Seven Pillars of Wisdom, beginning at the end

by zunguzungu

The subtitle of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is “A Triumph,” and yet he frames the story in such elegiac terms; it is a story, he writes, of “what we felt, what we hoped, what we tried” and you can feel the teleology of tragic failure even before he makes it explicitly clear that “Damascus” was where the train went off the rails, where the light of “Arab freedom” failed. This dissonance has to be the point of it, I suspect, because there is simply too much brilliant, glorious erudition here, too much incredible prose to let the subtitle be simply a bitter irony. This book is titanic, operatic; if anything (I find myself shocked to suggest), David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the paler, less ambitious copy. This is not the story of the light that failed; this feels like a story of success in failure.

I’m just getting into this as a reading project — and feel free to join me — so I’m still talking in terms of feelings, a sense of how the book works that I’m trying to pin down without trying to prove yet. But if you’ve seen David Lean’s movie — and if you haven’t, what’s the matter with you? — you probably know what he’s talking about, the triumph that wasn’t: having won the war against the Ottomans, Lawrence‘s Arabs fall apart when they have to create order out of the victory, and can‘t. This ending is present from the very beginning; as he puts it in the introduction,

“…when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep: and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

It’s not quite clear to me yet whether this is an Arab youth or not, if the problem is, in his mind, a basic insufficiency of the Arabs themselves as a people. It’s true that when he sets down the historical backdrop for the Arab Revolt, he tells the story of the middle ages as opening with Muslim conquests but closing with a Turkish bureaucratic consolidation made possible by some particular insufficiencies of “the Semitic mind”:

The first great rush round the Mediterranean had shown the world the power of an excited Arab for a short spell of intense physical activity; but when the effort burned out the lack of endurance and routine in the Semitic mind became as evident. The provinces they had overrun they neglected, out of sheer distaste of system, and had to seek the help of their conquered subjects, or of more vigorous foreigners, to administer their ill-knit and inchoate empires. So, early in the Middle Ages, the Turks found a footing in the Arab States, first as servants, then as helpers, and then as a parasite growth which choked the life out of the old body politic.

Certainly this picture of a “Semitic mind” with its will to conquer but no ability to govern is not one his narrative will do much to disprove, and you can see why people like Edward Said saw in Lawrence just the typical — if modern — Orientalist adventurer. But as I happen to have been re-reading Orientalism recently (and have been, parenthetically, struck by how much better parts of it are than I remember), his account of Lawrence is almost completely un-salvageable, so burdened by the broad thesis that he had to do so much work in 1978 to prove that its particularity and individuality as a text is almost completely lost. The easiest Orientalist reading of the text would be one where the Arab Revolt was betrayed by the Arabs, by their “sheer distaste of system.”

Yet what can we do with Lawrence’s frank admissions and complete foregrounding of British perfidy? What do we with his bitter clarity in describing how Britain not only openly lied about their intentions but made the well-intentioned Lawrence their tool in doing so? He is quite clear that their trust in him, as a person, was always misplaced because of the fickle, fraudulent empire he served; while “[t]he Cabinet raised the Arabs to fight for us by definite promises of self-government afterwards,” he emphasizes that while these promises were believed because the institutional bureaucracy made him their face to the Arabs, there was never any real intent to hold to the promises Lawrence found himself making:

“Arabs believe in persons, not in institutions. They saw in me a free agent of the British Government, and demanded from me an endorsement of its written promises. So I had to join the conspiracy, and, for what my word was worth, assured the men of their reward. In our two years’ partnership under fire they grew accustomed to believing me and to think my Government, like myself, sincere. In this hope they performed some fine things, but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was bitterly ashamed.

It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war these promises would be dead paper, and had I been an honest adviser of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff: but I salved myself with the hope that, by leading these Arabs madly in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured (if not dominant) that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims. In other words, I presumed (seeing no other leader with the will and power) that I would survive the campaigns, and be able to defeat not merely the Turks on the battlefield, but my own country and its allies in the council-chamber. It was an immodest presumption: it is not yet clear if I succeeded: but it is clear that I had no shadow of leave to engage the Arabs, unknowing, in such hazard. I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose. The dismissal of Sir Henry McMahon confirmed my belief in our essential insincerity.

This is not a sub-theme of the book, but in terms of how he frames it at the start, the theme of the book, and if you emphasize the shortcomings of the Arab mind that allowed the Turks to rule them, you have to notice that these same qualities are what cause the Arabs to get picked off by a parasitic British imperium, an empire, thus, explicitly aligned with the Ottoman empire, and not in a good way. After all, read this account of how he sought to become an Arab:

I was sent to these Arabs as a stranger, unable to think their thoughts or subscribe their beliefs, but charged by duty to lead them forward and to develop to the highest any movement of theirs profitable to England in her war. If I could not assume their character, I could at least conceal my own, and pass among them without evident friction, neither a discord nor a critic but an unnoticed influence…A man who gives himself to be a possession of aliens leads a Yahoo life, having bartered his soul to a brute-master. He is not of them. He may stand against them, persuade himself of a mission, batter and twist them into something which they, of their own accord, would not have been. Then he is exploiting his old environment to press them out of theirs. Or, after my model, he may imitate them so well that they spuriously imitate him back again. Then he is giving away his own environment: pretending to theirs; and pretences are hollow, worthless things. In neither case does he do a thing of himself, nor a thing so clean as to be his own (without thought of conversion), letting them take what action or reaction they please from the silent example.

In his self-gratifying affectation that they imitated him without realizing they did — that he was an “unnoticed influence” — I think we see more than simply the white man’s belief that a little browning of the skin is all it takes to be indistinguishable to those from whom your ignorance makes it impossible for you to distinguish yourself. I suspect he is protesting too much because he came to think himself an Arab in more ways than he can comfortable retrospect, from the comfort of All Souls College. Which makes me want to read the following paragraph, the closing of chapter one, as one of the most telling of the book, both for his ability to see through his own illusions and his effort to make that failure into triumph:

In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other, and was become like Mohammed’s coffin in our legend, with a resultant feeling of intense loneliness in life, and a contempt, not for other men, but for all they do. Such detachment came at times to a man exhausted by prolonged physical effort and isolation. His body plodded on  mechanically, while his reasonable mind left him, and from without looked down critically on him, wondering what that futile lumber did and why. Sometimes these selves would converse in the void; and then madness was very near, as I believe it would be near the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments.