Enlightenment Now

A colleague of Steven Pinker’s once told him: “I have observed many smart people who have little idea of how to logically think through a problem, who infer causation from correlation, and who use anecdotes as evidence far beyond the predictability warranted.”

Have you ever noticed this tendency in those who seem to have the strongest opinions? More importantly, have you ever noticed this glitch in your own world viewfinder? In almost every aspect of our lives–politics, news coverage, medical diagnosis and treatments, liberal arts, the humanities, your racist uncle at Thanksgiving, history, climate change, immigration–we just can´t help it.  And if you think the choice between deepening our collective understanding of the world and a reliance on ignorance and superstition is a no-brainer for everybody, sorry, it just ain’t so.

Because we humans are so vulnerable to our own cognitive biases and blind trust in our own “gut feelings” about questions that occur to us, we invariably get a distorted view of the state of the world.  Simply put, the world isn´t nearly as bad as you might think it is, and there are specific reasons why this is so.  In Enlightenment Now, Pinker not only relies heavily on data collected over time in graphs and charts (Max Roser´s graphs are wonderful and thorough. Click here to see), he explains why it is important to pay attention to this evidence, to understand how science and reason are often muddled in the public sphere, and to understand why things have gotten better.  He shows that the progress that the we have made as a species is quantifiable, despite the best efforts of influential people from all over the political spectrum to obfuscate and deny this fact. What has gone up globally? Life expectancy, GDP per capita, social spending, literacy, leisure time. What has gone down? For a start, work hours (in Europe and the US), costs of necessities, workplace-related deaths, terrorism deaths, rape and domestic violence, racist, sexist and homophobic opinions, natural disaster deaths, battle deaths, undernourishment, maternal mortality, extreme poverty, famine deaths, homicide deaths.

You may already be tempted to “whataboutery.”  What about ISIS? What about all these school shootings? I have personally overheard three different violent fights between a man and a woman in the last 6 months alone.  It is not the job of the statistics to ignore specific cases or highlight one or another, it simply represents averages and overall trends that come from the combination of objective observation and data gathering.  And it important to know how to read a graph and how to process statistics (which sometimes is surprisingly difficult).  I think the point of all these graphs isn´t to say that the problems they delineate don´t exist or are no longer important, it is to demonstrate the incredible progress we have made in the end.

Nor is Pinker suggesting that the path to progress is an easy one. There are many who surprisingly hate progress. And he argues that we are hard-wired to do stupid things: we follow passions, intuitions, faith, authority, gurus and celebrities and hunches, we rely on anecdote in lieu of logic and reason, we have a short-term memory, we relegate science to a corner when it conflicts with tradition. Many people even seem to reject ideas simply because they themselves do not understand them, and contend that to accept them is to be gullible. And nowhere is this more blatant than in the public reception of science. You must have noticed this in politicized issues like climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, public health and education.  And anti-science skeptics come from everywhere, from the congressman who brought a snowball to Congress to disprove global warming to Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator to flat earthers.  Have you seen that guy in California who sells raw, untreated water? This is a great option to hydrate yourself if you´re into Hepatitis A and diarrhea, and the reason we know this is because actual scientists found a way to treat water so more people could drink it without shitting themselves to death (Abel Wolman and Linn Enslow discovered the chlorination of water, which saved 177 million lives. Click here to learn more).

Indeed there have been important people in history that bucked these human tendencies and made our world a better place in which to live longer and happier. Thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Galileo and Thomas Paine did not pretend that we are always rational movers fighting the chaos, nor were they without faults and errors themselves. Rather, they presented ideas that rose above our irrationality, showing how we can outsmart our own inner homo sapiens, with all our deficiencies. Emmanuel Kant declared, “Dare to understand!”  An important overlying theme for these thinkers was the Enlightenment idea that we should pursue reason in order to understand the complexities and problems of the world.  This book is clarifying my idea of what the Enlightenment even is, and has shown me the importance of reason in everyday life, and that the enemies of reason come from unexpected places. And even though we have made giant strides in the quality of life on our planet, it is self-defeating to ignore this progress and to forget these Enlightenment ideals, instead we must not cease to build upon them.

 

 

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What English Owes to Spanish

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English is a language that boasts a flexibility to absorb vocabulary and from its neighbors, a fact that many English-speakers brag about and one that many English learners loath.  Likewise, many purists, observant speakers and the Real Academia Española have rightfully complained that English seems to be invading Spanish at breakneck speed. Indeed, there may be a difference between the use of words because of laziness, pretentiousness, or a combination of both, and the slow, utilitarian evolution of a word with mysterious origins in usage. But that is a debate for another day.

