On Contemporary Thought and Literature

"Desert of Mankind"


Airborne, and far removed from earth's man-made atmosphere, the pilot, making his one-man flights over the trackless deserts of the old and the new worlds in the early days — the "heroic age" — of flying, evolved for himself a philosophy which owed nothing to books or formulated creeds. It was born of an intense love for his fellowmen, and an equally profound disrelish for the way men are comporting themselves in this perilous epoch of change.

The one preoccupation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, ace pilot, philosopher and writer, had always been with humankind: "It is man, and not flying, which concerns me most," he exclaims in Wind, Sand and Stars. " . . . as for me, I wish I understood mankind;" " . . . by what are we to measure the value of a man?" Up in the empyrean, one with his plane as it "cleaved the eternal ether," Saint-Exupery could view not only the earth but the coruscations of human life, in a longer perspective. His intimacy with night and stars, danger and loneliness, quickened his insight into the realities. To him, humanity showed forth in a double light: in its baseness and heedlessness on the one hand, and on the other, in the hidden grandeur of its spiritual possibilities. The duality of it kept him guessing, culminated in a passionate reflection on the theme, "What must be said to men?"

From the first he had seen that discipline was needed; men needed to travel the flinty road of effort. In ease and drifting there was spiritual death. In the early adventurous days of Night Flight, he had seen the god in man come forth in the selfless risk of life and the conquest of superhuman dangers on the part of fellow-pilots; after that the life of stodgy mediocre security sought after by the multitude seemed beneath human dignity. If man could be a god, or at least show gleams of godhood beneath the cloak of his humanity, why should he not begin more consciously to cultivate the godlike qualities?

In an eloquent letter to a friend, "General X," written shortly before his death (a letter still unpublished in English), Saint-Exupery unburdens his heart of his distaste for our present civilization, of whose materiality, low ideals, intrigues and wars he is heartily sick. " . . . sick . . . but I cannot find in myself the right not to suffer this illness. . . . And if I subject myself to velocity and altitude at an age patriarchal for this business, it's rather to refuse nothing of the filthy entanglements of my generation than in any hope of finding again the satisfactions of other days." He thereupon, in World War II, at age 43, re-entered the air-reconnaissance service of France — and gave his life when in 1944 his plane was brought down in flames over the sea.

Gave his life — but not before he had spoken his message to his fellowmen in his final work, now produced posthumously: Citadelle, or, in the English version, The Wisdom of the Sands*. In this last of his writings, he gives answer to his own question, What can, what must one say to men?

*The Wisdom of the Sands. By Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Trans, by Stuart Gilbert from the French Citadelle. Harcourt, Brace and Company; New York, 1950. 350 pp.

It is to be regretted that the book could not have been introduced to English-speaking readers under its original title of Citadelle, which embodies the whole majestic concept of Man as the sovereign of his own inner citadel, over which he has the supreme responsibility. Cast in a desert setting, a setting familiar to the author in his air-flight adventures, and one which had obviously captured his imagination so that he knew its people, its caravans, its thirst and its privations, its wars and its intrigues as if he had been born to them — the book completely bears out Saint-Exupery's own symbolic concept of our present Western civilization: to him it was the desert of mankind, where "man is dying of thirst."

In the letter above cited, Saint-Exupery exclaims:

There is but one problem, one only, around the world: to return to man a spiritual significance, spiritual inquietudes. . . . Man can no longer live on frigidaires, on politics, on balance-sheets and cross-word puzzles. . . . There is only one problem, one only: to rediscover that there is a life of the spirit still higher than the life of the intelligence, and the only life which shall satisfy man. — Translations from letter to "General X" made by John L. Kulp

The desert prince, whose voice is the voice of the book, presides over his kingdom as a man should preside over himself — with wisdom, with pitiless severity against the vicious and the insubordinate in his nature; with a shrewd eye to detect the frauds and deceptions that hang around the purlieus of the evolving character. "Mine is the lordship, mine the power; and the responsibility is mine alone." (p. 22)

This makes of the whole a sort of morality play, in which the various elements of the composite man, his virtues and his foibles, and subtle motivations that lead to actions, are all imbodied in the character-types of the desert: the camel-driver; the leper, and the crawling beggar; the dancers, courtesans and singers; scolding women, wide-eyed children; the sentry on the ramparts; the generals with their finality of logic; the brainy counsellors and wiseacres; fat merchants with their money-bags; the policeman who must enforce the law but never sit in judgment; the enemy whom yet the prince recognized as part of himself.

