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Rigging the Lawrence Case

T.E. Lawrence

by Desmond Stewart
Harper & Row, 352 pp., $15.00

Some years ago, a retired inspector of police from Philadelphia wrote a memoir of the Criminals-I-Have-Known sort. One instructive part of it explained how helpful criminals are to detectives by signing their names to all their crimes. We all know about Adler’s “life style” today, but the inspector showed that for the criminal there is a “crime style” too—a habitual, inescapable, individual way of doing wrong. He cited among others a burglar who specialized in stealing the expensive suits of natty dressers and might well have become the nation’s Closet Robber No. 1 but for his crime style, which was twisted by a detestation of the male vest. He could never bring himself to steal a vest, so when the denuded owner called the cops, one glance at the closet with its neat line of hangers dressed simply in vests allowed them to exclaim immediately; “Well, well! So old Bill’s out of jail, is he?” and send a police car to pick him up at once. The poor man spent most of his life in prison, and though some will say that he could have amended his crime style easily enough if the police had tipped him off to what was wrong with it, the psychologist would probably disagree. Only an analyst could have teased out the basic vestphobia and given society a perfected three-piece thief.

Every critic knows that a crime style of sorts is responsible for a bad book. The same “hand” can be seen at work from start to finish, always hitting the wrong note, always pointing the wrong way, always repeating the wrong writing. All the bits that betray the badness have a sameness that can be recognized every time they come up; they give the bad book its significant monotony. Most important of all, in a way, is the effect these repeated badnesses have on the critic, because they prevent him from seeing the occasional goodnesses. Even when the critic does see these goodnesses, he doesn’t pay them much attention because they are so surrounded with the badnesses he has come to hate, and these, in turn, exert a terrible power over his honest judgment and drag it not only into personal bias but callous injustice.

Desmond Stewart, author of T.E. Lawrence, is a particularly difficult case because his crime style is as multiple as it is singular. Some critics would insist that his intolerable use of metaphor was the most recognizable thing about his writing—the thing that remained on the hanger above all. They would support the argument by quoting from p. 53: “A seedling had been planted which was to be fed by the nitrates of fact and watered by the dew of legend”—though the more humorous-minded might think that p. 219 offered an even finer example of self-identification: “After a four-year hiatus the glacier-powerful molars of national interest were soon to resume grinding.” A nice question might arise on p. 210, which shows the future King Feisal “ivory with rage.” Is this really a metaphor, or is it a contribution to race relations? It would be wrong, Mr. Stewart may have thought, for an Arab to turn black with rage, but questionable for him to turn white.

May have thought….” That brings in the critics who would argue that conjecture is the real vest on the hanger. In the space of only nine lines on p. 210, we read: “Lawrence may even have mentioned…,” “Abdel Kader would inevitably have overheard,” “the Algerian will surely have observed…,” “Thus…it would have been very easy for Lawrence…,” “He could even plausibly blame….” A book on Lawrence of Arabia that is based largely on such conjectural assumptions must indeed make itself recognizable by reason of them, because the day is long past when this complicated personality could be handled by guesswork. The conjecture doesn’t matter very much in particular situations, but it matters a good deal in the building up of the whole portrait. If we are going to be given a Lawrence who, at the outbreak of World War I, was a British spy pretending to be an archaeologist and photographing Turkish military positions rather than Hittite remains, who was dishonest with the money he got for the job, who lied to his superior officers, who may have been murdered in the end by British Foreign Office agents because he was about to make a deal with Hitler—well, it adds up to a lot and needs more proof than heavy breathing alone can offer.

But the part of the crime style that has the worst effect on the critic is undoubtedly the selective use Mr. Stewart makes of his material. Sometimes the jacket comes off the hanger, sometimes the vest, frequently the pants—it all depends simply on which bit Mr. Stewart needs to give one of his conjectures a neat appearance. Lawrence’s sexual classification is an example: we know that he was a flagellant but we have no reason to disagree with his brother’s verdict—that he died a virgin. We know that he had an “emotional involvement” with the beautiful Arab boy, Dahoum, whom he hired as a digger when he was pretending to be an archaeologist in Jerablus just before the war, but we are astonished to read that one night, in a crowded village house, “Lawrence snuggled close to Dahoum in ‘a most royal heap of quilts, all, wonderful to say, nearly deserted.”’

Where does this information come from? Obviously, from one of Lawrence’s letters. But to whom would he have written so openly? Why is there no reference number at the end of the quotation? It doesn’t take long to fish out David Garnett’s Letters of T.E. Lawrence and hunt up the original account of that night. It reads:

After this the talk drifted naturally to demons and ginns. The Hoja and the rest told tale after tale, each more ghastly than the last: till all, glancing furtively into the darkness, refused with one voice to go home. So we slept there happily, the Hoja, his wives, his four children, the Haj, Dahum, myself, and fifteen others, in a house about the size of your room. I had a most royal heap of quilts, all wonderful to say, nearly deserted. It was one of the best nights I’ve had….

There are various reasons, particular and general, why this example of tampering with what Mr. Stewart likes to call “veridicity” is important. It gives plausibility to a long story in which the two pooves act together as secret agents, swapping information through the Turkish lines. It helps to account for certain absences of Lawrence from the Arab forces, when he was not winning the war but meeting his boyfriend. It intensifies the ugliness of Dahoum’s conjectured neglect by Lawrence, who rode on to glory leaving his loved one to a nasty death at the hands of the Turks.

