Flight to Arras, Page 5Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The fighters are guided towards us by their radio, by the bursts on the ground, and by the ostentatious luxury of our white scarf. Nevertheless we swim in an emptiness almost interplanetary. Everything round us and within us is total immobility.
We are now flying at three hundred and twenty-five miles an hour, you on the ground would say. But that is a race-course point of view. Here time is not, but only space. The earth itself, despite its twenty-five miles a second, moves but slowly round the sun. A whole year goes to the task. Perhaps we too are slowly approached in this exercise in gravitation. The density of aerial warfare? Grains of dust in a cathedral. We, grains of dust, are perhaps attracting to ourselves some dozens, it may be hundreds, of enemy grains of dust. And all those cinders rise as from a shaken rug slowly into the sky.
Take what easy, Major Alias? Looking straight down, all that I see is the bric-a-brac of another age exhibited under a pure crystal without tremor. I am leaning over the glass cases of a museum. But already the exhibit stands outlined against the light. Very far ahead lie Dunkerque and the sea. To left and right I see nothing. The sun has dropped too low, now, and I command the view of a vast glittering sheet.
"Dutertre! Can you see anything at all in this mess?"
"Straight down, yes."
"Gunner! Any sign of the fighters?"
"No sign, sir."
The fact is, I have absolutely no idea whether or not we are being pursued, and whether from the ground they can or cannot see us trailed by the collection of gossamer threads we sport.
Gossamer threads set me daydreaming again. An image comes into my mind which for the moment seems to me enchanting.
"... As inaccessible as a woman of exceeding beauty, we follow our destiny, drawing slowly behind us our train of frozen stars."
"A little kick to port, Captain."
There you have reality. But I go back to my shoddy poetry: "We bank, and a whole sky of suitors banks in our wake."
Kick to port, indeed! Try it.
The woman of exceeding beauty has fumbled her bank.
Is it true that I was humming?
For Dutertre has spoken again. "Hum like that, Captain, and you'll pass out."
He has certainly killed my taste for humming.
"I've just about got all the photos I want, Captain. Another few minutes and we can make for Arras."
We can make for Arras. Why, of course. Since we're half way there, we might as well.
Phew! My throttles are frozen!
And I say to myself:
"This week, one crew out of three has got back. Therefore, there is great danger in this war. But if we are among those that get back, we shall have nothing to tell. I have had adventures--pioneering mail lines; being forced down among rebellious Arabs in the Sahara; flying the Andes. But war is not a true adventure. It is a mere ersatz. Where ties are established, where problems are set, where creation is stimulated--there you have adventure. But there is no adventure in heads-or-tails, in betting that the toss will come out life or death. War is not an adventure. It is a disease. It is like typhus."
Perhaps I shall feel later that my sole veritable adventure in this war was that of my room in Orconte.
Orconte is a village on the outskirts of Saint-Dizier where my Group was stationed during the bitterly cold winter of '39. I was billeted in a clay-walled peasant house. The temperature would drop during the night low enough to freeze the water in my rustic crock, and the first thing I did in the morning was of course to light a fire. But to do that I had to get out of a bed in which I lay snug and warm and happy.
Nothing seemed to me more miraculous than that simple bed in that bare and freezing chamber. It was there that I revelled in the bliss of relaxation after the exhaustion of the day's work. I felt safe in that bed. No danger could reach me there. During the day I was exposed to the rigor of the upper altitudes and the risk of the peremptory machine guns. During the day my body was available for transformation into a lair of agony and undeserved laceration. During the day my body was not mine. Was no longer mine. Any of its members might at any moment be commandeered; its blood might at any moment be drawn off without my acquiescence. For it is another consequence of war that the soldier's body becomes a stock of accessories that are no longer his property. The bailiff arrives and demands a pair of eyes--you yield up the gift of sight. The bailiff arrives and demands a pair of legs--you yield up the gift of movement. The bailiff arrives torch in hand and demands the flesh off your face--and you, having yielded up the gift of smiling and manifesting your friendship for your kind, become a monster, Thus this body, which during any daylight hour might reveal itself my enemy and do me ill, might transform itself into a generator of whimperings, was still my obedient and comradely friend as it snuggled under the eiderdown in its demislumber, murmuring to my consciousness no more than its gratification and its purring bliss. Yet this body had to be withdrawn from beneath that eiderdown; it had to be washed in freezing water, shaved, dressed, made respectable before presenting itself to the bursts of steel. And getting out of bed was like a return to infancy, like being torn away from the maternal arms, the maternal breast, from everything that cherishes, caresses, shelters the existence of the infant.
So, having pondered and meditated and put off my decision as long as I could, I would grit my teeth and spring in a single leap to the fireplace, drench the logs with kerosene, and touch a match to them. Then, when the oil had flared up, and I had succeeded in crossing back to my bed, I would snuggle down again in its grateful warmth. With blankets and eiderdown drawn up to my left eye, I would watch the fireplace. At first the logs would seem not to catch, and only occasional flashes would flicker on the ceiling. But soon the fire would settle down in the hearth as if to organize a celebration. There would come a crackling, a roaring, a singing, and the fire would be as merry as a village wedding feast when the guests have begun to drink, to warm up, to nudge one another in the ribs.
