“But man has always succeeded in rising again.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


Today is the birthday of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Here is an extraordinary excerpt from Wind, Sand and Stars – a book I last read in high school, when I was in my Richard Bach-airplane-writing-soulmate-search phase. Listen to this prose.

And yet we have all known flights when of a sudden, each for himself, it has seemed to us that we have crossed the border of the world of reality; when, only a couple of hours from port, we have felt ourselves more distant from it than we should feel if we were in India; when there has come a premonition of an incursion into a forbidden world whence it was going to be infinitely difficult to return.

Thus, when Mermoz first crossed the South Atlantic in a hydroplane, as day was dying he ran foul of the Black Hole region, off Africa. Straight ahead of him were the tails of tornadoes rising minute by minute gradually higher, rising as a wall is built; and then the night came down upon these preliminaries and swallowed them up; and when, an hour later, he slipped under the clouds, he came out into a fantastic kingdom.

Great black waterspouts had reared themselves seemingly in the immobility of temple pillars. Swollen at their tops, they were supporting the squat and lowering arch of the tempest, but through the rifts in the arch there fell slabs of light and the full moon sent her radiant beams between the pillars down upon the frozen tiles of the sea. Through these uninhabited ruins Mermoz made his way, gliding slantwise from one channel of light to the next, circling round those giant pillars in which there must have rumbled the upsurge of the sea, flying for four hours through these corridors of moonlight toward the exit from the temple. And this spectacle was so overwhelming that only after he had got through the Black Hole did Mermoz awaken to the fact that he had not been afraid.

And now I’ll share the full text of an open letter he wrote. Settle in. It’s a doozy. It’s called “Letter to an American”.

“Letter to an American”

I left the United States in 1943 in order to rejoin my fellow flyers of “Flight to Arras”. I traveled on board an American convoy. This convoy of thirty ships was carrying fifty thousand of your soldiers from the United States to North Africa. When, on waking, I went up on deck, I found myself surrounded by this city on the move. The thirty ships carved their way powerfully through the water. But I felt something else besides a sense of power. This convoy conveyed to me the joy of a crusade.

Friends in America, I would like to do you complete justice. Perhaps, someday, more or less serious disputes will arise between us. Every nation is selfish and every nation considers its selfishness sacred. Perhaps your feeling of power may, someday, lead you to seize advantages for yourselves that we consider unjust to us. Perhaps, sometime in the future, more or less violent disputes may occur between us. If it is true that wars are won by believers, it is also true that peace treaties are sometimes signed by businessmen. If therefore, at some future date, I were to inwardly reproach those American businessmen, I could never forget the high-minded war aims of your country. I shall always bear witness in the same way to your fundamental qualities. American mothers did not give their sons for the pursuit of material aims. Nor did these boys accept the idea of risking their lives for such material aims. I know – and will later tell my countrymen – that it was a spiritual crusade that led you into the war.

I have two specific proofs of this among others. Here is the first.

During this crossing in convoy, mingling as I did with your soldiers, I was inevitably a witness to the war propaganda they were fed. Any propaganda is by definition amoral, and in other to achieve its aim it makes use of any sentiment, whether noble, vulgar, or base. If the American soldiers had been sent to war merely in order to protect American interests, their propaganda would have insisted heavily on your oil wells, your rubber plantations, your threatened commercial markets. But such subjects were hardly mentioned. If war propaganda stressed other things, it was because your soldiers wanted to hear about other things. And what were they told to justify the sacrifice of their lives in their own eyes? They were told of the hostages hanged in Poland, the hostages shot in France. They were told of a new form of slavery that threatened to stifle part of humanity. Propaganda spoke to them not about themselves, but about others. They were made to feel solidarity with all humanity. The fifty thousand soldiers of this convoy were going to war, not for the citizens of the United States, but for man, for human respect, for man’s freedom and greatness. The nobility of your countrymen dictated the same nobility where propaganda was concerned. If someday your peace-treaty technicians should, for material and political reasons, injure something of France, they would be betraying your true face. How could I forget the great cause for which the American people fought?

