The local GreatBooks group recently read and discussed a piece by Saint-Exupery — “The Tool,” a chapter from his book Wind, Sand, and Stars. I had never read Saint-Exupery, I knew nothing about him, I scarcely knew his name. He’s very popular and widely read; Wikipedia says he has been translated into “over 250 languages and dialects.” But when people mention Great Writers, they often omit his name; his place in The Canon is peripheral, uncertain. Most of his writings deal with his experiences as a pilot, so he doesn’t fit into any academic department. His books are easy to read, easy to enjoy, but are they Great Literature?
He was born in 1900 into an aristocratic family. In the 1920’s, he became well-known in France as a pilot, crossing the Mediterranean for the air-mail service (Aéropostale). Later he organized an air-mail service in South America. His first book, published in 1929, was called Southern Mail; his second book, Night Flight (1931), made him famous. In 1935, while flying in a Paris-to-Saigon race, he crashed in the Sahara desert, and barely survived the blazing sun and arid sands. He describes this experience in his 1939 memoir, Wind, Sand, and Stars.
His best-known book is The Little Prince (1943), about a pilot who crashes in the desert, and meets a boy who has fallen from an asteroid. Saint-Exupery could paint as well as write, and he illustrated The Little Prince with his own watercolors. According to Wikipedia, The Little Prince is
|the most read and also the most translated book in the French language, and was voted the best book of the 20th century in France.... and has sold more than 200 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books ever published.|
I was much impressed with The Little Prince — it’s a beautiful book, a touching book, a wise book. One of Jung’s leading disciples, Marie-Louise von Franz, discussed The Little Prince in a book called The Problem of the Puer Aeternus (also known as Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle With the Paradise of Childhood).
Saint-Exupery often read and wrote while flying, once circling an airport for an hour so he could finish reading a novel. He often flew with a blank notebook for writing, and his cockpit was filled with crumpled balls of paper.
He died at 44, while on a reconnaissance mission with the Free French Air Force. In France, he’s a national hero, and there’s an exhibit about his life at the French Air and Space Museum.
It is said that he was depressed before his last flight, and in poor health. Was his death a willed death? “Willed death” isn’t the same as “suicide,” since suicide implies conscious choice, whereas “willed death” can be semi-conscious or unconscious.
In 1931, he married a countess from El Salvador. The marriage was a stormy one, with many separations and reunions; Saint-Exupery had many liaisons with other women. In The Little Prince, he depicts his wife as the rose he truly loves. After his death, his wife wrote The Tale of the Rose, a memoir of their relationship, which she hid in a trunk for the rest of her life.1 It was found in 1999, twenty years after her death, and published in 2000; it created a sensation in France, and was translated into many languages. Saint-Exupery and his wife didn’t have any children.
When I read “The Tool,” I was struck by Saint-Exupery’s elegant style. He makes deft use of rhetorical questions, and poetic metaphors. His thoughts are deep, and expressed with taste and grace. And doubtless his writing is even more elegant in the original French.
“The Tool” is a ringing endorsement of modern technology — more specifically, the airplane. The author argues that technology brings people together, and that man will gradually become at home in the world of machines:
|We shall have to age somewhat before we are able to write the folksongs of a new epoch.... The locomotive was an iron monster. Time had to pass before men forgot what it was made of.... What is it today for the villager except a humble friend who calls every evening at six?|
The evolution of a machine, such as the airplane, ends in simplicity: “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.” Perhaps the author realized that the same is true of prose: the ultimate art is simplicity, and a sentence is chiseled and polished by removing extra words. Saint-Exupery’s remarks on airplane design reminded several people in our discussion group of Apple Computer, with its emphasis on simplicity and elegance of design.
Saint-Exupery doesn’t discuss machinery from the standpoint of the worker, the worker on the assembly line. In a recent issue, I discussed the drudgery of Apple’s assembly line, and the large number of Apple workers who commit suicide.
