Monday, May 30, 2011

Time Has Come Today

“You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”

--David Byrne

“When does a fake Mohawk become a real Mohawk? Who decides? How do you know when it’s happened?”

--Rhea from A Visit From the Goon Squad

I believe it was in my mid-twenties when I began downgrading my artistic aspirations from ‘the voice of a generation’ to what it has become ten years later in its more or less present incarnation, ‘a voice.’ It’s embarrassing looking back but there was a certain point of my life when I truly believed I would be one of those authors— the few, the proud— who would survive posterity not only as one of those writers whom people wanted to read but also whom they wanted to be. Hey, there’s still time and you never know but I’ve had to adjust my expectations into a more modest outlook. Sometimes I’m okay with this. Sometimes I’m not. I’m only human.

As you roll into your thirties, you should be hitting your career stride. When you aren’t, you can’t help but observe those who have. Particularly friends and acquaintances. If you dare go there, the route is peppered with questions, like, what is it about the neighbor’s grass? What makes it so green? Is it a human folly to envy the qualities of others or is it Madison Avenue marketing that has created this general dissatisfaction? Is the difference between happiness and discontent the difference between having chosen the life we lead and the life we have having chosen us? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? The way we are compared against the way we were supposed to be?

Whoever said introspection was for weenies never took a long, hard look at the mirror. ‘What if…?’ is the worst kind of self-interrogation since it almost always consequences in regret. This self, this person that we are leading now may be hard-won but isn’t necessarily the best person we could have been. Invariably something went wrong somewhere and this life we lead is the one we got stuck with, for better, for worse.

Disheartening this is, we can self-medicate. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are viable options (but don’t they often mislead us away from our ideal selves?). Or one can read good literature that utilizes sex, drugs, and rock and roll to frame these questions. A worthwhile book need not answer the unanswerable— it’s enough that it reminds us that failure and humanity are cut from the same cloth and that this might be a beautiful thing.

It is certainly beautiful the way Jennifer Egan writes about it in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, the closest a book has ever come to the literary equivalent of a solid mixed tape, rewinding and fast forwarding across the years, or perhaps ‘skipping’ over generation gaps, as the story—it travels between New York City, San Francisco, Naples, and Italy as well as from the early 1970s to the 2020s— is as much about the progress of technology as it is culture. The truth whether or not new technology is good or bad, necessary or distracting, safe or dangerous, nearly always depends on who’s asking. For those holding onto some yesteryear ideal, change is something to be despised, as Bennie Salazar, a record label owner who came of age in San Francisco’s late 1970s punk scene, wearies once the direction of his company changes after a corporate takeover:

“The problem was precision, perfection; the problem was digitalization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh. Film, photography, music: dead. An aesthetic holocaust!”

Just as our relationship to music and musicians evolves with technology (shrinking considerably from LPs to cassette tapes and CDs, disappearing totally as a tactile thing with the rise of the mp3), so does the way we communicate with one another. As Bix, an NYU student doing his postgrad in computer engineering in early 1993 tells his friends, “This computer-message-sending is going to be huge—way beyond the telephone…” But though Egan touches on facebook, google and how “the days of losing touch are almost gone,” she goes further: a preteen using Power Point slides to describe her family’s dysfunctional faults and then later to the near future when Instant Messaging has become the medium for our more difficult words as when Lulu shares with Alex on their “handsets” that she “Nvr met my dad. Dyd b4 I ws brn,” texting him this even though they are sitting across from each other in a café.

