Another of the documentaries I’ve watched in recent times was about T.E. Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia. I’ve long found him a fascinating character, as have many thousands of others. He was so complex and enigmatic and managed to achieve remarkable things, yet lived out his shortened life tortured by his failures.
As most people do, I probably encountered him first through the movie based on his desert exploits. It’s a glossy, romantic, beautiful-looking movie with Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence. I don’t know how true it is to the man himself – probably not a lot – but it holds true to general facts. The battle scenes are vivid, and O’Toole and Omar Sharif (as Faisal) are magnetic.
Later on, I picked up Seven Pillars of Wisdom from a local bookshop and began to read. I don’t think I ever finished it – I should try it again. What I remember was the prose, which could be overwrought, but equally could draw you in. It was perhaps a bit too wordy for my younger self, but I took things from it. There’s a famous quote from it which for years I would hold up as a type of philosophy:
All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
I still believe in the principle of it: it was who I wanted to be.
I have carried him me in the years since, as you do various characters, as I have Hemingway who I wrote of the other day. They’re characters that connect with you in some way – they intrigue you, or you feel a sympathy for their beliefs or personality, or, quite often, they excite an ambition in you. They become a part of your internal make-up.
What was it about Lawrence? Perhaps I’m drawn to complex characters. In his case, I think it’s the combination of high adventure and intrigue in the desert, like a boy’s own story, combined with the dense complexity of the man who was unable to accept that he failed his friends – not that it was his fault.
He was betrayed himself by the French and English governments, who betrayed the promises Lawrence had made to the Bedouin he led and fought with. The long shadow of that betrayal is the chaos that reigns now in so much of the Arab world.
In many ways, I find him a foreign character. If we ever met, I think we’d find little in common beyond curiosity and wonder. He was a repressed, closed individual. He was driven by inner demons and perhaps an innate rebelliousness. Whatever the reason, he seemed unwilling to accept the status quo presented to him – perhaps we might find common ground there, also.
I thrill to his desert adventures but suspect they were more cinematic than effective. I was in the desert he traversed some years ago, and which we see in the movie made of him – grand, breathtaking rock outcrops, like headlands, amongst a sea of sand. I tumbled down a dune, I remember and spent the night at a Bedouin herders camp. It was a memorable experience.
There’s no doubt that Lawrence was a bit of a strange character, but of the type the world needs more of – brilliant, idealistic, decent, honest, stubborn, and tough. He was a visionary with the ability to vividly articulate a purpose. He seems hardly the charismatic type, yet he was able to inspire the Bedouin tribes to a common purpose. Of course, he had his flaws and personal weaknesses, which he was intensely aware of, but we’d hardly bat an eye at them in our times.
He was naive and innocent too, which was his downfall, and the thing he could never get come to terms with. There are many worse things than that. In this case, what he saw as his failure changed history.