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March 27, 2006

Rum Little Cove - T. E. Lawrence and his Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Seven Pillars of Wisdom
by T. E. Lawrence
Originally printed and privately circulated - "the Subscribers' Edition" - 1926
(with an earlier version - "the Oxford Text" - printed and privately circulated 1922)
Pp. 672. Jonathan Cape: 1935
Available in Penguin Classics (2000)

You asked me about Lawrence, sir, and I'll try to be completely honest. He's not well liked. Spends a good deal of time deliberately annoying people as far as I can see. His current pastime is to get all the memos in the office and correct their grammar. I've no idea what he thinks he's going to achieve by doing that . . . Loves to use words nobody else knows and passes a lot of remarks in a variety of foreign languages. Some of the things he says aren't entirely patriotic.

And I have to repeat this in all honesty, sir there is some talk that he's not entirely manly, if you know what I mean. Nothing very definite and I don't mean he's a coward. He's a tough little bugger, actually. I wouldn't underestimate him or want to tangle with him unless I had to. He might be a useful liaison with the Arabs he's the best at the language and it would get him out of the office . . .

I have no idea whether such a conversation ever occurred: I made it up. But it is the sort of account of himself which the author of Seven Pillars would have expected from his contemporaries. The book tells how Lawrence was sent from a kind of think-tank in Cairo in 1916 as a combination of liaison and intelligence officer to the Arab rebels against the Ottoman Empire in the Arabian Peninsula. His primary task was to report on whether there was a rebel leader worth backing and his decision was that Prince Feisal fitted the role. He was sent back to join the rebellion and within two years he moved from being a 29-year-old oddball lieutenant to the rank of colonel and was effectively acting general since he was virtually commanding the right flank of Viscount Allenby's army as it advanced up the Eastern side of the Mediterranean to Damascus. Heady stuff and well beyond any fiction which might have been constructed for Captain magazine.

Heat. Sand. Camels. Movement. Men. Death. Thirst. Then more of the same for 672 pages, which is the abridged version. The very existence of the book seems remarkable. Lawrence took no notes and did not keep a diary, yet is able to recall events on a daily basis: the average is three quarters of a page per day! He tells us not to trust his memory, but clearly expects us to ignore his advice. He supposedly lost the first version of the manuscript. It was originally called Revolt in the Desert, a pretty reasonable title. Lawrence used the quotation from Proverbs because it had been the title of a previous book of his which wasn't good enough to publish. It was not the only time in his life that he chose the unreasonable over the reasonable.

Of course it is impossible for someone of my age to read the book without the constant presence of imagery from David Lean's 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia which won seven Oscars. How many people have seen the film for every one who has read the book? A hundred thousand? Or more? Our history is surely as mythologised as was that of "Homeric" times. I have seen the film in its entirety seven or eight times. It is accurate only to the very broad outlines of the revolt as it is described in the book. Within that framework important events are necessarily compounded or omitted or taken out of order and incidents are invented for dramatic purposes. The cast of important characters in the book is very much longer than that in the film.

However, the film is, in my opinion, true to the deeper realities of the revolt, to its problems, its place in geopolitics and what it did to its leading protagonists. Also to the characters of Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), Feisal (Alec Guinness though the wrong age), Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) and Allenby (Jack Hawkins). The character of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) is a composite, though closer to Sherif Nasir than to any other. ("Sherif" here means a descendant from the prophet through his daughter Fatima and his grandson Hassan.)

It is a theme of both the film and the book that Lawrence feels increasingly deceitful in his relations with the Arabs about British plans for their future autonomy, given the Balfour Declaration and British imperial interests in Palestine which developed into the Mandate and later into the state of Israel. This remains one of the contemporary thrusts of Lawrence's writing, though I wouldn't regard it as required reading for anyone wanting to understand the Middle East.

On the other hand, it is a theme of the film that Lawrence becomes increasingly bloodthirsty while Sheriff Ali is increasingly disillusioned by the bloodletting. There is little justification for this in Lawrence's own account. It is true that Chapter 118 is devoted to a supposedly isolated incident in which Lawrence orders the massacre of retreating Turks. But they have subjected the women of the town of Tafas to an horrific raping and bayoneting and some of Lawrence's men are from Tafas. Even in the cool of my study ninety years on I'm inclined to think that "Take No Prisoners" was correct and probably couldn't have been prevented in any case. This was "madness born of horror" as Lawrence puts it and his continued comradeship with the Arabs required him to condone it.

Lawrence's view of who the Arabs are is complex and modern. They are a "manufactured" people which is broadly parallel to contemporary concepts of nationhood as "invented tradition" and the like. They are certainly not the inhabitants of Arabia and equally certainly not a "race": he points out that he has dealings with Arabs who look like Greeks, Turks and African negroes and that these physical differences are taken for granted. He himself is able to pass when necessary as a Circassian, meaning a person from the diaspora of North Caucasian Muslim refugees from Russian rule. His accent is Syrian though this refers to a broader area than the modern state of Syria. Only the language can define the Arab and it is an evolved compound of seven middle eastern languages. Lawrence is scornful of the academic classification of these languages as "semitic". Yet he must persuade these "Arabs" to fight against their fellow Muslims. It is of great benefit to the persuasion that the Turks are allied with the Christian Germans. He remarks the absolute and "fanatical" assumption of religious truth by the Arabs, though in his view it is something peculiar to the life of the desert and by no means the same with the "town Arabs". The persistence of fundamentalism in an urban context in our own day would have surprised him.

