The Desert Prince
By PATRICK ANDERSON SCHOOLBOYS in the Twenties and early Thirties moved easily from P. C. Wren's Beau Geste to a real-life hero, Lawrence of Arabia. Deserts Were a lot cleaner and more romantic than the
Western Front, whose muddy miseries were being gradually exposed for a new generation by Barbusse and Remarque and Aldington and liemingway. The vast anonymity of the trenches Put an end to heroes; boys could scarcely be expected to turn into Empire-builders on a diet
of passive suffering shading into Boishie protest; and so it was Gallipoli that their elders gave to them, or exploits on the sea or in the air, or the Arab Revolt. (Pops of the time included The Desert Song and Valentino in The Sheik.)
All that stoical camel-riding and blowing-up Of trains and bridges was bracing for a boy-
800 miles and two months (and £20,000 in gold)
just to end the Hejaz war with the capture of Akaba, including adventures with wonderful old Auda and the noble if impish friends, Farraj and Daud, and the feasting, 'a continued orgy of seethed mutton,' and various acute observa- tions of wind-ripples in sand and dew on worm-
Wood, snakes and flies and the khamsin and starlight reflected on rock. Furthermore, Law-
rence, though a bit too odd for anything but a Wog sideshow, had bags of initiative and the courage of a lion—cried out only in Arabic when thrashed by the soldiers in Deraa : a thoughtful high-minded little chap who had scruples and came to the conclusion that he had let the Arabs down, which was the sort of thing that appealed to sporting boys. Buy them that Lowell Thomas colouring book for Christmas.
The reissue of David Garnett's edition of the letters,* first published in 1938 and now prefaced
With a brief but convincing refutation of some
Of Richard Aldington's meanest slurs by Captain Liddell Hart, will be welcoined by those intrigued by the recent play and film. It is a very big book
() f some 900 pages of letters and memoranda, interspersed with the editor's introductions to the
Various sections and with useful explanatory comments. Yet very little of it deals with the War, which is presumably Lawrence's chief claim to lasting attention. After the pleasant and factual
Youthful letters from France and Syria—there is an almost Byronic gusto to these—the bulk of
the correspondence deals with Lawrence the Anguished Literary Amateur and with Lawrence the Problem.
What fascinated schoolboys up to about 1935 Was Lawrence's combination of Establishment Virtues with anti-Establishment individualism and Wolf, he was the hero as Joker or Lone Wolf, the amateur who did better than the pro- fessionals, the intellectual who beat the hearties
at their own game. He brought the world of Kim into that of Dr. Kurt Hahn and the Outward
Bound schools. He qualified for inclusion in a novel by the late Charles Morgan. One can spot an affinity between him and the guerrilla cap- tains, the aloof Airman, of 'the early Auden :
* THE, LETTERS OF T. E. LAWRENCE. Edited by David Garnett. (Spring Books, 21s.) aspects of the public school turned ambiguously revolutionary and informing an elite of kestrel- haunted hikers who were vaguely puritan, priggish, homosexual. But the hero of The Ascent of F 6—`a scholar and ascetic, sensitive and yet a man of action,' to use Mr. Hoggart's highly appropriate words—disintegrated on his alp, more symptom than Messiah, and left-wing writ- ing turned to group action in support of Spain. The Auden solution, after all, was 'love,' some- thing Lawrence never seemed to achieve, despite his concluding The Mint with 'Everywhere a re- lationship: no loneliness any more.' Auden wished to cure the sickness of the self-regarding will (`The exhaustion of weaning, the liar's quinsy/And the distortions of ingrown virginity,' etc.) and poor Lawrence, with his illegitimacy, pride, boastfulness, retained most of the symp- toms. So it remained for an oddball like Henry Williamson to hope great things from a meeting between Lawrence and Hitler.
Schoolboy worshippers, fed on Graves's far too romantic Lawrence and the Arabs (1927), did not bother with much more than the cat-like in- dependence, the unorthodox but of course `brilliant' scholarship, the general cocky taking- of-the-mickey (Greek jokes for sergeants), the great man using their slang ('Good egg,' 'Rotten effort,"Fathead'), the love of motor-cycles, and an attitude to war which was msthetic and sub- jective. Maybe also the scoffing at sex and women, together with the comradely tenderness.
