Friday, November 28, 2014

Zen and the art of flying: Planes and bikes in Saint-Exupéry and Pirsig

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's memoir Wind, Sand and Stars is his recollection of his adventures as a French pilot over the Sahara Desert in the 1920s and '30s. It shimmers with sensory immediacy and ebullience as time and again he lifts the plane and points it toward the stars glowing in the night. The memoir records his contemplation leading to small steps of transformation. It reveals how frequently he feels himself communing with the infinite, and overall it testifies to the importance of mortal human relationships. "It is man and not flying," he writes, "that concerns me most."

The technology

In his opinion,

"to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship's keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away ..."

Perhaps because this kind of beauty is best found in nature, where nothing has been added and everything is in its primal nakedness, he acknowledges later in the book that "a tree does possess a perfection that a locomotive cannot know."

The twenty-first century reader must make a leap of imagination to understand what it was like to be a pilot at this time. The locomotive had gone from being perceived as "an iron monster" to "a humble friend who calls every evening at six," but the airplane was still new; Saint-Exupéry, who lived 1900 to 1944, went to flight school only two decades after the Wright brothers pioneered the first reliable aircraft model. Yet he knew that, just as a boat "does not disturb our philosophers" but is simply a thing that sails on the ocean, the airplane will someday become to the cultural understanding simply a thing that sails through the sky. "Every machine will gradually take on this patina and lose its identity in its function," he added. So, although he found his job as a pilot immensely thrilling, he did not harbor any illusion that what he was doing was essentially different, on a historical scale, from sailing a boat.

Cecil Lewis wrote in his introduction to Saint-Exupéry's book:

"The Western Front on which I fought in 1916/17 bred the sort of warfare Antoine de Saint-Exupéry never knew. Although he was only two years my junior his flying life did not start till mine was almost over. But his first experiences must have been very similar - marvelous youthful days flavored with dope and varnish and castor oil, when flying was sport and skill more than danger and duty."

What Saint-Exupéry describes is a mix of all these things: sport, skill, danger and duty. Flying over barren and potentially hostile territory, he had to worry about losing fuel, getting swept up in a storm, or running out of drinking water while crossing the desert on foot. The French pilots' temporary living conditions in foreign lands were Spartan to say the least. Their reliance on each other for survival built an intense camaraderie.

While he appreciated airplanes, he reserved his greatest sentiment for people. He felt keenly the death of any person, whether he knew that individual or only heard of him or her in a story. Each death is a loss, "for man's greatness does not reside merely in the destiny of the species: each individual is an empire." Saint-Exupéry himself met with his "final smash-up" five years after the publication of his memoir; his plane disappeared over the Mediterranean, its pieces to resurface three years later, and it is believed that he was shot down by German forces.

Zen and the art of flying

Some 35 years after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's publication of Wind, Sand and Stars, Robert Pirsig published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book remains immensely popular today, and its theme bears a strong similarity to Wind, Sand and Stars.

Pirsig's book reveals a perspective on technology that seems unusual to many Americans, then and today. He explains how technology can be valuable and meaningful, not primarily as devices per se, but for the experience of a human being who operates a device and understands its physical workings. If one understands a motorcycle well enough, one can fashion one's own small working parts for it that work just as well as expensive parts from a manufacturer. He engages at length in an abstract philosophical discussion that tries to pin down the definition of beauty and value, which he calls "quality." "Quality, or its absence, doesn't reside in either the subject or the object," he concludes. Rather, it's in "the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use."

Likewise, Saint-Exupéry writes that

"the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them...The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the common weal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space."

Both writers argue that value is relative to the individual. Saint-Exupéry says: "If orange-trees are hardy and rich in fruit in this bit of soil and not that, then this bit of soil is what is truth for orange-trees." Similarly, Pirsig says: "One geometry [such as Euclidian or Riemann] can not be more true than another; it can only be more convenient. Geometry is not true, it is advantageous." Therefore, for Pirsig, "quality" may be "just what you like," assuming that a person is at least as intelligent as an orange-tree and prefers nourishing rather than toxic soil. People may argue that you oughtn't do "just what you like" because you oughtn't commit crimes, but in making this argument, Pirsig objects, they are "making some remarkable presumptions as to what is likable."

Saint-Exupéry complains about the overuse of logic to prove points. Any ideology can be logically defended, and yet ideologies nevertheless contradict each other, and men kill each other over these ideologies. "Truth," by contrast, "is the language that expresses universality...Truth is not that which is demonstrable but that which is ineluctable," he writes. He claims that "men manifest identical yearnings" and therefore "we must never set one man's truth against another's. All beliefs are demonstrably true. All men are demonstrably in the right. Anything can be demonstrated by logic." The important mission seems to be not proving the validity of a person's existential values, but respecting those values. Because of this, a man ought to "share with other men a common and disinterested ideal" and men must be "looking outward together in the same direction." It is only "methods" and "reasoning" that drive people apart, not their ultimate and deepest goals.

Similarly, Pirsig identified one of his central questions as whether a man "accepts or rejects the mythos in which he lives. And the definition of that person, when he has rejected the mythos...is 'insane.' To go outside the mythos is to become insane..." Mythos, here, refers to a cultural narrative architecture that defines one's place in the world. For an individual to declare that he sees the world differently than he has been taught to see it is always, by definition, to go against the current. He will have to use different stories, methods and reasoning to arrive at the same shared, universal human goals and values.

Flying into a cyclone, Saint-Exupéry experiences terror such that he cannot command his hands on the wheel of the plane. "My hands were not my own," he writes. Of this neurological disassociation, he reflects:

"How can a man tell the difference between the sight of a hand opening and the decision to open that hand, when there is no longer an exchange of sensations between the hand and the brain? How can one tell the difference between an image and an act of the will?"

For rather different reasons, Pirsig's character, too, reflects on his hands on the steering wheel of the motorcycle, which he understands as having once belonged to a different personality:

"That is the terror of it. These gloved hands I now look at, steering the motorcycle down the road, were once his! And if you can understand the feeling that comes from that, then you can understand real fear - the fear that comes from knowing there is nowhere you can possibly run."

These passages are significant because, for both men, the significance of the technology lies in the relationship of the vehicle and the person who operates it. Any loss of control of or identification with one's hands will inevitably affect that relationship.

The elements

Could Saint-Exupéry have imagined airplanes that fly with no one in the cockpit to experience the stars at night or the empty desert or the frozen mountain passes below? Could he have endorsed the craft of flying with no one to learn it? Could he have explained what travel means when there is no way for a conscious being to become intimately united with its vehicle?

The twenty-first century is witnessing the rise of unmanned drones: airplanes with no pilots inside. They may be self-controlled by computers or remotely controlled by a human operator on the ground. On a purely technological level, there is much to say about how these drones differ from the first airplanes that were created a hundred years ago, but surely Saint-Exupéry would want no part of an airplane with no conscious mind to experience the flying, and no part of an adventure without the beauty and terror of wind, sand and stars.

Originally posted to Helium Network on Dec. 25, 2013.

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