SKETCH FOR THE PORTRAIT
by Richard Rumbold
In writing this book my collaborator and I had two aims in view. Firstly, to shed some light on the life and ideas of a complex, gifted and fascinating individual; a man whose life was packed with adventure, both in the realms of action and in the realms of thought; who was pioneer airman, writer, poet, philosopher, administrator, mathematician, scientist and practical inventor. Secondly, and in so doing, to say something about that relatively new discovery flying; about the psychology of the airman; and about the beauty and interest of his profession.
As it happens, these aims are largely identical. For Saint-Exupéry not only spent a large part of his own life in the air, but was the author of incomparably the best books that have been written on the subject. Men of action seldom write well, men given to reflection seldom lead adventurous lives: Saint-Exupéry combined the best of both worlds. His three main works Night Flight, Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras carry the authenticity and conviction, which spring from professional knowledge and experience, while at the same time that experience is conveyed with the insight, the sensibility, and the power and grace of language of the born writer.
Maybe it is unfair to compare the great literature of the sea, which possesses its Smolletts and its Conrads, with the literature of flying, for men have sailed the sea for thousands of years whereas the air is still a new and comparatively unexplored element; even so, flying has inspired surprisingly little good writing. David Garnett's Rabbit In The Air (a book through whose pages the wind blows); Llewellyn Rhys' England Is My Village; Cecil Lewis' Sagittarius Rising; Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Listen, The Wind ... ; Jules Roy's The Happy Valley the list, alas, is a short one. At the head of it stands Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: the only man who has written about the air with genius.
This religion of humanity , the corner-stone of his philosophy, he acquired as a young man when he joined a small band of pioneer airmen opening up, in the teeth of incredible dangers, the first air routes linking France with her North African colonies and thence with the principal towns and cities of South America.
Thus, as he relates in Wind, Sand and Stars, about ten or twelve airmen, among them Saint-Exupéry himself, once found themselves stranded for the night in a lonely remote spot in the Sahara. (The crews always flew this part of the route in convoy owing to the danger, in case of forced landings, from hostile Moorish tribesmen.) As it turned out, it was almost the exact spot where two fellow-pilots, Gourp and Erable, had been murdered the year before; and Saint-Exupéry and his companions knew that there was a raiding party of three hundred Moors lurking somewhere in the vicinity. They prepared themselves as far as possible against attack, barricading themselves round with wooden packing-cases, and placing inside each case, as in a sentry-box, a lighted candle, shielding it from the wind. 'And so,' continues Saint-Exupéry, 'on this naked rind of the planet, in an isolation like that of the beginnings of the world, we built a village of men. Sitting in the flickering light of the candles on this kerchief of sand, on this village square, we waited in the night. We were waiting for the rescuing dawn or for the Moors. Something, I know not what, lent this night a savour of Christmas. We told stories, we joked, we sang songs. In the air there was that slight fever that reigns over a gaily prepared feast. And yet we were infinitely poor. Wind, sand and stars. The austerity of Trappists. But on this badly lighted cloth, a handful of men who possessed nothing in the world but their memories, were sharing invisible riches.... We had met at last. Men travel side by side for years, each locked up in his own silence or exchanging those words which carry no freight till danger comes. Then they stand shoulder to shoulder. They discover that they belong to the same family. They are like the prisoner set free who marvels at the immensity of the sea.'
During the rest of his life Saint-Exupéry was to experience again and again these moments of fusion; moments in which there sprang up a joy which he believed to be 'the most precious possession of our civilisation'; moments in which, the barriers of separation between man and man broken down, he suddenly became conscious of the spark and flame of our common humanity; moments in which he felt himself united to others, as others were united to him, by invisible ties in the depths of the heart; moments in which, as though merged in some deeper wider whole, he seemed to sense the great refreshing winds of a universal life blowing about him. And these moments were one of the springs of the humanistic outlook which irradiates his work.
With his many, varied and apparently contradictory gifts Saint-Exupéry appears at first to be a rather puzzling character. Even to his own countrymen he was something of an enigma. 'Quel garçon extraordinaire,' they always say of him; 'il n'était pas tout à fait de ce monde !' implying that he was odd, eccentric, a bit of a fantast, a man with only one foot in the real world. But in this, too, his love of the air also gives us a clue.
What first of all does flying signify for the soul of man? Surely, in the first place: ascent, endeavour, aspiration (as symbolised, for instance, in the beautiful classical legend of Dædalus and his son, Icarus). 'There,' as the poet, Michael Roberts, wrote:
Secondly: escape, release, freedom, the longing for pure, untrammelled, unobstructed movement, the longing to shake off the fetters of this earth. 'Oh, that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away and be at rest...', as the Hebrew psalmist laments.
Now these two impulses aspiration and escape were the two main springs of Saint-Exupéry's life and art. In other words, he was an idealist and a mystic; an intensely religious man who, living in our irreligious age, our age of 'Angst' and despair, embraced not the discipline of the monastery, but that of a hard, exacting and perilous profession; who sought detachment, renunciation and self-immolation, not in the austerities of the Trappist, but in physical insecurity, hardship and danger; who meditated not on God in the loneliness of the cell, but on a mystique of humanity in the solitudes and perspectives of the starry heavens.
