Saturday, August 30, 2014

Seven Pillars of Wisdom - T.E. Lawrence

Lawrence's sense of the dramatic, and the tragic, in his own life and in the "revolt in the desert" must of course be difficult to either corroborate or discard. His work, and indeed his own myth, has become so intertwined with the conflict between the Arabs and the Turks that any dissenting view must address his weighty recounting. Yet perhaps the work's greatest strength is its thorough subjectivity. Lawrence makes no attempt to see the conflict and the issues which underpin it disinterestedly. It is because he cared so much for the Arab revolt, and similarly because he was so critical of both his own effectiveness and the appropriateness of his role, that this very personal recounting succeeds so admirably in conveying not only what the conflict was, but what it meant.

A sense of both the dramatic and the tragic in human affairs requires an accounting for the humane element. When a story - whether real, fictive, or somewhere in between - cannot arouse a reader's passions, then it can never transport a reader beyond his or her own confines. Yet when the personal element is felt, when the battle is joined not simply in some by-gone time, but in our own minds, then history steps out of the shadow of memory and is present in all its immediacy. Lawrence tells us that there is both right and wrong in the world, and that both the best and the worst of us transcend each and it is hardly certain which is which. The confusion of the modern predicament seems to be the awareness of that good, and yet the simultaneous awareness that, even on our best days, we fail to measure up to our own standards. Our common humanity with Lawrence's Arab compatriots, whom he alternately paints as wise and foolish, robust and fragile, faint-hearted and exceedingly bold, is in striving with and against the recognition that we are shadows on a vast landscape. But whereas the Howeitat and the Beni Salem may have been buttressed by faith and the certain absolutes of an unforgiving desert, Lawrence is thoroughly modern: riven and divided against himself.

Throughout, Lawrence is shadowed by himself and his own doubts, in the end we wonder if he was satisfied with his role in the Arab Revolt. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is sweeping, thorough, and at times seems as barren as the Nefud. Lawrence's gift to his time was bringing the Arab Revolt to the front of western consciousness. His continued gift is reminding us that beauty and tragedy are little more than shades of one another. We hold each of these in our hearts and attempt to make sense of them every day.