Anatomy of a Sentence: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars

Photo: Detail of Saint-Exupéry near the airplane he crashed in the Sahara Desert on December 30, 1935.

By Daniel Stephensen

I carry with me like a small poem this translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s plain and eloquent opening sentence from Wind, Sand and Stars

The earth teaches us more about ourselves than all the books in the world, because it is resistant to us.

I didn’t know of this sentence, which begins the book’s foreword, until I happened upon Henrik Becker’s German translation Wind, Sand und Sterne. The English translation Lewis Galantière made in 1939 for the U.S. market omits the foreword. In 1995, William Rees produced a new translation, the current Penguin edition, which restores the foreword and endeavors to make Saint-Exupéry’s prose move in English more as it does in French.

Effort against resistance is a striving for change: “Self-discovery comes when man measures himself against an obstacle,” Saint-Exupéry writes. “To attain it, he needs an implement. He needs a carpenter’s plane, or a plough. Little by little, as he walks behind the plough, the farmer forces out a few of nature’s secrets, and the truth which he uncovers is universal.”

The efforts we make against resistance bring about changes that offer us meaning. By applying a plane against the resistance of a plank, a carpenter can change it into a shelf, a tabletop, a seat. A chainsaw overcomes the resistance of a tree; a bridge overcomes the resistance of a gorge. Our bodies resist in obscure ways: Consider sufferers of chronic illness. The body with cancer, for example, or the body with an autoimmune disorder. The pervasive resistance of a chronic illness changes the sufferer’s understanding of her body and what it can do.

For me, Saint-Exupéry’s observation also offers a way to read his stories of adventure as studies in the conservation of human communities and the planet that sustains us. The earth, of whose body our bodies are made, offers both resistance and sustenance. With effort we can make use of it even as we keep solidarity with it, learning from and respecting its resistance. With effort we can learn one another and conduct our lives in cooperation, in unity.

The earth teaches us more about ourselves than all the books in the world, because it is resistant to us.

Saint-Exupéry’s ethical clarity is steadfast in his sentence above. At a time when compassion and common sense are held down under a mire of lies and greed and ecstatic political idiocy, to encounter such clarity reminds us that books are, at least, a good place to start remembering how to learn.


Daniel Stephensen (Melbourne, Australia) writes stories and poems, plays cello. Read his poetry at


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