Anything essential is invisible to the eyes: My review of “Saint Exupery” by Stacy Schiff

When I told my wife I was reading the biography of Antione de Saint-Exupery, she really couldn’t fathom why I pick the books I read. But really, there is rhyme and reason to them. I bought a copy of “The Little Prince” waaaaay back in the day when I worked at Barnes and Noble. It sat on my shelf unread. When I finally got around to reading it last year, I couldn’t put the book down, and I found myself reading the beautiful passages, about the Prince’s rose that was waiting for him, about his carefully rakes baobob trees, and the fox he had tamed. At the end, I found myself wanting to know, who was the man who had written this? The man who had written:

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.”

“For me you’re only a little boy just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other.”

“One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

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I could discover very little about de Exupery from the dust jacket of my copy of “The Little Prince.” Only that he had disappeared on a flight over France during World War II. He managed to capture so many beautiful truths. He must have been a deeply spiritual person. When Netflix finally released their beautiful adaptation of “The Little Prince”, with its beautiful re-telling through the eyes of a girl with a forgetful and quixotic old man living next door (highly recommend watching it, if you haven’t. I love the competing messages from Wirth academy [‘Make yourself essential’] and the message of the Prince [‘anything essential is invisible to the eyes’]), I was reminded that I still needed to find out about the man behind the book.

So I found this biography, and checked it out from my university library. As I read, I was at first worried that it was poorly written; it seemed to be a mere collection of dusty biographical facts and figures. I had a hard time keeping track of names and places– a common difficulty, something a good biographer has to manage. And the French names made it even worse! I’m fluent in German, and I like it because it is compact. French has all these unnecessary letters making it all too fluffy.

But as I began to read, I began to learn more about this curious man. I felt drawn to de Exupery, because he was an outsider, he had a hard time fitting in and conforming to outside norms (funny, I touted my favorite book of all time as “Catcher in the Rye” for so long, with Holden Caulfield’s calling grownups “phonies.”). He often was a man of two worlds. He was a pilot, an adventurer and member of a brotherhood. But he was also a writer. Both felt sides often felt betrayed when his other life interfered with their own. I liked this summary by the biographer of one of his last works that I think captures this double life well: “Perhaps because he lived so much tangled up in paradox Saint-Exupery was fated to be misconstrued. He slips through nets, embraces inconsistencies. As a pioneer, he lived in teh past, as a man of science, he believed above all in instinct; as a writer, he mistrusted language– and intellectuals.” I felt drawn to that, because I find so much value in these people who can be a part of two worlds, and hopefully draw them closer together.

I found out that de Exupery was a deeply spiritual person, but it seemed he was always in pursuit of virtue, he wanted to teach principles, but he had a hard time living them himself, and was too restless to settle down to any organized religion. Near the end of his life, he said that after the war, he planned to retire to a monastery. Some found his attempts at philosophizing amateur, but I from what I have read, I find it deeply moving, and something I think the world could use a little more of. I liked the biographer’s summary of his spiritual quest: “It represents a piece of spiritual ground marked out by a weary man with a vestigial sense of Catholicism and an innate sense of responsibility who has lived a life thirsting for the values but free of the bounds of both.

One thing I did realize though, was that when you outright reject the world of grown-ups, you miss out on a lot. Saint Ex seemed to be very irresponsible, and didn’t realize how his actions affected others. He was a daydreamer and adventurer. He was constantly borrowing exorbitant amounts of money from his mother, eventually driving her to bankruptcy. He failed classes one after the other. When World War I reached Paris, instead of getting to safety, he ran to the top of the building to watch the firework show in the sky. They again captured this compromise well in the film– growing up, but always remembering what it was like to be a child.

One of the most exciting historical aspects of the book was the rise of flight, from its very beginnings as the Wright Brothers showed off their invention in France, to the increasingly modern aircraft in World War II. This all happened during Saint Ex’s time as a pilot. The glory days of the French air mail company Aeropostale are amazing! Saint Ex ran mail flights between France and North Africa on a regular basis. He was also stantioned in Brazil and Argentina for a time. Back in those days, it wasn’t uncommon for the planes to fail– sometimes one out of three flights were a crash! But you survived, waited for another pilot to come pick you up, and you continued on. Saint Ex actually was a bit of a second-class pilot. And some point out that he got most of his fame as a pilot and author from his brilliant crashes. The events of “The Little Prince” are based on a famous crash in the Libyan desert! Unfortunately, Saint Ex didn’t age well as a pilot; as things became increasingly more automated, he didn’t keep up with the technology. He complained, “We are preparing a world capable of producing 5000 perfectly assembly-line pianos a day, but incapable of cultivating a worthy pianist.

