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Features / News

January 15, 2013

The Enigma Variations: Living with Lawrence



My 1960s began with this exchange:

Tafas: Truly, did you ride from Cairo?

Lawrence:  That’s 900 miles. I came by ship.

Tafas: And before that? From Britain?

Lawrence: Oxfordshire.

Tafas: Is that a desert country?

Lawrence: No. It’s a fat country. Full of fat people.

Tafas: You are not fat.

Lawrence: No. I’m different.

And with that I had a hero, an icon and a second self.  And so did all the other boys in the world who felt different. I had always instinctively felt that difference equaled lack. With these words my world began a slow but eventually unstoppable process of turning upside down. There began to seep in the suggestion that a life defined by lack was maybe not the only possible end of being different.

The lines are spoken near the beginning of David Lean’s movie Lawrence of Arabia.  I first heard them in December 1962 in the Michael Todd Theater in the Chicago Loop, along with my mother, my brother and my sister. I was nine.

In 1962, there were a lot of kids in the western world who were growing up feeling different but finding no vocabulary to express just how, not knowing whether it was good or bad to feel that way, not knowing if there was anyone else who felt that way. There were lots of kids who didn’t do sports very well, physically and socially awkward, shy, bookish and day-dreamy, inclined to obsess on imaginary worlds where difference didn’t matter that much, where it might actually be a kind of gift, an advantage. Comic books, real books, movies, were the raw material of these worlds. Peter Parker, the nerdy outcast whose strange gifts (and a costume change) make him the mysterious urban guerilla Spiderman, was the best example. Until Lawrence.

In the years that followed there would arise a movement that would at last give all the children who felt different a culture, a community, which would even transform the difference into a kind of cool. But not yet.

I can only describe my first experience of Lawrence of Arabia not as watching a movie, or even being excited and inspired by a movie, but as encountering a personality, a personality that would eventually have as much consequence in my life as almost any real person I ever met. This experience has convinced me that there has to be some category of existence, some intermediate state between a fictional, artistic creation, and a fully existent fellow-creature.

‘I soon learned, because I read a lot, that the real Thomas Edward Lawrence was clearly not exactly the person I encountered in the film.’

The first phase of my relationship with the movie character was a strained effort to establish that the movie Lawrence was an accurate representation of a real historic person. I soon learned, because I read a lot, that the real Thomas Edward Lawrence was clearly not exactly the person I encountered in the film. The part of me that respected books and scholarship felt reluctantly forced to accept that the kind of knowledge that history gives access to simply would not allow me to believe what I wanted to believe about this person. But the deeper, more implacable part simply did not accept this. I cherry-picked the parts of the biographies and of Lawrence’s book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that supported the character of the movie Lawrence. I told myself that the movie intuitively grasped essential realities, if not the literal truth of the historical person, that actual historians were too dull or too swayed by fashionable revisionism to see. This was a first step down a path with some ultimately radical implications.  The path led me to the idea that there was more than one sort of history, more than one way of being real.  It would eventually land me in company with someone like William Blake, who asserted that imaginative reality was fully the existential equal of sensory, physical reality. You want to be careful how you navigate this terrain because mental unbalance is one path through it. William Blake struggled all his life to not be a mere crackpot.

The in-some-way living reality of the artistic creation was always the primary datum with me.  In other words, the books might tell me one thing, but I knew this person.


The real T.E. Lawrence was a liminal character, a person who seems to have always occupied the frontier zones between one condition and another. There are scores of books about Lawrence; but it is perhaps the pre-eminent fact about Lawrence studies that it is infamously difficult to arrive at certainty about his actions, his motivation and even some of the basic facts of his life.

Most obviously, there was the central liminality of his life: the undefinable position he occupied between the British Empire and the Bedouin of Arabia; between Oxford and the desert; between  a Christian culture and Islam, between white and brown, between colonizers and subjects.

But it starts from the beginning. His father was an Anglo-Irish baronet who ran off with the children’s nanny. The couple presented themselves as heads of a solid bourgeois Christian family, but, in the categories of the times, were engaged in a lifelong adulterous relationship. Lawrence had no clear place in the class structure. He was a companion of kings and prime ministers when being a bastard still retained much of its ancient stigma. In himself he held in tension his father’s aristocratic insouciance, and the burning evangelical zeal of his working class Scottish mother.

He was on one side a rarified Oxonian aesthete; hated sports, loved poetry. On the other he was fascinated from childhood with military lore and life, with weapons and physical endurance.

He was as unmilitary a type as his age could produce, iconoclastic and superior about the regular military, yet he idolized the commanders he served under, and spent the balance of his life as an enlisted man in the RAF and the Tank Corps.

His sense of his nationality shifted: He identified himself, at different times in his life, as Irish, Welsh and English.

He went by at least three surnames at various times in his life.

He was an anti-imperial idealist, a freedom fighter, an early instance of a type that would run from Mahatma Ghandi to Che Guevera: “I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts.” He was a cynical imperialist: “I risked the fraud [of promising the Arabs independence] on the conviction that Arab help was necessary to a cheap and speedy victory in the East.”

He was cripplingly introspective; he became famous as a man of action.

Torture and sexual abuse at the hands of Turkish soldiers either scarred him terribly for the rest of his life, or, as a bloc of Lawrence biographers believe, may have never happened.

He is perhaps the most famous British military hero of the 20th Century; but his was a nebulous, in-between kind of war whose aim was to avoid direct contact with the enemy. He has been hailed as a seminal modern military thinker, the first theorist of asymmetrical warfare. He has been depicted as nothing more than the British paymaster for Bedouin mercenaries.

