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