Now and then it would seem to me that my good-tempered fire was standing guard over me like a particularly brisk and faithful shepherd dog going diligently about his work. A feeling of quiet jubilation would go through me as I watched it. And when the merry-making was at its height, when the shadows were dancing on the ceiling, when the warm golden music filled the air and the glowing logs had become a rosy architecture; when my room was quite redolent of the magic odor of smoke and resin, I would leap again from one friend to the other, from my bed to my fire; and standing there beside the more generous friend, I could never say whether I was in truth toasting my belly or warming my heart at that fireplace. Faced by two temptations, I like a coward had given way to the stronger, the ruddier, the one which, with its fanfare and flutter, had advertised its wares more cleverly.
Thus three times--first to light my fire, then to get back into bed, then again to harvest my crop of flames--three times with chattering teeth I had crossed the bare and frozen tundra of my chamber and known what it was to explore the polar regions. I had made my way on foot across a desert to arrive at a blessed haven, and my effort had been rewarded by that fire which in my presence, for my sake, had danced its jubilant air.
Very likely my story seems to you pointless, and yet this was a great adventure. My chamber had shown me as in a glass something I should never have discovered had I happened in by chance on this peasant house. What, as tourist, I should have seen would have been a bare and commonplace room, a vague bed, a water pitcher, an ugly chimney-piece. I should have yawned and turned away. Of its three provinces, its three civilizations--the one of sleep, the other of fire, the third of desert--I should have known nothing, nor been able to distinguish between them. How should I possibly have guessed the adventure of the body--first as infant clinging to the tenderness and the shelter of the maternal breast, then as soldier made for suffering, and finally as man enriched by the delight of the civilization of fire--fire, the magnetic pole of the tribe, that honors me and will do honor to my comrades w
ho, when they come to see me if I get back, will take part in this festivity, will draw up their chairs round mine, and while we talk of our problems, our worries, our drudgery, will nevertheless say as they rub their hands and stuff their pipes, "There's no getting round it, a fire does make you feel fine."
But here in this plane there is no fire to persuade me to believe in friendship. There is no freezing chamber here to persuade me of the existence of adventure. I waken out of my reverie. There is nothing here but a void. Nothing but extreme old age. Nothing but a voice--Dutertre's, stubborn in its chimerical longing--saying to me:
"Give her a little kick to starboard, Captain."
I am doing my job like a conscientious workman. Which does not alter the fact that I feel myself to be a pilot of defeat. I feel drenched in defeat. Defeat oozes out of every pore, and in my hands I hold a pledge of it.
For my throttle controls are frozen. The cold has turned them into two stumps of useless metal and has involved me in a serious predicament. For, whatever happens, I am forced to go on flying full throttle. Meanwhile, the pitch of my propellers, which serves in a sense as a brake on the revolution of my engines, is limited by an automatic check. If for any reason I am forced to dive, I shall be unable to reduce the speed of my engines, and unable also to increase my pitch. As I fall through space the torrential rush of air through my propellers will very likely increase the rotation of my engines to the point at which they blow up.
I could, if I had to, switch off my engines; but in that case I should never be able to start them again. I should then be stalled for good and all, which would mean the failure of the sortie and the crack-up of the machine. Not every terrain is favorable to the landing of a plane at one hundred and twenty mites an hour--and this, by manoeuvering and gliding, is about the minimum speed at which I could hope to set the machine down. Therefore I must succeed in unblocking my throttles.
I was able to unblock the throttle of the port engine: the starboard throttle would not budge.
Now if I were forced down, I could reduce the speed of the port engine. But if I cut down the port engine, over which I have regained control, I should need to be able to offset the lateral traction exercised by the starboard engine--for the accelerated rotation of the starboard engine would obviously tend to pivot the plane to port. There is a way of offsetting this tendency. I could do it by the play of my rudder. But the bar that governs my rudder has long been frozen stiff. Therefore I should be able to offset nothing at all. The moment I cut down my port engine I must go into a spin.
Here was another of the war's absurdities. Nothing worked properly. Our world was made up of gear-wheels that would not mesh. And where the gear-wheels will not mesh, there is obviously no watchmaker.
After nine months of war we had still not succeeded in persuading the industries concerned that aerial cannon and controls ought to be manufactured with regard to the climate of the upper altitudes in which they were employed. What we were up against was not the irresponsible attitude of the manufacturers. Men are for the most part decent and conscientious. I am sure that almost always their seeming lack of initiative is a result and not a cause of their ineffectualness.
Ineffectualness weighed us down, all of us in the uniform of France, like a sort of doom. It hung over the infantry that stood with fixed bayonets in the face of German tanks. It lay upon the air crews that fought one against ten. It infected those very men whose job it should have been to see that our guns and controls did not freeze and jam.
We were living in the blind belly of an administration. An administration is a machine. The more perfect the machine, the more human initiative is eliminated from it. If, into a perfect machine, you introduce steel at one end, automobiles will come out of the other end. There will be no room for technical flaws, errors of measurement, human carelessness. And in a perfect administration, where man plays the part of a cog, such things as laziness, dishonesty, or injustice, cannot prevail.