This faith in your country was strengthened in Tunis, where I flew war missions with one of your units in July 1943. One evening, a twenty-year-old American pilot invited me and my friends to dinner. He was tormented by a moral problem that seemed very important to him. But he was shy and couldn’t make up his mind to confide his secret torment to us. We had to ply him with drink before he finally explained, blushing: “This morning I completed my twenty-fifth war mission. It was over Trieste. For an instant I was engaged with several Messerschmitt 109s. I’ll do it again tomorrow and I may be shot down. You know why you are fighting. You have to save your country. But I have nothing to do with your problems in Europe. Our interests lie in the Pacific. And so if I accept the risk of being buried here, it is, I believe, in order to help you get back your country. Every man has a right to be free in his own country. But if and my compatriots help you to regain your country, will you help us in turn in the Pacific?”

We felt like hugging our young comrade! In the hour of danger, he needed reassurance for his faith in the solidarity of all humanity. I know that war is indivisible, and that a mission over Trieste indirectly serves American interests in the Pacific, but our comrade was unaware of these complications. And the next day he would accept the risks of war in order to restore our country to us. How could I forget such a testimony? How could I not be touched, even now, by the memory of this?

Friends in America, you see it seems that something new is emerging on our planet. It is true that technical progress in modern times has linked men together like a complex nervous system. The means of travel are numerous and communication is instantaneous – We are joined together materially like the cells of a single body, but this body has as yet no soul. This organism is not yet aware of its unity as a whole. The hand does not yet know that it is one with the eye . And yet it is this awareness of future unity which vaguely tormented this twenty-year-old pilot and which was already at work in him.

For the first time in the history of the world, your young men are dying in a war that – despite all its horrors – is for them an experience of love. Do not betray them. Let them dictate their peace when the time comes! Let that peace reassemble them! This war is honorable; may their spiritual faith make peace as honorable.

I am happy among my french and american comrades. After my first missions in the P-38s Lightnings, they discovered my age. 43 years! What a scandal! Your American rules are inhuman. At 43 years of age one does not fly a fast plane like the Lightnings. The long white beards might get entangled with the controls and cause accidents. I was therefore unemployed for a few months.

But how can one think about France unless one takes some of the risks? There they are suffering, fighting for survival-dying. How can one judge those – even the worst among them – who suffer bodily there, while one is oneself sitting comfortably in some propaganda office here? And how can one love the best among them? To love is to participate, to share. In the end, by virtue of a miraculous and generous decision by General Eaker. My white beard fell off and I was allowed back into my Lightning.

I rejoin Gavoille (French pilot), of “Flight to Arras”, who is in charge of our Squadron in your reconnaissance Group. I also met up again with Hochedé, also of “Flight to Arras”, whom I had earlier called a Saint of WAR and who was then killed in war, in a Lightning. I rejoin all those of whom I had said that under the jackboot of the invader they were not defeated, but were merely seed buried in a silent earth. After the long winter of the Armistice, the seed sprouted. My squadron once again blossomed in the daylight like a tree. I once again experience the joy of those high-altitude missions that are like deep-sea diving. One plunges into forbidden territory equipped with barbaric instruments, surrounded by a multitude of dials. Above one’s own country, one breathes oxygen produced in America. New York Air in a French sky. Isn’t that amazing? One flies in that light monster of a Lightning, in which one has the impression not of moving in space but of being present simultaneously everywhere on a whole continent. One brings back photographs that are analyzed by stereoscope like growing organism under a microscope. Those analyzing your photographic material do the work of a bacteriologist. They seek on the surface of the body (France) the traces of the virus that is destroying it. The enemy forts, depots, convoys show up under the lens like minuscule bacilli. One can die of them.

