Antoine de Saint-Exupéry flies over chess

by Sergio Ernesto Negri
10/7/2018 – “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly”. This phrase, extracted from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Little Prince’, has travelled all around the world, like its author had done while alive. The French writer and aviator was, incidentally, also very fond of chess. SERGIO NEGRI compiles quotes, anecdotes and interpretations that confirm this compelling, albeit unsurprising, connection.

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One must look with the heart…

Every kid that had the chance to read it surely remembers it tenderly. The magical novella The Little Prince, appealing to fantasy, invites us to consider the possibility of a better world — provided we regard love and friendship as central values in our lives.

Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger, comte de Saint-Exupéry, abbreviated Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), was the lyric creator of the famous work and — perhaps above all — a lover of aviation.

Hence his proclivity to flying, not only through the air, but — even better — on the wings of hope. The book attests this inclination. Also, his works show the author's passion for the subjects that engaged him during his life — among them, his beloved chess.

The Frenchman was a fan of games, some even of his own invention (his imagination seemed to be infinite!) Therefore, chess naturally entered his radar and called his attention.

Proof of this is that, a year after his death, his mother asked the French Air Force — where he was rendering services in his final days — to return a chess set, which was part of the precious belongings he took with him when he flew.

Previously, perhaps in happier times (life seemed infinite back then!), it is known that Saint-Exupéry played chess with several of his compatriots — for example, with another pilot, Jean-Marie Conty (1904-1999), in a Casablanca cafe in 1928, or with the great essayist and poet André Gide (1869-1951), in 1942 in Algiers.

Also, while waiting to be rescued along with two colleagues, in a swampy area of Senegal, the lost adventurers entertained themselves with what they would later call 'furious chess games' (although the dangers in those circumstances were probably outside the improvised board) during three days.

As a pilot, at an early stage, he was in charge of distributing correspondence between Africa, America and the Middle East. His journeys were not without risks, while always trying to go both further and faster. Among his later tasks, he collaborated in flying expeditions defending freedom in the struggle of civilisation against Nazism.

We should not lose sight of the fact that all these activities were deployed in early and absolutely experimental times for air travel. Therefore, each time an aircraft took off, an act of courage took place — in that context, the desire to complete a flight was inextricably linked with the disturbing certainty of danger, as the risk of losing one's life was ever present.

Always within a heroic framework, on December 30, 1935, after a twenty-hour trip, he had to perform a forced landing in the Sahara desert, while flying to far-off Saigon (currently Ho Chi Minh City). Dehydrated and without food, he and his co-pilot began to experience hallucinations, until a Bedouin providentially arrived on a camel and saved their lives. The memoir Wind, Sand and Stars, published in 1939, is a direct reference to this experience.

Given these precedents, it is not strange to find out that so many somersaults in the sky led Saint-Exupéry to a premature death. He was on the island of Corsica, on July 31, 1944, during the Second World War, as part of a unit sent to make a photographic recognition of the German front in advance of the Allied landing in Provence. After taking off on an aircraft that had a flying range of about six hours, the pilot lost control — and this became the fatal end to Saint-Exupéry'.

His remains were recovered much later in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and when, in 2003, the plane's remains were salvaged, a portfolio was found...with a chessboard inside!

The retrospective reconstruction of the events proved what had always been suspected: the aviator perished while doing what he loved. In the agonising hour, it is evident that the game served him as a companion in his solitary final excursion. He was probably trying to reinforce his sense of freedom.


Saint-Exupéry and Marcel Peyrouton (French General Resident), Tunis 1935

In a connection that unites him with distant Argentina, it must be mentioned that he met his wife in Buenos Aires. In addition, he served as director of Aeroposta Argentina, a subsidiary of the French Aéropostale — he was sent to organise that corporation's network in Latin America.

In this context, in 1931, his second novel, Night Flight, appeared, which followed his previous work in the genre, Southern Mail, which was published in 1928. It was seen then that, beyond his wanderings through space, Saint-Exupéry was about to cultivate another of his facets, a more earthly one — that of a writer, which would later transcend further than aviation.

As it could not be otherwise, the union of his two passions (literature and aviation) produced his first short story, which appeared in 1926, and which was naturally titled The Aviator. The unsurpassable The Little Prince was published in 1943, while The Wisdom of the Sands (Citadelle in the original French), which probably represents his greatest literary legacy, was published in 1948, four years after his death.

His literary legacy is formed by previously unpublished loose notes, the product of deep reflections on topics that were of great interest to him. It is in The Wisdom of the Sands where chess showed up, denoting the writer's interest in its practice. Using the game as an allegory, while developing the idea that the only truths that can be demonstrated are those of the past and that creation does not belong to the domain of reason, the author expresses:

Thus, your average intelligent technicians discuss their moves as in chess. And I must admit that, at the end of the day, they will play the safe move (I still distrust them because you play chess with simple elements, but the dilemmas of life are not to be weighed. When a man is both petty and vain, is it possible to tell by means of calculation — if for some reason his defects come into conflict — which of them will triumph, vanity or pettiness?) Maybe they will play the safest move. But they have forgotten life. Because in the game of chess your opponent only pushes his piece after you have pushed yours. And everything happens, then, outside of time, where a tree cannot grow. The game of chess is like something thrown out of time. But there is an evolving organism in life. An organism and not a succession of causes and effects — even if later, in order to amaze your students, you discover the causes and effects. Because cause and effect are but reflections of another power: the creation that is going to dominate. And in life your adversary does not wait. He already played twenty times before you move once. And your move is now absurd. And why should he wait? Have you seen the dancer wait? He is bound to his adversary and so he reigns over him. Those who are intelligent, I know, will come too late.

