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Random thoughts on T.E. Lawrence

Posted January 22nd, 2011 at 11:16 AM by Diogenes

"You are evidently a dangerous man, most men who are any good are..."
- George Bernard Shaw to T.E. Lawrence

Having just finished Michael Korda's Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia and casually reading through a tiny fraction of the mountain of correspondence which Lawrence maintained throughout his life I've come to a couple of (probably spurious) conclusions. For a start, history and circumstance continually forced themselves on Lawrence, although he can certainly be accused of finding himself at the right place at the right time. A friend of Lawrence's referred to this phenomenon as "backing into the limelight." He courted fame. He had no problem, in the days of the Arab Revolt and shortly thereafter, of posing as "Urens Bey", the mastermind of the insurrection against Ottoman rule. He wrote a 300,000 - plus word war memoir of his experience in Arabia. And memoir, indeed all autobiography, is in the end self-aggrandizing. He maintained friendships with the "great and the good" of British society: Churchill, Lady Astor, George Bernard Shaw, and Noel Coward to name a few. But the "Lawrence Legend" overwhelmed him. He spent much of his post-Revolt years in the nascent RAF and brief, miserable stint in the Army. His desire to dissappear reached its furtherest extent when was stationed to a small outpost, a fort really, in what would later become western Pakistan.

As Korda points out he may have been the first victim of what would one day be known as the Papparazzi. After his discharge from the RAF photographers actually climbed onto the roof of his cottage, hoping to capture a photo of the hero inside. He was not a recluse or a secular monk. He dined often with friends and kept up a prodigious amount of correspondence with what amounted to literally dozens of people. Partially, in my opinion, he was using his friends to fill something of a void within himself. He punished himself with an ascetic lifestyle. He certainly possessed a masochistic streak, which would manifest itself in bizarre sessions with a young Scot whom he paid to whip him. No real ties with his family, no physical relationships (that any biographer knows of), a rigorous intellectual habit which left him little time for sleep. He was punishing himself his entire life. Perhaps it all goes back to his strictly religious and somewhat abusive mother, perhaps to his failure to secure his Arab followers what he promised. But he did feel the need to be punished, and it's a thread which runs through most of his adult life.
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