Flight to Arras




BY ANTOINE DE SAINT-EXUPÉRY (Translated by Lewis Galantière)

SURELY I must be dreaming. It is as if I were fifteen again. I am back at school. My mind is on my geometry problem. Leaning over the worn black desk, I work away dutifully with compass and ruler and protractor. I am quiet and industrious.

Near by sit some of my schoolmates, talking in murmurs. One of them stands at a blackboard chalking up figures. Others less studious are playing bridge. Out of doors I see the branch of a tree swaying in the breeze. I drop my work and stare at it. From an industrious pupil I have become an idle one. The shining sun fills me with peace. I inhale with delight the childhood odor of the wooden desk, the chalk, the blackboard in this schoolhouse in which we are quartered. I revel in the sense of security born of this daydream of a sheltered childhood.

What course life takes we all know. We are children, we are sent to school, we make friends, we go to college — and we are graduated. Some sort of diploma is handed to us, and our hearts pound as we are ushered across a certain threshold, marched through a certain porch, the other side of which we are of a sudden grown men. Now our footfalls strike the ground with a new assurance. We have begun to make our way in life, to take the first few steps of our way in life. We are about to measure our strength against real adversaries. The ruler, the T square, the compass, have become weapons with which we shall build a world, triumph over an enemy. Playtime is over.

All this I see as I stare at the swaying branch. And I see too that schoolboys have no fear of facing life. They champ at the bit. The jealousies, the trials, the sorrows of the life of man do not intimidate the schoolboy.

But what a strange schoolboy I am! I sit in this schoolroom, a schoolboy conscious of my good fortune and in no hurry to face life — a schoolboy aware of its cares. . . .

Dutertre comes by, and I stop him.

‘Sit down. I’ll do some card tricks for you.’

Dutertre sits facing me on a desk as worn as mine, I can see his booted legs as he shuffles the cards. How pleased with myself I am when I pick out the card he has in mind! He laughs. Modestly, I smile. Panicot comes up and puts his arm across my shoulder.

Copyright 1941, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

‘What do you say, old boy?’

How tenderly peaceful all this is!

A school usher — is it an usher? — opens the door and summons two among us. They drop their ruler, drop their compass, get up and go out. We follow them with our eyes. Their schooldays are over. They have been released for the business of life. What they have learned they are now to make use of. Like grown men, they are about to try out against other men the formulæ they have worked out.

Strange school, this, where each goes forth alone in turn — and without a word of farewell. Those two who have just gone through the door did not so much as glance at us who remain behind. And yet the hazard of life, it may be, will transport them farther away than China. So much farther! When school days are past, and life has scattered you, who can swear that you will meet again?

The rest of us, those still nestling in the cosy warmth of our incubator, go back to our murmured talk.

‘Look here, Dutertre. Tonight—’

But once again the same door has opened. And like a court sentence the words ring out in the quiet schoolroom: —

‘Captain de Saint-Exupéry and Lieutenant Dutertre report to the major!’

‘Did you know it was our turn?’

‘Hochedé flew this morning.’

‘Oh, yes.’

The fact that we had been sent for meant that we were to be ordered out on a sortie. We had reached the last days of May 1940, a time of full retreat, of full disaster. Crew after crew was being offered up as a sacrifice. It was as if you dashed glassfuls of water into a forest fire in the hope of putting it out. The last thing that could occur to anyone in this world that was tumbling round our ears was the notion of risk or danger. Fifty reconnaissance crews were all we had for the whole French army. Fifty crews of three men each — pilot, observer, and gunner. Out of the fifty, twenty-three made up our unit — Group 2-33. In three weeks, seventeen of the twenty-three had vanished. Our Group had melted like a lump of wax. Yesterday, speaking to Lieutenant Gavoille, I had let drop the words, ‘Oh, we’ll see about that when the war is over.’ And Gavoille had answered, ‘I hope you don’t mean, Captain, that you expect to come out of the war alive?’

Gavoille was not joking. He was sincerely shocked. We knew perfectly well that there was nothing for us but to go on flinging ourselves into the forest fire — even though it serve no purpose. Fifty crews for the whole of France. The whole strategy of the French army rested upon our shoulders. An immense forest fire raging, and a hope that it might be put out by the sacrifice of a few glassfuls of water. They would be sacrificed.

And this was as it should be. Who ever thought of complaining? When did anyone ever hear, among us, anything else than ‘Very good, sir. Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Quite right, sir.’ Throughout the closing days of the French campaign one impression dominated all others — an impression of absurdity. Everything was cracking up all round us. Everything was caving in. The collapse was so entire that death itself seemed to us absurd. Death, in such a tumult, had ceased to count. But we ourselves did not count.

Dutertre and I went into the major’s office. The major’s name was Alias. As I write, he is still in command of Group 2-33, at Tunis.

‘Afternoon, Saint-Ex. Hello, Dutertre. Sit down.’

We sat down. The major spread out a map on the table and turned to his clerk. ‘Fetch me the weather reports.’

He sat tapping on the table with his pencil. I stared at him. His face was drawn. He had had no sleep. Back and forth in a motorcar he had driven all night in search of a phantom General Staff. He had been summoned to division headquarters — to brigade headquarters. He had argued and wrangled with supply depots that never delivered the spare parts they promised. His car had been bottled up in the crazy traffic. He had supervised our last moving out and our most recent moving in — for we were driven by the enemy from one field to another like poor devils scrambling in the van of a relentless bailiff. Alias had succeeded in saving our planes, saving our lorries, saving the files of the Group. He looked as if he had reached the end of his strength, of his nerves.

‘Well,’ he said, and he went on tapping with his pencil. He was still not looking at us.

A moment passed before he spoke again. ‘It’s damned awkward,’ he said finally; and he shrugged his shoulders. ‘A damned awkward sortie. But the Staff people want it done. They very much want it done. I argued with them; but they want it done. . . . And that’s that.’

Dutertre and I sat looking out of the window. Here too a branch was swaying in the breeze. I could hear the cackle of the hens. Our Intelligence Room had been set up in a schoolhouse; the major’s office was in a farmhouse.

It would be easy to write a couple of fraudulent pages out of the contrast between this shining spring day, the ripening fruit, the plump chicks in the barnyard, the rising wheat — and death at our elbow. I shall not write that couple of pages because I see no reason why the peace of a spring day should constitute a contradiction of the idea of death. Why should the sweetness of life be a matter for irony?

But a vague notion did go through my mind as I stared out of Alias’s window. ‘The spring has broken down,’ I said to myself; ‘the season is out of order.’ I had flown over abandoned threshing machines, abandoned binders. I had seen motorcars deserted in roadside ditches. I had come upon a village square standing under water while the village faucet — ‘the fountain,’ as our people call it — stood open and the stream flowed on.

And suddenly a completely ridiculous image came into my mind. I thought of clocks out of order. All the clocks of France — out of order. Clocks in their church steeples. Clocks on railway stations. Chimney clocks in empty houses. A charnel house of clocks. The war, I said to myself, is that thing in which clocks are no longer wound up — in which beets are no longer gathered in — in which farm carts are no longer greased. And that water, collected and piped to quench men’s thirst and to whiten the Sunday laces of the village women —that water stands now in a pool flooding the square before the village church.

