2007-05-18

the wisdom of the sands - antoine de saint-exupéry

One day it became clear to me that I had been mistaken as to women. And there came the night of my repentance when I discovered that I knew not how to handle them. I was like the robber chieftain, ignorant of the appointed rites, who, when he joins you in a game of chess, moves his men wildly and unprofitably, then in a gust of petulance sweeps them off the board.

That night I rose from her bed with anger in my heart, for I had learned that I was no more than a stalled beast. And, O Lord, Thou knowest I am no body-servant of women.

One thing it is manfully to climb the mountain, and another, after having been carried to the summit in a litter, to sweep your gaze across the varied scene, in quest for some perfection. For hardly have you spanned the horizon of the blue plains than you are weary of this beauty and tell your bearers to carry you elsewhere.

I sought in woman that gift which she alone can give. Thus I wished a certain woman whom I had chosen to rouse echoes in my heart, like bell notes, charged with fond regrets. But who would wish to hear the same bell note night and day? Very soon he would relegate the bell to a loft, as something that had served its time. Another I enjoyed for the subtle cadence of her voice when she said, "You, my lord..."; but soon one tires of an oft-heard cadence and dreams of another song.

Were I to give you ten thousand woman whom, one after the other, you quickly drained of that personal quality which made each delectable, even these would not avail fully to satisfy your heart's desire, for you yourself are variable as the seasons, the days, the winds that blow.

Nevertheless, since I have always held that none can achieve full knowledge of another's soul and that, in the secret places of his heart, each has an inner world of inviolable plains, vales of silence, great mountains, secret gardens, and that I could discourse to you of any man whatsoever a whole life long without ever being unduly prolix - such being my belief, it passed my understanding why what each woman brought to me from her store was so meagre, barely enough for a single evening meal.

But now, O Lord, I see my error. I failed to regard them as arable land to which year-long I must betake myself before the daybreak, my boots caked thick with mud, with my plough, my horse, my harrow, my bag of grain, my lore of husbandry, my prescience of storms and showers, and above all my faithfulness, so as to receive from them that which is for me. Instead of this, I reduced them to the level of those puppet-like creatures whom the notables of some humble village, which you visit in the course of a survey of the empire, thrust forward to falter some set phrase of greeting or to pay homage to you with a basket of choice fruits. True, you greet them affably, for charming is the ripple of their smiles, graceful their gesture proffering the fruit, and childishly simple in the small set speech; nevertheless you have drained them of their honey in a moment and used up their gifts, once you have patted the blushing cheeks and savored the sweet confusion of their gaze. Yet these young girls, too, are arable lands with vast horizons, in which perhaps, did you but know the way of access, you might lose - and find - yourself for ever.

I sought to harvest from hive to hive the honey ready-made, instead of seeking to enter those vast spaces which at first give nothing but demand of you a long wayfaring, step by toilsome step; for you must walk a great while in silence beside the lord of the domain if you would make of them your homeland.

I who have had for a friend the one true geometrician, a man who could instruct me night and day and to whom I brought my quandaries, not to have them solved, but studied by him from his own angle; for being himself and not another, he did not hear this or that note of music as I did, nor see the sun as you see it, nor get the same taste as you do from the selfsame food, but, of the materials submitted to him, composed a fruit with a quality peculiarly its own and not another (neither measurable nor definable, but pregnant with a certain quality and not another, and pointing in a certain direction and not another) - I, who found in him the significance of Space and had recourse to him as one has recourse to a sea wind or solitude, what would I have gained from him if I had made appeal not to the man himself, but to what he could supply - not to the tree, but to the fruits - and aspired to satisfy my mind and heart with some dry formulas of geometry?

For him alone who tills his field and plants the olive tree and sows the good seed, for such an one alone strikes the hour of transfiguration, which he could never enjoy did he buy his bread from the baker. For him sounds the hour of the festival of harvest, and the festival of the garnering, when slowly he swings to the creaking granary door upon its hoarded sunlight. For the mound of seed grain stored behind that door, above which lingers a glow of yellow dust, has the power, when its hour comes, of flooding your black fields with rippling gold...