Nietzsche, who died in the same year that Saint-Exupery was born (1900), would have been a fan of his books. Nietzsche was an admirer of French culture, and praised modern French writers like Anatole France and Guy de Maupassant. What Nietzsche said of these writers is true of Saint-Exupery: they’re “charming company.”2
Surely one of the noteworthy chapters in the history of mankind is the invention of flight. For thousands of years, man had dreamed of flying, and had envied animals that could fly. Is it surprising that, when man began to fly, the public was fascinated by pilots like Saint-Exupery, and eagerly read their writings? Saint-Exupery is a poet of flight, and a historian of the early years of aviation.
I read a book called Basketball Junkie, by Chris Herren and Bill Reynolds. The first quarter of the book repeats stories that are told in their earlier book, Fall River Dreams. Then the book describes Herren’s experiences at Fresno State, in the NBA, and in foreign basketball leagues. I recommend Basketball Junkie to anyone with an interest in basketball, or anyone with an interest in addiction.
Herren describes the start of a Fresno State game:
|We would come out of the tunnel and run through two rows of fans, and it was sheer lunacy. It was like the energy picked you up and put you on the floor, and there were nights when I’d be in the zone.... When I was in that state it was like everything was magnified. I was so tuned in it was like looking at a TV screen in high definition before there was high definition. I knew where everyone was sitting. It was like I could hear their conversations, and I wanted to join in. It had happened to me several nights in high school; this feeling would just come over me out of nowhere, and I felt like I could do anything, like it was my ball and my game and the other players were just props.3|
In an earlier issue, I quoted Malcolm Gladwell’s description of a similar state of mind, a similar “zone”:
|In interviews with police officers who have been involved with shootings, these same details appear again and again: extreme visual clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound, and the sense that time is slowing down.... The basketball superstar Larry Bird used to say that at critical moments in the game, the court would go quiet and the players would seem to be moving in slow motion.|
Gladwell attributes this state of mind to arousal — an elevated heartbeat. Students of religion might be reminded of the enlightenment experience, the mystical experience, though the mystical experience isn’t the result of arousal. In the Zen tradition, the mystical experience is called satori. In an earlier issue, I wrote “Experiencing satori has been described as being in the everyday world, except two inches off the ground. ‘Being’s amazingness must be directly realized.’”
Herren describes driving across the country with his friend, visiting emergency rooms, complaining of pains. If they were persuasive, the doctor would give them prescription painkillers, which would make them high.
Some of Herren’s stories are interesting even though they don’t relate to basketball or addiction. For example, he says that when you’re a professional player in China, you never get your last paycheck; the team knows you’re leaving, they don’t need you because the season is over, so they don’t give you your last check. Herren played the same trick on his Nigerian drug dealer: he owed the dealer $6,000, told him he was leaving China in a week, then left the next day without paying the dealer.
Herren describes how brutal sports fans can be. In Turkey, fans heat coins, then throw the hot coins at the players. Herren’s teammate was struck in the forehead by a faucet thrown by a Turkish fan.
I found a passage in Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince that reminded me of Herren’s struggles with addiction. The little prince, who lived on a tiny asteroid, visits other asteroids, and meets adults who exemplify the follies of the adult world. One person he meets is a drunkard. The prince asks him, “Why are you drinking?” “To forget my shame.” “What are you ashamed of?” “Drinking.”
But perhaps this is an outsider’s view, perhaps the drunkard himself doesn’t see his situation this clearly, perhaps the drunkard deceives himself about his situation. Herren says that when he went to a rehab place in the Catskills, it
|taught me that you only start to get better when you’re finally willing to admit the truth, that you’re only as sick as your secrets. I was beginning to understand addiction, how much of it is the refusal to deal with what is really going on, the self-deception that becomes so much a part of it.4|
One way in which Herren deceived himself was by saying, “Everyone does it, everyone drinks and smokes some marijuana.” Another way was by saying, “I’m not as bad as some people. I shoot heroin, but there are a lot of people a lot worse than me.”