And, as we shall see, the central drama of his life and character lay in the conflict between these mystical and idealistic impulses and the claims of the every-day practical world the world of makeshift, compromise and opportunism. As a result, the pendulum of his mind was always swinging uneasily between the poles of optimism and pessimism, euphoria and despondency, hope and despair, like the graph of a manic-depressive.
Towards the end of his life, faced by the growth, on the one hand of a soulless Western materialism, on the other of equally soulless totalitarian ideologies, his philosophical humanism seemed at times a ludicrous anomaly; for he believed that the human spirit (and that for him meant particularly the spirit of European tradition and culture) was being slowly strangled to death by these two anti-human forces 'l'homme robot, l'homme termite,' as he termed them. Consequently, the moods of hope and elation diminished and the moods of gloom and despondency increased.
And after his death in 1944 a letter was found amongst his papers in which he declared that he did not mind whether or not he was killed in the War. 'I am sad,' he wrote, 'for my generation, empty as it is of all human content (de toute substance humaine). One cannot live any longer on refrigerators, on politics, on balance-sheets and cross-word puzzles. One cannot live any longer without poetry, colour and love.' And he concluded: 'My impression is that we are approaching the blackest period in the whole of human history.' This letter led to the theory that he had committed suicide, either deliberately or as the victim of an unconscious death-wish; an unlikely theory, on the whole, yet impossible to refute, for he disappeared mysteriously on reconnaissance operations over the Mediterranean, leaving behind no traces of himself or his aircraft.
During the war, as a pilot in the R.A.F., I quickly succumbed, like so many other airmen, to the spell and novelty of flying: the speed, the lightness, the ballet-like grace of movement; the strange fantastic geometry of loops, spins, rolls and rectangular circuits round the aerodrome; the sense of exhilaration one experienced in the great heights and solitudes of the sky; the difficult, but exciting, adjustment of one's mind to a new 'feel' of time and space; the sudden, revivifying contact with Nature with cloud and wind and star; the first cross-country flights in which one inevitably got lost because one bad not yet trained one's eye to look for landmarks in the jigsaw puzzle of the earth; the freedom, the peace of mind, one found away from the hard, resisting earth in that light, blowy, oxygenous, sky-blue element; the light-hearted relations of airmen with one another and the discovery of oneself and them which grew up in this welter of new experiences and adventures; and last, but not least, the sense of comradeship which we felt in those mysterious uncanny silences before a raid or which was transmitted by the warm, human, friendly smile of the fitter as he drew away the chocks from under the wheels of the aircraft. Yes, it had seemed a new life, perhaps an infinitely expanding blossoming life; and in finding it I had felt as happily mystified and elated as those fifteenth and sixteenth century explorers must have felt when, for the first time, they landed on remote and virgin shores.
After the war I wanted to try to express what the discovery of the air had meant to me; and I began casting about for some form in which to throw together my impressions and memories. But later, abandoning this scheme, I decided instead to try my hand at a Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Not long afterwards I met Margaret Stewart, who having been the wife of a pioneer airman, as well as the daughter of a former Air Minister, Lord Londonderry, shared my enthusiasm for the air; it was not long before she also began to share my interest in the projected biography. So we decided to collaborate on it together.
At that time she owned a small private aircraft, a Miles Whitney Straight, and together we flew all over France collecting our material, mainly from interviews with Saint-Exupéry's relations, friends and fellow-airmen. It will be only too evident how much we owe to the help all these people so generously gave us.
No study of Saint-Exupéry could be written without generous use of biographies, memoirs and articles, and we are particularly grateful to Pierre Chevrier and his publishers, Messrs. Gallimard, for permission to quote from his biography Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (quotations, all rights reserved, on pp. 26, 29, 51-2, 119, 121, 124, 125-6, 146, 147, 158); to Georges Pélissier, author of Les Cinq Visages de Saint-Exupéry, and his publisher, Flammarion and Co.; and to the Editor of Figaro Littéraire.
Messrs. Heinemann have most kindly allowed us to quote from translations of Saint-Exupéry's books published by them; and Mr. T. F. Burns, of Messrs. Hollis and Carter, has done likewise in the case of The Wisdom Of The Sands. Mr. and Mrs. Michael Hillary have kindly allowed us to quote from Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy and from letters contained in Mr. Lovat Dickson's biography of Richard Hillary; and we are also grateful to Sir Oliver Harvey for permission to quote extracts from his speech on Saint-Exupéry and Hillary made at a meeting of the Association of Combatant Writers in Paris.
Mr. John Phillips of Time-Life has given us the right to reproduce the photograph on the frontispiece.
We also acknowledge our debt to René Delange's La Vie de Saint-Exupéry, which includes Léon Werth's charming study of him, Tel Que Je L'ai Connu; to an issue of the French literary magazine, Confluences, devoted exclusively to appreciations of Saint-Exupéry by people who knew him at different periods; to Mr. F. A. Shuffrey's two essays on Saint-Exupéry; and to Mr. Lovat Dickson's Life of Richard Hillary.
I am also deeply grateful to my friend, Mr. Archibald Colquhoun, who gave me lavishly of his time and help in the latter stages of the work; and to my friend and companion, Mrs. Hilda Young, who typed a great deal of the manuscript.