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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...

(This entire section contains 1309 words.)

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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 about 125 miles, and had only a little more than one pint of liquid between them. Yet the sterility of the desert and the proximity of death were spiritually rewarding. The smallest signs of life—the tracks of a desert fox, for example—prompted feelings of appreciation and gratitude for the pleasures that existence offers. The imminence of death led not to panic but to a detached sense of self-fulfillment. Because of his tool, the plane, and his combat with nature, the pilot felt himself rich with treasures that cannot be judged by material standards.

The plane becomes for this “poet of the air” a way of annihilating time and space to link human beings of all nations and races. Pilots themselves profit enormously from the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of humanness. Writing at a time when people were obsessed with the performance of machines, Saint-Exupéry stressed above all the plane’s capacity for surmounting the natural barriers that separate human beings. At the beginning of his career, the author spent a great deal of time among the refractory Moorish tribes in the western Sahara. In charge of a refueling station in this almost uninhabited part of the world, he succeeded in gaining the esteem of these nomads and was eventually regarded by them as a kind of sage. They were struggling to preserve their freedom, and in this book, Saint-Exupéry evokes the memory of one of his friends, El Mammoun, who could not bear the degradation of being a vassal of another people. Honored and trusted by white officers, El Mammoun revolted against them one day during an excursion into the desert, massacred them, and fled into free territory. This Moor had suddenly realized that he was betraying his tribe, his religion, and his past as a famous warrior by submitting to Christians who had encroached on his people. Contact with this desert chieftain permitted Saint-Exupéry to develop one of the most important tenets of his code of ethics: All people seek a climate and terrain favorable to their self-fulfillment, and each individual must acquire tolerance and sympathy for each other individual’s particular truth.

In Argentina, the narrator’s plane took him for a brief moment into the mysterious domain of the human soul. After landing in a field near Concordia, the pilot was taken into a strange house that, like a massive citadel, seemed to want to keep all of its secrets. The two girls who lived there assessed the stranger to determine whether he merited acceptance into their intimate world. At dinner, the aviator heard a noise under the table and was informed that snakes had made a nest there. The girls awaited his reaction. He smiled, and was admitted. As he notes, these two young girls seemed to possess a universal quality. The plane opens new horizons to the pilots and raises the veil of mystery that surrounds people who differ from them.

The first step on the road to this humanism is the willingness to give of the self. In the closing pages of Wind, Sand, and Stars, a Spanish soldier who is about to take part in a suicidal attack is presented as another living incarnation of the quintessence of Saint-Exupéry’s thought. This soldier who smiles on the eve of battle has consented to sacrifice his life for a goal situated completely outside his own selfish interests. He has given up a comfortable existence in Barcelona because he sensed intuitively that a struggle accepted in common with others—the esprit de corps that motivated the pilots of the airmail service—is a condition of inner liberation. The ideologies in conflict in the Spanish Civil War hold no interest for this soldier; selfless action and duty inspire in him a love infinitely more elevated and satisfying than he had ever known before.