As for Alias, he was talking like a bedside physician. ‘Hm,’ says the doctor with a shake of the head, ‘rather awkward, this’; and you know that he is hinting that you ought to be making your will, thinking of those you are about to leave behind. There was no question in Dutertre’s mind or mine but that Alias was talking about sacrificing another crew.

‘And,’ Alias went on, ‘things being as they are, it’s no good worrying about the chances you run.’

Quite so. No good at all. And it’s no one’s fault. It’s not our fault that we feel none too cheerful. Not the major’s fault that he is ill at ease with us. Not the Staff’s fault that it gives orders. The major is out of sorts because the orders are absurd. We know that they are absurd; but the Staff knows that as well as we do. It gives orders because orders have to be given. Giving orders is its trade, in time of war. And everyone knows what war looks like. Handsome horsemen transmit the orders — or rather, to be modern about it, motorcyclists. The orders ordain events, change the face of the world. The handsome horsemen are like the stars — they bring tidings of the future. In the midst of turmoil and despair, orders arrive, flung to the troops from the backs of steaming horses. And then all is well — at least, so says the blueprint of war. So says the pretty picture-book of war. Everybody struggles as hard as he can to make war look like war — piously respects the rules of the game, so that war may perhaps be good enough to agree to look like war.

Orders are given for the sacrifice of the air arm because war must be made to look like war. And nobody admits meanwhile that this war looks like nothing at all; that no part of it makes sense; that not a single blueprint fits the circumstances; that the puppets have been cut free of the strings that continue to be pulled.

In all seriousness the Staffs ask us for intelligence impossible to provide. But the air arm cannot undertake to explain war to the Staffs. The air arm might be able to test or verify the Staffs’ hypotheses. But there are no longer any hypotheses. Fifty reconnaissance crews are asked to sketch the face of a war that has no face. The Staffs appeal to us as if we were a tribe of fortunetellers.

While Alias was speaking I threw a glance at Dutertre, my observer. This was what he said afterwards.

‘What do they take us for, sending us off on low-altitude sorties? Only yesterday I had to tick off a colonel from division headquarters who was talking the same rot. “Will you tell me,” I said to him, “will you tell me how I am going to report the enemy’s position to you from an altitude of fifty feet when I’m doing three hundred miles an hour?” He looked at me as if I were the one who was mad. “Why,” he said, “that’s easy. You can tell according to whether they shoot or not. If they shoot at you, the positions are German.” Imagine! The bloody fool!’

What Dutertre knew, and the colonel seemed not to know, was that the French army never saw French aeroplanes. We had roughly one thousand planes scattered between Dunkerque and Alsace. Diluted in infinity, so far as the men on the ground were concerned. The result was that when a plane roared across our lines it was virtually certain to be a German. You let fly with all the anti-aircraft stuff you had even before you saw him, the instant you heard him; for otherwise he had dropped his bombs and was off before you could say ‘wink!’

‘A precious lot of intelligence we’ll bring home working this way!’ Dutertre said.

Of course they take our intelligence into account, since the blueprint of war requires that intelligence officers make use of intelligence. But even their warby-the-blueprint had broken down. We knew perfectly well that they would never be able to make use of our intelligence — luckily. It might be brought back by us; but it would never be transmitted to the Staff. The roads would be jammed. The telephone lines would be cut. The Staff would have moved in a hurry. The really important intelligence — the enemy’s position — would have been furnished by the enemy himself.

For example: A few days earlier we of Group 2-33, having been pushed back in successive stages to the vicinity of Laon, were wondering how near the front might now be — how soon we should be forced to move again. Lieutenant Marois was sent off as liaison officer between the Group and the general in command, who wars seven miles away. Halfway between the airfield and the general’s headquarters Marois’s motorcar had run up against a steam roller behind which two armored cars were hidden. Marois made a U-turn and started away, but a blast of machinegun fire killed him instantly and wounded his chauffeur. The armored cars were German.

We telephoned to the general that the Germans held the road at a point halfway between him and us and begged permission to move. And by a strenuous effort we were able in two hours to evacuate our planes, lorries, motorcars, files, spare parts, and personnel.

The General Staff was like a first-rate bridge player who is asked by someone sitting in a game in the next room, ‘What do you think I ought to do with the queen of spades?’ How can the expert, knowing nothing of that particular game, have an opinion about that queen of spades?

Actually, a General Staff has no right to be without an opinion. Besides, so long as certain elements are still in its hands, it is bound to make use of them — since otherwise it will lose its control over them. The opponent will work a squeeze play. Thus, the General Staff must take risks. So long as there is a war on, it must act, even though it act blindly.

But it is, nevertheless, very hard to say what shall be done with the queen of spades when you haven’t a hand in the game. What we had learned, meanwhile, — at first with surprise, and then with the feeling that we ought to have seen it coming, — was that once the cracking up begins, the machine stops running. There is no soldiering for the soldier to do.

You might think that in retreat and disaster there ought to be such a flood of pressing problems that one could hardly decide which to tackle first. You might think that we of the French army merely lacked the artillery, the tanks, the aeroplanes necessary for the solution of our problems. But what you do not know, or what everyone forgets, is that our greatest lack was the problems themselves. I mean by this that the problems were not known. What is one to do with a queen of spades that is not part of any known game?

Of course when your country is fast collapsing, and you still hold the queen of spades, it is morally impossible not to play the card. You hold it back; you hesitate; you rack your brains to find use for it — and then you fling it desperately down on the chance that it may take a trick.

Commonly, people believe that defeat is characterized by a general bustle and a feverish rush. Bustle and rush are the signs of victory, not of defeat. Victory is a thing of action. It is a house in the act of being built. Every participant in victory sweats and puffs, carrying the stones for the building of the house. But defeat is a thing of weariness, of incoherence, of boredom — and above all of futility.

For in the first place these sorties on which we were sent off were futile — more murderous and more futile with every day that passed. Mind you, I am far from impugning the good will of the generals who were struggling to save their nation. Against the avalanche that was overwhelming them they could defend themselves only with what they had. To return to the card-table metaphor, they had to fling down their trumps; and Dutertre and I, as we sat listening to the major, were their trumps.

The major was sketching for us the afternoon’s program. He was sending us off to fly a photography sortie at thirtythree thousand feet and then to do a reconnaissance job at two thousand feet over the German tank parks at Arras. His voice was as deliberate as if he were saying, ‘And then you take the second street on the right to a square where you will see a tobacco shop.’

What could we answer but ‘Very good, sir’? The sortie was as futile as that — the language as lyrical as the futility of the sortie required.

I had my own thoughts. ‘Another crew flung away,’ I said to myself. My head was buzzing, buzzing with many things; but I said to myself that I’d wait. If we got back, if we were alive that night, I’d do my thinking then.

If we were alive. When a sortie was not ‘awkward,’ one plane out of three got back. Naturally the ratio was not the same when the sortie was a nasty one. But I was not weighing my chances of getting back. As I sat there in the major’s office, death seemed to me neither august, nor majestic, nor heroic, nor poignant. Death seemed to me merely a sign of disorder — a consequence of disorder. The Group was to lose us more or less as baggage becomes lost in the hubbub of changing trains.