Thus the book, far from being a didactic homily, becomes an object-lesson vividly brought to life by very human examples. The effect upon the thoughtful reader is extraordinarily impressive, and for weeks after the book is closed, he carries in his heart a haunting sense of delinquency, as if every cranny of his being had been searched, and more than one disconcerting revelation made.

By this illuminating philosophy, and the original and creative presentation of it, Antoine de Saint-Exupery has placed himself among the first and greatest of our day who influence the thinking of men. He has enriched our minds with images instead of wearying them with apothegms. The prince standing upon his citadel is lord and master of his palace, his city, his empire. All through the book runs the theme that it is to the empire — i.e., the Great Whole, whether of one's own being or of that other aspect of it which is the Universal Life — that all within it must be dedicated. In it, all live and move and have their being — to it all must give themselves. And thereby "every man will be the richer, each sharing in all and all in each." In this way, men will be "bartering themselves for that which is more precious than themselves." For "it is giving alone that nourishes the heart. . . . what you give does not lessen your store; . . . it augments for you the riches you can distribute." But it is not giving unless what you give is transformed by your own creative power, as the tree gives the fruits of the earth. Again: "When you give yourself, you receive more than you give. For, after being nothing, you become. And little I care," adds the author, "if these words seem at cross-purposes with each other." "The underlying meaning of all sacrifice mulcts you of nothing, but, rather, enriches you."

It is known that Saint-Exupery wrote this book, or rather spoke it, in great part, in his room high above the din and bustle of New York; where, after a day in the city, he would retire, and for half an hour or so, or for as long as the mood was on him, would speak into a dictaphone the thoughts that boiled up from his ever-deepening impressions of the spiritual inadequacies of our modern civilization; of what man might be — and is not: as he described it, "a taper made ready but unlit." Hence his unflagging eloquence whose reverberations echo to the farthest reaches of the soul. He saw the need of growth, of effort; he saw the danger of the "sedentary" life — a graphic term no doubt of his own invention — and to this he returns again and again as being of first importance in an understanding of what is wrong with life. The sedentaries are to him those "who consume more than they bestow," who stagnate in the oasis:

who have ceased to barter anything of themselves and draw their nourishment . . . from others — aye, even those men of taste who listen to strangers' poems but make not their own poems! — all such do but prey upon the oasis without adding to its life. . . . Thus voluntarily they have tethered themselves to the rack in their stables, and, like cattle, are become ripe for servitude. (p. 37)

Against this he brings a plea for the "spiritual inquietudes" that will not let men rest to their own decay:

For to my fat hucksters, squatting snug on their money-bags, I prefer the lean nomad, for ever vagrant in the wake of the wind. (p. 76)

The one thing that matters is the effort. It continues, whereas the end to be attained is but an illusion of the climber, as he fares on and on from crest to crest; and once the goal is reached it has no meaning. Thus, too, there is no progress without acceptance of that which is, the Here and Now — that from which you are ever setting forth. (p. 141)

. . . a sense of plenitude comes not from the scene viewed from the mountain-top, but from the inner joy of having scaled and stormed the mountain, and won your foothold on the aery heights. (p. 119)

All that is neither ascent nor a transition lacks significance. (p. 120)

Out of this grows the idea of becoming, of sloughing off the old self, breaking through the chrysalis, for

There is no divine grace to absolve you from the process of becoming. (p. 104)

It is the going towards that matters, not the destination. (p. 150)

Your whole past was but a birth and a becoming, even as was all that has taken place in the empire up to the present day. (p. 154)

Why should I take sides with that which is, against that which will be? With that which vegetates against that which promises better things? (p. 38)

For the meaning of things lies not in goods that have been amassed and stored away — which the sedentaries consume — but in the heat and stress of transformation, of pressing forward, and of yearnings unassuaged. (p. 154)

But for this pressing forward it was needful that there should be "an empire where all is zeal," where the divine flame is kept alive by that warmth of aspiration which the author appropriately calls "fervor" — the opposite of apathy, which is death. Character-building, like the building of the ship, or of the temple, depends for its success upon the loyal holding-together of all the elements making up the whole. Then comes realization of the meaning of things, the significance behind the "things-in-themselves," which Saint-Exupery calls "the heaven-made knot which binds things together."

