A quick note. I read this book a month, maybe almost two months, before sitting down to write this essay. I also read it in the original French, which made the book harder to understand in its totality. All this is to say that I may be remembering the book as I want to remember it, and I wonder what others got out of this book. But then, that's why I wanted to write it in the first place- to polish my memory of the book before losing it to time. I translated the quotes the best I could, as it would have taken too long to find the corresponding passages in an English version.
Terre des hommes, the memoir by Antoine de Saint Exupery (Literally "Land of Men", but renamed Sand, Wind, and Stars in its English translation) is a collection of recollections of his time spent as a airmail pilot, principally in the Sahara desert, though also in the Andes mountains. It was a dangerous job done in some of the harshest places on earth, and near-death experiences populate the book. And yet, Saint Exupery describes these moments, and the deserts they occur in, with a beauty and affection one can only find in a cherished memory. Because, despite its harshness and the solitude and desolation it causes, the desert opens the spirit of those who experience it and it brings out our best qualities: friendship, love, courage, and beauty.
The desert settings are a principal character in and of themselves, the foil to Saint Exupery, and his main conversation partner. There is little dialogue in the book, and instead sweeping descriptions of the desert. You can almost feel the heat and wind of the desert through the pages, and Exupery's prose leaves little doubt that this is a place hostile to human life. The characters in the book constantly fight loneliness and death. For example, a minor character in the book, a sergeant posted in a remote outpost, precipitously burst into tears upon seeing Saint Exupery and his team. He hadn't seen or spoken to anyone in six months.
This is important because the barren settings are the Prime Movers of the book, the agents of change. And like some incomprehensible deity, the seemingly negative events they cause bring out the best in the characters. In this way Terre des hommes is a book about the generative power of austere, ascetic environs. They cause loneliness, suffering, and death, but of this comes some of man's best qualities.
The desert for us? It was what was born within us. It was what we learned about ourselves.
("Le désert pour nous ? C’était ce qui naissait en nous. Ce que nous apprenions sur nous-mêmes.")
Take Guillem, a good friend of Saint Exupery's who crashed in the Andes mountains in the height of winter. Written off as dead by the authorities, cheating death and braving frostbite, he marched for six days through the snow covered mountains to make it home. Besides being an exemplar of courage and fortitude, the moment when he arrives, unexpected, at the airport is one of the most beautiful in the book, as all the pilots celebrate and he explains how he made it back.
Lacking food, you can very well imagine that by the third day of walking... my heart, it wasn't going very strongly... I told it: Let's go, one final effort! Try to beat again... but it was such a good heart! It would hesitate, but then always start again... if you knew how proud I was of my heart!
("« Privé de nourriture, tu t’imagines bien qu’au troisième jour de marche… mon cœur, ça n’allait plus très fort… Je lui disais : « Allons, un effort ! Tâche de battre « encore… » Mais c’était un cœur de bonne qualité ! Il hésitait, puis repartait toujours… Si tu savais combien j’étais fier de ce cœur!»")
Far beyond any hope of being rescued or even surviving, he had to find a reason to live, to push himself beyond all possible limits of human endurance and fortitude.
In the snow, you told me, all instincts of self-preservation are lost. After two, three, four days of walking, the only thing I wanted to do was lose myself in sleep. I wanted terribly to sleep. But I told myself: "My wife, if she believes that I am alive, believes that I am walking. My camarades believe that I am walking. They all believe in me. I'm a bastard if I stop walking.
(« Dans la neige, me disais-tu, on perd tout instinct de conservation. Après deux, trois, quatre jours de marche, on ne souhaite plus que le sommeil. Je le souhaitais. Mais je me disais : « Ma femme, si elle croit que je vis, crois que je marche. Les camarades croient que je marche. Ils ont tous confiance en moi. Et je suis un salaud si je ne marche pas. »")
Each crash such as this was undoubtedly a tragedy, especially when the pilots never returned as Guillem did. And yet, how can we read Guillem's story and not be filled with a sense of pride in the spirit and dedication of our fellow man? The snowy mountains were cruel, but what would we lose without these wastelands to shape our spirits and forge our characters anew?
As Kahlil Gibran wrote,
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?
And even the torturous suffering of a long, slow death by dehydration in the desert leads to a celebration of life and of man. At the very end of Terre des hommes is the story that would later serve as the basis for Le Petit Prince, Saint Exupery's most famous work. Saint Exupery and his mechanic find themselves stranded in the desert with no food or water and no idea of where they are. After three days of wandering in the sun and heat, delirious, having only drank a cup of wine each and eaten half an orange, they resign themselves to death. In doing so, Saint Exupery feels at peace and ready to leave the earth.
