THE WISDOM OF THE SANDS, or CITADELLE, as it was titled in French, was published posthumously, Saint-Exupéry having been shot down in 1944 while on a scouting mission in World War II. This book differs from his earlier ones, all of which had action and story line. THE WISDOM OF THE SANDS represents a kind of diary, not of what he did, but of what he thought. He kept the manuscript by him wherever he traveled, added to it daily, and apparently intended it to sum up his ideas on all the moral and spiritual questions confronting mankind. He particularly stresses the French military tradition of devotion to duty, discipline, and sacrifice for one’s native soil. However, this book was not as well received as were his previous ones, perhaps because it is circuitious, repetitious, and without action or development of scene or character. The “I” is presumably the ruler of a desert empire, and the reader is included in his private musings on both the problems of state and his own personal problems. “I” recalls his father, who ruled before him and who was assassinated, and recounts some of his wise sayings and encounters with the people. The structure of the book is horizontal, a slight development being indicated by the speaker’s frequent references to his father at the beginning and indications of increasing age toward the end.
Saint-Exupéry’s choice of a ruler of an ancient desert empire to be his spokesman is apt, for it reflects his own decision to be a flyer, thus putting himself at a point where he could contemplate earth and man from a distance. Flying also brought him long periods of solitude similar to the loneliness of the ruler isolated by virtue of his position. It is also fitting for a king to speak as a religious prophet, a dedicated mystic, and an authoritarian.
The king’s concerns were two: to be a just and wise king and to be a wise, fulfilled human being. As a king, he felt himself to be all powerful and rightly so. Men individually count for nothing, but if they can be part of an empire they can then achieve significance. It is the significance of things that alone counts for men. Thus, building an empire is the creation of a heart; it brings men together, makes them brothers. If one wants men to hate one another, do not have them build but throw them corn. For the creation of an empire unites men and gives them a purpose larger than themselves. Going into battle is good, for it binds them closer, and dying for one’s country brings the joy of self-sacrifice for a concept larger than oneself.
When the king, wandering alone through the city at night, comes upon a sleeping sentinel, he is touched by the young soldier’s child-like innocence and meditates for some time as to whether or not he should be executed. He fully understands how youthful the sentinel is, how he may have stood faithfully awake for many watches, how overcome he may have been, and what his death would mean to his parents. But he concludes that a sleeping sentinel is the first step toward the disintegration of the empire. He believes that to explain to the sentinel how important a part he plays in the formation of the empire and what the empire means to all men will give him the willingness and nobility to face his execution like a man. As a king he has also learned not to pity the poor, the beggars, or the dying. As a youth he had tried to help them, only to learn that they grew bored with their improved conditions and eventually returned gladly to their former state. As for the dying, they have an independence that no one can touch.
The king had a program for teaching the young. They should be taught no formulas, only visions. They should not be given dry bones of knowledge but a mode of thought that will enable them to grasp the Here and Now. Their talents if any, should not be assessed at an early age, but they should be...
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- Critical Essays