Saint-Exupery’s 
Geography Lesson

 THE PIONEERING AVIATOR, poet and award winning French writer Saint-Exupery (1900-1944) had a passionate if short life. His engagement with landscape is used by geographer Edmunds V. Bunkse as an illustration for criticism of traditional empiricist-based geography that otherwise ignores the personal and subjective relationship with landscape.

“Saint-Exupery’s geography lesson… is seen in the context of the dehumanization of landscapes and lives by Cartesian-inspired science… (He) has purposely juxtaposed individual sensory, pragmatic, and poetic encounters with landscapes against the generalities and abstractions of geographers, which he clearly finds meaningless and insignificant”

Bunkse argues that it illustrates a problem which still concerns geographers, namely “the seemingly unbridgeable dualism of the general, the abstract, the aggregate, the nomothetic, versus the specific, concrete, individual, idiosyncratic, and poetic”.   

Bunkse makes an appeal for reaching into the imagination to seek out the spirit of landscapes. This emphasis on the imagination is essentially a new postmodern epistemological perspective. This is shown by Saint-Exupery’s geography lesson which is an “alarmed concern for the rapid dehumanization of modern lives and landscapes,” and the loss of spirituality, particularly in mechanistic landscapes.

While Saint-Exupery loved the airplanes he flew and saw the airplane as representing the best results of a technology based on Cartesian science that was transforming the world, the rapid mechanization of human life appalled him:

“Many human-oriented values were being lost in the wave of increasing mechanization. The greatest loss by far was that of spirituality – not spirituality in the context of formal religions but in the general sense of the ineffable and mysterious, of transcendence attached to things and events”.

Saint-Exupery’s Plea for Spiritual Landscapes

FOR SAINT-EXUPERY spirituality develops through the quest of being above and beyond materials” and “spiritual meaning is found in seizing the particular from the general; as when his car broke down in North Africa during the war and he was forced to travel by cart:

“Those olive trees were no longer just so many trees along the road, whizzing past at 130 kilometers an hour. I now saw them in their natural rhythm, slowly making olives. The sheep no longer merely served to reduce one’s speed, they came alive. They ate and gave wool and the grass once again had meaning, since they grazed on it”.

Saint-Exupery’s plea for spirituality and morality in human life and landscape came during World War II and his fight against Nazism.   However he was less concerned with the immediate enemy than with what would happen after the war was won.

Bunkse says of Saint-Exupery that he “wanted to make certain that human life and landscape be framed as much by the poetics of arts-and-letters humanism as by Cartesian science. And that is indeed his geography lesson for geographers”.

Saint-Exupery had a dynamic model of civilisation that he thought he was fighting for during the Second World War. It was developed in an unmailed letter to General X, shortly before Saint-Exupery’s last mission over France:

“I don’t care if I am killed in the war. But what will remain of what I have loved?…What is valuable is a certain ordering of things. Civilization is an invisible tie, because it has to do not with things but with the invisible ties that join one thing to another in a particular way”.

When Saint-Exupery talks of ‘invisible ties’, similarities can be seen with Martin Buber’s ‘world of relation’ and the two primary modes of relating, I-Thou and I-It.   

Bunkse asks “How does the modern milieu, its landscape, and technocracy affect human beings in the short run, and by implication, in the long run of human evolution?” It is to this question we return later when we consider archetypal landscapes and in particular the technological/materialist landscape. 

Footnotes

1 Edmunds V. Bunkse, ‘Saint-Exupery’s Geography Lesson: Art and Science in the Creation and Cultivation of Landscape Values’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v.80 (1990), 96-97.

2 Ibid, 97-98.

3 Ibid, 100.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 101.

6 Ibid, 102.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid, 106.

9 Ibid, 104.

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