Once more, I sensed a truth that I've never quite understood. I believed myself to be lost, I believed I had touched the very depths of despair and, once I accepted the end, I felt only peace.
("Une fois de plus, j’ai côtoyé une vérité que je n’ai pas comprise. Je me suis cru perdu, j’ai cru toucher le fond du désespoir et, une fois le renoncement accepté, j’ai connu la paix.")
But it is not yet their time. As though by enchantment, a nomad herder appears over the next hill. They are sure he is a mirage until, realizing how near death they are, the shepherd leads them to water and salvation. This inspires in Saint Exupery a sweeping gratitude and love for humanity and for his fellow man. The anonymous shepherd becomes a proxy, a universal man through whom Saint Exupery can honor and thank mankind as a whole for his salvation, and the prose is gorgeous.
As for you who saved us, Bedouin of Libya, I will never forget you. I will never remember your face. You... appeared with the face of all men at once. You had never seen us and yet you recognized us instantly. You are the beloved brother. And, in turn, I recognize you within all men... You appeared, bathed in nobility and benevolence, a great lord who had the power to give us what we needed to drink. You brought all my friends and all my enemies closer to me, and now I now longer have any enemies in the world.
("Quant à toi qui nous sauves, Bédouin de Libye, tu t’effaceras cependant à jamais de ma mémoire. Je ne me souviendrai jamais de ton visage. Tu es l’Homme et tu m’apparais avec le visage de tous les hommes à la fois. Tu ne nous as jamais dévisagés et déjà tu nous as reconnus. Tu es le frère bien-aimé. Et, à mon tour, je te reconnaîtrai dans tous les hommes... Tu m'apparais baigné de noblesse et de bienveillance, grand seigneur qui as le pouvoir de donner a boire. Tout me amis, tous mes ennemis en toi marchent vers moi, et je n'ai plus un seul ennemi au monde.")
Through his savior, Saint Exupery can feel connected to mankind as a whole, his spirit widened by the desert. And we need to feel connected to somebody, like strings on a balloon, to keep from floating off into the sky. This is illustrated by Saint Exupery's tale of a slave he knew near Cape Juby, owned by a bedouin tribe. Taking pity on the slave, Saint Exupery and his friends purchase the slave's freedom and give him enough money to start his life over. The slave returns to his home city, but surrounded by a teeming mass of anonymity, ironically feels even more alone and lost than he did as a slave. He was so disconnected from his fellow man that he nearly succumbed to despair, almost wishing he were a slave once more where at least he had a place and someone knew he existed.
He possessed, being free, the essentials, the right to love and be loved, to walk north or south and earn his daily bread by his own work. What good was his money... He began to feel, as one feels a deep hunger, the need to be a man among men... but no one showed any sign that they had need of him. He was free, but infinitely, until he couldn't feel his own weight on the earth. He lacked the weight of human relationships... the tears, the goodbyes, the rebukes, the joys, all that a man caresses or destroys with each gesture, the thousand strings that tie him to others, and give him weight. But all that Bark [the former slave] felt was the weight of a thousand hopes...
("Il possédait, puisqu’il était libre, les biens essentiels, le droit de se faire aimer, de marcher vers le nord ou le sud et de gagner son pain par son travail. À quoi bon cet argent… Alors qu’il éprouvait, comme on éprouve une faim profonde, le besoin d’être un homme parmi les hommes... mais aucun n’avait montré non plus qu’il eût besoin de lui. Il était libre, mais infiniment, jusqu’à ne plus se sentir peser sur terre. Il lui manquait ce poids des relations humaines qui entrave la marche, ces larmes, ces adieux, ces reproches, ces joies, tout ce qu’un homme caresse ou déchire chaque fois qu’il ébauche un geste, ces mille liens qui l’attachent aux autres, et le rendent lourd. Mais sur Bark pesaient déjà mille espérances…")
Desperate for someone, anyone, to notice him, he gives away his money to the children on the street. The pilot who accompanied him back to civilization can't believe his eyes, as the former slave was throwing away money he could have used to start his life over. But the new freeman is ecstatic, as he now feels connected to someone. By giving away his money, he freely re-entered into human relationships as a man and not as a slave. He found the identity and meaning to life he'd lost along with his freedom, and he found them only by engaging with others. Because as we need a mirror to see our faces, we can only see our spirits through our relationships.
