Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Poet of the Skies

The Poet of the Skies

Sixty years ago, the French author and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery flew out in good weather on a reconnaissance mission south of France and never came back. He was believed to have crashed but no trace of his plane was found. He was 44 when he disappeared.

Today, a French underwater salvage team finally found the wreakage of his plane in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Marseille. However the reason as to why he crashed would still remain a mystery as the weather was perfect on the day he set out and there is no evidence indicating that his plane was shot.

I read some of Saint-Exupery's books a few years back while I was in Singapore and admired them very much. Two of his works, Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras rank among my all-time favourites. He is however famous throughout the world for his touching children novella called The Little Prince. First published in the 1940s, The Little Prince is among the most widely translated book in the world, and is said to be the third most read book after the Bible and the Quran.

St. Exupery flew many dangerous missions over Europe during the WWII and survived many crashes. He also flew the pioneering mail routes across the Sahara desert in Africa and the Andes in South America. His writings are mostly autobiographical recollections of his adventures and they offer us an intimate glimpse of his meditations during those long lonely hours in the air.

Reading his books, one shares and feels his deep passion for flying and gains an admiration for the courage of flying men during those early days of aviation. Saint-Exupery could evoke the romance of aviation with sensitivity and insight, with prose that soars to the level of poetry and often tinged with a deep sense of nostalgia.

Reading the news about St. Exupery makes me feel compelled to dig up copies of his books from the storage boxes (untouched, since I shifted my stuff back from Singapore 2 years ago) under my bed and reread some of his words. In Wind, Sand and Stars, he writes about the experience of taking off from water:
"As he takes off, the seaplane pilot enters a relationship with water and air. ... Moment by moment, as it gathers speed, he feels the seaplane charging itself with power. In those fifteen tons of matter he feels the coming of that maturity which makes flight possible. The pilot tightens his grip on the controls, and gradually, into his empty palms, he receives that power as a gift. Those metal organs of command become the messengers of his strength. When that maturity is reached, and with a movement more supple than the picking of a flower, the pilot separates the plane from the waters and sets it within the air."
And on the experience of flight, he observes:
"A plane may be just a machine, but what an analytical instrument it is! It has revealed to us the true face of the earth. Through all the centuries, in truth, the roads have deceived us...Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line. The moment we are airborne we leave behind those roads that slope gently down to water-troughs and cowsheds, or meander from town to town. Set free now from beloved servitudes, released from our dependence on natural springs, we head for our distant goals. It is only then, from high on our rectilinear course, that we discover the essential bedrock, the stratum of stone and sand and salt where life, like a patch of moss deep in hollow ruins, flowers here and there where it dares.

Thus are we changed into physicists and biologists, scrutinizing civilizations that adorn valley floors and sometimes open out miraculously like great gardens where the climate is favourable. Thus do we now assess man on a cosmic scale, observing him through our cabin windows as if through scientific instruments. Thus are we reading our history anew."
And today we found out where and how his flight finally ended. May his immortal words continue to soar in our hearts and minds.

No comments: