Too Glorious for Words

Bernard Porter

  • Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson
    Atlantic, 592 pp, £25.00, March 2014, ISBN 978 1 78239 199 9

T.E. Lawrence was one of history’s winners and one of its great losers. He was a winner in terms of the mythology that surrounded his reputation both in his own day and afterwards, as reflected in the 1962 David Lean biopic, presenting him as the romantic hero – tall, blue-eyed, in flowing robes – he always wanted to be. His failures are familiar to anyone who has taken any serious interest in him, and were only too painfully known to himself. He either led or assisted (according to your point of view) the revolt of the Arabs against their Ottoman overlords that broke out in 1916, and which was a significant help to the Entente powers in their war against the Turks’ ally, Germany. But helping the Allies hadn’t been his main aim. What he had wanted was for the Arabs to take the opportunity of the war to seize power for themselves, in a great pan-Arab federation if possible. He persuaded himself that he had at least Britain’s agreement to this. When the time came to ‘settle’ the Middle East after the war, however, all that ‘turned to ashes in a single five-minute conversation between the prime ministers of Britain and France’ at the Paris peace talks. The Middle East (or most of it) was parcelled out among the victorious powers – the ‘Great Loot’, as it was called at the time. Lawrence’s Arab friends thought he had betrayed them. He felt he had too. He never recovered from the sense of guilt.

So he can’t be held responsible for the mess the Middle East finds itself in today. Lawrence emphatically wasn’t one of the imperial looters. Indeed, in most ways he should be regarded as an anti-imperialist: against the Ottoman Empire originally; very much against French settler imperialism; and acting deliberately against the interests and wishes of his British imperial superiors, even – Scott Anderson suggests – to the point of treason. (When George V tried to decorate him after the war, he handed all the medals back on the spot.) He was also very much against European cultural imperialism, genuinely – so far as we can tell – preferring ‘Eastern’ ways. (Certain Eastern ways, that is: he had a lower opinion of Indians and Africans.) If he had had his way things might have turned out better; only ‘might have’, because you can never tell, and both the Arab unity and the Muslim-Jewish co-operation he sought may always have been chimerical. That said, Anderson concludes, ‘it’s hard to imagine that any of this could possibly have produced a sadder history than what has actually transpired over the past century, a catalogue of war, religious strife and brutal dictatorships that has haunted not just the Middle East but the entire world.’ Present-day Syria, where Lawrence’s most filmic adventures took place, is an example.

So, why bother with him? Well, he is undoubtedly a fascinating figure in his own right; one of those English (or in his case Anglo-Irish-Scottish) upperish-class oddballs who enliven Our Island Story. For a start he looked odd: quite short (O’Toole wasn’t at all right for the part in that respect), with a disproportionately large head, which earned him the soubriquet in some quarters of ‘the gnome’. He bore the stigma of illegitimacy, his father never having married his mother, and always doubted his paternity. His mother became a bit of a Christian zealot, and at one stage tried missionary work in China, although – in case anyone thinks it made him a ‘crusader’ – this never seems to have rubbed off on him. (Christian proselytism was another aspect of European imperialism he abhorred.) His family had come down in the world, mainly because of his father’s goings-on, which is why he didn’t attend a conventional public school (Anderson gets this wrong). He was clearly highly charismatic, though not everyone fell for him: Beatrice Webb, for example, dismissed him as ‘more than a bit of a poseur’. And the thrilling and colourful exploits depicted in the film are mainly accurate. He possessed character traits that make him even more interesting to biographers, including a very obvious streak of sadomasochism, a depressive tendency, and hints of repressed homosexuality of the kind that psychobiographers love to chew on.

He was also a terrific writer, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom – one of his accounts of the Arabian campaign – containing some wonderful descriptive passages, especially of starry desert nights, but also of blood-stained battlefields, one of which in Anderson’s view ‘edges toward prurience and war pornography’. But it is also not entirely reliable, which adds a touch of mystery to the persona. One puzzle for the psychobiographers is what happened in Deraa in south-western Syria in November 1917, when he was captured and tortured by the Turks. Part of that involved attempted rape. Was he in fact raped? Did he resist? Or did he submit willingly? He never made this clear. (Anderson suspects the last.) ‘Decent men don’t talk of such things,’ Lawrence wrote much later to his confidante, Charlotte Shaw (wife of GBS). Whatever the truth, it left him with a feeling of shame for ever after. Then, last, there’s his escape into anguished anonymity after the war, and his death, at the age of 46, in a motorcycle accident, which opens the film.