Not that on the subject of war, of death, of sacrifice, of France, I do not think quite other things than what I now say; but as I sat in that office my thoughts were without a compass, my language was a blur. I sat thinking in contradictions. My concept of truth had been shattered, and the best I could do was to stare at one fragment after another. ‘If I am alive,’ I said to myself, ‘I shall do my thinking tonight.’ Night, the beloved. Night, when language fades and things come alive; when the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again; when man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.

Day belongs to family quarrels, but with the night he who has quarreled finds love again. For love is greater than any wind of words. And man, leaning at his window under the stars, is once again responsible for the bread of the day to come, for the slumber of the wife who lies by his side, all fragile and delicate and contingent. Love is not thinking, but being. As I sat facing Alias I longed for night and for the rebirth in me of the being that merits love — for night, when my thoughts would be of civilization, of the destiny of man, of the savor of friendship in my native land; for night, so that I might know that in my heart something imperious, though at this moment inexpressible, still lived; for night, so that I might perhaps advance a step towards fixing it in my unmanageable language. I longed for night as the poet might do, the true poet who feels himself inhabited by a thing obscure but powerful, and who strives to erect images like ramparts round that thing in order to capture it — to capture it in a snare of images.

And as I sat there longing for night I was for the moment like a Christian abandoned by grace. I was about to do my job with Dutertre honorably — that was certain; but to do it as one honors ancient rites when they have no longer any significance, when the god that lived in them has withdrawn from them. I should wait for night, I said to myself; and if I was still alive I would walk alone on the highway that runs through our village — alone and safely isolated in my beloved solitude, so that I might discover why it is I ought to die.


I awoke out of my daydream — was startled out of it by an astonishing proposal.

‘If this sortie bothers you, Saint-Ex, if you don’t feel up to it today, I can —’

‘Oh, come, Major!’

He knew perfectly well that his proposal was idiotic. And I knew why he made it. If a pilot doesn’t get back you begin to recall how solemn he was when he was ordered out — and solemn he would have been indeed, for no man is very cheerful at the moment of jumping into a volcano. You say to yourself that he must have had a premonition of his end, and you accuse yourself of having willfully brushed it aside. You take time out for an attack of conscience.

The major’s scruple reminded me of Israel. Two days before, I had been sitting smoking at the window of the Intelligence Room. Israel, when I caught sight of him through the window, was walking swiftly past. His nose was red. A big nose, very Jewish and very red. Suddenly there had seemed to me something queer about that big red nose.

This Israel, whose nose I was staring at, was a man I profoundly liked. He was one of the most courageous pilots of the Group — one of the most courageous and one of the most modest. He had heard so much talk of Jewish wariness that he probably mistook his courage for a form of wariness. To gain a victory is to act warily.

There I sat, watching that red nose that gleamed in my sight only for an instant, so swift were the steps that carried Israel and his nose out of view. I turned to Gavoille, and without meaning to make a joke of it I said, ‘Why do you suppose his nose is like that?’

Gavoille answered, ‘God made it like that’; and then added quickly, ‘Lowaltitude sortie. Can’t blame the fellow.’

That night, when we had given up looking for Israel to get back, I thought again of that nose, planted in the middle of a totally expressionless face and yet revealing, with a sort of genius of its own, the burden of the thoughts revolving in the man’s mind. If it had been my job to order Israel on that sortie, the memory of his nose would have haunted me like a reproach. Israel, surely, had responded to the order with no more than a ‘Yes, sir,’ a ‘Very good, sir.’ Israel, surely, had not allowed a single muscle of his face to quiver on hearing the order. But gently, insidiously, treacherously, his nose had reddened. Israel had been able to control the muscles of his face, but not the color of his nose. And in the silence in which he had received the order his nose had taken advantage of him. Unknown to Israel, it had made clear to the major its emphatic disapproval of the sortie.

This was the kind of thing that made Alias hesitate to send into action men he imagined might be subject to premonitions. Premonitions are more often false than true; but when you are seized by one a military order will sound like a court sentence. And Alias was not a judge, after all, but a group commander.

There was the case the other day of the gunner I shall call T. As Israel was all courage, so T. was all fear. He is the only man I have ever known who really felt fear. When, during the war, you gave T. an order, you released in him at that moment a wave of dizziness — something simple, relentless, and gradual. Rising slowly from his feet to his head, a stiffening would come over his whole body. Little by little his face would go dead white. And his eyes would begin to shine.

Unlike Israel, whose nose, reddened with irritation, had seemed to me so disapproving, disapproving of the probable death of Israel, T. manifested no psychic mutation. He did not react — he moulted. When you had finished giving T. an order you discovered that you had lit a flame of anguish in him, and that the anguish had begun to spread a sort of even glow through his being. Thereafter T.’s face would shine softly with a pale light. T. would become a man indifferent to everything. I am sure that death itself became a matter of indifference to T. To hate to die is to hate the loss that must ensue. It is love. But there was no love in T. He was not grieving over what he would leave behind. His whole being was delivered up to anguish — to anguish alone. Never in any other man on earth have I perceived this form of ecstasy.

‘I shouldn’t have let him fly that day,’ Alias said to me. For that day, when the major had given T. his orders, T. had not merely turned white, he had begun to smile, quite plainly to smile — as tortured men smile, probably, when really the executioner has gone too far.

‘You’re off your feed today, T. I’ll get another gunner.’

‘If you please, sir. It’s my turn,’T. had answered. He was standing respectfully at attention, but with an extraordinary gleam of defiance in his eye.

‘Still, if you don’t feel sure of yourself—’

‘It’s my turn out, sir.’

‘Come, T., look here — ‘

‘ Sir!’ T. had interrupted; and his whole body looked full of anger.

‘So,’ Alias concluded, ‘I let him have his way.’

Exactly what happened we never knew. T., sitting aft as gunner of the crew, had seen a German fighter bear down on him. The German’s guns had jammed, and he had turned tail and vanished. T. had exchanged remarks with his pilot through the speaking tube all the way back to the neighborhood of their base. The pilot had observed nothing abnormal in T.’s conversation. But about five minutes before landing T. had stopped talking, and the pilot had been unable to raise him.

That same evening T. was brought in, his skull split open by the tail unit of his own plane. He had tried to bail out over home territory where he was completely out of danger. The plane had been flying at high speed, and he had done a bad job of parachuting. The passage of that German fighter had been irresistible, a siren call.

‘Better get along and dress, now,’ the major said. ‘I want you off the ground at five-thirty.’

We said, ‘See you this evening, sir,’ and the major responded by a vague wave of the hand. Was it superstition? I turned to leave, became aware that my cigarette was out, and was fumbling in vain through all my pockets when the major said testily, ‘Why is it you never carry any matches?’

It was true; and with this substitute for ‘Good luck!’ in my ears I shut the door, saying to myself, ‘Why is it I never have a match on me?’

Dutertre said, ‘This sortie has got on his nerves.’

‘He doesn’t give a damn about it,’ I thought. But I didn’t say so aloud, for I wasn’t thinking of Alias. I was thinking of man in general. What had happened was that I had been brought up with a jerk by a very evident fact which men seem not to see — that the life of the spirit, the veritable life, is intermittent, and only the life of the mind is constant. This instant and spontaneous reflection leads back to Alias in a roundabout way.

