In his memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – author of the novella The Little Prince (1943) – relates the tale of his friend and fellow pilot Henri Guillaumet. The two men flew for the French airmail service in its early days. One winter, while on duty in South America, Guillaumet was en route from Chile to Argentina when a current drew his plane into low cloud and storm amid the peaks of the Andes. He circled for hours in a vain search for a breach in the clouds through which he might safely escape. He eventually ran out of fuel and was forced to down his aircraft in the frozen heart of the mountains. A rescue mission consisting solely of Saint-Exupéry and another pilot plied the world’s longest mountain range tirelessly for days in search of Guillaumet. But looking for a sign of him in that vast labyrinth of snow and ice was like looking for a diamond in the sands of the Sahara. The locals offered condolences, but no hope: ‘The Andes never give up a man in winter,’ they said with downcast eyes.
Meanwhile, Guillaumet huddled in a snow trench beneath sacks of mail for two days and nights waiting out the storm. When the sky finally cleared, he knew that there was only one way out. He began a most unlikely and perilous descent on foot, with scant rations and no mountaineering equipment, through one of the most inhospitable environments on the planet. Guillaumet trekked five days and four nights through the snow. And he survived. At his tearful reunion with Saint-Exupéry, Guillaumet – emaciated, devoured by frost, and barely able to speak – declared: ‘What I have done, I swear to you, no animal would ever have done.’ Saint-Exupéry would later write of that sentence that it was ‘the noblest ever spoken’, and that it ‘honours’ and ‘defines man’s place in the universe’.
What did he mean by that? How do Guillaumet’s deeds and words situate us with respect to nonhuman animals? Indeed, was it not precisely as an animal that Guillaumet returned to the living? He himself attested that his rational faculties had largely deserted him from famine and fatigue. The homecoming of Odysseus, one might think, was uniquely human, achieved through species-unique cunning and eloquence. But Guillaumet’s feat – was it not the brute, obstinate will to live, as evident in a simple bacterium as in a human being, that preserved Guillaumet and carried him onward when his properly human, rational faculties had left him?
(Continue reading at aeon.co.)