Sometimes I wonder what the point of it all is. Why am I writing this? Why are you reading it? Does writing books or blogs or reading any of it really contribute to either our own understanding of the world or humanity’s evolution? No, it doesn't always have to be that serious and it shouldn't be. However, sometimes I can fall into slothful habits achieving nothing but my own temporary amusement or stare at the wall for an entire morning feeling disillusioned about life. But I always come back to books and reading seeking a connection, understanding and engagement with life. The kind of immediate voice and cavalier spirit that’s expressed in the pages of “Wind, Sand and Stars” is exactly what draws me back into living.
It’s not often that books can make you stand still and look at your life to reassess your goals and values. But that’s what Antoine de Saint-Exupery seeks to do in this memoir and philosophical investigation into life’s meaning. The book ends with a veritable battle-cry against all our self-centred ennui and the mediocrities in life we settle for in favour of a soulful engagement with the betterment of humanity. He was someone with a feverish passion for life although, at a glance, you wouldn’t guess it at first from his seemingly daredevil lifestyle. During the early 20th century he flew commercial planes over airmail routes in Europe, Africa and South America. These were journeys fraught with danger as was demonstrated by the near death of him and his colleagues on a number of different occasions where their planes unknowingly went off course or they were forced to make crash landings.
Saint-Exupery describes one such experience from 1935 in lengthy detail. He and his mechanic survived a crash into the Sahara desert. Utterly lost and with barely any supplies, they rapidly began to dehydrate and suffer hallucinations until they were discovered by a Bedouin man. Through his musings on life and critique of society, Saint-Exupery explains why this risky profession isn’t for thrills. “It isn’t a matter of living dangerously. Such a pretentious phrase. Toreadors don’t thrill me. Danger is not what I love. I know what I love. It is life.” He sees his labour as a pilot as a way of adding (if only with nearly invisible blocks) to the escalation of humanity and an expression of engaging in the pulse of living.
“Flying is not the point. The aeroplane is a means, not an end. It is not for the plane that we risk our lives. Nor is it for the sake of his plough that the farmer ploughs. But through the plane we can leave the cities and their accountants, and find a truth that farmers know.” Throughout the book Saint-Exupery describes a reverence for a pastoral conception of life over what he contemptuously perceives as people caught in bourgeois lifestyles that are concerned only with the frivolous details of their own circumscribed existence and toeing the line.
Crucially, he sees our labour and active engagement in community as the means to living fully and liberating ourselves from a miserly existence. “We want to be set free. The man driving a pickaxe into the ground wants to know the meaning of his pickaxe blow. The pickaxe blow of the convict, a humiliation for the convict, is not the same as the pickaxe blow of the prospector, which gives stature to the prospector. Prison is not in the place where the pickaxe blows fall. The horror is not physical. Prison is where pickaxe blows fall without purpose, fall without bonding the man to the community of men. And we yearn to escape from that prison.” Saint-Exupery makes a philosophical distinction between action whose meaning has no thoughtful purpose and action which seeks to forge forward the path of humanity. He also expresses a stalwart resolve that life shouldn’t be lived because that’s the way you’ve been directed to live it. Rather, it must be lived mindfully if we are to live as fully actualized and happy human beings. As he writes: “To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible.”
Saint-Exupery is dismissive of cowardly approaches to life and nowhere does he see an action more cowardly and wasteful than in suicide. “I once knew a young suicide. Some disappointment in love had driven him to fire a bullet carefully into his heart. I have no notion of the literary temptation to which he had succumbed as he drew on a pair of white gloves, but I remember having felt in the face of this sorry spectacle an impression not of nobility but of wretchedness. Behind that pleasant face, then, under that human skull, there had been nothing, nothing at all. Except perhaps the image of some silly girl no different from the rest.” What a sweeping refusal to engage with the romanticism of ending one’s life for love! He would make Romeo and Juliet feel quite silly. Of course, many suicides are performed out of a deeper disillusionment with life and persistent feelings of failure. There are graveyards filled with artists like Virginia Woolf and Stefan Zweig who produced large bodies of admirable writing, but who still felt compelled to end their own lives for these reasons. That doesn’t grant their escape from life any more nobility, but does more closely align them to Saint-Exupery and his own demise when he disappeared flying on a reconnaissance mission in 1944. He continued flying at his own insistence although his colleagues didn’t think he was entirely fit for duty. Surely he knew the increased risks and that flying in such perilous circumstances was tantamount to suicide, but presumably he thought to settle into a life of inaction would be the equivalent of death anyway. He concludes that any one individual death means little in the scope of what that life has contributed to furthering humanity. “In the rural lineage death is only half a death. Each existence cracks in its turn like a pod, and gives up its seeds.”
Of course, it’s not necessary for us all to participate in the kind of high-risk endeavour which accompanies being a pilot in the author’s time (when the technology of flying was so much more primitive than it is today). Saint-Exupery sees great nobility in the gardener who digs not out of a necessity to grow crops to sell or eat, but to engage in creation. We come together as a civilization when we work towards the common goal of our own species continuation and betterment over being consumed only with ourselves or improving our social media stature. As the author writes: “Experience teaches us that to love is not to gaze at one another but to gaze together in the same direction.” Creating and passing on books is an act of love. My admiration and respect goes to people like booksellers, teachers and writers who clearly do what they do out of a desire to carry the torch and lead us all a little bit further no matter how fruitless their efforts sometimes seem in the face of lazy indifference. It’s why I revere authors like Joyce Carol Oates and Nadeem Aslam who produce book after book in an act of faith, in an effort to connect. I think they are in many ways quite like pilots bravely flying into cloud-filled skies again and again. The danger might not be as palpable, but it is definitely there.