But now you’re wondering who’s Lulu? And who’s Alex? In 2021, they are working together using Internet bloggers called ‘parrots’ to word-of-mouth the upcoming concert of Scotty Hausmann, a publicity-shy, burnt-out slide guitarist who played in The Flaming Dildos, the same High School punk band Bennie played with in the 1970s. Scotty had unsuccessfully pined for Jocelyn, a girl who learned the fast life as Lou’s teenage mistress. Lou is a super successful rock and roll producer-cum-hedonist that mentors Bennie. Bennie marries Stephanie, a one-time protégée to La Doll, Lulu’s mother and a PR titan who falls from grace. Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is a journalist who goes to jail for assaulting a movie star named Kitty Jackson. Meanwhile, Bennie makes a name for himself in the music business discovering and recording a punk band named the Conduits. Around this time his factotum is Sasha, a beautiful redhead who euphemistically calls her shoplifted things, “found objects.” She survives a druggie stint in Naples and leaves New York and the music business when she reconnects with her college sweetheart, Drew, moving to Arizona to start a family. She has an autistic son obsessed with great pauses in rock and roll songs and a daughter who expresses herself with Power Point slides. If it seems very six-degrees-of-separation, it is. One story’s peripheral character is another’s hero.

And heroes they are in a very rock and roll sense of the word: interesting people making catastrophic mistakes, sometimes large, sometimes so small it is hard to know exactly where everything went wrong. Once The Flaming Dildos disbanded, why did Bennie wind up with his own record label and a corner office on Park Avenue with a fantastic view while Scotty performed janitorial functions and fished for his lunch in the East River? It doesn’t bother Scotty too much when he goes to see his old friend again because, “there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park.”

Like the incremental movement of continental plates, pressures mount in our own lives to a breaking point, in which an inevitable seismic shift leaves a trail of victims, most especially ourselves. For Jules Jones, Bennie’s brother-in-law, once a promising, young writer who had come to New York full of ideas (“Who isn’t, at twenty-four?”), his decline began when he’d become another hack celebrity journalist. This is the late 1990s now and some are getting spectacularly wealthy while most are being left behind. His feeling is common to many of us, that sense of not belonging, of having missed some boat that’s not coming back for us. In a young, ingenuous film star, Kitty Jackson, he witnesses everything he will never be: beautiful, rich, successful, loved. His sole advantage over her, the one card he can play, is the knowledge that time, though slow and deliberate, takes no prisoners:

“Because Kitty is so young and well nourished, so sheltered form the gratuitous cruelty of others, so unaware as yet that she will reach middle age and eventually die (possibly alone), because she has not yet disappointed herself, merely startled herself and the world with her own premature accomplishments, Kitty’s skin—that smooth, plump, sweetly fragrant sac upon which life scrawls the record of our failures and exhaustion—is perfect.”

In a very confessional meta-me article for Details Magazine, he describes his attempted rape of Kitty in the canny, ironic prose so typical of magazine writing today, but briefly he too considers what went wrong:

“At what precise moment did you tip just slightly out of alignment with the relatively normal life you had been enjoying theretofore, cant infinitesimally to the left or the right and thus embark upon the trajectory that ultimately delivered you to your present whereabouts—in my case, Rikers Island Correctional Facility?”

It seems no accident then that the album central to this story should be called A to B, offered up by the Conduits’ former frontman, Bosco. Bosco was once a skinny, manic redhead known for his explosive live shows but he didn’t age well. As he explains to Stephanie, Bennie’s wife and his publicist, “The album’s called A to B, right? And that’s the question I want to hit straight on: how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?” But A to B is not a comeback album— for Bosco it’s the only dignified way out of his messy life. It is his belief that this farewell tour should be a rock and roll suicide, “I want out of this mess. But I don’t want to fade away, I want to flame away— I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery. A work of art.”

Bosco believes his tour will be a success because of the public’s infatuation with “Reality TV.” Reality, of course, has everything to do with authenticity and is at play in the characters’ lives. It’s extremely important, yet somehow elusive, as being real is knowing oneself. As Rhea says enviously of her friend Alice, “I can’t tell if she’s actually real, or if she’s stopped caring if she’s real or not. Or is not caring what makes a person real?”