And the poignant meditation while flying over France, so near and yet so far away! One is separated from her by centuries. All tenderness, all memories, all reasons for living are spread out 35,000 feet below, illuminated by sunlight, and nevertheless more inaccessible than any Egyptian treasures locked away in the glass cases of a museum.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry.

Saint-Exupéry and his plane vanished over the Mediterranean in 1944. Neither he nor his plane were found, and this situation of not-knowing lasted for 60 years. Then, in the year 2004, 60 years after his disappearance, the remains of his Lockheed Lightning P38 aircraft were found off the coast of Marseille. It is still a mystery why the plane went down. We’ll probably never know the full story.

That the author of The Little Prince, a story of a mysterious prince from another planet, who visits us for a short while before vanishing, also vanished without a trace – was eerily symmetrical, as though prophetic.

The final line of The Little Prince:

“Ne me laissez pas tellement triste: écrivez-moi vite qu’il est revenu… ”

“If this should happen, please comfort me. Send me word that he has come back.”


I first read The Little Prince in French, as part of the curriculum of my 10th grade French class. The whole thing sounds better in French, of course. The most famous lines from The Little Prince I know by heart and they just have to be read in French.

Voici mon secret. Il est tres simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

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14 Responses to “But man has always succeeded in rising again.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

  1. bainer says:

    I read your link re: Richard Bach. I’m starting to suspect we’re actually the same person, you and I, Sheila. At 16, or so, I read “Illusions” which had a big impact. I too was in a moment of big impact and crisis in my life, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Shortly after I read the book I had a blue feather tattooed on my wrist. This was before it was common to get tattoos. The “parlor” was in the basement below a dingy Chinese restaurant. The “artist” was a member of a biker gang and his assistant was a dwarf.

    I’ve felt a tad embarrassed re: my reaction and have avoided re-reading “Illusions”. I wonder if I should? Or would it confirm my embarrassment? Here I am telling the teenagers around me to wait to get a tattoo until they really feel it, not just for the sake of it. But hey, I really felt it at the time! And I have no regrets (except for the New Agey book…).

    • sheila says:

      Bainer – Ha!! You know, it seems to me that unless Richard Bach “gets” you at an impressionable age – you may never click with his work. There will probably be some disagreement on that. I know that many pilots treasure his flying writing just as much as they treasure St. Ex’s – and with good reason. Bach’s flying essays are amazing and poetic!!

      // The “artist” was a member of a biker gang and his assistant was a dwarf. //

      This is BRILLIANT. A tattoo parlor designed by David Lynch?? And we both got tattoos before it was common. I got mine during the time when only bikers and sailors got them. The guy who put mine on didn’t want to do it. He was like, “Are you sure??” Big tough guy. :) I have no regrets about mine either.

      The whole “soulmates” thing is how Bach hooked me and then how he lost me. It was a gradual process. Bridge Across Forever got me through some tough times but I honestly think now that the message therein is misguided and (at least for me) harmful. It’s weird- the “soulmate” brigade have often found my Bach posts and sent vicious emails about how I obviously don’t “get it.” Interesting that these folks who seem to parade about claiming they are more enlightened than the rest of us would take time to send a random stranger mean and snotty emails.

      I stood in line in the rain for 3 hours to get Richard Bach’s autograph. I never would do so now – and totally lost track of him after “Running From Safety.” I heard through the soulmate-grapevine that he and Leslie Parrish had divorced. I didn’t exactly cackle with glee but I did feel that – well, of course, you could see that coming from miles away.

      I’ve had very interesting conversations with people who did stick with Bach, even after the first glow had passed – and that his recent books seemed very unconnected, and really really thin. Like he had lost some essential thing, some power of expression – and this one guy, in particular, felt sad about it.

      I am 95% sure that if I re-read Illusions now I would want to throw it across the room. Bridge Across Forever, definitely. Life has taught me some tough lessons about love, and I find that his “gospel” (which indeed is what it became – shades of Shimoda in Illusions) is pretty self-serving – and – ultimately – shows his inability to connect with others.

