“For a moment of night we have a glimpse of ourselves and of our world islanded in its stream of stars — pilgrims of mortality, voyaging between horizons across eternal seas of space and time,” the great nature writer Henry Beston exulted in his stunning 1928 meditation on how night nourishes the human spirit. Indeed, there is a strange splendor to night, to how it envelops us in its consolatory darkness and lets us metabolize the day’s sorrows, how it clarifies our confusions in dreams we never fully comprehend, how it reminds us that each time the Earth turns away from the Sun, our days are diminished by one.
No one has articulated this clarifying power of night, nor its attunement to the urgency of mortality, more beautifully than Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (June 29, 1900–July 31, 1944) in his philosophical memoir Flight to Arras (public library), composed just as he was about to publish The Little Prince.
The afternoon before a terrifying reconnaissance mission to fly over the German tank parks scattered across Arras, Saint-Exupéry finds himself preoccupied with questions of war, death, sacrifice, and heroism, but vows to think about them that night, if he returns live. He contemplates this time of numinous clarity, beyond the cold metallic thought-containers of the daytime analytical mind:
Night, when words fade and things come alive. When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again. When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of the trees.
Thrust into a moment of existential reverie by this twilight confrontation with mortality, he adds:
Day belongs to family quarrels, but with the night he who has quarreled finds love again. For love is greater than any wind of words… Love is not thinking, but being… I longed for night and for the rebirth in me of the being that merits love. For night, when my thoughts would be of civilization, of the destiny of man, of the savour of friendship in my native land. For night, so that I may yearn to serve some overwhelming purpose which at this moment I cannot define. For night, so that I may advance a step towards fixing it in my unmanageable language. I longed for night as the poet might do, the true poet who feels himself inhabited by a things obscure but powerful, and who strives to erect images like ramparts round the thing in order to capture it. To capture it in the snare of images.
I should wait for night, I said to myself; and if I am still alive I would walk alone… Alone and safely isolated in my beloved solitude. So that I might discover why it is I ought to die.
Four years later, as The Little Prince was meeting the open arms of the world with its timeless message of love beyond life and death, Saint-Exupéry disappeared into the Mediterranean night on a reconnaissance mission, never to be seen again.
Couple with Aldous Huxley on the transcendent power of music at night, then revisit Saint-Exupéry on what the desert taught him about the meaning of life and how a simple human smile saved his life during the war.