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The Aesthete of War

A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence

by John E. Mack
Little, Brown, 612 pp., $15.00

Looking back on T. E. Lawrence and his legend after forty years one sees in him exactly the Hero called for by those who fought in the First World War and survived. It is perfect that he went into that war as the romantic happy warrior and emerged as the guilty Hamlet of his generation. In a far less theatrical way, so did others who fared worse: whatever singularity or genius they had was ground out of them on the western front where the “real” war was being fought.

To them—and to the public trying to forget that mass slaughter—Lawrence’s guerrilla war in the desert was war as they romantically dreamed it ought to be: terrible, but at least apprehensible like an exotic work of art, small yet visionary and having the epic quality of individual combat—known then only to flying men—in which the daring young leader leaps to privilege, gets his freedom to act alone, and wins by his courage and his cunning. And, as if this were not enough to dream of, the hero has the gift of enlarging his own legend so that it continues as he renounces his victory and abases himself. What, after forty years, has overtaken him? The Partisan and Resistance leaders, the guerrillas and underground fighters of the Second World War and after, have made clear that, at any rate, T. E. Lawrence was a sketch for a coming prototype. Or the reviver of an ancient one.

If heroes fulfill the unconscious wishes of others, their rank depends not only on a virtù that springs from their internal conflicts and their vision, but on their historical opportunity. Lawrence without British imperialism in its penultimate phase behind him would have had no driving force. Even the duplicity that haunts political visionaries would have failed him. And one cannot throw out the fact that, in mass societies like Britain and the United States, fame is made glamorous by the commercialized press and films, and by the hero’s talent for staging himself and even of acting out the brilliant man’s natural disgust with success. None of the reviewers of Revolt in the Desert, the abridgment of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Lawrence wrote), has “given me the credit for being a bag of tricks…” and he added with some vanity, “too rich and full for them to control.” Inevitably the denigrators took the tip and looked into Lawrence’s powers of mystification. The most extravagant in malice was Malcolm Muggeridge—the Marie Corelli of the aftermath:

[Lawrence] is superlatively the case of everything being true except the facts. Who more fitting to be a Hero of Our Time than this, our English Genet, our Sodomite-Saint with Lowell Thomas for his Sartre and Alec Guinness to say “Amen.”

Bringing all the shallowness of the debunker and the meanness of the disappointed man, Richard Aldington added T. E. Lawrence to his “exposures” of D. H. Lawrence and Norman Douglas. The most charitable comment one can make of Muggeridge and Aldington is that they were attacking the image created by the popular press and the films, and ridding themselves of the postwar spleen at T. E. Lawrence’s expense: he had tried to do it, more painfully, at his own.

But there is an obvious difficulty for biographers in dealing with Lawrence which John E. Mack points out in his new long study A Prince of Our Disorder; the excellent title is a phrase of Irving Howe’s. Dr. Mack first approached the subject of the making and self-making of a hero as a psychologist but found himself in regions beyond the clinical. Dr. Mack is no wit. He is a very repetitive writer; he has loaded and lengthened his book with worried platitudes. Lawrence, who was debonair and clear even when he was evasive in his remarkable Letters, puts his own case better. Still, Dr. Mack is thorough. He has searched and interviewed widely and feels even personal sympathy with his untractable subject. He says two things which are fundamental: the first could be more tersely expressed by saying that T. E. Lawrence was Irish in his taste for fantasy, as Shaw well understood:

One of the purposes in writing [The Seven Pillars of Wisdom] was to invite the public to create with him a new and different self, a mythological Lawrence, larger than life, a self that would be immune to or beyond personal pain and conflict and that would replace the self he felt he had debased…. The irony is that, objectively, the real Lawrence corresponded in many ways to the ideal one he sought to create through his dramatizing and embroidering. But from his inner psychological perspective that real self was debased by the war.

The second point is certainly exact whether one looks at Lawrence’s upbringing, his education, above all at his prose style, or at the war and his career afterward.

He was a good deal the aesthete in war.

Lawrence is in many ways a transitional hero standing… between the neo-medieval romantic heroes of the nineteenth century and the moral realists of the twentieth.

If not a Hero, he exemplified what happened at a breaking point of European culture in 1914.

Lawrence’s private story is the story of the wound and the bow. He had by birth the distinction (which passes as a fantasy through many children’s heads for a time) of being illegitimate. His mother also had been an illegitimate child, the daughter of a journeyman shipwright in Durham, and farmed out on sternly religious Scottish families. She was sent at eighteen as a nurse to Ireland to look after the children of an unhappily married, hard-drinking, Anglo-Irish landowner called Chapman who passed his time hunting, shooting, and fishing. They fell in love, he left his wife, changed his name and went to Wales, then to the south coast of England for the sailing and finally, since four boys needed a good cheap high school, to Oxford. The new family had £300 a year left to live on, a respectable if modest private income in those days, and representing the protective assurance of capital.

