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

What would you expect from an alien?

img_1312Reviewing Olgierd Wolczek’s Man and Others Out There (1983), Wisława Szymborska relishes cosmic solitude. In her Nonrequired Reading (2002), she welcomes the idea of our being alone in the universe, while granting that it is also highly likely.  She writes,

“I like being a freak of nature on our one and only, extraordinary Earth.  Furthermore, I ‘m not waiting for any UFOs, and I’ll believe in them only when one comes up and pokes me in the ribs.  Besides, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to expect from them. They may just be planning an inspection of bristletails, caddie flies, and trematodes. The conviction that if they were so inclined they would lend a hand with everything strikes me as hopelessly banal.”

I wonder when we will stop having to watch alien films in which the alien invaders are just slightly deformed versions of ourselves, playing out scenarios of how we would approach an alien that behaves like us and looks like us. (Science writer Philip Ball’s short video from The Atlantic is a good place to clarify and gestate this idea). The new Denis Villeneuve film “Arrival,” derived from Ted Chiang’s “The Stories of Your Life,” at least approaches the subject in an interesting way that makes sense from our sentient point of view and with realistic expectations of both the limitations and unimaginable variations of the evolutionary processes of life. It allows the possibility that we may not know at all what to expect.

img_1206Language, it has been proposed, wires that way that the mind works.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis so far has only been tested with different languages here on earth, but in Chiang’s story, an alien spaceship arrives suddenly and a linguist must figure out how to communicate with them. Szymborska’s banality of an alien coming to help us out (or perform other human-like endeavors such as genocide or experimentation) in our proto-human naïveté is the bread and butter of Hollywood science fiction, and it begins to raise its intellect-numbing head in “Arrival.”  But Chiang’s linguistic approach saves it.

Amy Adams’s protagonist Louise Banks walks the fine line between too much expository dialogue and not enough. But it works, partly because of the irony of a linguist having to explain to a physicist (her impromptu colleague Ian Donnelly) the stuff of realities that one would think he’d already have known.

The aliens’ written language has little or nothing to do with their spoken language.  The aliens produce sounds that are impossible for humans to imitate. They are more advanced that we are, but in other ways, perhaps not.  Their communication is non-linear, whole paragraphs and phrases can be written and read instantaneously, which leads Banks, who begins to learn their language, to realize that they perceive time in a different way than we do, which in turn leads to her own significance in the film and a profoundly satisfying twist. As Chiang writes in “Stories of Your Life,” the aliens can perceive future and past in the same way, but participate in the conversation anyway, as if to actualize their ideas.  In the same way we say “You’re under arrest,” or “I christen this vessel,” the words put the ideas into action.

“For the [the aliens], all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, [the aliens] already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.”

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Chiang’s short story is chock-full of interesting parallels from theoretical physics and linguistics, the kind of parallels that make the audience think.  Contrary to its intentions, with its lack of ideas and phobia of meaningful contemplation, Hollywood usually just reinforces the suspicion that we are in fact alone in the universe.  The book and film do play a bit with our ignorance in contrast to the superiority of an alien species, but they reject the banality of the anthropoid “take me to your leader” kind of alien. Instead, opening the minds of the layman to the fundamentals of communication and language, as well as to the laws of physical reality itself (physics), we once again feel that maybe we are on to something.

Christmas Reading

The prospect of time off to write and read instills a deep sense of happiness and calm in me.  These are some of the books that I’ll be taking to the mountain village of La Granja to read between wines and writing. Click title links or book cover image for more info.  Reviews to come later on this blogito…

Merry Christmas!

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Michel Faber’s book Under the Skin, whigh the excellent film was based on. After researching the story itself, I found that the book reveals much that the (well done) minimalistic film kept hidden.

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Admittedly, I haven’t read much historical fiction, but I trust Gore Vidal to be reliable and honest in a way most other writers cannot be.  If one can separate the man from the work (his occasional grumps and stupid rants), he reveals a talent for writing that could make a 657-page account of Lincoln worth reading.

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Largely unknown to Americans, P.G. Wodehouse is a treasure for many readers of English. His particular sense of humor is lauded by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, amongst others, and that is all I need to discover a new way to laugh.  This is a collection that is recommended by Fry.

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I discovered Ted Chiang in college, a light of hope for those in the short story field, and I remembered him recently. He has a wonderful way of mixing sci-fi and literary short story. The new film “Arrival,” a truly intelligent alien film (for a change), is based on his story “Stories of Your Life,” and delves into the linguistics of communicating with an alien.

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Christopher Hitchens admired our third President in ways that have been largely forgotten in today’s indentity politics and partisan climate. But Hitchens, of course, was a measured, objective and balanced study, and when writing about subjects that can be politicized and hijacked, there is sometimes little more valuable in nonfiction work.

 

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Miguel Delibes wrote a historical novel on the turbulent time of the late 16th century Castile, during the Spanish Inquisition and the Age of Discovery. Set in Valladolid 4 years after the Junta de Valladolid, and at the time of Martin Luther’s beginning of the Protestant Refromation, this novel will serve to inform.