It’s not an easy question, but there might be some connection between authenticity and happiness, at least in this literary world. We are always in the act of becoming: artists, doctors, drug addicts, hookers, lovers, husbands, fathers and mothers— and some roles work better than others. It often depends on who you’re partnered with. Jules’ sister, Stephanie, knows that Bennie is unfaithful and she suffers to keep their marriage intact. Witnessing the flabby, tragic mess of Bosco, once a promising singer, now a joke on her hands, is a straw-camel’s back revelation: her life is a sham and an unhappy one at that. Helplessly she thinks of the old days: “premarriage, preparenthood, pre-money, pre-hard drug renunciation, preresponsibility of any kind…going to bed after sunrise, turning up at strangers’ apartments, having sex in quasi public, engaging in daring acts that had more than once included (for her) shooting heroin, because none of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong….”

… And perhaps, real.

* * * * * * *

Published in 2010, Jennifer Egan has already won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Two days after receiving the Pulitzer, she inked a deal with HBO to adapt A Visit From the Goon Squad into a television series. It’s no surprise. Like very few novels, it succeeds on visceral, literary, and spiritual levels. It’s bold: besides the Power Point chapter, her point-of-view shifts between the third person, close first person and even the second person in a way that the ‘you’ is not directed at the reader but at the self-critical narrator himself. Skipping around between years, places, and heroes does not feel jarring in the least bit. Each story feels self-contained, yet integral, not to the greater story, but the unifying theme, that which relates to the inevitability of personal change.

Perhaps nowhere in the novel is this exemplified better than when Sasha disappears to Naples and her stepfather sends her Uncle Ted out to search for her. Instead of looking for her, Ted, a tenured arts history professor at a minor university, spends most of his time wandering museums, the ruins of Pompeii, and labyrinthine alleyways. He is away from his family and unusually pensive. Why had he sexually disengaged himself from his wife, Susan, to the point that there could be no more true intimacy between them? From an initial rage, Susan mellows into a “sweet, eternal sunniness that was terrible in the way that life would be terrible without death to give it gravitas and shape.” What is so tragic about this turn of events is that he didn’t abandon his desire for any other reason than because he could. He had ruined her and now having found Sasha and trying to win her confidence to come back with him to America, he helplessly recalls a happy moment before everything was irrevocably ruined. Herein may be the saddest paragraph in a bittersweet book:

“On a trip to New York, riding the Staten Island Ferry for fun, because neither one of them had ever done it, Susan turned to him suddenly and said, ‘Let’s make sure it’s always like this.’ And so entwined were their thoughts at that point that Ted knew exactly why she’d said it: not because they’d made love that morning or drunk a bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse at lunch—because she’d felt the passage of time. And then Ted felt it, too, in the leaping brown water, the scudding boats and wind—motion, chaos everywhere—and he’d held Susan’s hand and said, ‘Always. It will always be like this.’”

Perhaps Ted was caught up in the moment but he was certainly not disingenuous. At the time he believed it was true. As Bosco says, “Time’s a goon.” The novel’s boogeyman is as invincible and irrepressible as any villain in literature. Time sets the booby traps and we’re the ones clumsy enough to step on them— yet it might not be our fault. We can’t be so hard on ourselves as we don’t always have as many choices as it may seem.

Fucking up is a life process as universal as birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, aging, and death. Being inevitable thus, we can only hope that when it happens to us, it a) is not lethal and b) perhaps we learn something.

Not all of us are lucky enough to balance self-destruction with redemption. A comeback is not always in the works. But sometimes it may be enough to learn from our mistakes and carry on the best we can.

Sasha speaks for the novel, if not a good percentage of the human race when comforting her friend, Rob, after a failed suicide attempt she reminds him:

We’re the survivors.”

This originally appeared in Heso Magazine

Thursday, May 26, 2011

One Order of Freedom Fries Two Security Sodas Please

“Everywhere you look—Britain, the States, western Europe--- people are sealing themselves off into crime-free enclaves. That’s a mistake—a certain level of crime is part of the necessary roughage of life. Total security is a disease of deprivation."

