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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