Man’s spirit is not concerned with objects; that is the business of our analytical faculties. Man’s spirit is concerned with the significance that relates objects to one another — with their totality, which only the piercing eye of the spirit can perceive. The spirit, meanwhile, alternates between total vision and absolute blindness. Here is a man, for example, who loves his farm — but there are moments when he sees in it only a collection of unrelated objects. Here is a man who loves his wife — but there are moments when he sees in love nothing but burdens, hindrances, constraints. Here is a man who loves music — but there are moments when it cannot reach him. What we call a nation is certainly not the sum of the regions, customs, cities, farms, and the rest, that man’s intelligence is able at any moment to add up. It is a Being. But there are moments when I find myself blind to beings - even to the being called France.

Major Alias had spent the previous night at Staff headquarters discussing what was in effect pure logic. Pure logic is the ruin of the spirit. Afterwards he had driven back, and driving back he had worn himself out gettingthrough the tangled traffic. Having finally reached his billet, he had found a hundred details to look after, those details that fray a man’s nerves and set him on edge. And this afternoon he had sent for us and ordered us to embark upon an utterly impossible sortie. What were we to him? Particles in the universal chaos. We were not SaintExupéry and Dutertre to him — each with our own way of seeing or not seeing things, of thinking, walking, smiling, drinking. We were mere details in a vast structure to see the whole of which demanded more time, more silence, more perspective than he could possibly obtain. Had my face been afflicted with a tic, he would have been able to see nothing but the tic. He would have sent, out over Arras the memory of a tic. In this senseless hullabaloo, in this avalanche, we ourselves, each of us, saw nothing but particles: that voice; that nose; that tic. And particles are not the objects of anybody’s emotion.

Thus I am not talking about Alias specifically, but about man in general. A friend you love has died, and it is you who must see that he is decently buried. At that moment you have no contact with your dead friend. How can you have? Death is a thing of grandeur. It brings instantly into being a whole new network of relations between you and the ideas, the desires, the habits of the man now dead. It is a rearrangement of the world. Nothing has changed visibly, yet everything has changed. The pages of the book are the same, but the meaning of the book is different. And how can you, who are busy with funeral details, know any of this? Do you wish to bring the dead friend to mind? You must be able to imagine yourself needing him. At that moment you will miss him. Imagine him needing you. Ah, but he no longer needs you! Imagine those Wednesdays when, invariably, you lunched together. Wednesday is now a vacuum. Life, we know, has to be seen in perspective. But on a day of burial there is no perspective — for space itself is annihilated. Your dead friend is still a fragmentary being. The day you bury him is a day of chores and crowds, of hands false or true to be shaken, of the immediate cares of mourning. The dead friend will not really die until tomorrow, when silence is round you again. Then he will show himself complete, as he was — to tear himself away, as he was, from the substantial you. Only then will you cry out because of him who is leaving and whom you cannot detain.

I am still on the track of my thought when I say that I do not like the pretty picture-book of war. The gruff warrior squeezing back a tear and hiding his honest emotion under a grumpy exterior. What nonsense! The gruff warrior is not hiding anything at all. If he lets fly a gruff remark it is because a gruff remark has come into his mind.

Nor does it matter for my purpose whether a man be decent or a brute. Major Alias is a noble person. He is a sensitive person. If Dutertre and I fail to get back it will probably affect him more than anyone else in the Group — provided, however, that he thinks of Saint-Exupéry and Dutertre, and not of a sum of unrelated particles; provided that he be allowed the silence in which to effect this reconstruction of ourselves. For if, tonight, the bailiff at our heels once more constrains the Group to move, a single broken-down lorry will suffice to put off our death until another time. Alias will forget to be affected by our death.

The life of the spirit, I say, is intermittent — my own spirit as much as Alias’s. I am off on an ‘awkward’ sortie. Is my mind filled with the thought of the war of the Nazi against the Occident? Not at all. I think in terms of immediate details. I think of possible wounds. I think of the absurdity of flying over German-held Arras at two thousand feet; of the futility of the intelligence we are asked to bring back; of the interminable time it takes to dress in these clothes that remind me of men made ready for the executioner. And I think of my gloves. Where the devil are my gloves? I have lost my gloves.

I can no longer see the cathedral in which I live. I am dressing for the service of a dead god.


‘Get going! Where are my gloves? . . . No, not those. Have a look in my bag.’

‘Sorry, sir. Can’t find them.’

‘God, you’re a fool!’

Everybody is a fool. My fitter, who doesn’t know where my gloves are. Hitler, who unloosed this mad war. And that fellow on the General Staff, obsessed by low-altitude sorties.

‘I asked you to get me a pencil. I have been asking you for ten minutes to find me a pencil. Haven’t you got a pencil?’

‘Here it is, sir.’

One man, at least, who is not a fool.

‘Tie a string round it. Now knot the string through this buttonhole. . . . I say, gunner, you seem to be taking things very easily.’

‘I’m all ready, sir.’


And my observer. I swung round to him. ‘Everything shipshape, Dutertre? Nothing missing? Worked out your course?’

He has worked out his course. ‘Awkward’ sortie indeed! Where is the sense, I ask you, in sending a crew out to be murdered for the sake of intelligence that is sure to be useless and will never reach the Staff anyway, even if one of us lives to report it?

‘Mediums,’ I said aloud. ‘They must have a crew of mediums on the General Staff.’

‘What do you mean, Captain?’

‘How do you think we’ll report to them? They are going to communicate with us. Table tipping. Automatic writing.’

Not very funny; but I went on grousing.

‘General Staffs! Let them fly their own damned sorties!’

It takes a long time to dress for a sortie that you know is a hopeless one; a long time to harness yourself only for the fun of being blasted to bits. Here are three thicknesses of clothing to be put on, one over the other; that takes time. And this clutter of accessories that you carry about like an itinerant pedlar! All this complication of oxygen tubes, heating equipment; these speaking tubes that form the ‘intercom’ running between members of the crew; this mask through which I breathe. I am attached to the plane by a rubber tube as indispensable as an umbilical cord. The plane is plugged in to the circulation of my blood. Organs have been added to my being, and they seem to intervene between me and my heart. From one minute to the next I grow heavier, more cumbrous, harder to handle. I turn round all of a piece, and when I bend down to tighten my straps, or pull at buckles that resist, all my joints creak aloud. My old fractures begin to hurt again.

‘Hand me another helmet. I’ve told you twenty times that my own won’t do. It’s too tight.'

God knows why, but a man’s skull swells at high altitude. A helmet that fits perfectly on the ground becomes a vise pressing on the skull at thirty thousand feet.

‘But this is another helmet, sir. I sent back your old one.’


I cannot stop grousing, and I grouse without remorse. A lot of good it does! Not that it is important. This is the moment of timelessness. This is the crossing of the inner desert of anguish. There is no god here. There is no face to love. There is no France, no Europe, no civilization. There are particles, detritus, nothing more. I feel no shame at this moment in praying for a miracle that should change the course of this afternoon — the miracle, for instance, of a speaking tube out of order. Speaking tubes are always going out of order. Trashy stuff! A speaking tube out of order would preserve us from the holocaust.

Captain Vesain came in with a gloomy look. No pilot ever got off the ground without a dose of Captain Vesain’s gloom. His job was to report upon the position of the German air outposts; to tell us where they were. Vesain is my friend, and is very fond of me; but he is a bird of ill omen. I prefer not to meet him when I am about to take off.

‘Looks bad, old boy,’ said Vesain. ‘Very bad. Very bad indeed.’