Beyond these rose, of course, the great ques- tions: why did Lawrence hurry from Damascus at the height ofhis triumph? . . . and why, when he had •himself helped to put right the injustices' of Versailles, did he desert his Arab past, to- gether with his name, and join the lowest ranks of the RAF and the Tank Corps? It seems to me that these complexities have been argued quite enough and that now, after Aldington's cheap and slick portrait of Lawrence as all vanity and lies and Mr. Nutting's recent sugges- tion that his confidence was destroyed by his discovery that he was a masochist, what really matters is to see what can still be made of Law- rence as a writer. Related to this, to the tone and values and vision of his books and letters, is, of, course, the. question of his basic humanity. Was he a flawed hero or little more than a case-history?
One must admit that most of the letters were written after events that would have given many a strong man a breakdown: Lawrence had shot a dying friend, personally executed a murderer and, in a fit of revenge, machine-gunned 200 prisoners, to name but a few of his wartime experiences. Nevertheless, one cannot claim that the letters come near to the best in the genre. They are deficient in humour. They generally miss the note of easy intimacy. They eschew small-talk and gossip. They neither tell stories nor range back over experience nor bring characters and scenes alive. They strike off some, but not very many, happy phrases. Although capable of praise (Hogarth, Trenchard, Eliot's
poetry) and of kindness and consideration (the support of G. M. Doughty, the efforts to get two fellow airmen the sort of leave they wanted) and also of a grovelling flattery (Shaw) they are too self-conscious to show much fellow feel- ing. Their literary and artistic judgments are scarcely profound : Lawrence repeatedly stands up for the 'big' books—Tolstoy, Don Quixote, Leaves of Grass—without saying much about them: he declares The Plumed Serpent the best of Lawrence's novels (not the silliest) and he accepts those tastelessly funny drawings Ken- nington provided for the Seven Pillars. In a letter to Wavell from Karachi he shows how much he cut himself off from the world, even from the India his friend E. M. Forster de- scribed so well: 'No, India is not good. I have passed a lot of self-denying ordinances, one of which keeps me within camp-bounds, another forbids me the canteen, a third prevents my ever sitting down on another bed than my own. Imagine me as a plaster saint . .
Endlessly he discusses the Seven Pillars, a book he professes to dislike. It is 'a stodge of mock-heroic egoism,' my sludge,' it stinks of me' and 'it stinks of coffins and ancestors and armorial hatchments.' It is written in 'a painted or sentimental style.' At one moment he feels that `Never was so shamelessly emotional a book,' at another that 'Everything of mine is dry.' When Herbert Read reviewed it in the context of heroes and epic—certainly a justifiable approach in view of the prefatory poem and the high, if not hysterical, tone of the opening paragraphs for all their near-clichés--Lawrence was upset: 'Of course The Seven Pillars is not a work of art. Whoever pretended it was? I write better than the majority of retired army officers, I hope. . . . Isn't he slightly ridiculous in seek- ing to measure my day-to-day chronicle by the epic standard?' Yet earlier he had declared to Shaw, who helped in the revision, that the book was 'an effort to make history an imaginative thing' and to his other chief adviser, Edward Garnett, that he had hoped to make it a fourth titanic book in the tradition of Longinus's Sublime and of Karamazov, Zarathustra and Moby Dick. '
It seems obvious that the scale of the 'titanic' and the 'sublime' could scarcely be achieved when the hero was the author's own divided and tor- tured self (see the extraordinary postscript with its romantic mystery about the personal motive which died before the end—what cheek to imagine a work of art could be founded upon such an evasion!). And then again the dis- crepancy between the hero and his followers is too difficult to bridge; the Arabs as he drew them are too exotically remote, too lacking in roundness, as well as too contentious, mercenary and ruffianly to make the 'we' of the text wholly convincing. Lawrence had too strong a sense of mialification, of muddled motive and muddled organisation, to make the ideal of freedom as `ravenous' as he claimed.
If the book fell pretty flat when its public edition finally appeared in 1935, this was nothing to the dull thud produced by The Mint, for which we had to wait another twenty years. Frankness about fighting men had been conclusively vindi- cated by writers like Norman Mailer, and all that sensitive horror-fascination for the steaming bodies, the `animal' simplicities of camp life was old-hat to readers of Mr. Jocelyn Brooke and the late Denton Welch. One's conclusion must, I think, be that whatever was warmly virtuous in Lawrence the man rarely got through his self- consciousness on to the paper.