Refreshingly, Anderson doesn’t dwell on this personal side. He is more interested in two other broad aspects of the Lawrence story: first, his actual campaigns (Anderson is ‘a veteran war correspondent’ familiar with modern-day conflicts in the Middle East); and second, the broader context of those campaigns, which involves giving space to a number of other Europeans (and one American) who were also there. The military narrative flows well, and is convincing on many aspects of the real nature of war: especially its mess, muddle and brutalising effects. Anderson’s day job clearly hasn’t made him a militarist. Michael Gove would hate his take on the First World War: he calls the August 1914 celebrations in London ‘a death dance performed by gullible primitives’. The other local actors Anderson brings into the picture perform two related functions: taking some of the light off Lawrence, and helping us to understand some of the other forces and motives at work around him. This creates a much more rounded picture of Lawrence too. The chief ones are William Yale, representative in the Middle East of the disreputable Standard Oil Company of New York (and so of American capitalism); Curt Prüfer, ardent German nationalist, working to seduce the Arabs to the German side, who was later a convert to ‘the beautiful ideas of National Socialism’; Aaron Aaronsohn, an agronomist who worked to make the Palestinian desert flower, and became a Zionist, setting up a Jewish spy network in Palestine to help the Allies; and Mark Sykes, co-author of the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement, secretly parcelling out Syria, Palestine and Iraq behind Lawrence’s back in 1916. For Sykes Anderson has nothing but contempt: ‘Few people in history have so heedlessly caused so much tragedy.’ His main problem was that he thought the Middle East situation was amenable to simple, tidy solutions; then, when circumstances proved him wrong, he just changed them to other simple, tidy ones.

But wasn’t that often the British way? It was Lawrence’s too, at least in one of his two – or more – minds. Where he differed from his imperial masters was in believing that a solution could not be imposed from outside (or ‘above’), that his beloved Arabs had to liberate themselves, along their own cultural lines. He realised that he was bound to be mistrusted as an outsider, especially when the dirty Sykes-Picot secret got out. The robes and the immersion in even the more ‘barbaric’ aspects of Bedouin society – personally executing an alleged criminal to prevent a blood feud, for example – were means to ingratiate himself with the Arabs nonetheless. They worked well, by nearly all accounts. His gift of empathy was remarkable. But it only went so far. He miscalculated with the Jews, who he thought would – or at any rate should – be happy helping the Arabs to cultivate their lands. Or perhaps he miscalculated in thinking the Arabs would swallow this. He never really understood urban Arabs, who were very different from ‘his’ Bedouins. His idea of how the Arabs were to be ‘saved’ was based on his experiences in the desert, but distorted by certain simplistic presumptions he brought from outside. Here his earlier career, as a medieval archaeologist, may be vital to an understanding of him.

Many people of Lawrence’s background in the 19th and early 20th centuries had an aversion to ‘modern life’ – cities, capitalism, corruption, mechanisation, mass production, consumption, luxury, democracy, imperialism – and a nostalgia for earlier, allegedly purer times. Medieval Europe and ancient Greece were the two most common foci for this nostalgia, and Lawrence was avid for both. He read Aristophanes in the desert, and his last book was a translation of the Odyssey. But it was the Middle Ages (or his idea of them) that really got to him. He read Malory’s Morte D’Arthur repeatedly, together with Spenser, William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung, and several popular novels set in the Middle Ages; bicycled around France studying its medieval architecture; hero-worshipped Richard the Lionheart; rubbed medieval brasses; was fascinated by medieval heraldry, glass, coins and weapons; wrote his undergraduate thesis on crusader castles (his introduction to ‘Arabia’); and, before the war came along to interrupt his academic career, was all set to embark on a postgraduate thesis on ‘Medieval Lead-Glazed Pottery’. After his death, Eric Kennington carved an effigy of him, lying on his back, hands crossed over his sword, looking – apart from the Bedouin robes and the curve in the sword – exactly like a medieval knightly tomb-lid. (It’s in a little church in Wareham: St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey wouldn’t have him.) There were also rumours around then that he was not dead but only sleeping, in a cave somewhere, waiting for a moment of national crisis to emerge and rescue his people, like King Arthur, Frederick Barbarossa or Owain Glyndwr.

