the wisdom of the sands - antoine de saint-exupéry

I fell to musing on the great example given by courtesans and their commerce with love. For if you believe in worldly goods for their own sake, you are deceived: even as there is no landscape to see from the mountain-top except in so far as you have built one up for yourself by the long effort of your ascent, thus it is with love. Nothing has meaning in itself, but the true meaning of each thing lies in its structure; thus a face carved in marble is not the sum of two ears, a nose, a chin, a mouth and so forth, but the musculature of the head comprising them. Like a fist clenched on something other than itself. And the vision of the poem lies not in the stars or the number seven or the water in a pool, but solely in the harmony I make when I set my seven stars dancing in the mirror of the pool. True, for the nexus to operate we must first have objects to be linked together. But its efficacy lies not in these separate objects. The efficacy of the fox-trap lies not in its wires or frame or any part of it, but in the interlocking of these things into a whole, which is a creative act - and presently you hear a fox howling, for he has been trapped. Thus I, the singer, the sculptor, or the dancer, can snare you in my nets.

So, too, with love. What may you hope to get of the courtesan? Only a tranquilizing of the flesh after your battles in the oases; for, asking nothing of you, she does not constrain you to be. But when you are all aflame to hasten to the help of your beloved, your love is charged with gratitude because the archangel sleeping in it has been roused up by you. It is not the easy access of the one that makes the difference, for if you are loved by your beloved you have but to open  your arms and she will press herself to you. The difference lies in the giving. For no gift can be made the courtesan; whatever you bring her, she regards it perforce as tribute money.

And since this tribute is enforced you will question its amount. (This is the only meaning of the dance which here is danced.) Thus when at nightfall the soldier is allowed to roam the houses of ill fame and has in his pocket but his meagre pay - which he must eke out to best advantage - he bargains for love, buying it like food or drink. And even as food makes him capable of enduring another long march across the desert, so this bought love gives him an appeasement of the flesh, enabling him to endure another spell of isolation. But the man himself, having been changed into a huckster, feels no fervor.

To give to the courtesan you would need to be richer than a king; for, whatever you may bring her, she thanks herself first, flattering herself on her adroitness and admiring her skill and her beauty, which have won from you this tribute. You might pour a thousand caravan-loads of gold into that bottomless pit, and yet you would not have even begun to give. For there must be someone to receive.

This is why my men when dusk is gathering on the desert fall to stroking behind their ears the sand-foxes they have caught, and feel a vague thrill of love. For each has an illusion that he is giving to the little wild creature and experiences a rush of gratitude when trustfully it nestles to his breast. But in the district of the stews far must you seek before you find a woman who nestles to your bosom by reason of her need of you.

Nevertheless, it sometimes happens that one of my men, neither richer nor poorer than the others, treats his gold like the seeds that the tree scatters on the wind; for soldier-like he despises hoarding. Clad in the splendor of his magnanimity, he makes his progress through the stews; as the man who is about to sow his barley walks, taking long strides, towards the red loam worthy of receiving it. And then he scatters abroad his little store of wealth, having no wish to keep it to himself; and he alone knows what love is. Indeed it may be that he wakens love in one of these women, and thus a different dance is danced - a dance in which the woman receives.

But, mark my words, the man who cannot see that receiving is very different from accepting is blind indeed. Receiving is, above all, a gift, the gift of oneself, and I would not call him a miser who refuses to ruin himself with presents; the miser is one who bestows not the light of his countenance in return for your largesse. And miserly is the soil which does not clothe itself in beauty when you have strewn your seed upon it.

Thus even courtesans and drunken soldiers sometimes shed light.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I'm presently looking for a specific extract from "the wisdom of the sands" but only possess a french version and the translation results quite difficult. Will you be kind enough to send me (scan...) the chapter L (50) of this book ? (pitrat@wanadoo.fr)

    Many thanks