A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence
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.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.