Flying a tiny, fragile aircraft on a reconnaissance sortie, Saint-Exupéry finds the rudder has frozen, and nearly gives himself a heart attack trying to wrench it free. The flight is life-threatening not only due to enemy fire, and reflecting on this leads him to an arresting simile for squandering something precious for no purpose, which in turns leads to a heart-rending simile relating to the similarly futile action of desperately destroying vast swathes of France to try to delay the German military juggernaut.
Was there something I had wrenched beyond repair? At thirty-three thousand feet a slightly strenuous physical effort can strain the heart muscles. A heart is a frail thing. It has to go on working a long time. It is silly to endanger it for such coarse work. As if one burnt up diamonds in order to bake a potato.
As if one burnt up all the villages of France without by their destruction halting the German advance for a single day. And yet this stock of villages, this heritage, these ancient churches, these old houses with all the cargo of memories they carry, with their shining floors of polished walnut, the white linen in their cupboards, the laces at their windows that have served unfrayed so many generations – here they are burning from Alsace to the sea.
When you read this, you appreciate all the more every village rebuilt or restored, every surviving floor of polished walnut, every cupboard full of white linen.
See a similar simile from the same book.
Source: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras, trans. by Lewis Galantière (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), pp. 62-63
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