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ISSUE:  Summer 1927

Revolt in the Desert. By. T. E. Lawrence. New York: George H. Doran Company. $3.00.

Once in awhile there appears, somewhere on earth, a man who seems to be the confidential agent of the forces that mould the course of history. When Fate decides that such a man is needed, she generally arranges for him to make his advent into the world in the most unpromising and humble circumstances; and she sets him down to await his hour in the midst of conditions and events that most men, even the wisest and best of the leaders of the time, consider commonplace or hopeless. But when the hour strikes, the agent of Fate emerges from the crowd, takes command, and by virtue, usually, of exceptional knowledge of necessary facts that he could not possibly have learned by any of the ordinary processes; of exceptional understanding of psychology; of exceptionally inflexible will; plus an x quality that defies analysis, but outwardly is a sort of overwhelming power to compel the unreasoning and unreasonable obedience and loyalty of all sorts of men. he seizes upon other men’s commonplaces and other men’s hopeless obstacles and employs them, in ways that no one ever dared to dream of employing them, to change in some essential fashion the course of human destiny.

Such men have not been numerous: leaders of the more ordinary type have usually sufficed to carry out the designs of providence. The names of a few of the exceptional ones that suggest themselves are: Xenophon; Caesar; Cromwell; Danton; Mahomet; Napoleon; Luther; Lord Nelson; Pizarro; Abraham Lincoln; Pasteur; Lenin; and— perhaps—Mussolini. Meditating upon these names, and the few others that complete the short list, we reach one conclusion that will concern them all equally, and that is this: we know what they did, but we are helpless to explain how they did it. They rise up out of nowhere, startling mankind by the unexpectedness of their appearance; they subdue opposing forces and men with an audacity that leaves us breathless; paying no heed whatever to rules and precedents, and sometimes even the very limitations of nature herself, they, do their work with a finesse and a completeness that leave nothing to be desired (in exactly the same way that a sonata by Beethoven or a painting by Titian or a sonnet by Shakespeare leave nothing to be desired); and they die without revealing anything that enables us to account for their astounding powers.

To the amazing company of such men must be added the name of T. E. Lawrence. Like all the rest of them, he is inexplicable. There is nothing in his early life that really serves to explain the incredible feat that he accomplished. His special knowledge and his uncommon understanding of the psychology of the people upon whom he worked his will (the desert Arabs) were not peculiar to Lawrence alone of all men: there were at least half a dozen officers of the British staff in Cairo and in Arabia who knew as much as Lawrence, and perhaps more. He had had no military experience whatever; indeed, he hates war as it is waged today. Physically, he is one of the most insignificant of men.A medical board contemptuously rejected him as absolutely unfit when he tried to enlist in “Kitchener’s Mob.”

All that we can say of Lawrence is that men like him are beyond understanding. Nothing explains them: most of them can be said to have no heredity beyond that which is common to the mediocre average of men; environment certainly does not account for them, for most of them were born into and lived in environments that were in every way unfavorable or hostile; and experience seems to play no part in developing their powers, because most of them did their work in fields in which they had had little, if any, exercise. Napoleon was a lieutenant like any other lieutenant in the French army. Genghis Khan was the son of a petty chieftain, with no advantages that were not also possessed by, the sons of a hundred other petty chieftains among the Mongols. Lenin was a poor Jewish boy, born without any of the favors of fortune. Pizarro was a bastard abandoned at the door of a monastery; when he grew a little, the Prior set him to herding swine on the cruel hills of Castille, and when he became a man, he was so unlettered that he could barely scrawl his name.

We have said—we believe with truth—that such men are not numerous. But rare as they are, there is one thing rarer still: and that is, a man of this type who adds to his other powers an adequate power of self-expression. Most men of this sort say little and write less; what they do write is usually not literature in any sense, but is merely a necessary and technical part of the work they are sent here to accomplish. But once in an age a man appears who manages to achieve a masterpiece of action, and then manages to describe that action in a masterpiece of literature. Xenophon did this, and so did Caesar. Where shall we look for other such works?

Well, Lawrence’s book is one of the others.


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