I would guess that 99% of war memoirs of the period do not mention sex, but it is different with Lawrence. In the first chapter we are told that:

. . . . our youths began to slake one another's needs in their own clean bodies a cold convenience that, by comparison (with prostitution) seemed sexless and pure. Later, some began to justify this sterile process, and swore that friends quivering together in the yielding sand with intimate hot limbs in supreme embrace, found there hidden in the darkness a sensual co-efficient of the mental passion which was welding our souls and spirits in one flaming effort.
Lawrence seems keen to assure us how common homosexuality is. More than half a batch of Turkish prisoners show evidence of "unnatural" sex. His two servant boys sleep together. He casually observes the "beauty" of the men of the Camel Corps, bathing in an oasis. In chapter 92 we are offered an account of the place of the homoerotic in the East:
In the Mediterranean, women's influence and supposed purpose were made cogent by an understanding in which she was accorded the physical world in simplicity, unchallenged, like the poor in spirit. Yet the same agreement, by denying equality of sex, made love, companionship and friendliness impossible between man and woman. Woman became a machine for muscular exercise, while man's psychic side could be slaked only amongst his peers. Whence arose these partnerships of man and man, to supply human nature with more than the contact of flesh with flesh.
Which is roughly the theory that my hitch-hiking contemporaries invoked to explain the frequent and unashamed attempts at seduction which we met with from older men once you got beyond Slovenia. At that age one is a natural relativist and the hand of the Bosnian policeman on your testicles is put down to local custom, notwithstanding the extreme hostility in principle of local religion.

Chapter 80 concerns the curious incident at Deraa when Lawrence is captured by the Bey commanding the town who wants him sexually. He is beaten until compliant and succeeds in masking his identity by crying out only in Arabic. However, he claims to have been beaten so emphatically that he no longer attracts the Bey. But on the other hand the incident is concluded with the remark that:
in Deraa that night the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.
Well did he or didn't he? And what the hell does it matter? Lawrence's allusions to his own homosexuality (the contemporary word "gay" doesn't really capture it) are heavy and flowery, but unmistakable. It is part of his being, his "drive" as his generation would have put it. It explains why he is there and in some ways (but only some ways) more at home among Arabs than among Englishmen. But is only part of what makes him a waspish outsider. He is tiny: five foot one inch tall and, on one trip back to Cairo, weighing in at under seven stone. He is illegitimate. He has enough hang-ups to fill a psychiatrist's waiting room all on his own.

Who would be a biographer? The exercise by its very nature seems to require knowledge of things which could not possibly be known. Lawrence is a mass of contradictions: he craves both acclaim and anonymity; he is a warrior, but "not a soldier", he is an ascetic and a sensualist and a patriot who dislikes his country. Is there sense to make here? Perhaps the best effort which can be made at verstehen is artistic making sense by acting. Certainly, my respect for Peter O'Toole's performance went up rather than down when I finally read the book.

Chapter 103 describes Lawrence's thirtieth birthday, a peaceful day on which he has time to assess himself. He has no difficulty in identifying:

the bundled powers and entities within me.
He accepts the contradictions. In his own words he contains both a yearning for distinction and a contempt for that yearning. He frankly dislikes himself and doesn't rate himself highly: the book is punctuated by accounts of his errors and inadequacies to put alongside his achievements. One of the most consistent parts of his outlook is a nagging, abrasive dualism which sets the will against the body. It is the dualism of the hero and the headbanger, of a man who can report that at one stage he has spent 66 out of 72 hours in the saddle, learning to control his camel while cat-napping. There must be some suspicion that he contrived to get himself thrashed. His ultimate mental state is "nihilism", but a nihilism which allows action and purpose immense achievement, but no belief in that achievement.

Is a hero just a psychopath who gets lucky with time and place? Might Lawrence have lived his life out as a rather nasty little don but for circumstance? The questions are bound to have a particular fascination for men of my generation. The Lawrence of the movie says that he is from a "fat land" and we can add that we have lived in a fat time: sixty years of peace and prosperity. We looked for the adventure I reached the desert, did the heat and thirst and the robe at a young age. But it was a harmless pastiche of an adventure, devoid of real test and real risk.

I read most of Seven Pillars in the Arabian Peninsula, in Dubai. Even a generation after Lawrence's death this was a place of black Bedouin tents and biplanes. Then up from the ground came a bubblin' crude . . . followed by hotels, racecourses, shopping malls and road after road. So as I read the heat and the sand were still there, but so were the cool drinks, the cranes and the skyscrapers and West Bromwich Albion larking about in the background. We can never know the future, but the easiest way of not knowing it is to underestimate the power of commercial forces.

Finally, a particular compliment to the filmscript of Robert Bolt and the direction of David Lean and a small touch which I now regard as brilliant. At the end of the book, in chapter 122 Lawrence is surveying the utter squalor and degradation of the Turkish hospital in Damascus. The situation is horrific, but not so bad as it was before he set to work on it. An English major, identifying the robed Lawrence as in charge, berates him. Lawrence's response is:

I cackled out like a chicken, with the wild laughter of strain.
The major's response to that is to strike him and call him a "Bloody brute". This scene is used in its exact detail in the movie which then has the same man speaking highly of Lawrence's heroism at his memorial service. Nothing could quite sum it up, but that is a rather good effort.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick. His previous Retrospective Reviews can be read here.


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Only the language can define the Arab and it is an evolved compound of seven middle eastern languages.

Which seven languages, please? And what is the source of this information?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 27, 2006 10:19 PM
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