Sand, Wind and Stars, or Land of Men is a semi-autobiographical book by French author and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Saint-Exupéry is better known in the English-speaking world for his beautiful children’s book ‘The Little Prince’. In this poetic tale, Saint-Exupéry takes us on a somewhat meandering journey through his experiences as a pioneering aviator in France, North Africa, and South America.
This is not primarily a story about Saint-Exupéry’s life and more of a book of philosophical ponderings, brilliantly illustrated by the experiences of Saint-Exupéry. Sand, Wind and Stars is a deceptively simple book, which like ‘The Little Prince’ can be endlessly re-read, offering up its secrets only slowly. We start our journey in the south of France as Saint-Exupéry completes his pilot training with Aéropostale. Travelling with him as he flies the line over the deserts of French North Africa and the mountains of Spain and South America.
On all his journeys, Saint-Exupéry remains focused on the one truth that he observes in all mankind. That of the unique world contained in their minds. This world he realises is more inaccessible than the Sahara. Each of us is alone in the cloister of our minds, and yet like the lights he sees from his plane, we are visible to each other, though separate. It is this he thinks of as he watches a young girl walking home in Argentina as he sees how she smiles at a world only she sees. It is this extinction of a unique world he regrets as he sees old slaves dying in the desert.
There is much beauty in this book, and I enjoyed it a great deal, yet after reading the book a second time, what struck me the most was the loneliness and sadness conveyed in the author’s words. Saint-Exupéry talks of his adventures in the long-lost world. His old friends have, for the most part, died, and the mysteries of the early days of flight, which he was privileged to be a part of had been solved. The lands he had walked, which had been untouched by man or beast, had been explored. The mountains that had held such danger and mystery had been conquered. Pilots have degenerated from explorers to accountants.
Saint-Exupéry seems to often be talking about the emptiness of success as he references, again and again, the great wealth he possessed when he possessed nothing. It is quite instructive that when Saint-Exupéry wrote this work, he was at the height of his literary success and yet he laments how ‘nothing worth having can be brought with money’.
Friendship is a reoccurring theme in this work and Saint-Exupéry offers us a wonderful analogy for it. He describes friends as trees in a forest we have planted. Saying friendship is ‘like an oak, it takes time for it to grow and provide shade. We become rich when we have planted well while we were young, yet as we grow older, time thins the forest and one by one our comrades deprive us of their shade’.
This is a sad book in many ways, yet it is also a book that celebrates the human spirit. In one of the chapters, we are told the story of Henri Guillaumet, a friend and fellow pilot of Saint-Exupéry, who having crashed in the Andes, walked out of the mountains in an astounding feat of endurance. Saying “Ce que j'ai fait, je te le jure, aucune bête ne l'aurait fait." (What I have done, I swear to you, no animal would have done.) In others, Saint-Exupéry recounts the calm way he and his crew respond to their plane being lost over the ocean or in the desert. Or he describes a group of Republican soldiers about to launch a hopeless assault in the Spanish Civil War being so tender to each other. Laughing, sleeping, drinking, and talking, taking from the dregs of their lives one last deep draught.
This book will call you back to it again and again. Asking you to walk with Saint-Exupéry in the desert, or to fly with him in the clouds over Spain. It will make you taste freedom with Bark as he is freed from slavery and it will make you wonder at the honour of the Moor’s, who fight to protect the French as they happened to be visiting during an attack before asking for their ammo to be replaced by the French so that they may attack the same French post the next day. It is for all these reasons I recommend this book to you. But, also, I recommend this book as Saint-Exupéry’s loneliness speaks to me of a man searching for his purpose.
Saint-Exupéry seeks adventure and glory and yet it leaves him empty. He gains wealth and prestige and yet he sees that it is of no value. He observes men fighting for something more and yet he sees that their truth depends on where they stood. Saying that ‘if you had found your truth in a bunker of anarchists in Barcelona, then the truth would be theirs and yet if you had stood guard over praying nuns fearing an attack from those anarchists, your truth would be that of the church’. In short, Saint-Exupéry tastes what the world holds to be worthy and great and finds it bitter and empty of value. For us who hold the welfare of our families to be the great Purpose of life, this is not news.
We already know that wealth, power, or glory are, at best, means to the end, not the ends in and of themselves. That those ‘goods’ have value only where they support the welfare of our children and promote the happiness of our fellow citizens. As Saint-Exupéry mentions when he talks about the freed slave Bark, ‘what is essential is to be needed’.
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