While it may not be as inherently open to change as English, Spanish is a diverse language in itself, which has borrowed from many other tongues with which it has come into direct contact. Whether from the older influences of Latin, Greek, Old French or neighboring Portuguese, or from Arabic, or from indigenous languages like Nahuatl, Quechua  and Taíno, Spanish has both absorbed foreign words and expressions and loaned a fair share to English.

This great reference book, from the American Heritage Dictionaries series, is a cursory list of the most popular words that you many never have suspected had a Spanish origin.  Avocado comes from the Spanish, which was in turn borrowed from the language of the Aztecs: Nahuatl. To the Aztecs, ahuacatl means “testicle,” and now you will probably never look at an avocado in the same way. You´re welcome. The Spanish had a hard time pronouncing the common Nahuatl -tl suffix for plurals, so the word evolved to aguacate, and then to avocado in English (for the same pronunciation reasons). This process of language change—simplification or modification of pronunciation to adjust to the native tongue—is very common. Tomato comes from the Nahuatl as well, and followed the same path from Nahuatl to English: tomatl > tomate > tomato, and it comes to us through hundreds of years of colonialism, exploration, violence and cultural melding.

There are many words that present day residents of the southwest of the United States—Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico—already know and use in everyday language that are obvious derivations, or simple transfers, from Spanish. Examples include: adobe, alfalfa (which is a derivation of the Arabic fasfasa), caldera, canyon, caramel, chili, cigar, cilantro, cockroach (which has a fascinating history of folk etymology, in which the changes of pronunciation were based on mistaken theories of its definition), marijuana, piñata, salsa and sombrero.  But most mistakenly attribute these words solely to exposure to Mexican culture; the majority of words derived from Spanish in fact hold longer, more complex histories.

The word embargo comes directly from the Spanish, which literally translates to “seizure of goods.”  During the late 1500s, Spain and England grew increasingly hostile to each other, particularly at sea, and Queen Elizabeth often seized gold and valuables from Spanish Armada ships.  Through the breakdown in trade between the countries, the word embargo became increasingly used in the language of the English, particularly in maritime vernacular.

Merino comes from a special breed of sheep, once treasured and constrained exclusively to Spain.  The fine wool from the merino sheep was once the engine that drove the Spanish economy, particularly leading up the Age of Discovery. Nowadays, merino refers to any product made of high-quality wool.

Potato comes from the Spanish, too, and it typifies a common quirk in English borrowings from Spanish. Potato comes to us through a complex history of Quechua (the language of the Incans), Spanish and English, and involves influences from patata, batata, boniato and papa. English speakers often replace a final a with an o when they borrow words from the Spanish.

Other strong words like stampede, renegade, patio, mesa, hurricane and guitar also come from the Spanish, and each word has its own interesting story.

Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries is a small, but essential reference for those interested in this particular etymology of English.

Spanish Word Histories and Mysteries

Houghton Mifflin Company

pp., 258

On Travel Literature (and where to start)

On a recent podcast with The Casual Academic, Jacob Welcker and I discussed travel literature and what it means to us. We again realized just how many books we have not read and how much there still is left to be discussed, which I think is a good sign of our level of curiosity, at least.

In celebration of World Book Day, and as a complement to the podcast I have compiled a small list of the travel books that I have found to be instructive, those which typify the genre. We discussed many of these books, and Jacob brought other works to the conversation.  (As of today, the podcast episode hasn´t been released yet, but stay tuned to The Casual Academic (link above) for news). Of course the genre is a loose one, and many of the categories that I have made overlap and intersect.

So, here is a list of seven kinds of travel literature that I have noticed, with examples of what I have in my own library that serve as great works for the uninitiated. Again, especially with lists like these, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of other fine examples of what could be interpreted as travel literature; this list merely stands as a small collection of those that stand out for me. Feel free to let me know in the comments of any great ones that you might like.

