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A Wanderer After Sensations


ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence. By John Mack. Little, Brown. $15.00.

T. E. Lawrence was a self-conscious and introspective Phaethon-figure who compensated for feelings of inferiority by reckless aspirations and self-lacerating failures to achieve the impossible. His life was extraordinary in three respects. He transformed himself from an obscure archeologist with no military experience into a brilliant strategist and warrior who inspired the victory and independence of an alien race. At the postwar conferences in Paris and Cairo, Lawrence, through the force of his personality and the example of his integrity, persuaded the political leaders to “settle” the Middle East in accordance with his ideas and to place the Hashemite emirs on the thrones of Transjordan and Iraq. As Arnold Toynbee wrote of Lawrence’s effect on the Council of Ten: “They had started the session as conscious arbiters of the destinies of mankind; they were ending it as captive audience of a minor suppliant’s interpreter.” From his war experience and during his years of diplomacy, Lawrence created Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a spiritual autobiography and idealistic confession of self-betrayal, destruction, and renunciation which is one of the masterpieces of the modern age.

Though John Mack assumes that a psychiatrist has a greater capacity for understanding Lawrence than anyone else, there is more insight in Malraux’s brief and brilliant essay than in Mack’s long biography. Mack fails to mention both Malraux and Nietzsche, whose concept of the Will to Power had a profound philosophical and personal influence on Lawrence’s character and career. Mack’s loose, baggy monster, whose pompous and pretentious banalities recall the classroom and the couch, is a pasticcio of psychoanalytical phraseology (“flagellation problem,” “troubled self-regard”), canned literary and political history (including excerpts from his own undergraduate “term paper”), biographical description, and sex. Reading Mack’s prose is like moving through mud, and the sequence of introductory chapters brings the turgid narrative to a dead halt:

Between this level and the deepest or “ultimate” levels of motive and need in the dark recesses of the soul are various strata of motivation deriving from different psychological levels of consciousness and periods of development, which find outward expression in the multiple confluences of private purpose and public opportunity.

The alliteration and parallelism in the subordinate clause, which suggest a stylistic effort, make the sentence even more agonizing.

Mack’s book, though far from satisfactory, is an improvement on the denigrating and destructive biography of Richard Aldington (1955) and the lively but unreliable biography of Knightley and Simpson (1969). He has done extensive and thorough research during the last twelve years, and he gives a much more balanced evaluation of the printed Arab sources than Suleiman Mousa (though Mack’s interviews with the Bedouin soldiers are not trustworthy). He has also learned a good deal from Lawrence’s youngest brother, Arnold, and oldest brother, Bob (who deleted many passages from his edition of the Home Letters), from his comrade-in-arms Stewart Newcombe, and from the son of his mentor, David Hogarth, Mack has not interviewed Robert Graves, Sir Reader Bullard, and Sir Alec Kirkbride (an eyewitness who verified to me the authenticity of Tallal’s sacrificial charge and the slaughter at Tafas). But I can confirm that his interviews with W. O. Ault, William Yale, and Jock Chambers, who knew Lawrence at Jesus College, in the Middle East, and in the ranks of the RAF, are useful and reliable.

For the most part, Mack uses new and massive evidence to confirm the generally accepted views about Lawrence. He emphasizes the self-hatred engendered by Lawrence’s illegitimacy and his mother’s hope that her son would redeem her guilt. Though this is convincing, Mack underestimates Lawrence’s happy childhood, his secret pride at being the son of a nobleman, and the sense of aloofness that allowed him to remain outside conventional ways of thought and action.