      This may be mean but the man had 6 children – and not once in any of his books – does he ever mention any of them. I mean, fine, that’s his prerogative to focus on other things – but still. It’s extremely telling.

      • bainer says:

        –You know, it seems to me that unless Richard Bach “gets” you at an impressionable age – you may never click with his work.–

        I think you’re right. I’ve read stuff since and, ‘meh.’ And then forgot what it was I liked about “Illusions” and am scared to read it again.

        • sheila says:

          I know what you mean. Those books that really impacted us – so much so that you got a tattoo!! – sometimes it’s best to just let them sit there in the past, as something we once loved.

          I haven’t read Bach in years. I don’t think I can take it anymore. I’m too “over” it. But boy did I love him once!

  2. sheila says:

    And I actually do understand how personally people take Richard Bach’s work. I get why people would be angry and hurt at me saying “This is a load of crap.” I sympathize. I took his stuff myself.

    But there’s nothing like the anger of someone who feels like they have been suckered – or (worse) suckered THEMSELVES – and that’s how I feel about Bach’s soulmate stuff. It was a way to claim he was more special than others, that HIS love was higher than others – he just could not resist that teacher-thing – and boy, did it work. He made bazillions of dollars with those books. I don’t think he was a con-man. I just think he was a guy who found it nearly impossible to connect with others (something a lot of born mechanics seem to feel!) – and so when he did connect with Leslie he was gob-smacked, in a way that other more grounded men would not be – and turned it into this New Age “let’s meet floating through the ether” thing. Now, though, it all reads rather desperate to me. Like he’s protesting too much or something.

    I don’t know – CLEARLY I still have a lot of thoughts about Richard Bach!!

    • Jaquandor says:

      Time was when I loved Richard Bach very, very deeply. I got over it, for various reasons that I wrote about on my own blog, here. (Apologies if I’ve already linked that in a former post of yours; I looked briefly and didn’t see it anyplace.) My Bach fascination started my senior year of high school and lasted through roughly to my senior year of college. I like the idea that you have to get him at the right moment in your life…maybe he’s Ayn Rand for hippies, or something.

      I still own a copy of The Bridge Across Forever, which at one time meant so, so much to me. I dust it off every now and then…once every few years or so…and I respond to it a little less each time. It’s not bad, but I just can’t respond to it anymore.

      • sheila says:

        That is a hell of a piece of writing, Jaquandor. Wow. I love how the two forces (Rachmaninov and Bach) sort of swooped together at the same time – and I love most of all your willingness to work out those connections through your writing. How they informed one another, how they didn’t.

        And, an aside: we both had identical responses to Bach. Both with the first book we read of his, and then how we back-tracked to others, including the flight compilations. I, too, barely remember Running From Safety – and that too was the last book of his I read. It’s interesting the title of Running From Safety, yes? In the context of the book, Leslie encourages him to feel safe in the relationship, and to do the emotional work that needs to be done in order to accept safety. To stop running.

        But the title, I think, is indicative that Bach is still running. He’s already got one foot out the door – and the book seems to me a way to reassure himself that all is still well in his marriage. When clearly it is not.

        In one of my Bach posts (I can’t remember which one) someone left a comment – who was also a lifelong Bach fan – and kept reading whatever he wrote, even though he had a similar turn-off moment with the whole soulmate thing. Bach came out with a book maybe 10 years ago? About a relationship with an airplane. (I don’t know the title.) And this commenter (who doesn’t comment here anymore, I don’t think) said that the book made him sad – it was so short, first of all – now Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions were short – but they felt very full. This book felt thin to this reader – like Bach could barely made it to 80 pages. There was nothing left for him to say, the “juice” was gone. It made this reader sad. Like – Leslie grounded Bach in the real world and that really helped his writing. Without that, he’s just floating, unconnected.