1) Travelogues that have contributed to the knowledge of humanity:
Charles Darwin – Voyage of the Beagle
Steinbeck – Sea of Cortez
Alexander von Humboldt – Personal Narrative and Cosmos
John Lloyd Stephens and illustrator Frederick Catherwood – Incidents of Travel series (particularly those in the Mayan Riviera)
Pigafetta – his accounts of Magellan’s historic voyage
Roald Amundsen – My Life as an Explorer, The South Pole, and Northwest Passage
Ernest Shackleton’s diary entrees and his book South!
Even Robert Falcon Scott’s diary (pulled from his pocket on his frozen body)
Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s –Worst Journey in the World

2) Writers who were already famous for other things, and ventured into writing well about their travels
George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia
Jack Kerouac – On the Road (although I do share a bit of Truman Capote´s opinion on Kerouac´s writing: it´s not writing, it´s typing).
Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim (arguably others, but many drawn from his experience on ships).
Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad, Following the Equator

D.H. Lawrence – Sea and Sardinia

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Italian Journey

John Steinbeck – A Russian Journal

3) Writers who set out to critique a culture or area of the world, through essay
Rebecca West – Black Lamb Grey Falcon
Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines (on my to-read list), In Patagonia
Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana

3) Writers who stay in a place for an extended period of time and write about it
Peter Mayle – A Year in Provence
Gerald Brenan – South from Granada
Edward Abbey – Desert Solitaire
Beryl Merkham – West with the Night
Antoine de Saint-Exupery – Southern Mail, Wind, Sand Sea and Stars, and Flight to Arras
Paul Theroux – A Dark Star Safari (a trip, but drawing on a large wealth of experience in Africa)

4) Writers who made a lifetime of study analysis of a culture
Archer Milton Huntington – A Notebook in Northern Spain

5) Writers who write about their own cultures
Steinbeck – Travels with Charley
Camilo Jose Cela – Journey through the Alcarria

6) Some exceptional travel articles

Christopher Hitchens – Visit to a Small Planet (Vanity Fair)
James M. Markham – Goethe’s Italian Journey (New York Times)

The First Travel Writer

There is a long timeline of world history in my mind that throughout my reading life gets filled in slowly with each document, each classic. The original text of this travelogue, written in amateurish Latin, was probably written in the early 380s. It was later copied in the 11th century by a monk in the Abbey of Monte Cassino, south of Rome, and then discovered in a monastic library in Arrezzo in 1884.  This English translation finds us now through the work of several translators and collaborators, this version printed in 1919.

Itirerarium Egeriae begins mid-sentence, whole sections having been lost to the centuries since the initial writings of that singular and impressive pilgrim. She was called Egeria (or Etheria, Aetheria, Etheroiua or Eurcheria), and she wrote of her journeys to see Biblical landmarks that were, to her and her peers, venerated or holy.

The travelogue is a fascinating record of her stops at places still known today, both by modern maps and through Biblical reference.  It is interesting to discover which places were in fact holy in her time, and which have since been assigned sanctity by other men (yes, always men).

In these writings, we learn that in the year 380, a Feast of the Nativity was celebrated on January 6th, not on December 25th and it is interesting that of all the martyriums she visited, she made no reference to Christ’s tomb or place of death, even though it is reasonable to claim that the site, at least, had begun to be venerated as early as the late 4th century.

In this book, we get a rare look into the very early days of Christianity, approximately 380 years after the death of Christ, and around 67 years after emperor Constantine I issued his edict ceasing the persecution of Christians. Sixty-seven years isn´t that long, and since then the ambiguities of this particular period seem to me to have been filled laboriously with obfuscation, revised histories, complex and conflicting interpretations and myth, the frustrating lack of details and even context having been glazed over with declarations of revelation and faith that seem more to serve particular people than the acquisition of knowledge.

The primordial Christian church was more monastic in nature, the notion of “congregation” and collective worship had just begun.  Solitary men and small groups, we would now call them hermits, inhabited caves and humble living spaces, and lived chastened lives. The concept of hymns and hymn singing had only just begun as well.  Holy Week was already celebrated with its recognizable symbols and rituals: children waving palm leaves, the cross as a symbol of adoration, the taking of Communion on Maundy Thursday.

Egeria refers to what we would call the Bible with several names, some of which only appear in this document (Scriptura Canonis for example, means “Scripture of the Canon”, which to me implies an attempt at a common standard, or the beginnings of a universal, all-inclusive tome).  She quotes most often from the first five books of the what we now call the Old Testament, also known as the Pentateuch, and in a pre-Vulgate Latin.

