Over T. E. Lawrence, the sandstorm raised by Richard Aldington’s biography still roars and obscures. The gift fills your mouth as soon as you open it to discuss the man, and the blast of contending fanatics makes it hard to stand up straight. Lawrence-study has come to resemble the Swiftian satire identified by a critic in Kingsley Amis’s new novel One Fat Englishman: satire in which the reader damns himself as one sort of fool by unwarily laughing at another sort of fool.
The Aldington “biographical enquiry” keeps up a monotony of acrid, obsessed unfairness from which it must be right to recoil. Yet the step backwards brings you into the lines of the idolators, to whom Lawrence remains (in the gluey words so precious to those who put “in memoriam” notices on the front page of The Times) the “verray parfite gentil knight,’ or “The Great Captain,” or the saint or the genius or the Man of Scruple or the apostle of truth. Or something else he certainly wasn’t. There were (and are) some cool friends of Lawrence who took a careful line towards his qualities, like E. M. Forster or Sir Hubert Young. But those who are still alive must feel that the uproar has little to do with the real curiousness of the man they observed, and they stay understandably quiet.
An enormous film has been made. Though the Aldington life was published in 1955, many of the demonstrably unlikely myths which can be traced back to Lawrence himself were still there; one imaginable acknowledgement to Aldington, in fact, was the spadingin of incidents which even Lawrence never thought up, as if the producers had shrugged their shoulders, screwed out their cigars on the face of the desert, and agreed to treat the whole thing as a ductile bit of fiction “after a plot by T.E. Lawrence.” Two things remained in my memory: the landscapes and the performance of Peter O’Toole as a maddening, inviolable Lawrence who faced other men literally at an angle, shoulder towards them and eye avoiding theirs, in the stance of a ready boxer.
This, perhaps, suggests the answer to an inevitable question: why bother about this neurotic, upper-class Englishman, who couldn’t write fiction, bear being touched, or even tell the truth? Lawrence isn’t “of Arabia” any more, either. The revolt of the Arabs and his part in directing and supplying it became through the Second World War only one of many such brave stories, though few had such enduring political consequences as his. Why, then? O’Toole found himself absorbed, almost ingested by this strange personality as he worked on it, and it seems that the figure of Lawrence remains as a proper study for those who want to be saved—less a saint than a self-disfigured martyr.
Neither of these two books brings the study much further on, for neither is new and in fact both antedate the Aldington biography. T.E. Lawrence To His Biographers was copyrighted in 1938, and much of it provided Aldington with deadly ammunition. In effect, Lawrence assured two worthy men that each mattered more to him than the other, and that each was writing the authorized biography. It was not true that either book was exclusive, nor indeed that the two men exclusively wrote them. Lawrence read every line of both manuscripts, correcting liberally, canceling passages which annoyed him, inserting accounts of quite unverifiable incidents, allowing the publication of passages which he must have known were untruthful, and—least excusably—forbidding the two writers to tell the public how great a part he had played in preparing their books. Both tried to cross-question him on the unlikelier boasts he supplied to them—Liddell Hart more thoroughly than Graves—but both were led to write down as fact episodes which must now appear to be untrue. The same was true of the more “popular” life by Lowell Thomas, who swallowed stories less critically and hid Lawrence’s supervision even more abjectly. Yet neither Hart nor Graves, editing their letters from Lawrence after his death, seems to bear malice. They prefer to pity than to resent.
Miss Ocampo’s book is a humble panegyric written in 1941 (but now published in English for the first time) by an Argentine lady who had never met Lawrence, but who felt that she understood the nature of his loneliness. Professor A. W. Lawrence, the subject’s brother, has called it “the most profound and the best-balanced of all portraits…” Paying all the deference due to a brother’s understanding, it is difficult to see what he means, for Miss Ocampo, through no fault of her own, is far from grasping the importance of Lawrence’s ability to behave badly.
It would be hard not to like Miss Ocampo for her sincerity, which at least pays Lawrence the compliment of taking his comments on himself at their face value, where that isn’t too cryptic to be evident. But it would be harder still to be convinced by her. Psychiatry she returns unopened, with “all those things which psycho-analysis invents in order to debunk…the ardent aspirations of mankind…” Aldington’s life is picked up in a moaning footnote to this edition: “I did not foresee…when I wrote this book that malice could reach the height—that is, sink to the depths…” She is uncritical; even the procedure for begging a second plate of sago in the boarding-house where Lawrence’s mother lived was to her something rare and revealing.
Lawrence’s nature was less English, Arab, or Anglo-Irish than Scots. His Scottish mother, wrung by guilt at her life “in sin” with Sir Thomas Chapman, passed on to her illegitimate son a distillation of Calvinist venom: the horror of the “raddled meat” of the body, the conviction that human will was itself corrupt beyond hope, the need to rage against the ghastly insignificance of self, even perhaps the belief that salvation can come only through bringing about one’s own moral extinction. Theology and physical stunting together combine to produce the boasting, storming “wee mon” of the Glasgow pub. And here Miss Ocampo’s sensitivity scores a point, for although I am sure she is thinking in Catholic terms, she offers the suggestion that Lawrence was some kind of failed Christian, with his terror of infinity and his hatred of the body, and places him with those agnostics of saintly attribute who “are condemned to die, like Christopher Columbus, without knowing on what continent they are stranded.”
Contemplating this Calvinist hypothesis, it is exciting to see that Lawrence himself described his personality in three parts, not as the conventional body-and- soul duality. He speaks of Brain (which he identifies as Will), Self (the helpless onlooker), and Senses. Of these, Will is the evil force (a Knoxian sort of notion), and as Lawrence tried to assess himself in the pages of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it seemed to him that Senses had become the victim of Will. Speaking of his dislike of physical contact, he says: “The opposite would have been my choice if my head had not been tyrannous. I had a longing for the absolutism of women…” I believe that in retreating into anonymity and powerlessness in the last part of his life, Lawrence was trying to break his own will and release a sensual, perhaps even a marriageable, man.
In a way, it was Lawrence’s bragging and myth-making which made him so able. He was one of those Briareusmen, not so uncommon, who master dozens of skills by rushing at them; soldier, writer, archaeologist, mechanic and seaman, he was of the same blood as Orson Welles, who says he can learn any trade in six hours or so. This is done by rearing up a scaffolding of boasting, exaggeration, name-dropping and book-flourishing under which a solid knowledge takes shape with Stakhanovite rapidity. Other people build from the ground up, and take years.
To dazzle fools, to be a luminous mystery, was a part of this process for Lawrence. While he commanded the lighting, the audience could not tell that he was still making-up as he twirled about the stage. Then the trick went wrong; the footlights of his publicity blazed on and caught him helpless. There could be no more doing of great things, because he could no longer pretend to have done them.
February 6, 1964