T.E. Lawrence was a 5’5″ scholar who looms large over military history. A desert chimera, and a British Sphinx, Lawrence by his very being changed the course of history.
On the 125th anniversary of his birth, my only tribute is a small selection of Lawrence’s gorgeous and quite powerful writings. These are all from Seven Pillars of Wisdom, with two selections from The Mint, where noted.
He is one of my great heroes, inspirations, and a sort of white elephant for the biographer in me– riding away into the desert, leaving only his words and images behind for me– for us– to piece together.
Happy 125th, T.E. Thank you for it all.
“In the night my colour was unseen. I could walk as I pleased, an unconsidered Arab: and this finding myself among, but cut off from, my own kin made me strangely alone.”
“The essence of the desert was the lonely moving individual, the son of the road, apart from the world as in a grave.”
“The abstraction of the desert landscape cleansed me, and rendered my mind vacant with its superfluous greatness: a greatness achieved not by the addition of thought to its emptiness, but by its subtractions. In the weakness of earth’s life was mirrored the strength of heaven, so vast, so beautiful, so strong.”
“Yet life and honour seemed in different categories, not able to be sold for another: and for honour, had I not lost that a year ago when I assured the Arabs that England kept her plighted word? Or was honor like the Sybil’s leaves, the more that was lost the more precious the little left? Its part equal to the whole?”
“To man-rational, wars of nationality were as much a cheat as religious wars, and nothing was worth fighting for: nor could fighting, the act of fighting, hold any need of intrinsic virtue. Life was so deliberately private that no circumstances could justify one man in laying violent hands upon another’s: though a man’s own death was his last free will, a saving grace and measure of intolerable pain.”
“The mounting together of the devoted hopes of years from near-sighted multitudes, might endow even an unwilling idol with Godhead, and strengthen It whenever men prayed silently to Him … [Yet] 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.”
“Any protestation of the truth from me was called modesty, self-depreciation; and charming– for men were always fond to believe a romantic tale. It irritated me, this silly confusion of shyness, which was conduct, with modesty, which was a point of view. I was not modest, but ashamed of my awkwardness, of my physical envelope, and of my solitary unlikeness which made me no companion, but an acquaintance, complete, angular, uncomfortable, as a crystal.”
“You dreamed I came one night with this book
crying, ‘Here’s a masterpiece. Burn it.’
Well – as you please.”
Dedication of The Mint
“Such exaltation of thought, while it let adrift the spirit, and gave it license in strange airs, lost it the old patient rule over the body. The body was too coarse to feel the utmost of our sorrows and of our joys. Therefore, we abandoned it as rubbish: we left it below us to march forward, a breathing simulacrum, on its own unaided level, subject to influences from which in normal times our instincts would have shrunk.”
“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.”
“Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.”
“‘Hullo, what the hell’s those marks? Punishment?’ ‘No, sir, more like persuasion, Sir, I think.’ Face, neck, chest, getting hot.
‘H . . . m . . . m . . . that would account for the nerves.’ His voice sounds softer. ‘Don’t put them down, Mac. Say ‘two parallel scars on ribs’. What were they, boy?’
Superficial wounds, Sir.
‘Answer my question.’
‘A barbed-wire tear, over a fence.’
The worst of telling lies naked is that the red shows all the way down.”
- R.A.F. medical inspection, The Mint