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.

1 comment:

  1. his philosophy is compelling and straightforward... serene and yet somehow practical.

    glad you enjoyed it. get hold of a copy of Calvino's Invisible Cities when you can.