The text is a great education in monasticism, vulgar Latin and the origins of the Mediterranean Romance languages, and it is a wonderful account that is arguably one of the first travelogues, rich in references to landscape, politics and subjective interpretation of the world through journey.  Also, the writings seem to have been written and orally related not only by a woman, but also to women, a circle of ladies who gathered to share stories and religious devotion. And I am once again prompted to ponder the gems of literature, art, philosophy and politics which have been lost or destroyed throughout the centuries at the clumsy hands of entitled men.

 

 

Questioning humanity in Blade Runner

Questioning humanity in Blade Runner

 

poster available at: http://mules9.com/bladerun

I think the first time I really contemplated mortality with an adult mind was after watching the “Tears in Rain” monologue of replicant Roy Batty. At the time, I suddenly found the idea of  being human, with a finite existence, all at once liberating, exhilarating and immeasurably sad and terrifying.  Also, I suddenly found immortality and eternity equally terrifying. Like many of the critics of the day, I didn’t quite grasp the clairvoyance of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). It was darker and more profound than I could understand. But by so effectively blurring the lines between robot and human, the film forced me think, or inspired me to think, on what it would really mean to live forever, on what it means to be human, and if there is any real value in empathy.

I always enjoy bleakness and gloom in films, and I have always been attracted to dystopian themes, especially in dense urban environments, and I am not sure why. Maybe it is the contrast of the hopelessness of the future with the relative banality of the present day that clarifies drama. Perhaps it appeals to that melancholic introvert in me. Whatever the reason, I find these settings ideal for a story.

There are many superficial qualities of Blade Runner that have garnered much praise (Click here for a synopsis of the movie): clever use of light, gritty and realistic sets, the use of rain and water, the prophetic ideas of future society, the unmistakable (and strangely dated yet timeless) music of Vangelis, the poetic dialogues and monologues in Hampton Fancher´s script.  By superficial I don’t mean frivolous. Any one of these elements alone would have made an impression, but they would not have had the

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Rachael, beginning to suspect that she may not be human like she´s been told.

collective power of all of them together.  I think the contrasts are particularly powerful in Blade Runner, and they go well beyond a simple human-robot dichotomy. The extremes of light rapidly change from blinding to pitch. The squalid and impure environment of the city and the lavish quarters of a well-off CEO. The violent Batty who searches for a longer life and the tender, beautiful android who does’t know she’s been manufactured. The architecture of the Mayan-esque pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation building set between towering modern skyscrapers. The loner amongst the masses. These contrasts are layers that enrich the film and allow us to understand the characters and the extremes that they represent, and therefore we begin a new understanding of what it means to be human.

Those who label Blade Runner parody rather than a fine work of pastiche simply haven’t really seen the movie. Openly adopting film noir, weaving the running narrative of a reflective, lonesome and detached man on a hapless mission of redemption in a post nuclear holocaust, Blade Runner showed us how human good sci-fi can and should be. And the results could have been disastrous, but they were not. The humanity and nostalgia complement what might otherwise be just another example of our lazy concept of an automated, hyper-computerized future (most of modern science fiction).

Picture: Warner Bros.

Part of the dystopian feel comes in the form of a sort of Marxist critique of capitalism and how an all-encompassing corporate environment isolates and delegitimizes the individual.  The decadence in the movie, perhaps seen to some as exaggerated, is portrayed as a direct result of a specific system run rampant on the world. We have all seen what the excesses of commercialism and capitalism can do to the mind, soul, and our sense of creativity.  In Blade Runner, it seems to me this theme is purposely pervasive and hyperbolic. Over everything (also quite literally, with blimps and police patrols above) looms an imposing presence, the towering god-like presence of the Tyrell Corporation, a complex but intentionally crafted system governing an ethnically diverse population that is so desensitized that it isn´t interested in human connections. Yet it somehow operates, albeit in an overwhelming chaos where the dreams and desires of humans are rendered almost meaningless (and those of a robot less than meaningless).  Deckard is a loner (it seems by choice), the replicants are slaves who, in practice, are assigned a wholly meaningless existence other than servitude to the all-encompassing system. The inherent worth of both humans and replicants is gauged by their productivity. Around each English-speaking character is a sea of humanity speaking a foreign language, intensifying the isolation and the interaction between those characters. Talk about a plausible dystopia.

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Inside the lush office of the Tyrell Corporation.

