Transmitting the Passwords – or Not

I ran across a poem, said to have been written by the French aviator/writer Antoine de St-Exupery.

I don’t think St-Ex wrote this poem: I’m pretty familiar with his works and haven’t seen this poem in any of them, and it also doesn’t seem stylistically quite right.  I do, however, recognize the book and the passage that were surely the inspiration for the poem,  That would be his unfinished novel of ideas Citadelle, published in English under the unfortunate title Wisdom of the Sands.  (The reason the novel is unfinished is that St-Ex disappeared in 1944 while flying recon missions in a P-38 with the American forces)

Citadelle represents the musings of a fictional desert prince: on society, on government, on humanity.  Here are some excerpts from the relevant passage:

“Nevertheless,” I mused, “these men live not by things but by the meaning of things, and thus it is needful that they should transmit the passwords to each other, generation by generation.  That is why I see them, no sooner a child is born, making haste to inure him in the usage of their language; for truly it is the key to their treasure.  So as to be able to transport him into this harvest of golden wonders they have reaped, they spare no toil in opening up within him the ways of portage.  For hard to put into words, weighty yet subtle, are the harvests it behooves us to transmit from one generation to another.”

“..But if the new generation lives in houses about which it knows nothing save their utility, what will it find to do in such a desert of a world?  For even as your children must first be taught the art of music, if they are to take pleasure in playing a stringed instrument; even so, if you would have them, when they come to man’s estate, capable of the emotions worthiest of man, you must teach hem to discern, behind the diversity of things, the true lineaments of your house, your domain, your empire.

Else that new generation will but pitch camp therein, like a horde of savages in a town they have captured. And what joy would such barbarians get of your treasures?  Lacking the key of your language, they would know not how to turn them to account….(the barbarian) throws down your walls and scatters your possessions to the winds.  This he does to revenge himself on the instrument which he knows not how to play, and presently he sets the village on fire–which at least rewards him with a little light!  But soon he loses interest, and yawns. For you must know what you are burning, if you are to find beauty in its light.  Thus with the candle you burn before your god. But to the barbarian the flames of your house will say nothing, for they are not a sacrificial fire.”

“..This, too, is why I bid you bring up your children to be like you.  It is not the function of some petty officer to hand down to him their inheritance,; for this is something not comprised in his manual of Regulations..You shall build your children in your image, lest in late days they come to drag their lives out joyously in a land which will seem to them but an empty camping place, and whose treasures they will allow to rot away uncared-for, because they have not been given its keys.”

It strikes me that most of the institutions of America today–and also, I think, throughout much of the West–are acting, unconsciously or with intention, to inhibit the kind of password-transmission about which St-Ex wrote in the above passage.

I’m also reminded of something CS Lewis wrote, which I quote very loosely:  “If you want to destroy an an infantry unit, you cut it off from its adjacent units.  If you want to destroy a generation, you cut it off from its adjoining generations.”

Two earlier posts inspired by CitadelleWhen Sleep the Sentinels and Of Springs and Cables

9 thoughts on “Transmitting the Passwords – or Not”

  1. I’m reminded again of a story related by the late Dr David Yeagley, a Comanche Indian whose traditional name was “Bad Eagle.” He is describing an interaction that took place in one of his classes.

    “‘LOOK, DR. YEAGLEY, I don’t see anything about my culture to be proud of. It’s all nothing. My race is just nothing.’

    The girl was white. She was tall and pretty, with amber hair and brown eyes. For convenience’ sake, let’s call her “Rachel.”

    I had been leading a class on social psychology, in which we discussed patriotism – what it means to be a people or a nation. The discussion had been quite lively. But when Rachel spoke, everyone fell silent.

    “Look at your culture,” she said to me. “Look at American Indian tradition. Now I think that’s really great. You have something to be proud of. My culture is nothing.”

    Her words disturbed and offended me in a way that I could not quite enunciate.”


    “When Rachel denounced her people, she did it with the serene self-confidence of a High Priestess reciting a liturgy. She said it without fear of criticism or censure. And she received none. The other students listened in silence, their eyes moving timidly back and forth between me and Rachel, as if unsure which of us constituted a higher authority.”