The effect on the book reviewer is very bad. Having discovered that the mark of Mr. Stewart’s crime style is that of selective imposture, he is obliged to check half the statements in the book to see if they are playing hooky from veridicity. It has taken four books to check Mr. Stewart’s one—the Letters, John E. Mack’s A Prince of Our Disorder (reviewed by V.S. Pritchett in The New York Review of April 1, 1976), that excellent compendium of 1937, T.E. Lawrence, By His Friends, and Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The number of fantasies and unwarranted conjectures that have resulted are too numerous to list—and the indignation of the reviewer at having to read five volumes when he is only being paid to read one is bound to make him feel that a Turkish death is too good for Mr. Stewart.

And how, one may ask, is the reader who has no such checks to hand to know the true from the false? When he reads that Lawrence “expressed an obsessive dislike for women under sixty” and “excluded nubile women even from the norms of politeness,” how is he to know that the first statement is verifiably untrue and the second based entirely on Lawrence’s snubbing of one woman who had a tendency to gush? When he reads the opening words of Chapter 22: “Standing on the fire-fender to increase his height…,” what is there to tell him that this was a joke tossed at Lawrence by Robert Graves?

The selective use of historians is the most serious of the concealments. Arab independence threw up Levantine historians who were neither members of the families elevated to kingship by Lawrence nor ready to go along with a Lawrence “legend” that put a foreigner in the forefront of the Arab rising. In A Prince of Our Disorder, Professor Mack did his best to sort out these historians and estimate the value of their criticisms: his honest conclusion was that the job was too difficult for him to master. Mr. Stewart not only finds no such difficulties but gives the impression that these dissenters are the only authentic recorders.

Mr. Stewart may be right in many of his conclusions, but his selective approach to them has the effect of making a critical reader feel almost certain that they are wrong. This applies to nasty little personal digs at Lawrence as well as to larger matters, as when we are told that by choosing to stay and dine with a friend in Paris, Lawrence failed to get to England in time to say goodbye to his dying father. And yet Mr. Stewart knows very well that this example of callousness depends solely on one date in the friend’s diary, and that this diary, which was published forty years after the event, shows signs of not being a diary but a memoir.

Much as the anti-hero has replaced the hero in the theater, the Lawrence legend has long since become anti-legend and shows the flaws and corruptions that are usually present when a writer’s chief aim is to play down what has been played up. Mr. Stewart has reason to be cautious about such a source as T.E. Lawrence, By His Friends, but to speak of it with contempt while using it selectively without acknowledgement is to maltreat a mass of information about Lawrence’s character and behavior. Here are some eighty witnesses to cross-examine carefully, and they are not only Big Names, such as Shaw, Churchill, Allenby, Weizmann, but rankers who served with Lawrence in his monastic years, as well as Arabs, painters, historians, archaeologists.

A wonderful addition to the complicated picture they provide is a list of all the books in Lawrence’s library at the time of his death, and a second list of his big collection of phonograph records. These two lists are pieces of biography in themselves: why twenty-five volumes of D.H. Lawrence rubbing shoulders with so many Greek classics; why, in addition to the expected Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, so many early composers? The musicologist W. Warwick James says of the last:

He seems to have started his study of music with the classics and then to have sought the simple and early forms which led up to the complex productions…. His curiosity compelled him to listen to all developments of music from the earliest to the most modern.

This seems to reflect a general habit. It may be only chance that takes his archaeology backward from the medieval to the Hittite, but there is no doubt that the desert lives of the Bedouins have the pull of “simple and early forms.” Life in barracks is of the same order, and it is interesting to note that the aircraftmen and mechanics who worked with Lawrence spotted the same pattern in his attitude to machinery. The Rolls Royce engine was only the perfected work; the fascination was in the dismantling, the study of the parts, the grasping of the details of its origins. Then came the reassembly, and the use of every possible ingenuity to perfect perfection itself. “He could not acknowledge,” wrote Aircraftman Dunn,

that a moment came when one must cry halt, the moment before a book becomes too literary, a painting too photographic, an engine refined to the point of emasculation.

What Robert Graves has called “his furious keying-up of style in the Seven Pillars” shows this desperate inclination, and the choice of the author of Arabia Deserta, Charles Doughty, as a literary model ensured the nature of the pattern. “To redeem the English language from the slough in which it had fallen since the time of Spenser” was Doughty’s declared aim: it suited Lawrence to perfection, involving a return to archaic narrative romance followed by the building-up of what Graves calls an elaborate “technical mastery of words” to construct a machine of his own.

Mr. Stewart recognizes this artificial struggle to make literature (Lawrence himself spoke of Seven Pillars in later years as “a bag of tricks”) but has no understanding of the causes of it. There is no reason why the biographer should love or revere the artificer; no reason why he shouldn’t expose any trickery he finds. The complaint one has about Mr. Stewart is that he does his work the easy way; he has eyes only for the tricks, which have long since been exposed by others, and for weaknesses which can be represented as dishonesties.

We get the smallness, the silliness, the vanity, the untruthfulness, and with these, of course, disparagement of Lawrence’s part in the Arab revolt and disparagement of his discrimination as a king-maker. We get no real idea of the extraordinary nature of the personality—the endless complexities, the twists and turns, the variety of parts, the extent of the interests and abilities. Consequently, the portrait is not interesting, and because of the selective method that has been used in misshaping it, there is a failure of veridicity as well.

Letters

Snuggling with Lawrence February 9, 1978

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