And didn’t he pull a sheaf of papers out of his pocket, to impress me! Then, looking at me suspiciously, he said, ’How are you going out?’

‘By the town of Albert.’

‘I thought so. I knew it. Bad business.’

‘Stop talking like a bloody fool! What’s up?’

‘You’ll never make it. You’ll have to give up this sortie.’

Give up this sortie! Very kind of him to say so. Let him tell that to God the Father. Perhaps He’ll put a curse on our speaking tubes.

‘You’ll never get through, I tell you!’

‘And why shall I never get through?’

‘Because there are three groups of German fighters circling permanently over Albert. One at eighteen thousand feet, another at twenty-five thousand, and a third at thirty-three thousand. They fly in relays and hang on until they are relieved. It’s what I call categorically blocked. You’ll fly straight into a German net. See here!’

He shoved a sheet of paper at me on which he had scribbled an absolutely unintelligible demonstration of his argument.

Vesain would have done much better to keep his nose out of my affairs. His pompous categorically blocked had impressed me, confound him! I thought instantly of red lights and traffic tickets. Only, this was a place where a ticket meant death. It was his categorically that particularly galled me. It seemed to be aimed at me personally.

I made a great effort to think clearly. ‘The enemy,’ I said to myself, ‘always defends his positions categorically. Damned nonsense, these big words! And besides, why should I worry about German fighter planes? At high altitude I should never know they had got me; and at two thousand feet it is the antiaircraft that would get me, not the fighters. It couldn’t possibly miss me.’ Suddenly I became belligerent.

‘In short, what you’re telling me is that the Germans have an air force, and therefore my sortie is not altogether advisable. Run along and tell that to the General.’

It wouldn’t have cost Vesain anything to reassure me pleasantly, instead of upsetting me. Why couldn’t he have said, ‘Oh, by the way — the Germans have a few fighters aloft over Albert’?

It would have come to the same thing.


We climbed in. I had still to test the intercom.

‘Can you hear me, Dutertre?’

‘I hear you, Captain.’

‘You, gunner! Hear me?’

‘I — yes, sir. Clearly.’

‘ Dutertre! Can you hear the gunner?’

‘Clearly, Captain.’

‘Gunner! Can you hear Lieutenant Dutertre?’

‘I — er — yes, sir. Clearly.’

‘What makes you stutter back there? What are you hesitating about?’

‘Sorry, sir. I was looking for my pencil.’

The speaking tubes were not out of order.

‘Gunner! Have a look at your oxygen bottles. Air pressure normal?’

‘I— yes, sir. Normal.’

‘In all three bottles?’

‘All three, sir.’

‘All set, Dutertre?’

‘All set, Captain.’

‘All set, gunner?’

‘All set, sir.’

We took off.


Human anguish is due at bottom to the loss by man of his true identity. I sit waiting for a telegram which is to announce to me either a death or a recovery. Time flows by unutilized, and holds me in suspense. Time has ceased to be a stream that feeds me, nourishes me, adds growth to me. It carries me neither towards my joy nor towards my sorrow. Each second that drops is void of meaning. It does not age me in any sense whatever. And, for want of knowing who I am, I am possessed by anguish. The bad news, when it comes, causes me no anxiety. It causes me to suffer, which is not the same thing.

He who has struck another, and whose anger has dropped from him, waits to find out if he is or is not a murderer. So long as he remains ignorant of the fate of his victim, he is deprived of identity. Suspended in a void, he is the prey of anguish. Guilt is not a cause of anguish. It may provoke remorse or despair. But despair is something else.

T. never knew whether, in the hour to come, he was to be transmuted into a living man or a dead man. He was aware of only one thing — the flow of time, running like sand through his fingers while he waited for the coming of a certain instant too rich in power for his resistance.

For me, piloting my plane, time has ceased to run sterile through my fingers. Now, finally, I am installed in my function. Time is no longer a thing apart from me. I have stopped projecting myself into the future. I am no longer he who may perhaps dive down the sky in a vortex of flame. The future is no longer a haunting phantom, for from this moment on I shall myself create the future by my own successive acts. I am he who checks the course and holds the compass at 313°, who controls the revolutions of the propeller and the temperature of the oil. These are healthy and immediate cares. These are household cares, the little duties of the day that take away the taste of growing older. The day becomes a house brilliantly clean, a floor well waxed, oxygen prudently doled out. . . . Thinking this, I check the oxygen flow, for we have been rising fast and are at twenty-two thousand feet already.

‘Oxygen all right, Dutertre? How do you feel?’

‘First-rate, Captain.’

‘You, gunner! How’s your oxygen?’

‘I — er — shipshape, sir.’

‘Haven’t you found that pencil yet?’

And I am he who checks his machine guns, putting a finger on button S, on button A — which reminds me.

‘Gunner! No good-sized town behind you, in your cone of fire?’

‘Er — all clear, sir.’

‘Check your guns. Let fly.’

I hear the blast of the guns.

‘Work all right?’

‘Worked fine, sir.’

‘All of them?’

‘Er —yes, sir. All of them.’

I test my own and wonder what becomes of all the bullets that we scatter so heedlessly over our home territory. They never kill anyone. The earth is vast.

Now time is nourishing me with every minute that passes. I am a thing as little the prey of anguish as a ripening fruit. Of course the circumstances of this flight will change round me — the circumstances and the problems. But I dwell now well inside the fabrication of the future. Time, little by little, is kneading me into shape. A child is not frightened at the thought of being patiently transmuted into an old man. He is a child and he plays like a child. I too play my games. I count the dials, the levers, the buttons, the triggers of my kingdom. I count one hundred and three objects to check, pull, turn, or press. (Perhaps I have cheated in counting my machinegun controls as two — one for the trigger, and another for the safety catch.)

Tonight when I get back I shall amaze the farmer with whom I am billeted. I shall say to him, ‘Do you know how many instruments a pilot has to look after?’

‘How do you expect me to know that? ‘

‘No matter. Guess. Name a figure.’

‘What figure?’

My farmer is not a man of tact.

‘Any figure. Name one.’


‘One hundred and three!’

And I shall smile with satisfaction.

Another thing contributes to my peace of mind — it is that all the instruments that were an encumbrance while I was dressing have now settled into place and acquired meaning. All that tangle of tubes and wiring has become a circulatory network. I am an organism integrated into the plane. I turn this switch, which gradually heats up my overall and my oxygen,and the plane begins to generate my comfort. The oxygen, incidentally, is too hot. It burns my nose. A complicated mechanism releases it in proportion to the altitude at which I fly, and I am flying high. The plane is my wet nurse. Before we took off, this thought seemed to me inhuman; but now, suckled by the plane itself, I feel a sort of filial affection for it — the affection of a nursling.

My weight, meanwhile, is comfortably distributed over a variety of points of support. I am like a feeble convalescent stripped of bodily consciousness and lying in a chaise longue. The convalescent exists only as a frail thought. My triple thickness of clothing is without weight in my seat. My parachute, slung behind, lies against the back of my seat. My enormous boots rest on the bar that operates the rudder. My hands, which are so awkward when first I slip on the thick stiff gloves, handle the wheel with ease. Handle the wheel. Handle the wheel. . . .


. . t’n?’

‘Something’s wrong with the intercom. I can’t hear you. Check your contacts.'

