Wind, Sand and Stars

I don’t want to reduce my favourite book, my favourite words, my favourite author to a quote that chokes in the thin air of the internet. But if these lines make you want to dig into more of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars, then maybe that’s ok.

These are the lines so perfect that it’s impossible not to put down the book for a moment, look up at the sky, and smile:

“I know what I love. It is life.”

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

These are the quotes that have probably already been shoved into the ‘inspiration’ sections of Brainyquote and Goodreads. These are the quotes that have probably already been dressed up in hipster typography and pasted onto an Instagrammed photo of a sunset.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that, “Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say, “I think, I am,” but quotes some saint or sage.” I have always wanted to revel in the irony of quoting that line. Ah, it felt good! Point is, he was right.

At least the following Exupéry quote is too long, too subtle, too tender to go on Pinterest or Goodreads or Brainyquote. The following quote is the conclusion of Wind, Sand and Stars, when Exupéry is in France and wandering through the third-class train carriage of men and women broken by poverty.

“Into what terrible mould were they forced? What was it that marked them like this as if they had been put through a monstrous stamping machine? A deer, a gazelle, any animal grown old, preserves its grace. What is it that corrupts this wonderful clay of which man is kneaded?

I went on through these people whose slumber was as sinister as a den of evil. A vague noise floated in the air made up of raucous snores, obscure moanings, and the scraping of clogs as their wearers, broken on one side, sought comfort on the other. And always the muted accompaniment of those pebbles rolled over and over by the waves.

I sat down face to face with one couple. Between the man and the woman a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight I saw his face. What an adorable face! A golden fruit had been born of these two peasants. Forth from this sluggish scum had sprung this miracle of delight and grace.

I bent over the smooth brow, over those mildly pouting lips, and I said to myself: This is a musician’s face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become?

When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine. This little Mozart will love shoddy music in the stench of night dives. This little Mozart is condemned.

I went back to my sleeping car. I said to myself: Their fate causes these people no suffering. It is not an impulse to charity that has upset me like this. I am not weeping over an eternally open wound. Those who carry the wound do not feel it. It is the human race and not the individual that is wounded here, is outraged here. I do not believe in pity. What torments me tonight is the gardener’s point of view. What torments me is not this poverty to which after all a man can accustom himself as easily as to sloth. What torments me is not the humps nor hollows nor the ugliness. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.

Only the Spirit, if it breathes upon the clay, can create Man.”

For me, Exupéry is the best philosopher there is. After reading any of his works, life seems to fill up with lightness and truth. And then I end up scrolling around on Buzzfeed and Facebook by accident. Caught up in the pettiness and smallness of human thought once again, the world slips back into shadow.

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