At times of perplexity or disheartenment, the desert chieftain is, as he says, "seized with a desire to climb to my highest tower, bathed in a pure sheen of stars," (or sometimes it is the mountain-top) to take counsel with his God and once more to come at "the meaning," for the benefit of his empire. And never does he get an answer from that God — no sign that his prayer has been heard. And this is why, he says, the God received his prayers in an eternal silence, and gave no sign:

True, I had no access to God, but a God who suffers access to Him is a God no longer. Nor if He is swayed by prayer. And for the first time I perceived that the whole greatness of prayer lies in the fact that no answer is vouchsafed it, and into this exchange there enters none of the ugliness of vulgar commerce. And that the lesson of prayer is a lesson of silence; and love begins there only where no return may be expected. Thus love is, primarily, the practice of prayer, and prayer the practice of silence. (p. 171)

Had your prayer availed, and had you discovered God, you would have merged yourself in Him, having fulfilled yourself, and then what need were there for you to grow in stature, so as to become? (p. 148-9)

So with each recourse to the God, he drew nearer to the meaning of things, but by reason of his own efforts. And never did he leave the mountain-top without knowing better how to rule his people, how to keep peace, and at the same time preserve zeal among them. But the process was, as he described it, "a slow, perpetual rebirth going on within myself."

That all wisdom resides in the inmost soul is a theosophical tenet. To bring this forth in the mind a teacher is required, unless through some extraordinary motion of the will, inspired by a genuine disinterestedness, or accompanied by unique circumstances, a way can be won through to that inner source of wisdom. It would seem that this must have been to some degree the case with The Wisdom of the Sands, born as it was from so pure a desire that humanity should awaken to its true genius. Seldom before has so graphic a picture been painted of the position of man in the arena of experience; of the dangers with which he is beset, the obligations that he carries, the discipline by which alone he can hope to win across the sands of the desert of life:

Thus my desert, if only I show you the rules of the game pertaining to it, can become so fraught with magic potency that even if you on whom my choice has fallen are selfish, commonplace, sceptical and half-blind, a dweller in the suburbs of my city or moldering your life away in an oasis, I have but to force on you a single crossing of the desert and, like a seed from its sheath, the man within you will break loose and your heart and mind blossom forth like a flowering tree. Then you will return to me having sloughed your skin, new-born, rejoicing in your goodlihead, and built to live the life of the strong. (p. 229)

The translator, who has so successfully fallen into the poetic and fervid rhythm of the author's style, calls The Wisdom of the Sands "one of the most original, sincere, and thought-provoking books of modern times." Saint-Exupery, he tells us, called this work of his, his ceuvre posthume, because he knew it would never be finished while he lived. He took the MS. with him wherever he went, and was constantly adding to it. It grew with his growth. And now, as given to us, it is a symbol of his own doctrine of the ever-becoming. Through its pages flows the urgent pulse of spiritual plenitude, which is in very fact the deep-laid hope of humanity. You do not so much read the book as live it. It is as though its author had incarnated himself in it for the benefit of his fellowmen whom he loved.

Humanity is always in need of new inspiration, either to remind it to get on with the job of spiritual evolution, or to show it how. Too often has it been served with philosophical disquisitions addressed to the brain-mind, and difficult to translate into action. Here, in The Wisdom of the Sands, is a prose-poem that appeals to the modern imagination — to the heroic quality now as ever ready to be called forth — and directly inspires to action because it plays upon that faculty which we share with the gods. Not for nothing did Saint-Exupery write: I build my citadel in the human heart!

(From Sunrise magazine, October 1951; copyright © 1951 Theosophical University Press)

There is a continual development in the novels of Saint-Exupery. He has been called the "Homer" of aviation, but there is much more to it than the title would indicate. As a very rough approximation, I would tend to call him the "Goethe" of the twentieth century. In the first place, he was not a salon literateur or a writer who justified himself in his art. He was a man who did his work in the world and needed no justification for what he wrote about it. He is never too present or too pressing; like an underground river he speaks without allowing himself to be perceived — a voice across the clouds and across men, whose words have in them a vast world of silence. In this alone he stands out from the vast muck of the present French "Literary" world. Unlike his contemporaries he lived in the last "heroic" age of the world; the men around him were conquering the air, and their reality as large men — the "Truth" of a Mermoz or a Guillaumet — led him to realize of what we were constituted, and to appreciate rather the godlike than the beastlike. There is no small man in his works. But there is no inhuman grandeur. There are few of whom this can be said, but it is pleasant to be able to say it in this time of Saint-Exupery. — John L. Kulp

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