--J.G. Ballard

One of the great conundrums of a democracy, especially during a political era defined by a so-called War On Terror, is how to balance freedom with security. Like the mechanics of a seesaw, any action, whether it be the government’s or the individual’s, disequilibrates, favoring one value over another. It is not surprising that most governments choose security; what surprises is that the barbed wire walls, homeland bureaucracy, detention centers, security cameras, tapped phones and no-fly lists are proclaimed as tools to “protect our freedoms.” This argument— security as a means to freedom, an end— is a canard. In practice, there is no bargaining, it is one or the other, the seesaw going up or down. So for all the talk of freedom in America and elsewhere, it is a more frightening state of existence, one that is better dreamed than lived. That we should, in general, favor security over freedom makes me wonder if this is human nature or an evolutionary development made comfortable by the pleasures of Chinese takeout, wireless Internet, and three-hundred channels on cable TV.

I had not expected these questions to emerge when beginning a book called Cocaine Nights, but then I’m new to the dystopian fiction of J. G. Ballard. The narrator, a middle-aged travel writer named Charles Prentice, arrives in the small resort town of Estrella de Mar in Spain’s Costa Del Sol after his brother, Frank, pleads guilty to the murder of five individuals, setting fire to their cottage during a party with half the town in attendance. Charles is flabbergasted by his brother’s willingness to incriminate himself; he doesn’t believe his guilt is authentic. He moves in to his brother’s apartment, beds his paramour and takes on a job with Frank’s former colleagues.

While the titular cocaine may be in short supply firsthand, the drug’s inherent paranoia governs the storytelling. Charles is there to ask questions, to get at the truth and the truth being truth, especially when murder charges are involved, is a dangerous thing. He learns that Estrella de Mar is quite unlike most sleepy Costa Del Sol resorts in that people are actively participating in a cultural and intellectual life—taking sculpture classes and putting on Harold Pinter plays. There are sailboats rigged to the wind, waiting lists on the tennis courts and a busy nightlife centered around Club Nautico, where Frank, Charles’ brother, had worked once as manager. It’s a lot of activity for a strip of coast most famous for sitting around the pool or television, knocked out on pharmaceutical depressants.

But with artistic endeavors come criminal ones— seems the bored housewives are into cocaine as much as they are ashtanga yoga and not a few get mixed up in the local porno ring. In his search for the true culprit responsible for the deadly fire, Charles becomes involved with Bobby Crawford, the town’s blonde, beautiful, hyperactive resident philosopher-clown. Crawford is the mad social scientist responsible for Estrella de Mar’s cultural flowering. The problem with so many of the little resort towns of the Costa Del Sol, “people locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems,” has an unorthodox solution: inject a little petty crime into a community— vandalism, burglaries, car theft (victimless crime more or less) –- and its residents respond by coming together as a civic unit, forming committees, film clubs, and softball teams. Thus, if you take away a bit of security, you get freedom, or as Bobby Crawford puts it: “Sadly, crime is the only spur that rouses us. We’re fascinated by that ‘other world’ where anything is possible.”

If there’s a can of worms lying around, Ballard’s packing a Swiss army knife. Like many interesting novels, Cocaine Nights is a philosophical question tested in a narrative format. That crime is a catalyst for art— Ballard cites Shakespeare’s London and the Medicis’ Florence as examples— is an interesting idea. Moreover, the premise that men see this connection and will behave like gangsters in order to guarantee its flourishing is the stuff of good fiction. The only problem, as I see it, is that Ballard doesn’t successfully persuade me that crime inspires civic pride and the arts. It’s a nice try but the stuff of hardboiled fantasy.

