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A READER'S JOURNAL
Wind, Sand, and Stars
by
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Published by Harcourt, Brace & Co, NY, in 1940

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1999

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In this book we follow the author of The Little Prince in his flying adventures for Aéropostale, the French airmail carrier that evolved into Air France. In those days airplane engines were undependable, and every flight was an adventure. On some flights two planes were sent out together in case one engine threw a rod. The planes were so primitive that the pilots kept their compass and altimeter with them when they left their plane. The few lights on the dashboard of the open cockpit were usually covered during night flying so that the pilots could steer by the luminous star field overhead.

This is a story of flying, but also a story of soaring. The flying of man-made, heavier-than-air machines and the soaring of the human spirit. This book marks a turning point for Saint Exupéry between his flying-machine stories in his 1931 Night Flight and his soaring human spirit stories in his 1948 Citadelle, published in English as The Wisdom of the Sands.

In the following passage Saint-Exupéry shows his insight into paradigmatic change — how new paradigms must be expressed in the language of the old. [See ARJ: Language Structure and Change]

[page 70] To grasp the meaning of the world of today we use a language created to express the world of yesterday. The life of the past seems to us nearer our true natures, but only for the reason that it is nearer our language.

Every step on the road of progress takes us farther from habits which, as the life of man goes, we had only recently begun to acquire. We are in truth emigrants who have not founded our homeland.

Emigrants in search of our homeland — an apt metaphor for our ensouled human condition. Flying itself is a metaphor for the human spirit encased in a mineral-based mechanism. Like the pilot, our spirit seems at times only able to fly so high as our material bodies can carry us, up until now. But again and again Saint-Exupéry directs our eyes to the stars — we are souls carried on the wind in bodies of sand and we look up longingly to the stars, our homeland.

Sometimes Saint-Exupéry flew without his flying machine, as in this passage, when, lying on his back in the Saharan night, he felt himself falling upward. This passage reminds me of lying on the beach and looking upward. If there is no tree to break my view of the sky, no umbrella, no cabana roof, I would experience the vertigo he describes. I would feel exactly as though I were falling upward.

[page 105, 106] When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me, no branches to screen them, no root to cling to, I was seized with vertigo and felt myself as if flung forth and plunging downward like a diver.

In June of 1999 when this happened to me on the beach of Gulf Shores I realized that this was a condition that had been with me since I was a child. I controlled this irrational feeling of "falling into the sky" either by closing my eyes, sitting up, or turning my head to the side. On this bright sunny day, I suddenly recognized that this vertigo was a doyle, a physical body state stored before I was five years old. It was stored as proprioceptive sensations of falling upward. I had no idea where it came from, but I had a tool available to identify the doyle and convert it into an innocuous conceptual memory. It was a tool based on concepts that I first learned from Doyle Henderson and one that I had been honing and polishing. I called it a speed trace — a method that would allow me to ride that irrational, fearful falling-up feeling back into time, to a time before the original event occurred, that event during which the proprioceptive sensations of falling-up were stored in my brain mechanisms.

As I started the trace, I realized that I had to move my head to the side because the fear was so great, and I sped backward through the years as quickly as I could say them, 59, 49, 39, 29, 19, 9, 5, 4, 3, . . . and blessed relief! , 2. Sometime between three and two, the falling-up feeling abated - I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I relaxed, turned my head to face the open sky, and tentatively opened my eyes. The falling-up feeling was gone! I asked myself, "What's a plausible thing that could have happened to me at two years old that could have been stored as a falling-up doyle?" I immediately thought of, saw a picture of, my dad throwing me up in the air at the beach. I went into the air facing the open sky, and the proprioceptive sensations of that playful toss got stored in my doylic memory, and in the process got associated with the trigger stimulus of seeing the unbroken sky in my visual field. Thereafter, whenever I saw that unbroken view of the sky, I felt that fearful falling-up sensation. The conceptual memory of the toss into the air will replace the fearful feeling of flying off the surface of the earth from now on.

The desert captivated Saint-Exupéry as these passages below illustrate. The first one is about the chief of the Port Etienne airport in the Sahara who had a three-leaf portable park. It was his garden in the desert.

[page 135] Someone had sent him from France, three thousand miles away, a few boxes of real soil, and out of this soil grew three green leaves which we caressed as if they had been jewels. The commandant would say of them, "This is my park." And when there arose one of those sand-storms that shriveled everything up, he would move the park down into the cellar.

The second passage is about three Saharan Moors who were flown to the French Alps and led by their guide up to a tremendous waterfall. They, who back home would march for days to find a muddy pool of water mixed with camel urine to drink, were overwhelmed by this cataract of sparkling pure water pouring in wanton profusion in front of them. They stood transfixed.