‘I can . . . you . . . ctly.’

‘Shake it up! Can you still hear me?’

Dutertre’s voice came through clearly.

‘Hear you perfectly, Captain.’

‘Good! Dutertre, the confounded controls are frozen again. The wheel is stiff and the rudder is stuck fast.’

‘That’s great! What altitude?’

‘Thirty-two thousand.’


‘Forty-eight. How’s your oxygen?’

‘Coming fine.’

‘Gunner! How’s your oxygen?’

No answer.

‘Hi! Gunner!’

No answer.

‘Do you hear the gunner, Dutertre?


‘Call him.’

‘Gunner! Gunner!’

No answer.

‘He must have passed out, Captain. We shall have to dive.’

I didn’t want to dive unless I had to. The gunner might, have dropped off to sleep. I shook up the plane as roughly as I could.

‘Captain, sir?’

‘That you, gunner?’

‘I — er — yes, sir.’

‘Not sure it’s you?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Why the devil didn’t you answer before?’

‘ I had pulled the plug, sir. I was testing the radio.’

‘You’re a bloody fool! Do you think you’re alone in this plane? I was just, about to dive. I thought you were dead.’

‘Er — no, sir.’

‘I’ll take your word for it. But don’t play that trick on me again. Damn it! Let me know before you cut.’

‘Sorry, sir. I will. I’ll let you know, sir.’

Had his oxygen flow stopped working, he wouldn’t have known it. The human body receives no warning. A vague swooning comes over you. In a few seconds you have fainted. In a few minutes you are dead. The flow has constantly to be tested — particularly by the pilot. I pinched my tube lightly a few times and felt the warm life-bringing puffs blow round my nose.

It came to this, that I was working at my trade. All that I felt was the physical pleasure of going through gestures that meant something and were sufficient unto themselves. I was conscious neither of great danger (it had been different while I was dressing) nor of performing a great duty. At this moment the battle between the Nazi and the Occident was reduced to the scale of my job, of my manipulation of certain switches, levers, taps. This was as it should be. The sexton’s love of his God becomes a love of lighting candles. The sexton moves with deliberate step through a church of which he is barely conscious, happy to see the candlesticks bloom one after the other as the result of his ministrations. When he has lighted them all, he rubs his hands. He is proud of himself.

I for my part am doing a good job of regulating the revolutions of the propeller, and the needle of my compass lies within a single degree of my course. If Dutertre happens to have his eye on the compass, he must be marveling at me.

‘I say, Dutertre! Compass on the course? How does it look?’

‘Won’t do, Captain. Too much drift. A little kick to the right.’

Well, well.

‘Crossing our lines, Captain. I’ve started my camera. What’s your altitude?'

‘Thirty-three thousand.’


‘Your course, Captain!’

He’s right. I was drifting to port. And not by chance, either. It was the town of Albert that was putting me off. I could make it out faintly, far ahead. But already it was shouldering me off with all the weight of its categorical-ly blocked. Extraordinary, the memory secreted in the recesses of the human body! My body was remembering every sudden crash of the past, every cranial fracture, each of those nights in hospital with their comas as sticky as molasses. My body is afraid of blows. It struggles to avoid Albert. The moment I leave it to itself, we drift to port. It shies left like an old horse fearful for life of the obstacle that had once frightened it. And it is really my body, not my mind, that I mean. The moment my mind wanders, my body takes sly advantage of me to slip around Albert.

For it is not I who feel any anxiety. I have stopped wishing to get out of this sortie. On the ground, it had seemed to me that that was what I wanted. I had said to myself hopefully that the intercom would be out of order. I was weary, and it would be wonderful to sleep. The bed of idleness had seemed to me a magic couch. But deep down I had known perfectly well that nothing could come of getting out of this sortie except a sharp sense of discomfort; as if a necessary moulting had miscarried; as if I had muffed a chance to be born anew this afternoon.

Again I was reminded of school — of a time when I was very young. How long ago was that? I —


‘What’s up?’

‘Er . . . nothing. I thought I had seen something.’

I don’t like Dutertre seeing things.

Of school, yes. When you are a little boy, in boarding school, they get you up too early. They get you up at six o’clock. It is cold. You rub your eyes, and you hate class long before the bell rings. You think how wonderful it would be if you were ill and were waking up in the infirmary, where the matron would be ready with a hot cup of camomile with lots of sugar in it. The infirmary becomes a kind of paradise in your mind.

I was like that; and, naturally, the first time I caught cold I coughed much more than was called for. And I awoke in the infirmary to the sound of the bell ringing for the others. But that bell punished me for cheating. It changed me into a wraith. It rang out the passing of living hours — hours of class with its austerity, of playtime with its tumult, of the refectory with its warmth. For those who were alive, who were not, like me, in the infirmary, it sounded the realities of an enviable existence filled with jubilations, disappointments, severities, triumphs. And I lay robbed, forgotten, sick of insipid camomiles, of the sweaty bed, the blank hours.

Nothing comes of a sortie you have got out of.

Of course there are days like this one when a sortie brings no satisfaction. It is too evident that we are playing a game that we call war. We are playing Cops and Robbers. We are abiding scrupulously by the rules of conduct prescribed by the history books and the rules of tactics prescribed by the war manuals. Last night, for example, I drove up to the aerodrome in a motorcar. The sentry, obedient to the rules, presented his bayonet. My car might as easily have been a German tank. We are playing at presenting bayonets to German tanks. But the tanks arc playing their own game.

How can we possibly be enthusiastic about these grim charades, in which we play the part of supernumeraries, when we are asked to play on till we are killed? Death is a bit too serious for a charade. Who could dress with excitement for such a part? Nobody. Even Hochedé, who is a sort of saint, a man who has reached that state of permanent grace which surely is the final consummation of man — even Hochedé took refuge in silence. All of us dressed in silence, grumpily — and not because we were heroically modest. That grumpiness concealed no inner exaltation. It told its own story. And I knew what it meant. It was the grumpiness of an agent who is mystified by the instructions of an absentee owner, yet remains faithful to him. All of us longed for our quiet rooms, but there was not one who wouId really have chosen to go to bed.

For enthusiasm is not the important thing. There is no hope of enthusiasm in defeat. The important thing is to dress, to climb aboard, and to take off. What we ourselves think of the procedure is of no importance. A little boy in school enthusiastic about his grammar lesson would seem to me a little prig not to be trusted. The important thing is to strive towards a goal which is not immediately visible. That goal is not the concern of the mind, but of the spirit. The spirit knows how to love, but it is asleep. Talk to me about temptation! I know as much about temptation as any Church Father. To be tempted is to be tempted, when the spirit is asleep, to give in to the reasons of the mind.

What do I accomplish by risking my life in this mountain avalanche? I have no notion. Time and again people would say to me, ‘I can arrange to have you transferred here or there. That is where you belong. You will be more useful there than in a squadron. Pilots! We can train pilots by the thousand! Whereas you—’ No question but that they were right. My mind agreed with them, but my instinct always prevailed over my mind.

Why was it that their reasoning never convinced me, even though I had no argument with which to defeat it? I would say to myself, ’The intellectuals are kept in reserve on the shelves of the Propaganda Ministry, like pots of jam to be eaten when the war is over.’ Hardly an argument, I agree!

