An Incomplete Thought about Beauty and “Sexuality”

Flight to ArrasI recently re-read Flight to Arras, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s memoir of his service as a French reconnaissance pilot during the German invasion of France in 1940. As his air group retreats before the advancing German forces, they are forced to live with local peasants.

One evening, after returning from a particularly dangerous mission, he sits down to dinner with the farmer he is staying with, the farmer’s wife, and their young niece. The farmer breaks bread and passes it around the table. Then Saint-Exupéry comments:

I looked at the beautiful niece beside me and said to myself, “Bread, in this child, is transmuted into languid grace. It is transmuted into modesty. It is transmuted into gentle silence. And tomorrow, perhaps, this same bread, by virtue of a single gray blot [German soldiers wore gray uniforms] rising on the edge of that ocean of wheat, though it nourish this same lamp, will perhaps no longer send forth this same glowing light. The power that is in this bread will have gone out of it.”

I had made war this day to preserve the glowing light in that lamp, and not to feed that body. I had made war for the particular radiation into which bread is transmuted in the homes of my countrymen. What moved me so deeply in that pensive little girl was the insubstantial vestment of the spirit. It was the mysterious totality composed by the features of her face. It was the poem on the page, more than the page itself.

The little girl felt I was looking at her. She raised her eyes to mine. It seemed to me that she smiled at me. Her smile was hardly more than a breath over the face of the waters; but that fugitive gleam was enough. I was moved. I felt, mysteriously present, a soul that belonged in this place and no other. There was a peace here, sensing which I murmured to myself, “The peace of the kingdom of silence.” That smile was the glow of the shining wheat.

The face of the niece was unruffled again, veiling its unfathomable depth. The farmer’s wife sighed, looked round at us, and spoke no word. The farmer, his mind on the day to come, sat wrapped in his earthy wisdom. Behind the silence of these three beings there was an inner abundance that was like the patrimony of a whole village asleep in the night—and like it, threatened. Strange the intensity with which I felt myself responsible for that invisible patrimony. I went out of the house to walk alone on the highway, and I carried with me a burden that seemed to me tender and in no wise heavy, like a child asleep in my arms.

It seems clear that the beauty Saint-Exupéry is responding to is a feminine beauty. Consider how the scene would change if he were describing the same feelings for the middle-aged farmer: “He raised his eyes to mine. It seemed to me that he smiled at me. His smile was hardly more than a breath over the face of the waters; but that fugitive gleam was enough. I was moved. I felt, mysteriously present, a soul that belonged in this place and no other.” That might be an interesting scene in its own right; but it would be very different from the scene Saint-Exupéry actually described.

Indeed, Flight to Arras contains some beautifully lyrical passages expressing the connection Saint-Exupéry feels with his fellow pilots. But in those passages, he is not captivated by his friends in the same way that he is by the beauty of the farmer’s niece.

I’m not trying to read anything explicitly “sexual” into this scene; indeed, none of the emotions he expresses would be inappropriate if the niece (whose age is never specified) were still a young child. But it also seems impossible to interpret the emotion in the scene apart from the color and texture provided by a man’s admiration of a woman’s beauty.

Yet it’s also clear that the appreciation here is not the feeling a man might have for a pinup model—the girl’s modesty is an integral part of her beauty in his eyes. And indeed, male chastity also is an essential ingredient to this kind of appreciation: only a man who can properly channel this kind of appreciation can admire the beauty of a young girl in this way. Without the self-control that is is the fruit of the virtue of chastity, the seeds planted by this kind of innocent beauty can easily grow into something very ugly (think, for example, of the martyrdom of Maria Goretti).

It seems to me that this kind of episode is helpful for understanding what the Catechism of the Catholic Church means when it says that “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others” (2332).

A Freudian reading of this would see libido—the desire for sexual pleasure—lurking behind the scenes in every human relationship. But that is certainly not a Catholic understanding of the human person. If I am understanding the Catechism correctly, it seems to be making a rather different point. It is saying that “sexuality” is much broader than merely the overt (or even covert) desire for sexual acts. The right stewarding of this much more pervasive relational capacity is essential to all rightly ordered human relationships.

This is why the Catechism goes on to say that “The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality. Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion” (2347).

Intuitively, I think most of us recognize that we respond to other persons as male or as female in ways that go far beyond specifically sexual temptation. Saint-Exupéry is drawn to the beauty of the farmer’s niece in a way that is shaped by her femininity; but his feeling is not therefore lustful. Nor is there anything quasi-nuptial about the scene. What is revealed instead is a particular kind of friendship: the beauty of the farmer’s niece reminds Saint-Exupéry of what he is fighting for, and renews his willingness to return to the air and “lay down his life for his friends.”

The scene Saint-Exupéry describes is, in several obvious ways, different from the kinds of experiences we have talked about here under the heading “spiritual friendship.” But that difference does not mean that there is nothing we can learn from it, at least by analogy. Attraction to another person can take many different forms. But to notice this spark within another person is not, to begin with, necessarily either good or evil. It can turn—as it did in the case of Maria Goretti’s attacker—into horrible evil. But it can also, as the Catechism recognizes, be purified or sublimated into something that helps us to “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection” and “leads to spiritual communion.”

One thought on “An Incomplete Thought about Beauty and “Sexuality”

  1. Thank you. This is beautiful. This is so many kinds of blessing for the despairing.

    “…the girl’s modesty is an integral part of her beauty in his eyes.”
    Yes! Let’s regain a high value of modesty for God’s people.

    The world is yearning to hear it from us… if God’s people rise up to be men and women who will …somehow.. love people by pointing them back to the beauty & value in modesty… well, I’ll leave that as an incomplete thought.

    “…the beauty of the farmer’s niece reminds Saint-Exupéry of what he is fighting for, and renews his willingness to return to the air and “lay down his life for his friends.”
    Beautiful.

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