Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Flight to Arras (1942)

A Systems Library, Vol. 11

Page spread from 1942 English edition; illustration by Bernard Lamotte

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:

Antoine de St-Exupéry in his cockpit (source image unknown)

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.

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.

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.

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Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?