This is Lawrence's epic account of the First World War as it was fought in the deserts of the Middle East by the Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Part traditional history and travel writing, and part philosophy, it remains a testimony to one of the 20th century's most intriguing figures.
Despite the cast of seeming thousands (all named Hussein, Abdullah, or Ali), it seems the only real characters in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom are T.E. Lawrence, the landscape, and the weather. The other “people” are just background, or perhaps two dimensional archetypes. For example, Feisal is a personification of a saint—willing to bear anything for the cause, and endowed with all human graces appropriate to that cause. Farraj and Daud are like Greek symbols of innocent boy-love and perfect loyalty. Although the humans may indeed be as beautiful as artworks, they do not seem to be fully human:
He had large eloquent eyes, like black velvet in richness. His forehead was low and broad, his nose very high and sharp, powerfully hooked: his mouth rather large and mobile: his beard and moustaches had been trimmed to a point in Howeitat style, with lower jaw shaven underneath.
Chapter 38, p. 225 (describing Auda). In contrast, the landscape, sky, and weather fairly breathe and undulate, and emote almost humanly:
For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; we were dizzied by the heating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.
Chapter 1, p. 28. Another example:
The swell of every curve was a grey breast of sand set hard with mud, sometimes glistening with salt-crystals, and sometimes rough with the projecting brush of half-buried twigs which had caused it.
Chapter 74, p. 409.
It was difficult to get through the first two hundred or so pages—I could not find any rhythm or pattern to the account. The story did not read smoothly, but jerked along with new names of people and new names of places (and I was not always sure which was which), and then with a sudden lurch of a compelling vignette. I guess it was like learning to ride a camel—the ride does not really get any smoother, but you learn not to fight the movement carrying you along. By the end, I could appreciate that because this book is more a journey into the psyche of Lawrence than a recounting of war experiences. Events would be remembered in idiosyncratic ways and with importance measured by the effect on and memory of Lawrence rather than the historicity of the tale. The journey was an interesting travelogue, beginning with an “indifferent heaven” with freedom the object of his faith, and feeling himself and the Arabs to be mere “sentient puppets on God’s stage.” (Chapter 1, p.28). Before the journey was over, Lawrence had in his own mind become something greater than Jesus:
It might have been heroic to have offered up my own life for a cause in which I could not believe: but it was a theft of souls to make others die in sincerity for my graven image. Because they accepted our message as truth, they were ready to be killed for it; a condition which made their acts more proper than glorious, a logical bastard fortitude, suitable to a profit and loss balance of conduct. To invent a message, and then with open eye to perish for its self-made image—that was greater.
Chapter 100, p. 548. It could be argued that Lawrence did not perish, but if we circle back to the Introduction, Lawrence tells us quite clearly that he was destroyed by his self-sacrifice for the Arab and English irreconcilable causes:
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…
Chapter 1, p. 31. So he also compares himself to Mohammed! Yet, ironically, all this self-exultation just leads Lawrence to feel completely alienated from other people:
They talked of food and illness, games and pleasures, with me, who felt that to recognize our possession of bodies was degradation enough, without enlarging upon their failings and attributes. I would feel shame for myself at seeing them wallow in the physical which could be only a glorification of man’s cross. Indeed, the truth was I did not like the ‘myself’ I could see and hear.
Chapter 103, p. 565. The price of divinity is self-loathing.
Lawrence's account of the revolt in the desert should not be taken as the definitive--or even reliable--history of the conflict, but he never intended it to be. As he writes in the introductory chapter: "In these pages the history is not of the Arab movement, but of me in it. It is a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history, and partly for the pleasure it gave me to recall the fellowship of the revolt." It is the romanticized, deeply personal truth of one man.
Throughout the book, Lawrence comes off as a very complicated person: self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating; highly intelligent, but inexperienced; romantic, but often clear-sighted and cynical. By the end, I found myself even more fascinated by this quixotic figure who found himself torn between conflicting loyalties.