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I have been wanting to read this one for as long as I’ve been interested in travel and reading (and writing). An essential in the library of any travel writer, in my opinion.

 

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Antonio Machado is a treasure in Spain, one of the greats of the “generation of 1898.”  I have a lasting interest in literature that is engaged with the landscape of a place.  This book is a collection of poetry about Castilla, a place near to my heart and home.  Presented bilingually, as any translation of poetry should be.

 

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Camilo José Cela is another Spanish treasure, and a Nobel Prize winner who is profoundly connected to the landscape of places where he lived and visited.  Another essential read for those interested in the culture of Spain.

 

Obvious and Hidden Symbols

symbolsCarl Jung longed for his work to be understood by the general public, not only by specialists in his field.  There have been others, like Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, who have also made great efforts to translate their often esoteric research and observations to laymen, children, and the generally curious. Most naturalists or armchair aficionados rely on books and papers written in this way, for this audience, and we non-scientists owe much to them.  In Carl G. Jung´s Man and His Symbols we discover meanings of symbols in our waking life (the medieval, natural, religious, in advertising, literature, political propaganda, sculpture and art, or in myths) and in our subconscious life (dreams, compulsions, desires, emotions).  Much of this “profusely illustrated” book (how could a work on symbols not be so?) is simply Jung´s interpretation of his clients´ dreams, but the work in general may well be boiled down to his effort to describe the acquisition of psychological maturity, a highly individual endeavor, and how it may be obtained in a modern society that moves toward conformity at every turn.  His clients come to him with dreams, he interprets them as subconscious expression through symbols, the only way the subconscious can express anything. These symbols are recurring and they learned throughout our lives through literature, for universesnakeexample. To me, dream interpretation gets boring quickly, mostly because the books and articles I´ve read on the subject either neglect subjectivity entirely (similar to the silliness of zodiac symbols) or are too self-deprecating by explaining that dreams are only products of individuals, thereby just fun to speculate about.  But there are symbols that carry meaning that we all understand, and there are individuals who´s dreams are particular to him or her, but decipherable through symbolic means (Jung includes a James Thurber cartoon in which a “henpecked” man sees his home and his wife as the same thing).

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                    Cartoon by James Thurber.

Often in modern life we behave in ways that conflict with our individual nature, and I think there is something to be said for the subconscious compensation for this imbalance. Jung has written much about this, and I include his expertise in the other works on the subject that I have read and will read.  If I, for some political motivation, choose to fly a    Don´t Tread on Me flag, with its squirming serpent amongst disjointed words and letters, I want to know what it means, both to my own mind and to humanity in general.  This is not only a peculiar interest, but a social responsibility.

 

 

A Death in Venice

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A film brimming with sentimentality, gorgeous long shots of an iconic city now lost, and a protagonist who has lost his dignity and health, Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice also incorporates powerful music from Gustav Mahler, which is wholly moving and at times devastating.  The movie is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel of the same name. Visconti changed the main character, Gustav, is minor ways that seem to benefit the story-telling of the media of film.  There have been mixed reviews of Visconti’s interpretation, but the film is powerful on its own, and will likely inspire a reading of the novel.

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Death in Venice, novel by German writer Thomas Mann (1921).

Filmed in foggy frames that effectively typify a hot, humid and cholera-ridden Venice, shots are sometimes jaw-dropping; scenes of strolling aristocratic women in flowing white beachwear and holding small umbrellas are reminiscent of a Sorolla painting. The juxtaposition of water and stone, the mackerel sky sunsets, the ornate Grand Hôtel des Bains, Venice once had the power of romantic overload, but a kind of Dionysian overload, connected to the passions and excess of man of which some of us welcome at times, in direct opposition to the structured restraint of  Nietzsche’s Apollo.  Fitting into this ideal at first, Gustav doesn’t seem to notice any beauty at all except for one young man, with whom he steadily becomes obsessed, and we watch his slow, inward disintegration, his panic about aging, and his idealizing erotic beauty at the expense of dignity and intellectual contemplation — Dionysis pursuing Gustav to the end.

The subplot of a cholera epidemic, hidden from public view (it seems even then Venice was concerned about the necessary evil of tourists), brilliantly works into the story of Gustav’s demise.

Grab a bottle of wine and contemplate the Platonic ideal of beauty amongst pragmatism.  For further poignant contrast, compare the cruise ship Venice of today to that of Gustav’s time.

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Art History and Talented Travel Writing

imageHaving a background in art history provides the traveller a useful layer of awareness.  The way people behave and the cultures that form norms and traditions, the traditions that foreigners find as interesting as locals find essential, can almost always be best expressed in their art. In writing truly great travel literature, having a reckless sense of adventure doesn’t hurt either, much less a natural talent for writing.

Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana portrays the same sort of rugged adventure that one can find in Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, or Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, or Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia.  He documents, in consistent and often dry journal style, his travels through Persia and Afghanistan in the 1930’s (a time that seems at current reading at once more difficult and easier to explore as a westerner).  His course descriptions of the people he met and the locales in which he found them epitomize exoticism before the word became cliché.

If you’re looking for what’s been called the finest pre-war travel book, Byron sets the standard many have recognized but rarely reach.