Another aspect of Blade Runner that has left an impression on me is the idea of memories and our concept of remembering.  Replicants receive fragmented memories from their creators, contrived ideas, sometimes drawn from reality, other times constructed.  Deckard, whether or not he himself is a replicant, is forced to contemplate the value of memories and how they validate our sentience (and perhaps more importantly, the “sentience” of artificially manufactured androids). Our distant memories are often dubious and our connection to the past can be tenuous.  Sometimes we invent or embellish past events, sometimes we block out the traumatic ones. Sometimes a smell or a song will bring back a feeling or a vague memory that we can´t quite precipitate. But it seems that these memories are a large part of what separate us from artificial intelligence. I find that Blade Runner, amongst its many questions, asks: In the end is there all that much that would set us apart?

 

 

A Window on Russia

Photo by Robert Capa, book cover credit: Penguin Books (reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000).

” The old, old thing came up, that always comes up: ´Then why does your government not control these newspapers and these men who talk war?´ And we had to explain again, as we had many times before, that we do not believe in controlling our press, that the truth usually wins, and that control simply drives bad things underground. In our country we prefer that these people talk themselves to death in public, and write themselves to death, rather than bottle them up to slip their poison secretly through the dark.

They have a great deal of misinformation about America, for they have their yellow journalists too.  They have their correspondents with little knowledge, and they have their fiery typewriter soldiers.”

 

***

 

In the aftermath of World War II,  John Steinbeck and legendary war photographer Robert Capa went to the Soviet Union on a trip of cultural exploration. That was all it was.  They endeavored to avoid politics and polemics.  And although Steinbeck was more or less a disillusioned intellectual, at the time fed up with the status quo of the world and perhaps with his own work, they went not as communist sympathizers or angst-ridden activists, rather they wanted to write about and to photograph what was left of humanity after the devastation of war.  They certainly found it–simple, yet happy villagers, destroyed landscapes and industries, austere and suspicious Muscovites, broken men and families, inquisitive Soviets–and they also found a mundane, quotidian totalitarianism still in its infancy. Capa, accustomed to more action (the invasion of Normandy, Spanish Civil War), was even bored at times.

This is a modest little book, a long report for the New York Herald Tribune, (ironically, not quite a rich as his Log from the Sea of Cortez, an excellent memoir of his collecting marine specimens in barren Baja California), and a wonderful peek into the daily lives of simple Russians.  The book seems to have been a response to the strong curiosity that Americans had about Russians and Russia, and it at once shows us what we have in common and our fundamental, eternal differences.

Steinbeck often chooses humor over generalization, and of course he demonstrates keen powers of observation that never stray into condescension or veiled contempt.

Throughout the book, Capa´s photos are placed right alongside Steinbeck´s commentary, although I wish Penguin would have included better quality shots. For more high-resolution photos by Robert Capa, explore Magnum´s wonderful collection (click here).

Death at Our Elbow: Saint-Exupéry’s High Adventure in Literature

“They gave him a plane with an altitude limit of seventeen thousand feet; the highest Cordillera peaks are over twenty-two thousand. And Mermoz took off in search for the gaps. … Forced down at thirteen thousand feet on a plateau with sheer sides, he and his engineer searched for two days for a way down. They were trapped. So they played their last card. They launched their plane towards the void, bouncing cruelly over the uneven ground until they dropped over the cliff edge. As it fell the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz brought its nose up as it headed for a ridge, brushed up the against summit, and with water gushing out of every pipe burst by night frost, crippled after just seven minutes in the air, he saw the Chilean plain below him like a Promised Land.

The next day he went up again.” 

— Wind, Sand and Stars, 1939.

Imagine that you are flying a plane over the Sahara desert, and you crash, somewhere between Benghazi and Cairo.  You and your navigator nearly die of thirst until you are rescued by a Bedouin on a camel.  How would you write about the experience?

In the 1930s, most of North Africa and the Andes, as well as much of the Mediterranean, was without charted air routes. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of the “The Little Prince”) and his flying buddies, like Mermoz, cut through the unexplored airspace of these ends of the earth. These solitary men, willing subjects in dubious and slapdash expeditions and sorties, belonged to a particular moment in modern history. They lived in an era that is just out of sight, dipped below the horizon, an era filled with experiences and dramas that must now forever be recorded in books. The travel writing at these times was still often defined by firsts, where places were yet undiscovered, and a writer could come before all others to take a stab at putting the experience to the page (nowadays, travel writers have other challenges). The settings in these stories are drawn with the glow of Nazi bombs below, or at the hands of the elements, through a vulnerability that only a pilot can know.  There is an irony though, that no matter how adventurous the life of a man or woman is, reading about it is almost always a disappointment, something like listening to someone talk about their dreams. The copious quantity of stories to tell does not guarantee that those stories will ever be told, much less told well.