        That may be an unfair sentiment – but who knows. It was interesting.

        Anyway: thank you so much for the link to that piece, which I have never read.

  3. mutecypher says:

    The early decades of aviation had a call for some beautiful, wistful spirits: Saint-Exupéry, Beryl Markham, Isak Dinesen (indirectly), AM Lindbergh. And at that time it was such a mechanical, hands-on activity. To over generalize, perhaps; people with a love of solitude and a desire to share that love. And a willingness to get their hands dirty.

    It attracted a different sort of person compared to the early days of space flight (which we’re still in) or the early days of the Internet.

    I wonder what draws the different sorts. I don’t have any idea.

    Saint-Exupéry’s writing is so beautiful.

    • mutecypher says:

      Perhaps flying solo is such a perfect activity and metaphor.

    • sheila says:

      // To over generalize, perhaps; people with a love of solitude and a desire to share that love. And a willingness to get their hands dirty //

      Yes,that’s true! Anne Lindbergh’s books about flight (North to the Orient, in particular) are gorgeous. Her journals are great too.

      And in regards to Bach: I think he was in the Air Force, obviously – but then he did all this time as an independent barnstormer (which is where the inspiration for Illusions came from). I mean, it just takes a different kind of person to live a life like that – sleeping under the wing – and flying around looking for a place to land. Very romantic!

    • Windy City Hick says:

      Another of those “beautiful, wistful spirits” of aviation was Marion Rice Hart. When I went a-hunting twenty years ago for her 1953 book, I Fly As I Please, it already had been out-of-print for a time (as I, myself, have been), but I found an Inter-Library Loan copy of it. Three cheers for Our Public Library and the people who staff & support it!

      Her earlier book, How To Navigate Today (1940; most recent reprint was the 6th edition in 1986), was the result of her adventures on the sea, and IIRC from descriptions– I still haven’t gotten my hands on a printed copy to read it– she made waves merely by using a sextant to navigate.

      In the air, Marion Rice Hart relied on low-frequency radio, i.e. flying on the beam, but much like Beryl Markham, she flew in areas where no such signal could even be heard. Her ability to navigate puts her in the top tier of aviators in her own era. As an author, she may not have been a noted poet like Anne Morrow L., but the clarity and dry wit of her writing would put her in A Tier of Her Own on my bookshelf– when, ahem, I finally find copies of her books.

      Lookee, even Sports Illustrated couldn’t resist her:

      “At 83 and still very much in control, Marion Rice Hart bombs around in her Bonanza, often shooting down FAA rules”
      FLYING IN THE FACE OF AGE by Virginia Kraft

      • Windy City Hick says:

        MRH always makes me think of James Cagney’s character of Biff in The Strawberry Blonde, when he exclaims, “That’s the kind of hairpin I am,” to explain almost anything he thinks or does.

        Whatever kind of hairpin Marion Rice Hart was, here’s how she was quoted in the SI article:
        “I was brought up to believe what you did mattered, not what you didn’t. I am doing today what I have always done, which is what I want to do. There’s nothing unusual about that.”


        “Now, instead of being asked why I don’t act like other women,” she says, “people are always asking why I don’t act my age. What has age to do with the way people act? I have no idea what other people my age are doing. I don’t know any.”

        Any bets on whether we’d see a nod of agreement today from Cagney’s co-star, Olivia de Havilland? I just re-remembered that tomorrow, July 1st, is Olivia de Havilland’s 101st birthday. Her family includes the aviation innovator Geoffrey De Havilland, who was her cousin… and of course Joan Fontaine, herself a licensed pilot.

  4. David Foster says:

    I think my favorite St-Ex book is “Flight to Arras.” It is basically a dialogue with himself, set in a single day during the campaign of 1940 (in which he served as a reconnaissance pilot), in which he seeks to justify to himself his expected death in a battle which is clearly already lost.

    Beautiful writing, even by St-Ex standards.

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