We can assume that Bobby Crawford is Ballard’s mouthpiece, a Devil’s Advocate arguing a cloud’s silver lining. The logic at work is that crime causes individuals (some of them at least) to reflect on the precariousness of existence, concluding that as life is finite, it must be enjoyed and that this is best done by pleasuring in social taboos and expressing one’s creativity. Creativity, after all, is a strong expression of individualism, which of course is the essence of freedom, Mr. Hyde to security’s Dr. Jekyll.

Mr. Ballard--

the idealist dystopian or dystopian idealist?

For every Jazz Age with its bootleggers and masterpiece makers, there’s a dozen vice-ridden metropolises in which nothing beautiful developed. With all due respect to the artists of Washington DC and Camden, New Jersey, these two cities have consistently produced torrid crime and very little culture (at least little on a national level). Ballard’s thesis is provocative but it doesn’t hold up to logic. The Costa Del Sol is populated by the retired white-collar crowd. It does not follow that a middle manager or retired bank vice president would spontaneously develop an aesthetic vision just because his garage door is vandalized or some burglaries are reported in the neighborhood. Some aesthetic background and artistic energy are more important than a line of coke or a broken window.

Cocaine Nights was published in 1996. Had Ballard procrastinated on the book and witnessed the consequences of September 11th, would he have even bothered giving form to his idea? In the novel’s view, the more spectacular the crime, the greater the stimulation to live. But that did not happen after 9/11. There was very little reflection on the reasons behind this great theatrical work of horror, no reevaluation of America’s role in the world and the enemies we’ve created in a foreign policy bent on total self interest. There was no renaissance in the arts. Instead pop culture witnessed a superhero boom in cinema, Harry Potter led the publishing industry into blockbuster dependency and no real innovative movements developed in pop music.

One could argue the terror of 9/11 engendered isolation and ennui and that the naughts were the true lost generation. What could have been a 1960s utopian outburst puttered out in Twitter feeds and blogs no one would bother to read. Our retreat is not wholly complete. Still, someone may yet discover the magic formula that produces an engaged, intellectual, artistic society. Until then, watch out for pickpockets. Should your wallet get pilfered, it’s a logical fallacy that from this inconvenience you may pen the Great American Novel.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Airborne Philosophy

“A pilot’s business is with the wind, with the stars, with night, with sand, with the sea… He looks forward to port as to a promised land, and truth for him is what lives in the stars.”

--Antoine de Saint-Exupery

‘Philosopher’ really isn’t much of a career option these days, if it ever was a profession taken seriously by your average working man. Anyways, it hardly stands that a person sitting at home, doing not much more than sketching and organizing his or her thoughts can be expected to demonstrate some higher truth. The most vibrant ideas regarding that elusive concept known as “the meaning of life” are usually arrived at by men and women that have immersed themselves in the world, experience being a superior barometer of wisdom than intelligence. Thus, more than the Wall Street buccaneer it is often the gutter poet who understands life’s tragic inevitability far better, who, for all his material poverty, can articulate the arc of existence more beautifully.

It is no surprise then that those who come of age and choose a career that sends them forth into the world should return from their journeys with something valuable gleaned. Soldiers, sailors, circus performers not only travel but also witness human nature at its extremes, pieces of folly, glory and degradation providing potent color for a person’s scheme. A pilot is slightly more privileged in being literally above it all, on the very edge between earth and space. Is it the proximity to the heavens that gives the pilot his philosophical weight? The view of the Earth as God might look down upon it? Or possibly is it the risking of one’s life to elements of earth that are ferocious, capricious and untamable?

Flying is one of those modern conveniences so taken for granted that it is no longer special to fly and passengers need massive distractions with in-flight entertainment to pass the time. The idea of flight, once romanticized and later marveled as one of man’s greatest ingenuities, has the contemporary patina of plastic.

