Saturday, April 30, 2005

ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPERY has always been one of my favorite writers. When I was growing up, I read and re-read The Little Prince over and over and over again. To me, that slip of a book contained all the secrets and all the meaning of life. I knew that Saint-Exupery was a pilot, that he flew mail planes, that he flew reconaissance missions during World War II, and that he disappeared during one of these flights in July 1944. This only increased my sense of him as a daring, courageous, romantic figure.

Saint-Ex, as his friends called him, is not much written about anymore, which is why I was so pleased to find this article in the Guardian, about Saint-Exupery's love affair with flight: with flying through the air, and with the sky itself.

No one has written about air like Saint-Exupéry. Air was a substance whose beauty so astonished him that he often lapsed into dream-like states while at the controls: the aeroplanes he was flying did not have autopilot. "I live", he once wrote, "in the realm of flight."

And he died in that realm, too. When I was a child, thinking about Saint-Exupery's death in an apparent plane crash -- his plane and his body never found again -- saddened me greatly. It was such an untimely death for a man who was so humane and so full of life. But after reading this article, I realized that there is another way to think about this extraordinary man's death. He died the way he lived, and doing what he loved to do. For most of us, flying in a small seaplane on long flights over ocean and desolate land areas, surviving terrible weather conditions and at least one crash landing, and doing it again and again, would be a terrifying prospect -- unimaginable, really. But Saint-Ex thrived on it. He never felt more alive than when he was confronting the extremes of atmosphere and weather thousands of feet in the air; he was fully himself only when he was in flight.

With Latécoère [the company he flew for], Saint-Ex flew some of the most hazardous early mail routes over the Mediterranean, the Sahara and the Andes. During these years, he encountered the two elemental trinities - "wind, sand and stars", "mountain, sea and storm" - which he would worship for the rest of his life. And he came to understand that he was a man who found himself by getting lost. Flying, radioless, with limited fuel, above desert or ocean expanses, was his preferred state. He felt most at home in "a remoteness beyond possibility of homecoming."

No one wants to die, but for a man like Saint-Exupery, this kind of ending must have felt more fitting than many others he might have faced.

Seeing the earth from miles up in the air gave him a perspective and an insight about the human condition that most of us are not privy to.

"We are living on a wandering planet", he beautifully observed. "From time to time, thanks to the aeroplane, it reveals to us its origin: a lake connected with the moon unveils hidden kinships. I have seen other signs of this." This idea of connection - an idea that was both environmentalist and humanist in its implications - joins all of Saint-Ex's writing, right through to his mystical work, Citadelle, unfinished at the time of his death (he died as he dreamed, disappearing in July 1944 during a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean). Up in his sky-lab, Saint-Ex developed a socialist version of heroism: a belief - in the words of his best English translator - William Rees, that "human solidarity was the only true wealth in life, mutual responsibility the only ethic".

This ideal was deeply involved, for Saint-Ex, with the view from above - the aeronaut's vision. In the short, exquisite prologue to Wind, Sand and Stars, he described his first night flight in Argentina:

"It was a dark night, with only occasional scattered lights glittering like stars on the plain. Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness. In one home, people were reading, or thinking, or sharing confidences. In another, perhaps, they were searching through space, wearying themselves with the mathematics of the Andromeda nebula. In another they were making love. These small flames shone far apart in the landscape, demanding their fuel. Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness ... the flame of the poet, the teacher, or the carpenter. But among these living stars, how many closed windows, how many extinct stars, how many sleeping men ..."

"We must", Saint-Ex concluded, "surely seek unity. We must surely seek to communicate with some of those fires burning far apart in the landscape."

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