It’s easy to see why his medievalism drew him to the East, and to the Bedouin Arabs in particular. They lived sparely, healthily, openly. By contrast, modern England was ‘fat – obese’, and so green that no one there could appreciate greenery, unlike in the desert. The true Arabs had no cities – those sinks of iniquity in the West. Egypt had Cairo, which may have been one of the reasons he disliked it. Battles were conducted with a ‘chivalry and panache’ that contrasted with ‘the endless casualty lists and the sheer horror of mechanised, muddy, anonymous death’ on the Western Front. It also corresponded with Lawrence’s notion of medieval warfare and offered him scope for the kind of ‘heroism’ he had craved for himself ever since his adolescent reading of Greek and medieval epics: knightly charging (if on camels rather than horses), gorgeously costumed, impervious to danger. Crucially for his ‘solution’, he also liked the Arabs’ social arrangements – hereditary leaders who needed to prove their qualities to their proud, independent-minded subjects – and the place those arrangements offered to him. ‘For the foreigner’, he wrote, Arabia ‘is too glorious for words: one is the baron of the feudal system.’ When it came to deciding on a system of government for his free ‘Arabias’, once he had helped them liberate themselves, no alternative seemed to occur to him than that they should be ruled by kings of ancient lineage. That’s how it had been done in medieval England, after all. (And how it was done in the British mandates after the peace.)

His reading may also have fed his illusion about the efficacy of ‘heroes’ in history. Back in England, George Bernard Shaw tried his best to set him straight: ‘like all heroes, and I must add, all idiots, you greatly exaggerate your power of moulding the universe to your personal convictions.’ But he must have been aware of this before then, especially when he got to know about Sykes-Picot, though he persisted in claiming – and maybe fooling himself – that it could be negated if the Arab army reached Damascus before the French. Where heroism might count, he believed, was in raising morale: among the Arabs, obviously, but also in the wider theatre. That’s one crucial reason for the British government’s very public lionising of him back in England in the summer of 1917, a dark moment for the Entente powers on the Western Front, when they reckoned therefore that ‘some genuinely cheering news, a sterling example of British daring and pluck’ might not go amiss. Lawrence was well aware of this. ‘We must reduce impolitic truth to keep her confident and ourselves a legend. The crowd wanted book-heroes.’ (It reminds me of the Beyond the Fringe sketch in which Peter Cook sends Jonathan Miller to his death: ‘We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.’) Lawrence seems to have realised that he was most useful as a myth. But only temporarily.

He is also interesting in the broader history of British imperialism, as an illustration of how varied imperial attitudes and policies could be. Imperialism was always contested in Britain, from without and within. Particularly independent-minded were those who felt uncomfortable with their class situation, as Lawrence did. He was by no means alone, even in the British army, or – perhaps more surprisingly – in the Colonial Service, in being a critic of empire; or, by another way of looking at it, an empathetic imperialist, not at all culturally chauvinistic, appreciative of other ways of living, and seeking to help subject peoples liberate themselves in their own ways. It’s the ‘seeking to help’ element that could be regarded as ‘imperialistic’, of course, based as it is on the patronising assumption that – in this case – the Arabs needed a white man to lead them to the light, even if he believed it was their own light. Anderson’s excellent book conveys that. So did Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Seeing the film again recently for the first time in fifty years, I was impressed by how well it handles the anti-imperial aspect of Lawrence’s story. That may, at a time of early decolonisation, have reminded cinemagoers how transgressive many of their imperial legends could be. And, by extension, how complex and conflicting the whole story of British imperialism was.