Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras (1942)
A Systems Library, Vol. 11
Late in May 1940, Saint-Exupéry, then a 40-year old fighter pilot in the decimated French air force, flew a suicide mission in a reconnaissance plane. Against all the odds the crew returns in one piece. But in the crucible above the northern French city of Arras, something happens. Saint-Ex returns as a changed man. His despondency and scepticism about the war effort had been sublimated into a deep understanding of his position in this conflict. The final chapters of the book take the form of a manifesto in which the author clarifies this stance.
The pivotal gesture is Saint-Exupéry’s commitment to love. That commitment is understood as one’s investment into ‘a web of relationships that makes people grow’. (I am relying here on my own rendering of the author’s very straightforward “un réseau de liens qui fait devenir”, rather than Lewis Galantière’s more flowery but less precise “a web woven of strands in which we are fulfilled”. The 1986 English translation in the Harcourt edition is on the whole not recommended. The 2016 Dutch translation by Nele Ysebaert in the Van Oorschot edition is excellent). For me, this is a very rich and satisfying conception of love and one that is echoed by both ancient and contemporary traditions of wisdom.
This commitment to love is not the result of a rational decision but an existential(ist) leap. Saint-Ex rails against the excessive power of rationality (“l’intelligence”) in our culture. It atrophies our ‘substance’, our creative potential. Rational analysis is unable to bring a future into being:
“What should we do? Perhaps this. Or something else. The future cannot be determined. But what should one be? That is the essential question, as only the spirit can fertilise the rational. The spirit renders intelligence pregnant with emergence, and only then will intelligence bring the new into being. What does a man have to do to build the very first ship? It’s too hard to figure out in advance. The vessel may eventually emerge from thousands of contradictory trials. But what does that person have to be? Here I’m taking by the root the potential to bring to life something new. That person ought to be a soldier or a tradesman, whose longing for faraway lands will inspire the engineers and mobilise the workers to launch, one day, his ship.” (my own translation)
Saint-Exupéry elaborates a range of evocative metaphors to summon the power of man’s desire. From the cockpit of his reconnaissance plane, he witnesses how German armoured units percolate through French lines like water. They keep up the pressure against the wall of the adversary and progress only there where they meet no resistance. There are always gaps. The tanks always get through. A similar force imbues the seed of grain, or a tree. It will take time, but it always finds a way to blossom.
“Defeat … Victory … Words I do not know what to make of. One victory exalts, another corrupts. One defeat kills, another rouses. Life does not express itself in situations but in how you deal with them. The only victory I cannot doubt is the one that is lodged in the energy of the seed. Its victory is certain from the moment it is sowed into the black earth. But it takes time to witness the triumph of the power in the grain.” (Galantière translation, with modifications)
Our civilisation has abdicated its ability to build cathedrals. Instead, we are content just renting out chairs under its lofty vaults. Humanism has led us astray. It has tried to rationalise our shared project into a set of rules, a codified set of ethical principles. But that is no surrogate for the commitment to love, for the deed, indeed the sacrifice that nourishes it and brings it into being.
“We ceased to give. Obviously, if I insist upon giving only to myself, I shall receive nothing. I shall be building nothing of which I am to form part, and therefore I shall be nothing.” (Galantière translation)
There is no higher purpose in life than to contribute, in one’s own sphere of influence, to a space of collective learning, an environment where people, one’s brothers and sisters, may find their purpose and flourish.
Saint-Exupéry articulates here what systems thinker Donald Schon an ethic for existential knowing. “It is the function of such an ethic to reflect and to build the strength of the self in its confrontation with the uncertainties inherent in public learning.” Systems thinking is an invitation to systems being.
The other volumes in my expanding Systems Library
Vol. 10: Edgar Schein: Humble Inquiry (2013)