioners must be praised as St.-Exupéry did with the airplane. His example of the once hated and feared train is appropriate and to the point.
Impressive are his political and social statements. Bedouins visiting Paris are enthralled more by cows, lush countryside and the unending waterfall than the Louvre or Tour Eiffel. They remark, "The God of the French is very good to them." They become willing vassals. Yet they revert, kill their French companions and love to hate the dreaded and infamous Bonnafous. There are no answers here, but great insights.
St.-Exupéry thought the final chapter, “Barcelona and Madrid” gave the book its greatest depth. I agree with him. This chapter in the English edition was somewhat expanded. The clarity of his thought in this chapter is excellent.
He describes so well the anarchy of civil war. Such a war is seen by each side as a plague or an infection. Both sides are fighting for the same reason. It is not the aims but the methods that differ. There are a bizarre set of motives, and constructs that makes for terror, summary executions, and casual preparations to die.
St.-Exupéry asks: Why are men willing to die, shoot innocent men and women; priests, their housekeepers and pharmacists? We are possessed by passion, hatred and even so-called unassailable logic. St.-Exupéry says War tricks us. What else is it that makes men accept death for "carnivorous ideologies"?
At times the book seems to be on the edge of self congratulation, bravado, unclear praise, vague conclusions, and filled with recondite, exclusive generalities. Yet Wind, Sand and Stars in its totality comes together as a tour de force, with messages for all of us.
This book belongs to a special genre - the narrative/essay. It is unique and outstanding. It makes one wonder what St.-Exupéry would have written during the 30 or more years he was not permitted to live.
In the pantheon of literary high points, Wind, Sand and Stars shines brightly.
Questions for Discussion
1. Is this fiction or nonfiction? Need fiction not be true? Truthful? Imaginary? Are not the muses involved? What about the novel? If you were a member of the Académie Française, would you agree with M. Bordeaux? How crucially important is this question anyway?
2. Was St.-Exupéry a humbug, a self-promoting , lazy, sloppy pilot, and/or a better-than-average writer? What does one miss if the book is merely read as a set of adventure tales? Which chapters are the best/worst, and why?
3. Do his sensitivities stimulate you? Can you articulate and evaluate St.-Exupéry’s philosophy? His work ethic? Even his claim of renunciation? Or fellowship congealed by danger and high purpose? Or self-fulfillment? Is the machine involving us in the deeper problems of nature? Is there no hope of joy except in human relations? Is truth clarifying but not demonstrable; ideologies all logical and carnivorous? Is there a Marmoz/Mozart in all of us? Have you found any other elements of St.-Exupéry’s thought remarkable?
4. If Chapter 6, “Oasis”, is a fairy tale, what is its point? Is it not explicit? Hint: don’t be an imbecile – respond!
5. As “casaniers”, how do we feel about the active life versus the routine world? Do we avoid the great questions of the world? What is so gratifying about the life of St.-Exupéry and his fellow pilots?
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