But it was not always so easy getting from one place to the next. In the early days of long-haul travel it was actually quite dangerous and emergency crash landings were hardly out of the question. We often think of air traffic as the movement of people but it is just as often the movement of people’s things— mementoes, documents, food, invoices, photographs, antiquities, contraband, love letters. FedEx and DHL are today’s major message carriers, but before the torch was privatized, airmail had been the domain of the state, a government job maybe, but one in which you could fly to the ends of the earth.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is probably the most important pilot you might not have ever heard of. Even if you don’t know his name, you know his most famous work, The Little Prince, which is one of the best-selling and most-translated books in the history of the world. What Saint-Exupery manages in his children’s book is an adaptation of his general philosophy, summed up in his own words, “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes.”

Saint-Exupery was as compulsive a graphophiliac as he was an aviator, publishing often throughout his brief life. Not as famous as his children’s book, Wind, Sand and Stars, is no less important in engaging the reader in his personal philosophical musings, that comprehensively, reads as some of the most beautiful humanistic espousals ever rendered.

The title references the pilot’s most elemental possessions composing his dangers, his bearings, and perhaps his inspirations. Saint-Exupery flew mail on the Toulouse-Dakar route, an occasionally fraught journey that took him over the Spanish Pyrenees and a great expanse of the Sahara Desert. This was in the 1920s and 1930s, at the twilight of the French colonial empire. In this golden age of aviation, pilots had far fewer instruments with which to monitor their journeys and thus survived only with sharp instincts and an aptitude for detail. They stored in their heads a bird’s eye’s lay of the land the way a stationmaster might rattle off timetables:

“Little by little, under the lamp, the Spain of my map became a sort of fairyland. The crosses I marked to indicate safety zones and traps were so many buoys and beacons. I charted the farmer, the thirty sheep, the brook. And, exactly where she stood, I set a buoy to mark the shepherdess forgotten by the geographers.”

It was a job Saint-Exupery loved, not for the responsibility of the mail he carried, but because it afforded him great frontiers for his insatiable curiosity. From his anecdotes, one senses a sensational dinner companion who greatly appreciates everything that had ever happened to him, no matter how small. His prose rings of vitality and gratitude in equal measures.

In Wind, Sand, and Stars, Saint-Exupery writes about his cherry flight, the brotherhood of pilots, the loneliness of the French colonial desert posts, the views over the Andes, the purchase and freeing of an African slave, emergency landings, and plenty of hair-raising episodes fighting wind to stave off a crash so as to fly one more day. But like any great writer, he is building towards something momentous and it is in the final two chapters in the book where Saint-Exupery becomes expansive not about airplanes and flying but about men and living.

In December, 1935, attempting a record-breaking flight from Paris to Saigon, Saint-Exupery crash-landed in the Libyan Desert. Saint-Exupery and his engineer survived but they didn’t know their coordinates and had only an orange, some grapes, and wine to survive. They had no wireless to communicate their situation and no idea which direction portended water, man, civilization. The rule of thumb recommended pilots stay close to their aircraft, as it was more likely for rescue teams to spot the crash site than wandering dots. But the Sahara was huge ground to cover and what if just over the next sand dune was a village with a well?

A friend of Saint-Exupery, Guillaumet, had crashed in the Andes a few years earlier and had survived. Survival is about will power as much as it is about wits. In moving across a limitlessly barren land, it is his friend’s words that he remembers and from which he gathers both motivation and hope: “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step but you have to take it.”

Over the next few days they wander from the plane searching, returning before nightfall, laying out an oil-slick tarp to collect whatever moisture accumulated over the night, retching afterwards. Hallucinations plague them. It would have been so easy for the both of them to lay down on the sand and sleep for all time, were it not for their family, who would have to go on without them:

“I was haunted by a vision of my wife’s eyes under the halo of her hat. Of her face I could see only the eyes questioning me, looking at me yearningly. I am answering, answering with all my strength! What flame cold leap higher than this that darts up into the night from my heart?”

