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A towering achievement and a workout for your brain
on 9 December 2008
I used to say that "Moby Dick" was the most challenging book I'd ever read, but Melville's prolific meditation on whale blubber has just been knocked off the top spot by Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom". This epic tome took me more than 4 months to conquer. I'm a dedicated reader of fiction and my attention span struggles when confronted with history, especially from a military angle. Of course, some might argue that "Seven Pillars" isn't so much history as an embellished work of fiction...much of its content is considered inaccurate and egotistical. But I see no problem with this: I approached the work to learn about Lawrence himself and the Arab Revolt in equal measure. In fact, Lawrence openly admits that his account isn't perfect and that his actions were fuelled (at the time) by a thirst for greatness. He makes no secret of these flaws and opens himself up to criticism, making it all the more interesting to read about his own exploits in his own words.
But let me tell you, folks: it's seriously slow going. Here is a man so highly educated that his writing seems, at times, impenetrable. Be it the philosophy of guerrilla warfare, the wider scope of WW1 or the intricate tribal doings of the Bedouin people...whatever the subject, this man writes like a true Oxford scholar and his thoughts are hard to follow at times. I was tempted to give up on several occasions after rereading difficult passages (and there are many) up to three or four times...and still not quite grasping the meaning of it all. Making matters even trickier are the many names of Arabian families, factions and clans that float in and out of Lawrence's narrative. I found it hard just remembering who was who among the Allies, let alone the Egyptian/Arab/Turk/Syrian armies. It really does become impossible to keep up with so many names and you'll need to gloss over details like this (at least I did) if you want to make any headway into the text.
But overall, I'm glad I persevered. It's when his guard slips and Lawrence speaks of the landscape, of the ferocity of the sun - of poetry, dreams and his take on human nature that I found him the most fascinating. Obviously the drama of the Arab Revolt provides most of the action (once it gets going): blowing up railways, charging into battle on camels, driving Rolls Royce tenders at top speed across the sand dunes...it has all the thrills of a Boy's Own colonial adventure and this has probably helped seal its enduring appeal. But I was more interested in the inner workings of Lawrence and how he, as a total outsider, managed to win the confidence of a foreign race largely through empathy and intellect rather than fear and brute force. I was even more interested to read how he justified such actions to himself, given that the British would ultimately turn around and betray the Arabs. What comes through, I think, in this account, is Lawrence's shame that his own personal ambitions ruined life for many Arabians after WW1. He seemed driven, most of the time, by fame-starved demons...and hated himself every step of the way. But he couldn't stop what he'd set in motion and kept pushing towards an Arab victory that was, in the end, a massive Arab defeat.
What also comes through is an almost superhuman sense of grace under pressure. When he's thrown from his camel under gunfire and lies stunned in the sand, Lawrence brings himself back to consciousness with the memory of a poem he once read as a child. When he finds himself totally exposed to a train full of Turkish soldiers, he sits down dreamily and waves to the fully-armed troops...and none of them think to shoot him. His actions seem to defy logic as he maintains a calm, aloof composure in the most extreme circumstances.
But this quality comes with a dark side. Above all else, it consistently amazed me how Lawrence - given his genteel nature - was able to totally sever his emotions when faced with the harsh realities of death and suffering. When an argument amongst the Bedouins forces him to execute a tribesman, although he admits his hand was shaking, he shoots the victim with no real thought whatsoever: "I gave him a few moments delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest." Consider also the following description, when Lawrence realises he has bombed a train full of sick people: "I ran down to the ruins to see what the mine had done. The bridge was gone; and into its gap was fallen the front wagon, which had been filled with sick. The smash had killed all but three or four and had rolled the dead and dying into a bleeding heap against the splintered end. One of those yet alive deliriously cried out the word `typhus'. So I wedged shut the door and left them there, alone."
Truly merciless stuff from such a meek man...but perhaps that's how he survived the Arab Revolt, by turning a blind eye to the horrible outcome of war and simply getting on with the job. I enjoyed this book and it feels like a milestone to have reached the end. Give it a try if you've got the stamina and then visit the deserts of Jordan where it all happened (I did a few months later!).