I was saddened by the deep sense of loneliness that Saint Ex experienced throughout his life. He never seemed to have a completely fulfilling relationship, and no one to completely understand him. Anne Lindbergh said the line from “The Little Prince” that summarized his life, was when the Prince said that out on his asteroid, he had no one to talk to. In his last days, he told his acquaintances that he had a brilliant indifference to life, and that he wanted to die in action– which he did. I feel inspired by his life, and want to incorporate his ideals, but I also feel that we can learn from his errors as well. His life to me shows that romanticism on its own can’t hold water.

Other Quotes

He learned an enourmous amount from his two insular years marked by purposelessness, loneliness, homelessness. He grew more and more impatient with the comfortable life out of which he had, sometimes unintentionally, so many times now opted. The unpaid bills, the uncertain future, the unhappy heart, the vanishing youth were godsends; they were the first labors to teach him what cyclones and sandstorms and a fledgling mail service would, in years to come, appear to have taught him… Just as only an ex-loner could convincingly sing the praises of cameraderie, only a man who had very nearly fallen through the cracks of the system could write with passion of the tragedy of wasted potential.

For years Saint Exupery had lobbied for financial support with the plea that he could not live at odds with the world… It was precisely the opposite advice Flaubert had offered the aspiring ninetheenth-century writer: Break with the world. Saint Exupery, the idler who can to appreciate the preeminence of action, the indulged, profligate son who would make a near-religious appeal for the stoic, responsible life, began after to miserable years to see the wisdom in it. An aristocrat in a republic that no longer had a use for one, he was from the start at odds with his world.

Under the weight of greater responsibility, yoked into a team, he began to rise above his melancholy. It is not easy to resist the personal war, and Saint-Exupery– who may have needed these structures more than most… bought in hook, like, and sinker. Though the religious trappings were there for all to see, he began to distill and romanticize the spiritual dimensions of his new life. This time the nonjoiner– having found a cause worthy of his ideals, or simply having run out of options– became a zealot.

IF Saint-Exupery’s analysis of his fellow commuters rings like an indictment it should be heard more as a loud sigh of relief. Any man could succumb to this fate, as the pilot well knew. If he seemed to recoil from these men it was with the terror of recognition; he flinched as Henry V might from a Falstaff. He would not end either as a sedentary or as a gigolo, a broken man in a sedate line of work.

As much as he was a man of the people, despite his condemnation of the Parisian drawing rooms… there was, in fact, a decidedly undemocratic ring to Saint-Exupery’s humanitarian vision. On the one hand he claimed to admire above all else the steady-working gardener, the devoted mother of five. On the other hand he loathed all that reeked of subjugation of the individual to the task. His very belief in a cosmic gardener on earth was elitist… He knew it was the universal that bound men together but he never stopped despairing of the baseness of that standard, could not understand why it was Parandello instead of Ibsen, jazz instead of Mozart, a cheap print instead of van Gogh or a Cezanne that won out. He loved the barracks but generally lived apart… He relished his separateness the way another man might relish his particule.

“That he kept his mind on the gas consumption while pondering the mysteries of the universe? How can he navigate by stars when they are to him ‘the frozen glitter of diamonds?'” Anne Morrow Lindbergh on Saint EX

“Pilots meet if they are fighting to deliver the same mail; the Brown Shirts, if they are offering their lives to the same Hitler; the mountain climbers, if they are aiming for the same peak. Men do not unite by moving toward each other directly but only by losing themselves in the same god.”

Writing of such moments he was more than ever a man distinctly out of step with his time, searching for teh common bond while those around him were busily clarifying their political differences… He had never been a believer in systems– his was an overweening faith that life lay in the contradictions, not in the formulae, in the doubting, not the certainties, the needs rather than the riches– and political parties seemed to him little more than artificial structures designed to save man from his loneliness.

“I condemn any school of thought which– for coherency’s sake– is forced to reduce the enemy army to a pack of pillaging, imbecilic peons.”

“The difference between an American cookbook and a French one is that the former is very accurate and the second exceedingly vague. A French recipe seldom tells you how many ounces of butter to use to make crepes Suzette, or how many spoonfuls of oil should go into a salad dressing… American recipes look like doctors’ prescriptions.”
Raoul de Roussy de Sales

“The earth teaches us more about ourselves than do all the books. Because it resists us. Man discovers himself when he measures himself against the obstacle. But to do so he needs a tool, a saw, or a plow. The farmer, in his labor, slowly coaxes out a few of nature’s secrets, and the truths he unearths are universal. In the same way the airplane, tool of the airlines, involves man in all the old problems.”

“Liberty: the ability to defy probability”

It represents a piece of spiritual ground marked out by a weary man with a vestigial sense of Catholicism and an innate sense of responsibility who has lived a life thirsting for the values but free of the bounds of both.

Perhaps because he lived so much tangled up in paradox Saint-Exupery was fated to be misconstrued. He slips through nets, embraces inconsistencies. As a pioneer, he lived in the past, as a man of sicence, he believed above all in instinct; as a writer, he mistrusted language– and intellectuals.

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