In 1926, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry embarked on a career as an airline pilot for the aviation company that eventually became Air France. His memories of adventurous and fulfilling years as a pilot and, to a lesser degree, his experiences as a newspaper reporter at the front during the Spanish Civil War constitute the raw material for the varied and isolated episodes of this work. It is a memoir in the form of a novel, although it lacks continuity of action and does not disguise its autobiographical orientation. However, the brilliance of the imagery, the epic proportions of the narration, and above all, the unity of meaning that fuses together the episodes, transform the work beyond pure autobiography or memoir.
Despite the legendary aspect of the pilot’s exploits, the tone of the work is one of sobriety and modesty. For Saint-Exupéry, courage in its highest conception comes from a sense of responsibility. When courage becomes temerity, tempting death for the sake of vanity and excitement, it serves no moral purpose and therefore should be condemned. For this reason, toreadors do not elicit the admiration of the narrator of Wind, Sand, and Stars, a memoir in novel form. Toreadors seek primarily the glory of one Sunday afternoon, whereas the sacrifices of the pilots who carry the mail are performed out of a feeling of chosen and accepted duty. Those who carry out a dangerous mission conscientiously, quietly, and to its final conclusion discover a kind of spiritual truth; they free themselves of earthly and selfish concerns and discover that what really animates them are the bonds that connect them to other human beings.
Lucid gravity in the face of imminent death and a profound sense of duty are vividly illustrated by the harrowing experience of Henri Guillaumet, the narrator’s close friend and fellow pilot. When he crashed in the Chilean Andes in midwinter of 1930, he took shelter from a blinding snowstorm and remained under his cockpit for two days and two nights. On the third day, he set out in temperatures far below zero. He had to hack out steps in steep ice walls with his boots, and his feet soon became swollen and bleeding from frostbite. On the third day, he fell from exhaustion many times. At last, he no longer tried to get up. Then he remembered that when a pilot disappears without a trace, his death is not declared legal for four years and his wife cannot receive the pension. He decided to prop his body up against a rock so that it would be found when the snows melted. Once on his feet again, however, he continued on for three more days, and was eventually rescued by a peasant woman. For Saint-Exupéry, Guillaumet’s grandeur resided in his refusal to discuss his act in terms of courage; his determination was born of the realization that he held in his hands the fate of his wife and comrades and that he was still responsible for the mail that had gone down in the plane. His greatness was in his disinterestedness.
Through the act of flying, Saint-Exupéry was able to perceive another basic verity that he illustrates concretely in his work: The obstacles that natural elements place in the way of human beings offer them the means to discover themselves. In measuring himself against the forces of nature—the mountains, the snowstorm, the cyclone, the desert—Saint-Exupéry the pilot finds himself face-to-face with the fundamental problems of his relationship to the earth and to death. Like farmers who use their plows to struggle against the soil, aviators have a tool—their airplanes—that put them in contact with the natural elements.
In 1936, the author had flying adventures that led to certain self-discoveries. He recounts these adventures vividly in Wind, Sand, and Stars . On a flight from Paris to Saigon, he and his navigator crashed in the Egyptian desert. They made a march of three days in the torrid heat, covering...
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