    Yeagley saw a resemblance between Rachel and those Frenchwomen who were quick to associate with the conquering Germans…and he wondered:

    “Who had conquered Rachel’s people? What had led her to disrespect them? Why did she behave like a woman of a defeated tribe?”

    This is what you get when the passwords are not transmitted. (Or, alternatively, maybe ‘Rachel’ was just trying to suck up to what she thought the professor would want her to say, not realizing who she was actually dealing with)

  2. I find St-Exupery a bit highfalutin and have a limited tolerance for allegory and mysticism.

    It seems to me that every generation comes of age determined not to repeat the mistakes of previous ones, yet wars continue. Advancing their own literature, their own music yet Homer and Bach abide still.

    I am genuinely curious just what Rachel saw as the overwhelming accomplishments and legacy of Native American culture and why those were so superior to hers. As to the last reflection, all of us are products of conquest, both as conqueror and conquered. Certainly, Native American culture and history is one of displacement. Of pushing and being pushed from one place to another. This perfectly mirrors European history prior to the advent of “civilization” and the forced imposition of same on those lacking it.

  3. MCS…I suspect it was more about learned contempt for her own culture than really knowing anything about Native American cultures–which, of course, varied a great deal from tribe to tribe.

    And note Yeagley’s response: ““When Rachel denounced her people, she did it with the serene self-confidence of a High Priestess reciting a liturgy. She said it without fear of criticism or censure. And she received none.”

  4. Somewhere, Yeagley also quoted what he said is a Cheyenne saying:

    “A people is not defeated until the hearts of its women are on the ground”

    …which may be a good example of actual Native American wisdom.

  5. The idea that a culture would lose the ability to access its past, lost touch with its culture isn”t new. History, going back to the Romans, is full of stories about the contemporary detaching itself from history and culture through indolence and decadence. These days it just takes a trip to Europe wand walking through all of those cathedrals that stand empty and exist seemingly for most part as museum for tourists

    Here in the US that process is being actively undertaken by two forces, as if a pincer movement. There are the radicals and post-modernsists who engage in iconoclasm and engage either in BLM/AntiFa pulling down statues or in the Gramsci/1619 Long March of delegitimatizing American culture and actively separating our youth from it. We’re not at the point of the French Revolution’s Year One or the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero but I’m sure that’s just an administrative oversight.

    The other force is more respectable though more deadly, that of the historicists who see History as one large sweep toward the bigger and better, this is where you find the technocratic and progressive Left. Ideas and culture are bound within the time frame of the history in which they emerged and interact with that of the past as in a dialectical. This means that there are no eternal truths that ring throughout time, nothing from the past that is to be preserved, because we have moved on to bigger and better things, we through reason and experience have progressed. Thus the empty cathedrals.

    Both the radicals and progressives have destroyed and/or corrupted the symbols of the past. Maybe it’s corrupting the language so that the current use of terms such as “democracy”, “rights”, and “racism” are divorced from past usage. Then there is art and various forms of human achievement which are delegitimized as either archaic or the result of oppressor groups such as the cisgender white heteronormative patriarchy.

    Either way, nothing from the past is either really worth keeping or has much to teach us and therefore can be liquidated at any time for present value. Think of those Just Stop Oil protesters symbolically vandalizing paintings by throwing soup on them

    As for the progressives? Strange that the groups that believe in the very things that connect people to the past – patriotism, nationalism, religion, tradition, family – are considered “far right” and therefore beyond the pale. That’s not by accident. Kids these days are not only ignorant of their past and culture but are taught to be repelled by it

  6. Hoyt at Insty mentions an interesting metaphor for the transmission of culture which is “genetic”

    Personally I think that would a useful framework for society as a whole to think about the subject. A culture which doesn’t pass along its genetic code dies. At the family level this is implicitly understood, but it also needs to be on the societal level as well. The Left understands this which is why they grabbed control over education and cultural institutions, A culture which hates itself will not transmit and reproduce itself, but will die out.

    What is interesting about the link that Hoyt provides, which involves a discussion of the apartheid system, deals with the limitations of a multicultural society. That conversation is of course verboten in our present day

Leave a Comment