We took our inspiration for the ACCIDENT salon from the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1935 airplane crash into the Sahara Desert, and his reflections on his unlikely rescue.
In December, 1935, a French airmail pilot by the name of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and mechanic-navigator André Prévot set out on a mission to break the air speed record from from Paris to Saigon. After nearly 20 hours in the air, in the middle of the night, something went horribly wrong. Almost without warning, the small plane descended and crashed into he vast featureless expanse of the Sahara Desert. Both were almost miraculously unhurt, but alone, out of communication, and in possession of rations that roughly equated road snacks.
Next to their downed plane, out of contact and with no hope of being found in the vastness of the desert, and armed only with road snacks and their wits, they grimly faced their uncertain but almost certainly truncated options. They exhausted the rations. They began to hallucinate. They wandered into the desert.
It therefore came as a sort of vision, when after three days and nights a Bedouin with a camel suddenly came into view, and shepherded the desperate men to safety.
Understandably, they were never the same again.
Afterwards, Saint-Exupéry reflected on the joy of survival and the strength he was able to draw from his deliverance:
“I had thought myself lost, had touched the very bottom of despair; and then, when the spirit of renunciation had filled me, I had known peace. I know now what I was not conscious of at the time—that in such an hour a man feels that he has finally found himself and has become his own friend. An essential inner need has been satisfied, and against that satisfaction, that self-fulfilment, no external power can prevail… Never shall I forget that, lying buried to the chin in sand, strangled slowly to death by thirst, my heart was infinitely warm beneath the desert stars. What can men do to make known to themselves this sense of deliverance? Everything about mankind is paradox. He who strives and conquers grows soft. The magnanimous man grown rich becomes mean. The creative artist for whom everything is made easy nods. Every doctrine swears that it can breed men, but none can tell us in advance what sort of men it will breed. Men are not cattle to be fattened for market. In the scales of life an indigent Newton weighs more than a parcel of prosperous nonentities. All of us have had the experience of a sudden joy that came when nothing in the world had forewarned us of its coming—a joy so thrilling that if it was born of misery we remembered even the misery with tenderness.”
Although he continued to fly, Saint-Exupéry went on to become a well regarded journalist and author, best known to most of us as the author of The Little Prince, which begins with the crash of an airplane, situation dire, in a vast and featureless desert. The rest of the story, perhaps unsurprisingly, reads like an extended hallucination.
After his piloting days with Aéropostale, despite being well past the standard age for a WWII pilot, Saint-Exupéry joined first the French Army, then the French Free Army in North Africa to fight the Axis powers.
He was last seen on July 31, 1944, flying a mission over the Mediterranean. For over half a century, his fate was a mystery even as his fame grew. Then in 1998, a diver found wreckage and this silver identity bracelet bearing Saint-Exupéry’s name, his wife’s name, and, interestingly, the name of his publisher. In 2003 the were able to confirm that the wreckage was indeed his plane, although the cause of the crash remains unknown.
His memoir, titled Wind, Sand and Stars in English (Terre des Hommes in the original French) was our selected speaker’s book and the source of the above invocation for ACCIDENT.