Monday, February 07, 2011

T. E. Lawrence

Michael Korda's huge new biography of T. E. Lawrence, Hero, is exactly what I wanted in a Lawrence bio: it's thorough, serious, fair-minded, and full of fascinating (and sometimes pleasantly ridiculous) detail. The Lawrence who emerges from Korda's pages is perhaps no more instantly apprehensible than the figure we've been trying to understand all these years, but his many, often contradictory, facets and desires make sense--they seem, perhaps for the first time, to really belong to a single figure. This is not a Lawrence seen through one lens or forced into one box; this is the man in the round, as strange and frequently admirable as ever.

Two sections in particular seem worth sharing as illustrations of the lengths to which Lawrence would go to hold up his idiosyncratic ideal of strength and honor. First, an incident from during the Arab Revolt that appears in Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, here retold by Korda:
In the last light of day, Lawrence rode alone close to the railway line and surprised a solitary Turkish soldier, who had left his rifle a few yards away while he took a nap. Lawrence had the soldier, "a young man, stout, but sulky looking," covered with his pistol, but after a moment he merely said, "God is merciful," and rode off, faintly interested to see whether the Turk would grab the rifle and shoot him. This is Lawrence at his best--not just the moment of mercy toward an enemy, but the moral courage (and perverted curiosity) to test whether the "Turk was man enough not to shoot me in the back." Not too Lawrence's distinction--the right thing for the Turkish soldier to do would have been to shoot Lawrence, but the manly thing for him to do was to spare Lawrence, as he himself had been spared. How many British officers would have felt that way? How many would have put their lives at risk to see what the outcome would be? It is one of the most interesting and consistent parts of Lawrence's character that he continually set himself these moral tests, in which he risked everything to see whether he could live up to his own ideals.
Korda's right: that one moment could almost be used as a key to Lawrence's entire personality, exemplifying his perverse devotion to what he understood to be right and his willingness to sacrifice everything of himself in its pursuit.

But if that moment is, if odd, at least impressive and admirable, this next one edges well over into masochism for its own sake:
In the spring of 1926, coming to the aid of a man whose car had been involved in an accident, he offered to start the engine and the man neglected to retard the ignition. The starting handle flew back sharply, breaking Lawrence's right arm and dislocating his wrist. Showing no sign of pain or shock, he calmly asked the driver to adjust the ignition, cranked the engine again with his left hand, then drove his motorcycle back to Cranwell. In Flight Sergeant Pugh's words, "with his right arm dangling and shifting gears with his foot, he got his bus home, and parked without a word to a soul of the pain he was suffering." The medical officer was away, and it was the next dy before he could see Lawrence, who still did not complain. "That is a man!" Pugh commented admiringly.
Agreed, but I'd also add "crazy" in there somewhere. Would a quick, "Say, chap, I don't mean to whinge, but you seem to have broken my arm," have dealt such a grievous blow to the cause of honor?


  1. Years ago I was at Baldwin's Book Barn in West Chester, PA. I had been looking for Korsypski's Manhood of Humanity. I ran across TE Lawrence's 7 Pillars, 1st Edition and on the inside cover was a handwritten, lengthy note in pencil. The book cost $22. I was a grad student back in 1979 and $22bucks was behind my budget. About 15 years later I read in the paper that someone had discovered the book at Baldwin's with the original Lawrence note. It sold for $55,000 at Southerby's.

  2. Oh, man, that's a sad story. My copy of Seven Pillars is a lovely first edition, oversized with all the illustrations--but, crucially, it's the first published edition, from 1935. What you must have been looking at in Baldwin's Book Barn was one of the 135 or so 1922 editions that Lawrence had printed, at a substantial financial loss, for advance subscribers and friends. He worked closely with his printer (to the point of mania, it seems) to make the book exactly as he envisioned it, and also to make each copy slightly different from the others. There wasn't even an author name on the title page or spine . . . because each one would be inscribed.

    For want of $22 . . . wow.

  3. He did not sign the penciled note either. I think that's what prompted me to question its originality. Also, the note had nothing to do with his exploits in the middle east but rather was about stuff having to do with the actual physical make up of the book like its binding and cost. There was a mention of either 200 or 700 pounds. I couldn't tell whether it was a seven or two because there was a slash across the number.

  4. Ted's story is enough to make you weep! Does the Korda biography explain what Lawrence was doing going back into the military under an assumed name, as recorded in 'The Mint'? I find that book fascinating, but my edition lacks any background information on these lines.

  5. JRSM,
    It does do a good job of explaining Lawrence's thinking--as best as it can be reconstructed, I think--in re-enlisting. Korda argues that Lawrence was tired of being Lawrence of Arabia, for one; tired of having to make decisions and give orders, for another; probably clinically depressed after the war; and simply looking for work, being unwilling to do the sort of ordinary job that you and I might do (lingering 19th-century gentlemanly ideas) or to accept the various sinecures being offered by friend or the actual Foreign Office-type jobs he could probably have landed.

    What's interesting to someone who's read The Mint (I'm a fan, too) is seeing how much Lawrence shaped the story before telling it: he makes it seem as if he just walked in off the street and enlisted, but in reality he got it all started (and cleared, sort of) through friends in the higher reaches of the service. And he maintained an odd position the whole time: on the one hand beloved by his fellow soldiers and airmen for being skilled and pitching in, and on the other regularly infuriating his superiors by not seeming to think he should have to take orders, by his habit of unthinkingly giving orders himself, and by his tendency to appeal to friends in high places when he was miffed.