Once again, like every other member of the Group, I have taken off in the face of every good reason, every obvious argument, every intellectual reflex. The moment will come when I shall know that it was reasonable to fight against reason. I have promised myself that if I am alive I shall walk alone on the highway that runs through our village. Then perhaps I shall dwell at last in my own self. And I shall see.

It may be that I shall have nothing to say about what I then see. When a woman seems to me beautiful, I have no words to say so. I see her smile, and that is all. Intellectuals take her face apart and explain it bit by bit. They do not see that smile.

To know is not to prove, nor to explain. It is to accede to vision. But if we are to have vision we must learn to participate in the object of the vision. The apprenticeship is hard.

All day long my village was invisible to me. Before the sortie I saw in it nothing but mud walls and peasants more or less grimy. Now it is a handful of gravel thirty-three thousand feet below me. That is my village. But tonight, it may be, a watchdog will waken and bark. I have always loved the enchantment of a village dreaming aloud, by the voice of a single watchdog, in the fair night.

I do not ask to be understood. All that I ask is a vision of my village tidied for sleep, its doors carefully shut upon its barns, its cattle, its customs. To see its peasants, home from the fields, their evening meal eaten and their table cleared, their children put to bed and their lamp blown out, dissolved into the silent night. And nothing more — unless perhaps, under the stiff white sheets of the countryside, the slow pulsing of their breathing, like the subsidence of a swell after a storm at sea.

God suspends the use of things and speech for the period of the nocturnal balance sheet. By the play of that irresistible slumber which loosens the fingers until morning, men will appear in my vision with open hands. And then perhaps I shall win a glimpse of that which has no name. I shall walk like the blind whose palms lead them towards the flame in the hearth. The blind cannot describe the flame, yet they have found it. Thus perhaps shall I see what it is in that dark village that we must die to protect — that which is unseen, yet, like an ember beneath the ashes, lives on.

Nothing comes of a sortie you have got out of. If we are to understand a thing as simple as a village, you must first —



‘Six German fighters on the port bow.’

The words rang in my ears like a thunderclap.

You must first . . . You must first , . . Ah! I do want very much to be paid off in time. I do want to have the right to love. I do want to win a glimpse of the being for whom I die.




‘D’you hear the lieutenant? Six German fighters. Six, on the port bow.’

‘I heard the lieutenant, sir.’

‘Dutertre! Have they seen us?’

‘They have, Captain. Banking towards us. Fifteen hundred feet below us.’

‘Hear that, gunner? Fifteen hundred feet below us. Dutertre! How near are they?’

‘Say ten seconds.’

‘Hear that, gunner? On our tail in a few seconds.’

There they are. I see them. Tiny. A swarm of poisonous wasps.

‘Gunner! They’re crossing broadside. You’ll see them in a second. There!’

‘Don’t see them yet, sir. . . . Yes, I do!’

(I don’t see them now myself.)

‘They after us?’

‘After us, sir.’

‘Rising fast.’

‘Can’t say, sir. Don’t think so. . . . No, sir.’

Dutertre spoke. ‘What do you say, Captain?’

‘What do you expect me to say?’

Nobody said anything. There was nothing to say. It was in God’s hands. If I banked, I should narrow the space between us. Luckily, we were flying straight into the sun. At high altitude it is impossible to go up fifteen hundred feet higher without giving a couple of miles to your game. It was not impossible, therefore, that they might lose us entirely in the sun by the time they had reached our altitude and recovered their speed.

‘Still after us, gunner?’

‘Still after us, sir.’

‘We gaining on them?’

‘Well, sir. No. . . . Perhaps.’

It was God’s business — and the sun’s.

Fighters do not fight, they murder. Still, it might turn into a fight, and I made ready for it. I pressed with both feet as hard as I could, trying to free the frozen rudder. A wave of something strange went over me. But my eyes were still on the Germans, and I bore with all my weight down upon the rigid bar.

Once again I discovered that I was in fact much less upset in this moment of action — if ‘ action ‘ was the word for this vain expectancy — than I had been while dressing. A kind of anger was going through me — a beneficent anger. God knows, no ecstasy of sacrifice; rather an urge to bite hard into something.

‘Gunner! Are we losing them?’

‘We are losing them, sir.’

‘Dutertre! Dutertre!’


‘I . . . nothing.’

‘Anything the matter?’

‘Nothing. I thought . . . Nothing.’

I decided not to mention it. No good worrying them. If I went into a dive they would know it soon enough.

It was not natural that I should be running with sweat in a temperature fifty degrees below freezing. Not natural. I knew perfectly well what was happening. Gently, very gently, I was fainting.

I could see the instrument panel. Now I couldn’t. My hands were losing their grip on the wheel. I hadn’t even the strength to speak. I was letting myself go. So pleasant, letting oneself go. . . .

Then I squeezed the rubber tube. A gust of air blew into my nose and brought me life. The oxygen supply was not out of order! Then it must be ... Of course! How stupid I had been! It was the rudder. I had exerted myself like a man trying to pick up a grand piano. Flying thirty-three thousand feet in the air, I had struggled like a professional wrestler. The oxygen was being doled out to me. It was my business to use it up economically. I was paying for my orgy.

I began to inhale in swift repeated gasps. My heart beat faster and faster. It was like a faint tinkle. What good would it do to speak of it? If I went into a dive, they would know soon enough. Now I could see my instrument panel. . . . No, that wasn’t true. I couldn’t see it. Sitting there in my sweat, I was sad.

Life came back as gently as it had flowed out of me.



I should have liked to tell him what had happened.

‘I ... I thought . . . No.’

I gave it up. Words consume oxygen too fast. Already I was out of breath. I was very weak — a convalescent.

‘You were about to say something, Captain?’

‘No. . . . Nothing.’

‘Quite sure, Captain? You puzzle me.’

I puzzle him. But I am alive.

‘We are alive.’

‘Well, sir, for the time being.’

For the time being. There was still Arras.

Thus for a minute or two I had the feeling that I should not pull through; and yet I had not observed in myself that poignant anxiety which, people say, turns the hair white in an instant. I began to think of Sagon, of what Sagon had said when, two months earlier, we had gone to see him only a few hours after he had been shot down behind our own lines — what had gone through his mind when the German fighters had surrounded him and nailed him to the stake, as it were.


I see him exactly as he was, lying in the hospital bed. His knee had been hooked and broken by the tail unit of the plane in the course of a parachute jump, but Sagon had not felt the shock. His face and hands were rather badly burnt, but all in all Sagon’s condition was not alarming. Slowly and in a matter-offact voice, as if reporting a bit of fatigue duty, he told us his story.

‘I knew they had got me when I saw the air filled with tracer bullets round my plane. My instrument board was shot to bits. Then I saw a puff of smoke forward. It wasn’t much, you know. I thought it must be . . . you know . . . there’s a connecting pipe. There wasn’t much flame.’

He stopped, and his lower lip came forward while he turned it over in his mind. It seemed to him important to be able to tell us whether the flames were high or were not high. He hesitated. ‘But still, flame is flame. The intercom was working, and I told them they’d better jump.’

In less than ten seconds a plane can turn into a torch.

‘Then I opened my escape hatch. I shouldn’t have done that. It let in the air . . . and the flame, you know. . . . I was sorry I’d done it.’

