Friday, August 26, 2011

The Spirit of Man

Wind, Sand and Stars
Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Once again I had found myself in the presence of a truth and had failed to recognize it.  Consider what had happened to me: I had thought myself lost, had touched the very bottom of despair; and then, when the spirit of renunciation had filled me, I had known peace.  I know now what I was not conscious of at the time--that in such an hour a man feels that he has finally found himself and has become his own friend.  An essential inner need has been satisfied, and against that satisfaction, that self-fulfillment, no external power can prevail."(p 170)

Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a man of action who seemed to have half a dozen different careers at once: he was a prize-winning novelist and professional mail pilot, an airborne adventurer and a war correspondent, a commercial test pilot and the author of a popular children's book. But whatever else he was doing, he never stopped writing. In this memoir he describes his experiences as a pilot in terms so poetic as to take your breath away. Few pilots perhaps have seen a cloud and thought of it as "a scarf of filings scraped off the surface of the earth and borne out to sea by the wind." The opening chapters form a sort of philosophical meditation on the nature of the life as a pilot as can be gleaned from the chapter titles: "The Craft", "The Men", "The Tool". There are moments and vignettes described as only someone who lived the life and imagined the experience could achieve.

Published on the eve of World War II, the book sold out quickly on both sides of the ocean, although the form baffled readers in each language. Three months after publication, the Academie Francaise awarded it the Grand Prix du Roman, naming it the best novel of 1939. American booksellers, for their part, chose Wind, Sand and Stars as "the best non-fiction book of the year." However you classify it this book is Saint-Exupery's paean to the spirit of man, to the goals that unite us, and to the optimism that was his stock in trade. Whether you agree with him or not, the book remains one that buoys the spirit and calms the heart.

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