Going through the passage, we clearly notice that, according to Saint-Exupéry, chess can be considered to be outside of time. We also note a sort of warning: it is necessary not to fall into the excesses of intelligence, as we might arrive too late to our desired destination.

Also, in the eternal dialectic between reason and creation, he judges where we should locate the game. In any case, he associates the hobby with life, portrayed as a game that is disputed with an adversary that is, perhaps, invisible.

In another section, always in a noticeable chess tone, he states:

So for you, who are one, to remove yourself from the other, there is no need to procure anything that is visible and material, or to change yourself in any way. Suffice that I teach you the language that allows you to read what is around you, and in you will emerge a new face and your heart will burn, similar — if you are dreary — to some pieces of coarse wood, arranged at random on a board, but which, if I thought you the science of chess, will shed you the radiance of their problems.

While meditating on the acceptance of death, he writes:

You are similar to the player who, ignoring the game of chess, seeks his pleasure in the stacking of gold and ivory pieces, and finds there only boredom, while the other, the one who understands the divinity of the rules and has awakened to the subtle game, will find his light in the simple chunks of coarse wood. Because the desire to demonstrate everything you have makes you attached to material goods and not to the face that they compose, that which is important to first recognise.

While analysing the importance of education, he assures:

I do not know what it means to raise a man if not by teaching him to find faces among things. I perpetuate the gods. So it happens with the pleasure of the game of chess. I save it by preserving the rules, but you rather want slaves that win those chess games. You want to give love letters, after seeing some other cry after having received them, and you are astonished not to draw tears with them. It is not enough to give. It would have been necessary to build the receiver. For the pleasure of chess, you would have had to build the player. For love, it would have been necessary to build the thirst for love... 

Saint-Exupéry at a Montréal hotel, with his editor Bernard Valiquette (left) and the acting Major at the time Paul Leblanc 

Three final chess references by the French writer, also products of his deep outlook:

a) The one who neglects, due to vanity, to consider the ceremonial of chess as essential, will not taste its victory. The one who neglects, due to vanity, to create a god of lumber and nails, will not manage to build the ship.

b) It is by greasing your rifle with respect for the rifle and for the grease, it is by counting your steps while walking down the road, it is by greeting your corporal with respect for the corporal and for the greeting that you find the illumination of the sentinel — it is by pushing your chess pieces with the seriousness of the conventions of the chess game, it is by blushing in anger when your opponent cheats that you find the illumination of the winner of chess.

c) So it happens in chess: there is one who beats and one who is beaten. And the one that beats smirks to humiliate the beaten. For thus are men. And you come, with your justice, to forbid the victories in chess. You say, "What is the merit of the winner? He was smarter or better acquainted with the art of playing. His victory is only the expression of a state. Why would he be glorified for being healthier or nimbler or more agile?" But I have seen the defeated playing chess for years in the hope of victory. Because you are richer while existing within victory, even if you do not do it for yourself. The same happens when you find the pearl at the bottom of the ocean.

We clearly see how Saint-Exupéry, in his most philosophical and essential work — where he dealt with eternal dilemmas and reflected on life, death, education and other central issues of existence — puts chess, the game that accompanied him in many vital experiences, on a noticeable pedestal.

Extending the analysis, although we cannot assure this was the writer's intention, it could be speculated that the Citadelle that gives title to the text has some direct relation with the game. As is known, in older literature — particularly medieval — the rook in chess was alluded to with that name, in accordance with a design that was then used in Europe — one that found its origin in previous Eastern versions (from India, Persia and the Muslim world) — which connoted the shape of a carriage or a ship.

But that is not the case. The 'citadel' has a deeper sense, as it alludes to a material representation of the values and beliefs that govern an existence that acquires, over time, rather 'stony' structures. Therefore, we should realise that we are facing constructions that must be overthrown, particularly when we find ourselves in a situation in which we want to reacquire a state of freedom that, at times, is forgotten or lost.

This must be done in spite of the risks involved in abandoning a state of (apparent) protection, as we become necessarily more exposed, with our walls demolished, when the 'citadel' we had previously erected collapses.

We can conclude with a reflection by Saint-Exupéry: "Because it has been revealed to me that man is like a citadel. He destroys the walls to ensure freedom, only to become a mere dismantled fortress, open to the stars. Then begins the anguish of not being..."

We would like to believe that when the author (or anybody else) finds himself opposite the firmament, without shelter, when the sensations of freedom and anguish are necessarily intermingled, chess, not as a literary allegory, but as a magical game, can serve as inspiration, as a distraction, perhaps as a soothing presence...

Translation from Spanish and French (Citadelle) by Carlos Colodro


Sergio was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Master FIDE, who developed studies on the relationship of chess with culture and history.


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