When Herren first arrived at the rehab facility in Rhinbeck, New York, they confronted him with the stark truth. He was called into a small office where five men peppered him with questions. “What are you, a loser?” “What makes you do the things you do?” “What the fuck is the matter with you?” Herren wilted under the pressure. “I had absolutely no sense of who I was anymore, absolutely no confidence.... Their barrage lasted a few minutes, and I cried the entire time. I was sweating and shaken. I was completely broken. ‘Welcome to Daytop,’ one of them finally said.”5
What scared Herren most was the suggestion that he should be separated from his children.
|“They’ll be better off with any stepdad they end up with rather than you.” I lay in bed that night in total agony.... They say you have to find your bottom.... The idea that I would never see my kids grow up, would never again be in their lives in a meaningful way. That was my bottom.... Somewhere in the middle of that dark night, I knew.... I wasn’t going to walk away from my kids. I was going to be their dad.6|
Herren was gregarious, cool, popular, fearless, a talented athlete, good-looking, etc. He was comfortable with people, and people liked him. He could deceive people about his addiction. But what if he had to confront himself? What if there was no one around to charm or deceive? The rehab facility put Herren by himself. But they didn’t put him alone in a room with nothing to do — that would make him crazy or angry or suicidal. They gave him a job, something to keep his body active; they made him wash dishes for hours and hours. “It’s just you. You’ve got to figure it out. No one else. And the only thing you can do is think.”7
One day, Herren saw a sign in the rehab facility: “If you were a child, would you look up to you?” “I went back to my room and cried like a baby after that. Look up to me? I’d be the last person I would look up to. But eventually that became my goal: to be the kind of person my children could look up to.”8
Herren’s recovery included three stages:
Herren is a firm believer in meetings, discussions.
|Meetings are so important. You have to hear people’s stories over and over, get a daily reminder of the battle you are facing. You have to be constantly reminded that you’re not alone, not the only one going through this. People have to believe that they can get out of their mess.... Let the past go, because to dwell on it only brings regret and guilt. Don’t think about the future, because that brings fear. I just stay where I’m supposed to be. I know that if I stay in the moment and take care of my business, I have a chance.12|
A. I watched an interview with Robert Caro, author of acclaimed biographies of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. Caro says that his books aren’t biographies in the usual sense, they’re studies of power in modern America. As a public speaker, Caro is neither witty nor eloquent, but he’s engrossed by his subject, and he has a dogged determination to discover the truth. He recently published the fourth volume of his Johnson biography, and there’s still another volume to come. His Moses biography (The Power Broker) is more than 1,300 pages long. Caro’s books have been praised for their craft as well as their content. David Halberstam called The Power Broker “the greatest book ever written about a city.” Caro was born in New York City to Jewish parents, graduated from Princeton in 1957, and worked for six years as a reporter for Newsday, a Long Island newspaper. While at Newsday, Caro realized how much power Moses had, and wondered what was the source of that power. Caro decided to write a book about Moses, and allotted nine months to the project. But it took him seven years, during which time he ran out of money, and had to sell his house.
B. Marx said, “Hitherto, philosophers have sought to understand the world; the point, however, is to change it.” But understanding and changing are intertwined. A new philosophy, a new understanding of the world, changes people’s goals and values, and thereby changes the world. Our goals and values reflect our view of the world.
C. Harvard’s motto is Veritas (Truth). If Harvard were choosing a motto today, would it choose Veritas? I doubt it. Colleges today don’t emphasize the pursuit of truth, the life of the mind. They concern themselves with social engineering (“diversity”), and they encourage students to concern themselves with service, philanthropy, involvement with society. Furthermore, modern intellectuals seem to have lost faith in truth, they seem to have decided that truth is subjective. I think the founders of Harvard chose their motto well — better than the current administration would.
D. Another retired football player has committed suicide: Junior Seau, who played linebacker for USC and the San Diego Chargers (among other teams). Seau shot himself. There has been much talk lately about the danger of concussions. According to the New York Times, Seau did not have a documented history of concussions. But when you play linebacker for as long as he did, you’re sure to have lots of head contact. In 2010, Seau was arrested after his girlfriend said he assaulted her, and right after the arrest, he drove his car off a cliff and survived. Though Seau said he had fallen asleep at the wheel, it seems highly likely that the car accident was a suicide attempt.
E. I saw a movie called Mahanagar (1963), by the acclaimed Indian director Satyajit Ray. It’s about a middle-class Indian family that’s struggling to make ends meet. The story is admirable in its simplicity and truth, but perhaps it’s a bit too simple. It’s an easy movie to respect — there are no cheap tricks — but it’s hard to recommend it enthusiastically, it isn’t very enjoyable to watch. Since it’s an old movie, the video and audio are somewhat rough, and the subtitles are difficult to read.