The two parents were devoted, the landowner accepted his decline in status and relative poverty happily: it could not have occurred to him to earn his living. The young Scots girl, of course, soon dominated him. She stopped him drinking and was the figure of power in their little villa. They were a deeply religious couple, an odd but determined pair of Puritans who disapproved of theaters, dances, and shut themselves off from the curiosity of neighbors. Perhaps they were too discreet; for Lawrence senior went off at times to Ireland to see his sporting friends and to keep an eye on his estate; in Oxford, his land agent sometimes arrived. It was not long before the Lawrence boys guessed the secret and although the indirect private effect on them was crucial, they benefited by their parents’ serious care for their education: the high school they were sent to had special opportunities for getting clever boys into Oxford.

The boys were stamped by the mother’s Puritan religion which she evidently saw as her redemption for the sin of taking a man away from his wife. Lawrence’s mother had charm and he inherited her strange, vacant, yet penetrating china-blue eyes and undoubtedly her will, which was powerful to a degree. She was a fanatical housekeeper, all for cleansing house, body, and soul, though the austerity is common to Calvinist Scotland. She believed in discipline and physical punishment: it was she who was determined to break the will of her mischievous second son by beating him on the backside and initiated him into the sensations of pleasure-pain; it is easy to see that the mother (who was also a remorseless questioner) was very conscious of her own guilt. This did not prevent her from enjoying the pride of the humbly born in having carried off her grand landowner, as Lawrence said, as “a trophy.”

The Victorians had resources in the subtleties of the class system; the one thing that must have protected the Lawrences was that the elder Lawrence was recognizably a gentleman: not only his self-effacing manner but the public respect for his mysterious private means guaranteed the view. But what was his influence? He was devalued but, on the mind and imagination of T. E. Lawrence, his influence was enormous. The Anglo-Irish gentry were colonists who had been either Elizabethan or Cromwellian conquerors, soldiers all of them, rewarded with captured estates. They intermarried mainly with their kind and became tied up in hundreds of years of cousinage. It was a near-enough assertion that one of the elder Lawrence’s ancestors was closely related to Raleigh and, it was said, he had Raleigh’s looks. But the strongest element in the family was Cromwellian Roundhead and Dutch, who dulled the Elizabethan dash and brought in the Low Church Puritanism of Anglo-Ireland. The race traditionally bred soldiers but by the nineteenth century the soldiers, rakish or puritan, had become dull landlords who did little but talk correctly of horses, salmon, and snipe, though their brighter sons occasionally became Britain’s best generals or clever servants of the Empire.

What Lawrence senior embodied for his famous son was a sense of history as a dream. What the self-isolated family of brothers gave to him was a lasting belief in the exclusive superiority of self-sufficient, extroverted, masculine brotherhood. This and the mother’s power over her sons was enough to ensure—as Dr. Mack suggests—Lawrence’s chastity. He had no adolescence; he went straight from boyhood to manhood. It was part of the mother’s plan of redemption that one at least of her boys should be a missionary in China; sexual purity was essential, marriage an obscenity.

The well-known avidity of the young Lawrence’s studies in archaeology, his passion for medieval castles, the rise of chivalry and the crusades, and his curiosity about the Saracens were the perfect preparation for the desert war and the vision of Arab freedom. He was teaching and hardening himself. Like Doughty and other educated Englishmen who went as solitaries to the desert, he felt the pull of tribal life and the masculine cult of personal honor, long ago lost to Western life. (Honor and its concomitant knowledge of treachery had a battered meaning for the Anglo-Irish; and were perhaps a survival of Elizabethan influence, especially Raleigh’s.) When Feisal discreetly showed that he had guessed Lawrence was doctoring the telegrams from Mecca and said dryly, “You always prefer my honor to your own,” the words have the accent of an Elizabethan conceit, the ambiguity of words cut by the diamond of a betrayed Tudor. Anti-imperialist, as Lawrence was, he was drawn to the military fascination of imperial power. Oil was commerce and therefore contemptible, but Alexandretta must be held at all cost.

In his political and military account of the war Dr. Mack’s eye is on Lawrence living his legend. All has the fire of gifted youth until we get to the crises—what really happened when he was captured at D’era and what Dr. Mack regards as the vengeance or the loss of self-control at the Turkish massacre of Tafas; here a hidden Lawrence appears. Which of the several versions in the rewriting of the rape at D’era is to be relied on? Is it even, conceivably, a fantasy to cover some other act of sodomy? Research by Lawrence’s skeptical or believing critics is not conclusive, as Dr. Mack shows, but he is confident that an act of sodomy did occur and is certain there was a brutal beating; Lawrence’s revisions are an attempt to tell the truth that shocked him, though “the sequence of events is hard to follow.” There was an assault, Dr. Mack concludes, “and the element of sexual pleasure he experienced in the midst of such indignity, pain and degradation was particularly intolerable and shameful to him.” It has since become known that when Lawrence tried to hide in the ranks in the RAF after the peace conference and was in despair he hired a man to beat him brutally from time to time and concocted a grotesque fiction that would persuade a simple man to do it.