Mack quite rightly states that Lawrence was not working as a British spy during the dig at Carchemish; that he served both British imperialism and the cause of Arab independence; that he wanted to “free” the Arabs from the Turks as well as to include them as a willing Dominion of the British Empire (he believed that “Arab unity is a madman’s notion”); that Lawrence’s accounts of his accomplishments were largely accurate (General Wingate recommended him for a Victoria Cross after the ride behind enemy lines to Baalbek and Damascus in June 1917); that he was tortured and raped at Deraa and horrified by the sexual pleasure he derived from this traumatic experience; that his personality was radically changed by the war; that he had a complete breakdown in 1922; that he enlisted in the ranks to do penance and “kill the old Adam”; that his flagellation was a deliberate repetition of the torture at Deraa; and that his suicidal motorcycle rides were his way of reviving his jaded nerves and broken will. Lawrence made serious suicide threats before the famous letters of 1925 which led to his reenlistment in the RAF, for he wrote to Siegfried Sassoon in an unpublished letter of Novemher 23, 1923: “I’m very wearied of all living” and asked if it was “worth hanging on.”

Certain of Mack’s minor points need refinement or correction. Lawrence’s “long, devoted letters home . . .which were directed principally to his mother, and must have pleased his parents immensely,” contained boring technical descriptions of castles, deliberately avoided personal matters, and maintained a formal distance from his mother. It is extremely unlikely that Abd el Kader’s description of Lawrence led to his capture by the Turkish Bey or that the Bey realized he had captured Lawrence, for Lawrence did not take revenge on Abd el Kader when they met at Damascus, and the Bey negligently allowed Lawrence, who had a £15,000 reward on his head, to escape.

Archeology was not “cut off to Lawrence as a profession” after the war, despite political surveillance in the Middle East, for he could have pursued this interest, had he wished to do so, in Greece, Mexico, or Cambodia. Sayyid Talib, Feisal’s leading rival in Iraq, was not “arrested out of fear that he would foment violence,” but kidnapped by the British (under the orders of Sir Percy Cox) and exiled to Ceylon in order to clear Feisal’s way to the throne. Mack describes Lawrence’s cottage, Clouds Hill, but does not mention its peculiar Spartan and claustrophic atmosphere, which resembles the inside of a submarine. Lawrence did know about Roger Casement’s homosexual diaries and could not write the Irish patriot’s biography because “the Government refuse all access to those confiscated diaries . . .and without them there cannot be a life of him written” (Letters, p. 863). Finally, like all writers who describe Lawrence’s fatal accident, Mack writes “Lawrence swerved suddenly to avoid the boys” on bicycles, but does not add that he actually hit the boys (who were hospitalized but not seriously injured).

The canard in Mack’s book is the “discovery” of Lawrence’s teen-age romance which resulted in his “marriage proposal” and rejection while an undergraduate at Oxford. The source of this absurdity is the lady herself (one of a legion of women who imagined Lawrence was in love with them), who concocted the fantasy and somehow convinced Mack that it was true, The romance and proposal are contradicted not only by everything we know about Lawrence’s extreme Swiftian revulsion from heterosexuality but also by many statements in Mack’s book. His friend remarked that as a teenager Lawrence “had no interest in girls and stayed away” from all the parties that the other boys attended; his mother’s ominous statement, “We could never be bothered with girls in our house”; Lawrence’s assertion to his brother that “Prostitution is marriage a la carte. . . . I always thought we wouldn’t go in for it in our family”; and his later explanation to the “scrawny and miserable-looking” beloved that he could not give her away at her wedding because “he was too short and would look silly walking down the aisle with her.” Mack’s remark, “We will never know in what way Lawrence’s disappointment in love affected his decision to leave England and live in the Middle East,” undermines the credibility of the entire book, for Lawrence’s passionate interest in archeology, medieval castles, and the Crusades made his attraction to Arab countries almost inevitable.

Mack’s discussion of Lawrence’s sexual pathology, which he awkwardly and euphemistically calls his “inability to come to terms with sexuality and childrearing,” is the weakest part of the book. There is no serious discussion of the autobiographical Seven Pillars of Wisdom; and Mack frequently quotes crucial, complex, and ambiguous passages from Lawrence’s works and then pushes on as if they were perfectly clear. He never attempts to explain why Lawrence preferred “a new master species—birth control for us, to end the human race in fifty years—and then a clear field for some cleaner mammal”; why a sanitary napkin was “the horror of almost final squalidity”; and what he meant by the qualifying phrase in his confession: “I do not love anybody and have not, I think ever—or hardly ever.”