But a machine is not built for creation. It is built for administration. It administers the transformation of steel into motor cars. It goes unvaryingly through motions pre-ordained once and for always. And an administration, like a machine, does not create. It carries on. It applies a given penalty to a given breach of the rules, a given method to a given aim. An administration is not conceived for the purpose of solving fresh problems. If, into your automobile-manufacturing machine, you inserted wood at one end, furniture would not come out at the other end. For this to happen, a man would have to intervene with authority to rip the whole thing up. But an administration is conceived as a safeguard against disturbances resulting from human initiative. The gear-wheels of the watch stand guard against the intervention of man. The watchmaker has no place among them.
I was posted to Group 2-33 in November 1939. When I arrived, my fellow pilots gave me due warning.
"You'll be flying over Germany," they said, "without guns or controls."
And to console me, they added: "But don't take it too hard, for it really doesn't matter. The German fighters always down you before you know they are there."
Six months later, in May 1940, the guns and the controls were still freezing up.
In the spring of 1940, everybody was repeating an ancient French saw: "France is always saved at the eleventh hour by a miracle."
There was a reason for the miracle. It used to happen occasionally that the beautiful administrative machine would break down and everybody would agree that it could not be repaired. For want of better, men would be substituted for the machine. And men would save France.
If a bomb had reduced the Air Ministry to ashes, a corporal--any corporal at all--would have been summoned, and the government would have said to him:
"You are ordered to see that the controls are thawed out. You have full authority. It's up to you. But if they are still freezing up two weeks from now you go to prison."
The controls would perhaps have been thawed out.
I could cite a hundred examples of this flaw. The Requisitions Committee for the Department of the North, for example, used to requisition heifers quick with young, and the slaughter-houses of France were transformed into graveyards of foetuses. The requisitioning administration was a perfect machine. And because it was, not a single cog in the machine, not a single colonel on the board, had the slightest authority to act otherwise than as a cog. Each cog, as if the machine were a watch, was obedient to another cog. Revolt against the whole was useless. And this is why, once the machine began to go out of order, the cogs light-heartedly took to slaughtering freshened heifers. It may have been the lesser evil. Had the machine broken down altogether, the cogs might have begun to slaughter colonels.
I sat at my wheel discouraged to the marrow of my bones by this universal dilapidation. But as it seemed to me useless to blow up one of my engines, I fought again with the starboard throttle. In my disgust I forgot myself, wrestled with it too strenuously, and had to give it up. The effort had cost me another twinge at the heart. It was obvious that man was not made to do physical culture exercises at thirty-three thousand feet in the air. That twinge of pain was a warning, a sort of localized consciousness queerly come to life in the night of my organs.
"Let the engines blow up if they want to," I said to myself, "I don't care a hang." I was trying to catch my breath. It seemed to me that if I took my mind off my breath I should never be able to catch it again. The image of a pair of old-fashioned bellows came into my mind. I am stirring up my fire, I thought. And I prayed that it would make up its mind to catch.
Was there something I had wrenched beyond repair? At thirty-three thousand feet a slightly strenuous physical effort can strain the heart muscles. A heart is a frail thing. It has to go on working a long time. It is silly to endanger it for such coarse work. As if one burnt up diamonds in order to bake a potato.
As if one burnt up all the villages of France without by their destruction halting the German advance fo
r a single day. And yet this stock of villages, this heritage, these ancient churches, these old houses with all the cargo of memories they carry, with their shining floors of polished walnut, the white linen in their cupboards, the laces at their windows that have served unfrayed so many generations--here they are burning from Alsace to the sea.
Burning is a great word when you look down from thirty-three thousand feet; for over the villages and the forests there is nothing to be seen but a pall of motionless smoke, a sort of ghastly whitish jelly. Below it the fires are at work like a secret digestion. At thirty-three thousand feet time slows down, for there is no movement here. There are no crackling flames, no crashing beams, no spirals of black smoke. There is only that grayish milk curdled in the amber air. Will that forest recover? Will that village recover? Seen from this height, France is being undermined by the secret gnawing of bacteria.
About this, too, there is much to be said. "We shall not hesitate to sacrifice our villages." I have heard these words spoken. And it was necessary to speak them. When a war is on, a village ceases to be a cluster of traditions. The enemy who hold it have turned it into a nest of rats. Things no longer mean the same. Here are trees three hundred years old that shade the home of your family. But they obstruct the field of fire of a twenty-two-year-old lieutenant. Wherefore he sends up a squad of fifteen men to annihilate the work of time. In ten minutes he destroys three hundred years of patience and sunlight, three hundred years of the religion of the home and of betrothals in the shadows round the grounds. You say to him, "My trees!" but he does not hear you. He is right. He is fighting a war.
But how many villages have we seen burnt down only that war may be made to look like war? Burnt down exactly as trees are cut down, crews flung into the holocaust, infantry sent against tanks, merely to make war look like war. Small wonder that an unutterable disquiet hangs over the land. For nothing does any good.