Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Sense of Life by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Source of book: I own this.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for his children’s book, The Little Prince. In yet another odd omission, I have never read this book. This, despite the fact that it is the most read and most translated book in the French language. In fact, if you eliminate religious books like the Bible and Koran (and Chairman Mao’s works, sold and distributed by force of law), it comes in third on the all time list for best selling books. Hmm, maybe I should read it.

Rather, my introduction to Saint-Exupéry was his novela Night Flight, which I read as a teen. Night Flight is a deeply sad book filled with the deadly beauty of the night and the atmosphere. In some ways, it could best be compared to poetry or even music.

Saint-Exupéry was a fascinating character. He made his fame in the arena of literature, with both prose and poetry, but he also was a notable aviator. He was one of the pioneers of international postal flights, during an era in which flying was hardly even minimally safe. After France fell to Nazi Germany, he managed to talk his way into a position as a reconnaissance pilot, despite being too old to meet the requirements and practically crippled from previous crashes and chronic gallstones. He disappeared during a flight in 1944. Wreckage of his plane was discovered at sea many years later, and confirmed finally in 2004. 

A Sense of Life is a collection of short works, all - except for the first - are non-fiction. (The first is a short story about a pilot and a flight.) My wife, who found this book for me at a library sale, thought it was funny that while reading this, I was also reading The Logic of Life by Tim Harford and The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode. This was, perhaps, the missing link. Perhaps I should have tried to make a full quadrilateral by reading Goodbye, Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind by Keith Delvin. Actually, that book looks interesting too…

Here are some of the pieces that stood out. First is a report on a visit to Moscow in 1935. It’s hard for us now to remember how it was back then. Historical hindsight eventually brought to light Stalin’s purges, which left over a hundred million of his subjects dead. But back in 1935, there was still hope that communism was just another new economic theory which would prove or disprove its viability. There was still optimism that it may have good to show to the world. And really, in theory, it had some interesting ideas. The practice turned out to suck, of course. On the purely economic side, central planning failed to live up to its promises; but it was really the ease with which it melded with megalomania that led to the great slaughter. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others were eager to seize power and destroy enemies, real or imagined.

When Saint-Exupéry visited, however, all this was either well hidden, or in the future. And let’s be honest, Czarist Russia wasn’t exactly an ideal state either. Saint-Exupéry is always an interesting observer. He has an odd sense for the poetic, and an ability to seek out and observe, not the powerful, but the mundane. The everyday person, typically poor and just trying to hold on to a reasonable life, whether it is the ditch digger or the French ex-pat women surviving by teaching French.

This wasn’t Saint-Exupéry’s only reporting job in this book. He also wrote accounts of his visits to Barcelona and Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. These were doubly poignant to me since reading The Cypresses Believe In God by José María Gironella. I’ve already noted in my review of that book that it was one of the most terrifying novels I have ever read, because of its depiction of a world gone mad. Saint-Exupéry’s report from the front lines adds another layer to that drama, both confirming Gironella’s vision and expanding the human element on all sides of the conflict. He contrasts the way that modern warriors discount a few casualties in light of the whole population and his own view of the way war affects individuals. “We are men, not ants.”

As a general rule, Saint-Exupéry is against war. He genuinely hates the way it disrupts and the way that it turns decent men into killers. As he put it in his essay on peace and war, “for who would consent to risk death except for truth, justice, and love for his fellow man.”

That said, he also believed that it was just and necessary to stop Hitler, and did what he could, sacrificing his life in the only duties he was allowed. Perhaps one could say he put his money where his mouth wasn’t.

In that same essay on peace and war, written in 1938 in the aftermath of the Munich accords, wherein Czechoslovakia was given to Hitler in exchange for a very temporary peace, Saint-Exupéry gives one of the most interesting perspectives I have ever read. Winston Churchill himself refused to fault Neville Chamberlain for making a decision that looks questionable in retrospect. Saint-Exupéry captures the no-win dilemma.

We are living through deply anxious days, and if we are to relieve our anxiety we must diagnose its causes. We have elected to save the peace. To save the peace, we have had to do violence to friends. There is no question but that many of us were ready to risk our lives to meet the obligations of friendship. Such people now feel a kind of shame. Had they sacrificed the peace instead, they would have sacrificed man; they would have given their consent to the irreparable destruction of the cathedrals and libraries and laboratories of Europe; they would have given their consent to the annihilation of her traditions and the transformation of the world into a cloud of ashes. Why else have we wavered, now this way, now that? When we thought peace was threatened, we discovered the abomination of war. When we thought war had been averted, we tasted the odium of peace.

This is but a taste of Saint-Exupéry’s writing. I find his style highly enjoyable, whether he is writing of the thrills of flying (and his distaste for modern airplanes with instruments and such) or of his feeling that war has become a matter for accountants rather than humans. He, as a poet, has a deeply poetic streak, and it shows in his prose. It indeed takes a poet to discern that “Civil War is not a war, it is a disease.” Even in those moments that I disagree with his perspective, such as when he indulges in the idea that the past was inherently more romantic and moral, I love the way he writes it. His works, fiction or non-fiction, are worth seeking out.

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