[page 144] "That's all there is to see," their guide had said."Come."
"We must wait."
"Wait for what?"
"The end."
They were waiting for the moment when God would grow weary of His madness. They knew Him to be quick to repent, knew He was miserly.
"But that water has been running for a thousand years!"

And this was why, at Port Etienne, they did not too strongly stress the matter of the waterfall. There were certain miracles about which it was better to be silent.

On a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator Prévot went down in the desert and spent many days marching in various directions searching unsuccessfully for water until, near death, they were finally rescued by Bedouins. This crash gave him a close-up view of the desert that he wove into his classic tale, The Little Prince.

The gold prospector wields his pickaxe, and the prisoner in chains wields his pickaxe. The same action, but with drastically different meaning.

[page 292] What all of us want is to be set free. The man who sinks his pickaxe into the ground wants that stroke to mean something. The convict's stroke is not the same as the prospector's, for the obvious reason that the prospector's stroke has meaning and the convict's stroke has none. It would be a mistake to think that the prison exists at the point where the convict's stroke is dealt. Prison is not a mere physical horror. It is using a pickaxe to no purpose that makes a prison; the horror resides in the failure to enlist all those who swing the pick in the community of mankind.

We all yearn to escape from prison.

We all yearn to be free, but freedom is more than the absence of constraints, it is a way of being, a way of using that most precious property that we all have, a human life.

[page 243] Human drama does not show itself on the surface of life. It is played out not in the visible world, but in the hearts of men. . . . Let a man in a garret but burn with enough intensity and he will set fire to the world.

Henry David Thoreau burned with such an intensity in his tiny cabin at Walden Pond. What he wrote out of that intensity set a fire in the heart of Mohandas Ghandi who set his countrymen free. Ghandi set a fire in the heart of Martin Luther King who set his people free.

In this closing sentence of the book, Saint-Exupéry conjures up the creation story of God breathing life into Adam. It has the power to remind us that this story is played out whenever a human spirit, an emigré, searching for its homeland, enters a physical body at birth.

[306] Only the Spirit, if it breathe upon the clay, can create Man.

The wind of the Spirit, blown from the stars, enters the sand of the physical body and life begins anew. In our very essence we are all Wind, Sand, and Stars.


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Here is a sample of what various reviewers at the time said of this book whose French title was Terre des hommes, quoted from Stacy Schiff's Saint-Exupéry — A Biography.

[page 309] Generally Terre des hommes either made poets of its reviewers or drove them to hyperbole. "This volume is put together with rigor, with an evenness and a dignity that evoke fierce admiration. This universe in which danger, anguish, fear, and death must constantly be surmounted is described with a total lack of theatrics, without affect. No word seems to me better to characterize this work than modesty, which is, as we know, both a virtue in the world of heroics and a secret of literary effectiveness," wrote Sartre's great friend Paul Nizan in Ce Soir: "Saint-Exupéry, aviator and moralist, is blessed with a sumptuous and refined talent. The most striking images and passages of the most exquisite style abound in his work. Since the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, I do not know if anyone has so skillfully coaxed poetry out of prose," declared Andre Therive in Le Temps. Edmond Jaloux placed Saint-Exupéry squarely in two traditions, evoking the names of Plutarch and Emerson on the one hand and Columbus and Magellan on the other.

In America, Wind, Sand and Stars was hailed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review as "a beautiful book, and a brave book. and a book that should be read against the confusion of this world, if only that we may retain 'our pride in humanity and our excitement in this modern age." Launched with fanfare by Reynal & Hitchcock, it was reviewed as well on the June covers of The Saturday Review and the New York Herald Tribune Books section, and quickly became a best-seller. "To read it is to forget we are earthbound," raved the Atlantic reviewer, who like several American critics knew little of Saint-Exupéry but made of him a quick study, describing the book's "contrasting moods of loneliness and human warmth, of exhilaration and the merciless exposure of nerves and sanity." (Many of Saint-Exupéry's friends would have howled with laughter had they read the Herald Tribune review, in which Ben Ray Redman, noting the author's quibble that most men are half-asleep in their lives, wrote, "Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is awake and would awaken others.") In October, a month after war had been declared, Wind, Sand and Stars read just as well in London, where The Spectator's reviewer was struck by Saint-Exupéry's "God-like tolerance for the pettiness and folly of mankind." "He touches nothing which he does not illuminate," wrote the Times Literary Supplement's critic of this book of "visions and dreams," rarely described in any country as anything less than a "hymn," a "poem," an "adventure in prose," or a "rhapsody." The fan mail poured in, from such disparate admirers as Le Corbusier and King Leopold of Belgium.


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Check out Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Citadelle whose English title is Wisdom of the Sands.




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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne

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