Going back to Saint Exupery's near-death experience in the desert, this theme of hardship and desolation leading to acts of beauty and humanity would play its tune later in his life. Consider that Exupery surely could not have written the beloved Petit Prince without this near death experience in the desert. It is comforting to think that the moments of our most profound suffering sometimes lead to our most lasting, beautiful contributions to the land of men. Indeed, Le Petit Prince is one of the most widely read and printed books in existence, with at least 140 million copies sold since its publication in 1937.
So these terrible events bring out the good in the characters. Which is good, because the world needs good people; while the book celebrates the individual, it also critiques human society.
In a world-turned-desert, we had the thirst of camaraderie: the taste of bread broken among comrades made us accept the values of war.
("Dans un monde devenu desert, nous avions soif de retrouver des camarades: le gout du pain rompu entre camarades nous a fait accepter les valeurs de guerre.")
So the Terre des hommes (land of men) is the desert of men. That's easy to understand, for two reasons. First, consider that the book was written on the eve of WWII while the world was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Second, it says something that to find this deeply-desired sense of camaraderie, the pilots had to leave behind nearly all vestiges of human society and retire to the desert like hermits.
The only thing I regret is your suffering. In the end, I've gotten the better of life. If I come back, I'll start over. I need to live. There is no longer life in our cities and towns.
("À part votre souffrance, je ne regrette rien. Tout compte fait, j’ai eu la meilleure part. Si je rentrais, je recommencerais. J’ai besoin de vivre. Dans les villes, il n’y a plus de vie humaine.")
I think this juxtaposition is necessary for the book. It is as though the actions of individuals, in the desert of the world, can redeem the sins of society. Their solitude in the inhospitable desert pushes them together and opens their spirit, and shows that even the desert is full of beauty and acts of humanity that ultimately redeem it.
All the examples I've discussed- Guillem marching through the snow, Saint Exupery nearly dying of thirst in the desert, the newly-freed man giving away all his money- have at least this in common: their trials and tribulations open their spirits to qualities like beauty, camaraderie, and humanity. This is an underlying theme throughout the whole book and one of the book's most lasting lessons, immortalized in passages like the following:
A cloth extended underneath an appletree only catches apples, while a cloth extended underneath the stars can catch stardust.
("Une nappe tendue sous un pommier ne peut recevoir que des pommes, une nappe tendue sous les etoiles ne peut recevoir que des poussieres d'astres...")
Apples are healthy and delicious, but man needs food for his spirit as well, which the stars of the desert's night sky provide for Saint Exupery in his memoir. But he can't catch the light and dust of the stars anywhere, once again bringing us to the counterintuitive idea of the barren desert as the necessary soil for some of man's best qualities, the same way the apple tree needs rich, wet topsoil. Only in the desert can a man's spirit become large enough to catch stardust.
It reminds me of a wonderful poem by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa called Da minha aldeia, or From my village. The translation is mine.
From my village I see all the earth that can be seen in the universe...
Like Saint Exupery, Pessoa is saying that only where we can truly drink in the horizon and the vastness of the earth can our spirits grow, enrich our lives, and catch the dust of the stars.
Speaking of stars, they play an important role in all of Saint Exupery's books. They are the redeeming force in the world, particularly to the pilots who must hazard long, dangerous flights in the unforgiving no-man's land of the desert. The stars are constantly referred to as the source of beauty in the book, of life-giving force, and they guide the pilots during their dangerous night flights.
The cold but life-giving beauty of the stars above are contrasted with the heat and life-taking desolation of the desert below. The pilots, Saint Exupery included, exist in the space between these two antimonies. They are above the desert, leaving behind it's desolation, atleast while flying, guided instead by the beauty and light of the now-nearer stars. And if Pessoa is right, then the pilot's spirits are truly immense while flying. Terre des hommes is Saint Exupery's effort to share the stardust he collected in all those flights through the desert sky.
A star was already gleaming and I contemplated it... And I felt my heart kick at having made a great discovery... I discovered, fifteen or twenty meters from me, a black pebble...
("Une étoile luisait déjà et je la contemplai... Et je reçus un coup au cœur, ainsi qu’au seuil d’une grande découverte... à quinze ou vingt mètres de moi, un caillou noir.")
Perhaps what can be said is that Saint Exupery's very profession is a metaphor for the central juxtaposition of opposites found in his story- that life is hard in the land and in the desert of men but those very trials bring out the best in us and draw us closer to those who's lives we can truly touch. It acts upon us, changes us, and opens our spirits and minds to the beauty of the world.
All we can do in the meantime is follow the advice of Rainer Maria Rilke:
To be in circumstances that work on us, that set us before great natural phenomena from time to time, is all we need... When you come down to it, [this is] the only kind of courage that is demanded of us: the courage for the oddest, the most unexpected, the most inexplicable things that we may encounter.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much