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

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

Imagining Ourselves in Hoyle’s Cloud

img_1371To contemplate (or even define) our own existence in a meaningful way may be to contrast ourselves with something entirely different.  The universe has gotten much bigger in the last 50 years, both in reality and, perhaps more importantly, in our minds.  As we discover our staggering insignificance and tenuous survival in a vast (however measurable) void, we often rely on popular scientists to translate cosmology and hard to grasp concepts on the nature of reality. In story form, it’s hardly ever done well.

Science fiction’s often formulaic tales rarely reveal anything interesting about the reality of consciousness or humanity in the context of the cosmos.  At the risk of taking a side in the tired academic debate on the legitimacy of science fiction as fiction (or science), mere suspension of disbelief isn’t enough for me. Neither is escapism.  Even children eventually feel like they start seeing the same thing again and again, when turns out to be just people doing people things in space or in some distant future. The banal pseudo-exotic behaviors and names come across as contrived. The novelty of gadgets wears off quickly. The occasional technological advancements that turn out to be reality more often turn out to be superfluous and laughable, and they’re usually utilized in the first place as simple genre devices, and furthermore much less interesting than a retrospective story of how that advancement came to be reality.  In other words, a literary analysis of how or why humanity plays with its toys is more substantive than the toys themselves.  Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t brilliant because of his accurate depiction of Skype in 1968, and I’d venture to say that Kubrick himself would place this idea low on his list of intellectual breakthroughs.  To me, the film exists as a fine example of science fiction because the premise, and the story as a whole, wouldn’t make sense in any other context, and it is almost devoid of nostalgia (or humanity, some have argued).  As adults, our appreciation of Star Wars is almost pure nostalgia, and the drama could be set in the Old West or in 1920’s Brooklyn, the questions of good and evil or sexual tension or hero redemption being wholly transferable. I think this maybe my trouble with some genres in general.  They seem to be otherwise ordinary life stories that are unnecessarily pushed through the meat grinder of some contrived setting or set of peculiar, wild and crazy conventions.  This movie about Santa Claus rescuing Martian children from depression comes to mind. Or perhaps this question of context defines good science fiction, in which case most that has been written is bad.

In telling a story using the vernacular of science, an absence of legitimate scientific concepts (yes, even theories) can also be a detriment to quality. Rarely, for example, will science fiction even conceptualize that we have likely been imagining aliens all wrong, and that we don’t even really know what we are looking for. Original concepts exist, but unfortunately scientists are not often story tellers, and so we must settle for social studies experiments in space that we inevitably connect to real life.  (By the way, real science sometimes seems to fall into the same trap, it seems to me.  Apart from the sweet sentimental notion of a human time capsule flying through space well after our sun has exploded and engulfed our earth, doesn’t Voyager’s Golden Record seem a bit pedestrian and short-sighted in that it relies only on human-specific denominators? Morse code? Brain waves of thoughts about love? A message from President Carter? Really?).

In Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, an alien gaseous superorganism approaches from the depths of space and threatens life on earth.  At first, the usual suspects of the disaster story come to the surface: the conspiracy theories from the public, the intellectual superiority (and quirks) of the scientists, the simple minded chest-pounding of military officials, the incompetence of politicians.  But after the quick refutation of leading scientists’ hypotheses on the ramifications of our sun being obscured by the cloud, the problem grows with some surprising, thought-provoking events, including the establishment of meaningful communication with the cloud.

Hoyle was not a biologist but an astrophysicist, yet the story drives fascinating questions of evolutionary and philosophical significance, partly because the context is so profoundly unique. Contrast the possible questions you might ask a 500-million-year-old organism that travels at 100 kilometres a second in search of solutions to the “deep problems” with Captain Kirk’s dilemmas about lusting after a green alien woman with voluptuous breasts and a tail.  One of these scenarios is at the same time less likely to occur in a movie or book, and more likely to approach something like truth or answering a real damn question.

Sometimes to understand why some things are plausible, hence powerful elements in a story, is to understand profound concepts in science that may not spontaneously occur to the layman. Hoyle has done this masterfully in The Black Cloud. The story rests heavily on information theory.  And he gives us a view into how information is shared among scientists, what they think and argue about (and how they argue), about how language could determine our subjective reality, and how the imperfections of our modes of communication determine our individuality (if we could all communicate instantly and telepathically, we would soon cease to be individuals). But the book even goes beyond effectively mixing scientific education and entertainment, already an impressive feat. Hoyle’s pace and plot development make the book hard to put down (although at times his clunky dialogue shows that he is, after all, a scientist and not a novelist). And he allows the reader to contemplate questions that would likely not occur in the uneducated mind, or more aptly, the curious mind without a bit of guidance.  How would we communicate with something we only suddenly conceptualize as alive?  How exactly can something come from nothing? How have the natural processes of our planet influenced our very nature? What is consciousness? Why do we have bodies at all? Why do we live on a solid planet? Is that an advantage? What questions have we not asked because our intellectual capabilities have not yet allowed us to conceptualize the questions? In order to learn something truly new, would the transfer of new information necessarily need to be expressed in a language wholly different from any we know?

Reviews seem to reveal that Hoyle didn’t produce the steady quality of sci-fi like that from Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. And Hoyle turned out to be wrong on some of his science, particularly in the field of biology and even in cosmology (regarding the beginning of the universe, he preferred his “Steady State” theory, and referred to the counterargument, sarcastically, as the “Big Bang”).   But he was also right about his theory of how chemical elements are formed in the insides of stars, and Richard Dawkins writes in the afterward that Clarke only equaled Hoyle at his best, specifically in The Black Cloud.  Each author of classic novels is unique, and we are never to know the factors that determine any given writer’s work.  But this story, published in 1957, still stands as one of the most original ideas ever to be written in any genre.