The difficulty of the biographer and especially one with wide—that is to say not clinical—psychological interests lies in avoiding the static summary of hindsight and showing a man as he changes. Here Dr. Mack is good in portraiture and plausible in analysis. Lawrence’s nature and his sexuality were not formed by a single cause. He was very much a mixture of the craftsman and aesthete in war. The literary tastes of his generation were very much directed by the Victorian cult of the medieval, a self-conversion to a heroic past which would disguise the defilement of the industrial revolution: the imaginations of the educated were filled with Chaucer, Malory, William Morris, Tennyson’s Idylls, Jean Froissart, the chansons de geste, and the ethic of courtly love. William Morris and Doughty wrote in a studiously mannered prose, so did the popular novelists, Kipling for example.

This manner was Lawrence’s—he admitted to “doing up small packets of words foppishly.” He swung between plain direct words and the imagery of masquerade. In the Twenties one finds him admiring Cabell’s very dubious, pseudo-medieval Jurgen, which is enough to show the split in his own mind. The rarefying, unsexing, and idealizing of women was borrowed from the neo-Romantics and the abhorrence of fleshly contact was the message. Strangely this suited well with the demands of Empire which required men who could stand alone and live under self-discipline. Lawrence’s mother would enter such a conspiracy without necessarily being driven by guilt: she would be asserting a faith and the fortifying of conscience. And one can add that sexual aberration is well-known to be common among explorers and men of action, who are fanatical, as Lawrence was, in hardening themselves to endure punishment.

Like pretty well all the men who came out of the 1914 war Lawrence had a badly damaged mind. At All Souls he was either sunk in deep depression or would suddenly tell wildly imaginary stories of his exploits. He both sought and hid from publicity. The visionary at the peace conference had the angers of an actor who is now in a political play he does not understand or rather understands too well. He hated the betrayal. He was forced to accept the moral consequences of the double role he had played in Arabia. Dr. Mack writes of the exits and entrances in the drama frankly, though he is not writing as a historian. Shaw, who understood Lawrence as a fellow Irishman and who was an expert in what Lawrence called “the solution of multiple personalities,” told him that the limelight would follow him for the rest of his life; and one cannot say that Lawrence avoided it—at least not for many years.

The “self-degradation” was dramatic as an act of conscience and punishment, even staged, yet clearly a genuine attempt to come to terms with himself. The RAF was a hard school, the Tank Corps was bestial. One has to read The Mint to see what he willed himself to go through. Most biographers, as I have said, have thought he inherited this will from his devouring mother, and yet in his exposed detachment one also sees the image of his father. The old landowner (who had become a baronet and died by this time) must himself have been something of a spectator in his own family when in his time he had given up his status and, in the course of “lawless” passion, had joined the common people. The fates of father and son have curious resemblances. We also have the not uncommon sight of passionate elders using up a family’s erotic capital, leaving the children with little or none.

Lawrence was a Don Quixote before he became a Hamlet. What remains for us of the former? He was one of the first to see that after 1917 Asia itself was going to be a political force even if he tried to see the Arabs as part of the then British Commonwealth—the imperial idea of Lionel Curtis. He imagined a natural coming together of the Jews and Arabs, too simply because he could not foretell what new imperialisms might intervene. Arab commentators think he judged the situation badly. As Hamlet, he saw his career in the desert as a prostitution; his introspections, as Dr. Mack shows, do reveal how “unlovely the back of a commander’s mind must be.” I do not think he was playing with conscience in the pedantic Irish way: he had his mother’s earnestness.

How does his service in the ranks of the RAF and Tank Corps now strike us? Here he is tragically vivid in Dr. Mack’s portrait. The poor devil would slip out of the depots at night and was pitied by the sentries whom he silently passed. The service was intended as a therapy, but he was forced to live among men who had become unwanted animals because they could not get jobs: what most upset him, characteristically, was their obsessive lust. They were quite different from the conscripts of World War II who were politically minded and, whether educated or uneducated, shared far more the common lot of a whole population. The therapy, if there was one, was public and not private. I think that Dr. Mack’s strongest compliment is that Lawrence was a born “enabler.” He was a natural technician, a practical craftsman and teacher; he could get on with anybody and help people to help themselves. But his private philosophy of renunciation and a “decent nihilism” did not save him from a deep boredom. Driving fast and dangerously on the motor bike to “forget himself for a few minutes” was an escape into nihilist sensation. Not a suicide but a loss of will.

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