The Relevance of Lawrence
“We can’t all be lion tamers.” – Lawrence of Arabia
So far, nothing has ever bored me immensely except Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. It might just be the most revolutionary idea in the history of the world but evolution by natural selection- it’s lack of design and intent in the whole of creation really bugs me as lazy and wasteful and boring for literature. As a fan of complex plots, resolutions and character motivations, I really take offence in that. But thankfully, we humans have evolved the ability to fool ourselves and see patterns, which we make into stories, which in turn gives people like me endless amounts of time to not be bored (except reading the Origin of the Species). I guess that’s what it means to survive, to not be bored to death.
Of all the myths and legends of history that gives sense in this scheme-less world, I think natural selection has never produced a more complex and intriguing and most definitely odd man than the self professed hero of the 20th century, the World War I British eccentric – T. E. Lawrence. That man we call Lawrence of Arabia.
T. E. Lawrence was an Oxford graduate and scholar deployed to the British War Office in Egypt during World War I to make maps before his experience and familiarity as an archeologist in the Middle East qualified him for a mission to seek the Arab Revolutionaries in the desert and advise a scheme to defeat the Ottoman Empire from within. His exploits as liaison to Arab princes and kings made him an indispensable part of the British efforts to win favours in World War I. This is textbook Lawrence.
‘Romance’ surrounds the stories about T.E. Lawrence but the fact that none of them could ever be boxed in one neat pile labeled “generic hero” makes for various studies and commentaries on the man. History pegged him a defiant anti-imperialist and revolutionary who united the Arab tribes in World War I (an anti-imperialist creating another empire- ironic in every respect). Psychologists define him as a masochist. David Lean, the acclaimed director of the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia conjured a legend larger than life yet intimate story with the picturesque Arabian desert as background for a modern day adventure.
For biographers, he is the most fascinating subject. Lawrence went from a mild mannered archeologist into a guerrilla warlord and after WWI, a man on a mission. Not to mention the immense material he left. He is a prolific correspondent and journal writer, an author of a classic war memoir who lived during one of the most interesting time in history.
Not one of his more than 50 biographies could ever be called definitive.
For those who find historical biographies a bit less exciting than say- spy novels and adventure fantasies, you’d find that you’re missing a lot of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction feels by not checking out T. E. Lawrence.
I have read two of his biographies, Michael Korda’s HERO, The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia. I have seen David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia of course. Lawrence’s war memoir – Seven Pillars of Wisdom is also a must read, not just for the war connoisseur, but also to the layman.
Micheal Korda’s Hero presents Lawrence in everything romantic about his story. It starts with his origins and may be a little bit hero worshipping but I’d forgive Michael Korda for that. In the end it is decent and enjoyable.
Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia put a stress on Lawrence’s actions as it impacts the world stage. Here he presents threads of other players that influenced major foreign policy in the Middle East during WWI and I can’t help but think that this puts to silence anyone who doubts Lawrence’s contribution to history.
And while it is my first time reading a war memoir, I can’t help but recommend Seven Pillars of Wisdom (written by the Lawrence himself). It is one of the most heartbreaking piece of literature I have ever read. Some may doubt the accuracy or the truth of most that was in it but when it comes to Lawrence, what does it matter? Truth and lies are part of the whole carpet.
If there is one thing common in these biographies and derivative works, it is that they are united in claiming that Lawrence was a deeply conflicted personality. He was both shy and bold, he was honest and scheming, a rebel and a poseur. And if you read at least a few of his biographies, he revel both in shame and glory. People still think those opposing qualities are apart, but in the end it’s all that separates a great man from the rest.