You have a locomotive boiler spitting a torrent of flame at you, twenty thousand feet in the air, and you are sorry you’ve done something. I shall not play Sagon false by talking of his heroism or his modesty. He would not recognize himself in these terms. He would insist that he was sorry he had done it. As we stood round his bed it was plain that he was making a concentrated effort to be precise.

The field of consciousness is tiny. It accepts only one problem at a time. Get into a fist fight, put your mind on the strategy of the fight, and you will not feel the other fellow’s punches. Once, when I thought I was about to drown in a seaplane accident, the freezing water seemed to me tepid. Or, more exactly, my consciousness was not concerned with the temperature of the water. It was absorbed by other thoughts. The temperature of the water has left no trace in my memory. In the same way, Sagon’s consciousness was filled to the brim with the problem of getting away from the plane. His universe was limited successively to the fate of his crew, the handle that governed the sliding hatch, the rip cord of the parachute.

The intercom seemed to be working. ‘Are you there?’ he had called out.

No answer.

‘Nobody on board?’ he had asked again.

No answer.

They must have jumped, Sagon had decided. And as he was sorry about those flames (his hands and face were already burnt) he had got out of his seat, climbed out on the fuselage, and crawled along the surface of the wing.

‘I peered in. I couldn’t see the observer.’

The observer, killed instantly by the German fighters, had slumped down out of sight.

‘Then I backed up and looked for the gunner. I couldn’t, see him, either.’

But the same thing had happened to the gunner.

‘I thought they must have jumped.’

Once again Sagon turned the matter over in his mind.

‘ If I had known, I could have crawled back into the cockpit. The flames were not so high. I lay there on the wing, I don’t know how long. I had stabilized the plane at an angle before crawling out. The going was smooth, the wind was bearable, and I felt fairly comfortable. I must have been out on that wing for some time. I didn’t know what to do.’

Not that Sagon had been faced with insoluble problems. He thought himself alone on board. The plane was burning. The fighters were still after it and spattering it with bullets. What Sagon was telling us was that he had felt no desire of any kind. He had felt nothing. He had time on his hands. He was floating in a sort of infinite leisure. And point by point I recognized the extraordinary sensation that now and then accompanies the imminence of death — a feeling of unexpected leisure, absolutely the contrary of the picture-book notion of breathless haste. Sagon had lain there on his wing, a creature flung out of the dimension of time.

‘And then,’ he said, ‘I jumped. I made a bad job of it. I could feel myself twisting in the air and hesitated to pull the cord, thinking I might get tangled up in the ‘chute. I waited until I had straightened out. I waited quite a long time.’

What Sagon really remembered of his whole mishap, from beginning to end, was waiting. Waiting for the flames to rise higher. Then waiting on the wing for heaven knows what. And finally, falling freely through the air, still waiting.

This was Sagon himself who was doing these things — actually, a Sagon more rudimentary, more simple than the Sagon I know; a Sagon a little perplexed, bored, and slightly impatient as he felt himself drop into an abyss.


We had been living two hours at the centre of an external pressure reduced to two thirds of normal. The crew was being gradually used up. We hardly exchanged a word. Once or twice, very cautiously, I tried to work my rudder. I was not obstinate about it. Each time the same sensation, the same feeling of a gentle exhaustion, had come over me.

Dutertre, at work with his camera, always let me know in plenty of time when his photography required that I bank. I would do the best I could with such control of the wheel as was still left to me. I would tilt the plane and pull towards me; and in a dozen or twenty separate efforts I would set her where Dutertre wanted her.


‘Thirty-three thousand seven.’

I was still thinking of Sagon. Man is always himself. In myself I have never met another than myself. Sagon knew only Sagon. He who dies, dies as he was. In the death of an ordinary miner, it is an ordinary miner who dies. Where is it to be found — that haggard dementia that writers have invented to fascinate us with?

I found myself once half drowned in a seaplane. The ship was a prototype I was testing, and one of her pontoons had come unriveted when I set her down at sea. Somebody seemed to trip me up, I was jolted out of my seat, and I came to, fifteen or twenty feet under water, in a sunken cockpit, bumping against metal objects in total darkness.

I held my breath and felt round for the escape hatch. I was in a hurry, but I had no feeling of panic. Then, unable to get out, I was forced to resign myself to the thought of drowning; but still I felt nothing specific except a kind of remorse, because out there in the world I was expected back. I was myself astonished at my state of mind. ‘How simple it is!’ I said to myself. For in imagination I had always shuddered at the thought of drowning. The metal, the water, the darkness, I had imagined, surround the drowning pilot like an army. They give him fifty seconds to defeat them; and the emergency, working like a press, draws forth from him a being of an unknown essence.

It was the thought of that phantom that frightened me. But the press draws forth from you nothing but yourself.

I saw once in Spain a man hauled up after several days of excavation, out of the cellar of a house that had been destroyed by a bomb. He was blinking, for the daylight hurt his eyes, and men were holding him up, for he was tottering.

A crowd stood round him in silence, and with what seemed to me a sudden timidity This man, resuscitated almost from the beyond, still covered with the rubble in which he had been buried half stupefied by suffocation and hunger, seemed like a sort of dim monster. When we grew bold enough to ask him questions, and to our questions he lent a sort of pallid attention, the timidity of the crowd changed to uneasiness. In the eyes of the crowd this man was the master of a forbidding secret.

Those round him tried to unlock his secret with bungling keys — for who is there can formulate the right question? They asked him what he had felt, what he had thought of, what he had done, in that grave. They flung bridges at random across an abyss, like men seeking to reach the night of the mind of one blind and deaf and dumb, and bring him help. But when, finally, he was able to answer, what he said was ’Yes I heard a long tearing sound.’ Or he said, I was terribly worried. I was down there a long time. I thought it would never end’ Or, ‘My back hurt. It hurt pretty badly’ It was a decent fellow talking only about a decent fellow.

‘What did you think about most? What was most important to you?'

I was worried about my watch. It was a wedding present. I couldn’t get my hand into my pocket. I wondered if the cave-in had. . .'

It goes without saying that life had taught this man suffering and impatience, taught him the love of familiar things. He had made use of the man he was to take account of his universe, though it were the universe of a cave-in in the night. And the fundamental question, the question nobody thought of asking him but which governed all their blundering questions — ‘Who were you? Who surged up in you?’ — this question he would have been unable to answer before time had allowed him little by little to build up the legend of himself. He would have been able to answer only, Why, me . . e myself.

None can awaken within us a stranger unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born. It would be a bit too easy if we could go about borrowing ready-made souls.

It is true that a sudden illumination may now and then light up a destiny and impel a man in a new direction. But illumination is the vision, suddenly granted the spirit, at the end of a long and gradual preparation. Bit by bit I learned my grammar. I was taught my syntax. My sentiments were awakened. And now suddenly a poem strikes me in the heart. There are indeed circumstances which of a sudden reveal to a man what has slowly been abuilding within him. It would be most astonishing that the recompense of the nightdark village should be awarded a man who had not earned it.

Piloting now my plane, I feel no love; but if, this evening, something is revealed to me, it will be because I shall have carried my heavy stones towards the building of the invisible structure. I am preparing a celebration. I shall not have the right to speak of the sudden apparition in me of another than myself, since it is I who am struggling to awaken that other within me.

There is nothing that I may expect of the hazard of war except this slow preparation. Like grammar, it will repay me later.

(To be continued)