I shall leave off with one of my favorite passages:
Later I was sitting alone in my room, working and thinking out as firm
a way as the turbulent memories of the day allowed, when the Muedhdhins
began to send their call of last prayer through the moist night over
the illuminations of the feasting city. One, with a ringing voice of
special sweetness, cried into my window from a near mosque. I found
myself involuntarily distinguishing his words: "God alone is great: I
testify there are no gods, but God: and Mohammed his Prophet. Come to
prayer: come to security. God alone is great: there is no god--but God.'
At the close he dropped his voice two tones, almost to speaking level,
and softly added: 'And He is very good to us this day, O people of
Damascus.' The clamour hushed, as everyone seemed to obey the call to
prayer on this their first night of perfect freedom. While my fancy, in
the overwhelming pause, showed me my loneliness and lack of reason in
their movement: since only for me, of all the hearers, was the event
sorrowful and the phrase meaningless. (Chapter CXX)
It is a product of his time. And Lawrence does seem a bit patronizing about the Arabs and Turks. But in other times, he is astonishingly sensitive and well-attuned and insightful to their needs. How else could he have helped led a successful guerrilla campaign?
A book which still shines and has much to teach. If only he was in charge of the post-war partitioning of the world.
The tale is long in the telling, checking in at 660 pages. Lawrence was a very good writer, and his diaries were very detailed. The hardships and splendors of his many long trips on camelback through extremely arduous terrain and weather, the details of Beduin desert life, the personalities of the people he comes in contact with, influences and commands and their daily lives and mores, and the frustrations, follies and terrors of individual battles and war in general are all effectively and compellingly related. Sometimes the physical aspects journeys that turn out to be of relatively minimal import are described in such detail that they leave a reader wondering what the point of that particular description was. But in the end, the breadth and length of these details helped me get a real sense of the vast distances being traversed in a way that a more rushed exposition would not. Again, both the physical world of the desert in all its glory and appalling hardship, and the chaos of battle, are very, very well described. The inner-workings of the British high command on the Middle Eastern front, and the personalities involved there as well, are also revealed. So, although this book needs a commitment in time and psychic energy, I feel it is well worth both for anyone interested in the topics described here. The only areas in which I felt Lawrence went astray were in his often agonized reflections about human nature and the relationship between physical and moral desires. There is in particular a pages-long segment of such contemplations towards the end that was pretty much incomprehensible to me. All in all, though, these passages make up a very, very small percentage of the tale.
As I understand the wikipedia entry on Lawrence, it was early on assumed that he had embellished his tale freely, but that as biographers have researched the story they have come to think of Lawrence as a relatively trustworthy narrator after all. I could have that wrong, though.
There was an edited-down version of this memoir, published as Revolt in the Desert, made available during Lawrence's lifetime and still available today. This may be more to the liking of many readers, and, really, I couldn't blame anyone for sticking to the shorter version. Personally, though, I'm glad I made space for the long version.
wikipedia also mentions that fact that Lawrence refused to profit from the sales of either version of his memoirs, choosing instead to donate proceeds to charitable organizations.
An excellent work and an excellent autobiography.
Definitely NOT a book to read in the 21st Century, it's just NOT of our time - the title is the most interesting thing about it.
It's about as interesting as that dull little tome by Ann Robinson.....zzzzzzzzzzz ......time for bed...
Tedious? At times. Egotistical? Who wouldn't have been in that role? Truly a multi-level study of war, Arab culture, geography of the Arabian peninsula, his own homo-eroticism, and his underlying guilt at the British and French betrayal of the Arab people make this a classic that still explains and teaches today. It should be required reading for every President, Secretary of State, and everybody on the Middle East desk in the State Dept.
It's also is one of those books. The books that help shape characters, dialog, and plot in other stories. Like a stone falling in a pond, the effect ripples out. I found myself recognizing so many ideas and concepts.
It is a brilliant book and a fascinating read. One word of warning however, a bit like a really large slice of chocolate fudge cake. It is hard to eat in one sitting.