It is impossible to know if Saint-Exupéry was aware of that unspoken curse that adventurers are almost always denied the tools to produce good writing, but often in Wind, Sand and Stars, we get the impression he is making an effort at literature. In North Africa and Spain, his charts were marked not only with vectors and flight ceilings, but with scribbled-in notes that told a stories, like the orange grove to watch out for at the end of the runway in Guadix, Spain, or the elderly man and his wife in Lorca who wait on their farm like a lighthouse for passing pilots in the night, or the small tributary off the Ebro river that spawns thirty species of flower and sometimes wanders across the runway there, tearing a crack in the earth that would destroy a plane’s landing gear.

In the form of a letter of admiration, Saint-Exupéry tells us about another comrade, Guillaumet, who crashed his plane in a high-altitude snow storm, and walked for days in the blizzard, where if he’d just lied down, he never would have risen again from the blanket of snow. He writes, quoting Guillaument in a letter to him, “In the snow… all you want is sleep….But I said to myself: ‘If my wife thinks I’m alive, she’ll believe I’m on my feet. My comrades believe it too….I’m a cowardly bastard if I don’t keep going.'”

Although many of the stories in Saint-Exupéry’s books spring to life from crises, they are not merely some collection of diary entries. The true driving force here is Exupéry’s ability to translate the complexities of the human experience within the absurd drama of war and the novelty of the rugged, unexplored regions of the world, and indeed within the flying machines that are thrust into both.  And we are thus fascinated by his getting on

Exupéry sets off in 1938 to fly from New York to Tierra del Fuego. He crashes in Guatemala, fracturing his skull in several places. (photo from http://www.thelittleprince.com/work/the-autor/)

with the business of living, albeit in extraordinary times.  This was the stuff of travel writing in the 1930s and 1940s, but only the good works have survived.  Today, it is more difficult to be interesting, the substance of many travel books only being the crises themselves, even worse crises that are self-inflicted, or sometimes contrived altogether. Exupéry proves his worth as a writer in many ways, and he’d probably be an excellent storyteller even in boring contexts.  To me, his work rises above other banal travelogues because he makes sure that the stories will be remembered not as sensational shock pieces (in war, perhaps so abundant as to be trite), but more so as stories with eloquence that can penetrate even the most uninterested reader, or now, the modern reader dulled by overexposure to images and information.

Flight to Arras begins with Saint-Exupéry and another pilot being briefed on a reconnaissance flight into Nazi-occupied France. It is a mission that will likely kill them. But he keeps to a rare kind of wisdom and honesty, mostly refraining from melodrama. In the book he writes with a sense of desperation and humor, in a well-chosen mix of tenses, of stress-induced quarrels with colleagues and on the checklists and practical duties that a pilot or captain does, duties done more compulsively in the midst of life-threatening danger.  He can bring the entire war to a private microcosm:

 “… the battle between the Nazi and the Occident was reduced to the scale of my job, of my manipulation of certain switches, levers, taps. This was as it should be. The sexton’s love of his God becomes a love of lighting candles.”

The honesty of his experience at first seems disarming and endearing, but in fact it only exposes a simple and powerful notion: how a man behaves when he has already accepted that he is going to die.

It is perhaps not so ironic that Exupéry probably did meet his end at the hands of a German fighter plane.  In 1998, fishermen near the island of Corsica dragged up Exupéry’s name tag in their nets.  His disappearance, a long-running mystery, happened in 1944, in airspace carpeted by Nazi radar and thick with the buzz of the Luftwaffe.  One can wonder, if in those last moments, he faced the permanence of death with the grace and clarity of his literature.

“It would be easy to write a couple of fraudulent pages out of the contrast between this shining spring day, the ripening fruit, the chicks filling plumply out in the barnyard, the rising wheat—and death at our elbow. I shall not write that couple of pages because I see no reason why the peace of a spring day should constitute a contradiction of the idea of death. Why should the sweetness of life be a matter for irony?”

— Flight to Arras, 1942.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Toulouse, France, 1933. Source NY Times online Author Distributed by Agence France-Presse