I have taken the wrong road, I told myself. I made blind haste to go among women, like a traveller on a journey whose end he knows not. I have struggled through a wilderness unpathed, without horizons, seeking for the oasis that is not the oasis of love, but lies beyond it. I sought for a treasure hidden there, as for an object to be discovered amongst other objects. But I was going nowhere. Hurried as an oarsman's was their breathing when I bent above them, and I measured their perfection in their eyes. Familiar to me was the grace of their young limbs, the soft curve of an elbow like the handle of a ewer wherefrom one fain would drink. My anguish pointed the way, and for my thirst there was a remedy; but I had taken the wrong road. Thy truth, O Lord, was plain to see, yet I perceived it not.

For I was like one of those madmen whom we see prowling at night amongst the ruins of an old castle, carrying a spade, a pickaxe, and a crowbar. We watch him dismantling walls, upending stones, thumping great flags to find if they ring hollow. For, possessed by a black fervor, he desperately hunts for a legendary treasure that has slumbered for centuries in its hiding place, like a pearl in its shell - an elixir for the old, a warrant of wealth for the moneygrubber, a gage of love for the lover, or pride for the proud, of glory for the vainglorious. And yet it is but dust and ashes, vanity of vanities. For there is no fruit that comes not of a tree, no joy save the joy you make yourself. Vain is it to seek amongst stones a stone more exalting than another; and for all his rummaging in the ruins, the treasure-hunter will get of them no glory, wealth or love.

I, too, even I, like that madman plying his pick by night, have got nothing of my sensual pleasures but the morose and futile satisfaction of a miser's greed. Seeking, I found myself. And I am weary of myself; the echo of my own pleasure rings hollow in my ears.

Wherefore I would build up a ceremonial of love so that its joys may be a portal opening on a world beyond them. For nothing of what I seek and for which I thirst (and for which, indeed, all men thirst) is on the level of the raw material at our command. And it is but wasted effort when a man seeks amongst the stones for something not of their essence, when he might put them to a worthy use in the building of his temple; since his true joy lies not in the extracting of one stone from amongst others, but in the ceremonial order of the stones, once the cathedral has been built. And thus it is with the woman on whom my choice has fallen; I can make nothing coherent of her if I fail to perceive what lies beyond her, her significance.

True, O Lord, when I watch a young wife sleeping in her sweet nakedness, pleasant it is for me to feast my eyes on her beauty, the frail grace of her limbs, the soft warmth of her breasts - and why should I not have my joy of her? But I have understood Thy truth. It is for me to ensure that she who now is sleeping and whom presently I will awaken, merely by letting my shadow fall on her, shall not be like a blind wall against which I knock my head, but a portal opening on another world; and that I do not disintegrate her, seeking for an impossible treasure amongst the fragments, but bind her together in oneness, a tight-drawn knot, in the silence of my love.

And how could I be disappointed of my hope? True, the woman who is given a jewel is ever disappointed; for there is an emerald fairer than the opal you have given her, a diamond fairer than the emerald, and the King's diamond, loveliest of all. But I care nothing for a thing cherished for itself, if it fail to adumbrate the meaning of perfection. For I live not by things but by the meaning of things.

Yet this ill-carved ring, this faded rose embroidered on a strip of linen, this ewer of common pewter which serves for our tea before the hour of love - all these things are irreplaceable since they minister to a rite. Only of the god himself I ask perfection, but the clumsiest wooden object, once it has served to grace his worship, shares in his perfection.

Thus with the sleeping wife. Did I appraise her for herself alone, soon would I grow weary and quest elsewhere. For it may well be that she is shrewish; or, even though she be perfection's self to look on, that she sounds not that sweet bell note on which my heart is set, that she says badly, "You, my lord...," whereas these words would chime like music on another's lips.

But sleep untroubled for your imperfection, imperfect wife. I do not knock my head against a blind wall, for, though you be not a fulfillment, a reward, a jewel venerated for itself - of which I soon would weary - you are a vehicle, a pathway, and a portage. And I shall not grow weary of becoming.

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