Completely out of food and liquid they commit to a direction they hope is the sea and salvation. They become weary of an enveloping bright light that they believe will herald the end. Near death, they encounter a nomad who in giving them water and food and taking them in, saves their lives. Saint-Exupery writes of his gratitude thus:

“You, Bedouin of Libya who saved our lives, though you will dwell for ever in my memory yet I shall never be able to recapture your features. You are Humanity and your face comes into my mind simply as man incarnate. You, our beloved fellowman, did not know who we might be and yet you recognized us without fail. And I, in my turn, shall recognize you in the faces of all mankind.”

The Little Prince was inspired by Saint-Exupery's desert crash


“Nothing is easier than to divide men into rightists and leftists, hunchbacks and straightbacks, fascists and democrats.” -- Saint Exupery

Having narrowly survived such an ordeal and possessing such rich affection for humanity, what might have motivated Saint-Exupery to go to Spain in 1936, where the brutal ideological bloodbath was a preview stage for the Great War to come? Was he like Voltaire’s Candide, an individual fatally curious, but operating with a different incentive in mind: rather than hypothesizing that this may be the best of all possible worlds, was Saint-Exupery curious to know what abstract political idea should be worth one’s life?

After all was any fascist, monarchist, anarchist, communist more right than another? Saint-Exupery is not above politics— he is wise to know it affects all areas of men’s lives— he just argues that the willingness to kill and be killed for a belief system betrays a fundamental, yet invisible rule of man: “All beliefs are demonstrably true. All men are demonstrably in the right. Anything can be demonstrated by logic… To agree to discuss them is tantamount to despairing of the salvation of mankind— whereas everywhere about us men manifest identical yearnings. What all of us want is to be set free.”

Though a pioneer in aviation, interestingly Saint-Exupery disdained many of the emerging rubrics of modern life: bureaucracy, ideology, and most especially, industrialization. What he seemed to loathe in all of these was depersonalization, the reduction of man into a machine processed to dig minerals from the earth, file paperwork, or charge enemy trenches. In doing so it was quickly or slowly making null and void a human being.

Later, back in France, Saint-Exupery is restless on an overnight train and wanders to the lower class compartments where Polish migrant workers are sardine-canned into tight compartments, exhausted and beaten-down. He takes a seat across a young couple as extinguished as any of them and concludes:

“The problem does not reside in this poverty, in this filth, in this ugliness. But this same man and this same woman met one day. This man must have smiled at this woman. He may, after his work was done, have brought her flowers. Timid and awkward, perhaps he trembled lest she disdain him. And this woman, out of natural coquetry, this woman sure of her charms, perhaps took pleasure in teasing him. And this man, this man who is now no more than a machine for swinging a pick or a sledge-hammer, must have felt in his heart a delicious anguish. The mystery is that they should become these lumps of clay. Into what terrible mould were they forced? What was it that marked them like this as if they had been put through a monstrous stamping machine? A deer, a gazelle, any animal grown old preserves its grace. What is it that corrupts this wonderful clay of which man is kneaded?”

It is the forces of tragedy at work that death often robs those most vivacious among us. In 1944, flying for the French Free Forces, Saint-Exupery was shot down after taking off from Corsica. He was just forty-four years old. What he would have had to say about Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Cold War terror, the end of colonialism, and Civil Rights movements we shall never know.

In his brief life, Saint-Exupery had many heartbreaking experiences but when he witnessed death, he did not see it as a moment of great pain or abasement, but a man's spirit being stolen from the world:

“I thought of the white sanatorium where the light of a man’s life goes quietly out in the presence of those who love him and who garner as if it were an inestimable treasure his last words, his ultimate smile. How right hey are! Seeing that this same whole is never again to take shape in the world. Never again will be heard exactly that note of laughter, that intonation of voice, that quality of repartee. Each individual is a miracle. No wonder we go on speaking of the dead for twenty years.”

Or in the cases of some truly loving, charismatic men, go on cherishing for all eternity.