Though Lawrence wrote to Graves defending his scatological attitude toward sex: “Your last page, about f—ing, defeats me wholly. As I wrote (with some courage, I think: few people admit the damaging ignorance) I haven’t ever and don’t much want to,” Mack endorses Arnold Lawrence’s Panglossian assertion that his brother would have “gladly accepted for himself” the fate of a happy marriage. And though Mack finds “no evidence” of Lawrence’s homosexuality and claims his male friendships were “nonsexual” and “playful,” he does not mention the horrible photographs of the Turkish wounded which Lawrence kept at Clouds Hill; does not discuss the nature of Lawrence’s intimate friendships with Vyvyan Richards, Ernest Altounyan, E. M. Forster, Frederic Manning, and the beautiful airman R. M. Guy; and idealizes Lawrence’s relation with Dahoum by observing: “It is likely that the intensity of feelings expressed in relation to Dahoum is displaced in part” from his younger brother Will, who was killed in action in 1915.

The compulsive and brutal beatings delivered on his bare buttocks, which Lawrence experienced and paid for during the last twelve years of his life, carried the masochistic warrior beyond the pleasure principle and allowed him to redeem himself (though not in the way his mother intended) by enduring what had once crushed his body and spirit and to displace self-destruction with self-punishment, It is difficult to agree with Mack’s statement that the beatings, which were “severe enough to produce a seminal emission,” were an attempt “to destroy Lawrence’s sexuality.” For the bizarre letters which arranged the flagellations reveal that he enjoyed this tragic method of achieving sexual gratification. As Rousseau wrote of his beatings in Book One of the Confessions:

I had discovered in the shame and pain of the punishment an admixture of sensuality which had left me rather eager than otherwise for a repetition by the same hand. . . . Who could have supposed that this childhood punishment. . .would determine my tastes and desires, my passions, my very self for the rest of my life.

Arnold Lawrence, T. E.’s surviving brother and literary executor, has tried—during the 40 years since the fatal motor-cycle accident—to suppress and conceal certain aspects of T. E. ‘s life. Basil Liddell-Hart, Ronald Storrs, Lewis Namier, Winston Churchill, and others whom Aldington called the “Lawrence Bureau” attempted to prevent the publication of his biography, which disclosed Lawrence’s (and his brothers’) illegitimacy while his mother, who died in 1959 at the age of 98, was still alive. Arnold Lawrence knew about the flagellation ritual as early as 1935 and obliquely referred to it in print in 1937, but he was able to keep it secret until 1968 when John Bruce, who administered the beatings, sold the story to the Sunday Times, Arnold Lawrence allowed the journalists Knightley and Simpson access to the closed Lawrence papers in the Bodleian but suppressed in their book some of the revelations first made in their newspaper serial. Arnold Lawrence then encouraged Mack to balance Knightley and Simpson’s interpretation but (I have heard from good authority) is not very pleased with Mack’s conclusions.

When I was writing my literary study of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I received permission from Arnold Lawrence to quote from the unpublished Oxford 1922 edition of that work, but the permission to quote from other manuscripts was withdrawn when I discussed Lawrence’s homosexuality in my essay, “Nietzsche and T, E. Lawrence.” Now Arnold Lawrence has appointed “an official biographer,” less qualified than any of his predecessors, who, if he ever completes his book, will probably fail once again to satisfy the literary executor, The attempt to maintain secrecy has not been effective, and there is still no first-rate biography of Lawrence. Since so many of the “closed” papers have already been published, it would best serve the interest of truth and scholarship if they were opened to qualified people. It would also be wise to initiate (after nearly 40 years) a new edition of Lawrence’s letters, only a fraction of which have been published, before they are dispersed beyond recall.

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