F. We can only win the War on Terror by persuasion, by winning hearts and minds. We can only win hearts and minds if we can offer the Muslim world an attractive philosophy, a philosophy that can draw them away from their current philosophy/religion/worldview, just as you can only draw a child away from junk food by offering him a tasty alternative. But the philosophy has to be true as well as attractive; if it doesn’t have truth on its side, it will eventually be exposed and rejected. If the philosophy can persuade one or two Muslim intellectuals, then it can have an impact on Muslim society as a whole (the philosophy of fanatical fundamentalism that inspires al-Qaeda emanated from one or two intellectuals).
A book called The Secret Life of Plants, published in 1973, explores the possibility of sentience and consciousness in plants. It was warmly received by New Age types, derided by rational-scientific types. It was written by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins. Bird also wrote The Divining Hand: The 500-Year-Old Mystery of Dowsing. Tompkins wrote several books, including Secrets of the Great Pyramid. I’ve argued that the whole universe — from subatomic particles to planets — has a kind of consciousness, so I’m receptive to the idea that plants have a kind of consciousness.
Peter Tompkins’ son, Ptolemy Tompkins, has also written about New Age themes. Ptolemy’s writings are said to have been influenced by Ken Wilber (a prominent writer on the mystical and paranormal) and Owen Barfield. Barfield was a friend of C. S. Lewis and a member of the Inklings literary coterie. Barfield admired Rudolf Steiner, and translated some of his books into English. According to Wikipedia,
|Barfield [was] an influence on T. S. Eliot who called Barfield’s book Worlds Apart “a journey into seas of thought very far from ordinary routes of intellectual shipping.” It is a fictional dialogue between a physicist, a biologist, a psychiatrist, a lawyer-philologist, a linguistic analyst, a theologian, a retired Waldorf School teacher, and a young man employed at a rocket research station. During a period of three days, the characters discuss first principles.... Saul Bellow, the Nobel-Prize winning novelist, wrote: “We are well supplied with interesting writers, but Owen Barfield is not content to be merely interesting. His ambition is to set us free. Free from what? From the prison we have made for ourselves by our ways of knowing, our limited and false habits of thought, our ‘common sense’.” James Hillman called Barfield “one of the most neglected important thinkers of the 20th Century.”13|
Among Barfield’s best-known books is Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry. Barfield died in 1997, at the age of 99.
What started me on this subject was a New York Times essay about peas. The essay said that researchers at an Israeli university found that a pea plant in drought conditions communicated with nearby plants about the situation.
|Through the roots, it relayed to its neighbors the biochemical message about the onset of drought, prompting them to react as though they, too, were in a similar predicament.... In 1973, the publication of The Secret Life of Plants... which portrayed vegetal life as exquisitely sensitive, responsive and in some respects comparable to human life, was generally regarded as pseudo-science.... But today, new, hard scientific data appears to be buttressing the book’s fundamental idea that plants are more complex organisms than previously thought.|
Today’s “pseudo-science” is tomorrow’s science.
|1.|| I tried to read this memoir, but didn’t get far. back|
|2.|| Ecce Homo, “Why I Am So Clever,” #3 back|
|3.|| Ch. 6, pp. 110, 111 back|
|4.|| Ch. 14, p. 242 back|
|5.|| Ch. 14, p. 234 back|
|6.|| Ch. 14, p. 238 back|
|7.|| Ch. 14, p. 239 back|
|8.|| Ch. 14, pp. 241, 242 back|
|9.|| Ch. 14, p. 241 back|
|10.|| Ch. 14, p. 241 back|
|11.|| Ch. 14, p. 241 back|
|12.|| Ch. 15, pp. 266, 267 back|
|13.||Elsewhere I discussed Saul Bellow’s interest in the occult. Hillman was influenced by Jung, so it’s not surprising that he’s receptive to the occult.
If you’re interested in The Secret Life of Plants, you might also be interested in The Hidden Life of Trees, by German forester Peter Wohlleben. back