He would sometimes suggest that he was the chief architect and engineer of the Arab Revolt. At other times he wondered if “all established reputations, like mine, were based on fraud.”

Trailer for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

A fascination with pain—with inflicting it and enduring it—is clear in his writing. Yet kindness and gentleness were the traits those who knew him most remembered.

He was sexually ambiguous, a type of sexual persona that we don’t exactly have any more. Clearly not conventionally hetero, but it feels anachronistic to call him “gay.” At times it seems undeniable that he was homosexual, and it seems just as likely that he never had a voluntary sexual encounter in his life.

His very physical appearance feels unstable. In photographs he is a little man with a large head, a big nose and an embarrassed grin that makes him look a little like Stan Laurel. In contemporary portraits (and they were numerous) he is an icon of Anglo-Saxon male beauty, long golden hair, piercing ice-blue eyes, a Jaw like Wellington, but with something sad or feminine or vulnerable in the eyes and mouth,  all made mythic by his  wonderful robes.

Lawrence frustrates the empirical instinct of history. He’s like some sort of ghost particle in quantum physics that changes from matter to energy depending on who’s looking at it. He was a kind of example of Keats’s “negative capability”–the boundaries of his person so amorphous and indeterminate that he could adapt with quite unusual ease to any milieu in which he was placed.


Something imaginatively very interesting, if not extraordinary, happened when in the late ‘50s a coterie of British and American writers and artists and radical intellectuals set to work creating a film character out of this cluster of indeterminacies.

There was director David Lean, the elegant interpreter of Charles Dickens and a close observer of the manners of repressed Englishmen and women; black-listed Hollywood writer Michael Wilson, who had written the screenplays for Friendly Persuasion, Bridge on the River Kwai, A Place in the Sun (and a polish for It’s a Wonderful Life); Robert Bolt, left-wing English playwright. Peter O’Toole, an eccentric, hard-drinking young Irish Shakepearian. Freddie Young , whom the International Cinematographers Guild would one day name one of  the ten most influential cinematographers in history, at the peak of his career. And Maurice Jarre, a French composer presciently interested in ambient electronic sound.

David Lean and Peter O’Toole during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia: Lean saw the question mark at the core of the life of T.E. Lawrence as an opportunity to do something new.

Perhaps Lean was aware that in folklore and depth psychology liminal states are gaps in ordinary life where the extra-ordinary—the supernatural, the divine, the daimonic, the diabolical—can break in. In any event, Lean and Bolt saw the question mark at the core of the life of T.E. Lawrence as an opportunity to do something new.

Lean used to be (and sometimes still is) dismissed as a coffee table-book director, too interested in prettiness or more kindly put, pictorial composition, to be saying anything trenchant about character or life or history or politics. There is a grain of truth in this, and that impulse or weakness became more prominent in the movies that followed Lawrence. But in Lawrence the landscape has a central dramatic function. Lean understood that underlying the charisma of the real T.E. Lawrence was, at bottom, the idea of a man in the desert landscape. Lean and Young employed the emergent 70 millimeter widescreen technology to build a new kind of character in a new kind of way. One of the reasons that the figure of Lawrence in the movie is so extraordinarily compelling is because the construction of the landscape and the construction of the character are inseparable parts of the same creation.

The early critics of the movie, aesthetically and historically sophisticated men like Bosley Crowther and Andrew Sarris are quite right–there is a gap or void in the character of the protagonist that is never filled in by the narrative. The film’s device of putting an enquiring reporter at Lawrence’s memorial service gives us the impression that the movement of the film will be the resolution of a mystery. It is not. Bolt and Lean and O’Toole’s central artistic decision was to take the indeterminacy that surrounded the real Lawrence and leave it indeterminate.

The reporter at the memorial service is of course inspired by the structure of Citizen Kane. In Kane, the investigation is motivated by the mystery of Kane’s last word: “Rosebud.” In Lawrence, there is no Rosebud. There is, as Sheik Auda (Anthony Quinn) says, only the desert. All the little pieces of action and dialog that seem to be establishing a character, that make us feel that we are getting to know someone in a typical biopic way, lead us step by step up to a void—the fearful void, as Geoffrey Moorhouse called his account of crossing the Sahara on camel-back. Lean and Bolt chose not to make that void prosaic, to paper it over with dialog and backstory.

Those early critics saw the presence of the void as a result of careless craftsmanship. They felt that Lean and Bolt had simply gone AWOL regarding a psychological or political explanation of Lawrence. An understandable reaction, but wrong. Lean and Bolt retained part of the popular Lawrence persona from the 1920s, the exotic mystery man of the East, the inspiration for Valentino’s sheik. But they took the irresolvability of what was known and not known about the historical Lawrence and used it as an opening where they could put something that went beyond psychology and personality.  They put the desert there.

Lawrence of Arabia: The mirage at the well

Let me put it this way—I have never personally heard anyone indicate dissatisfaction or bewilderment concerning the character of Lawrence in the movie. Viewers seem satisfied with whatever motivation the film establishes for his actions. The void should be a problem, but it never is. For half a century, the experience of Lawrence has been emotionally whole and satisfying and often profound for the vast majority of its millions of viewers. Why does the gap in characterization not matter? Because when you go through the gap, you enter the desert. The desert doesn’t stand for or symbolize anything, like Lawrence’s sexuality or his tormented soul. But it does clearly seem to offer some sort of response      that satisfies questions or difficulties people might be expected have with Lawrence’s character or motivation.

Freddie Young’s cinematography anticipated a “psychedelic” style and gave the landscape aspects of a personality. These are landscapes seen as visionary states—at several points in the movie, Lawrence enters dissociative trance-like states which reflect and are reflected by the desert. They are much further out that the Jovian landscapes Stanley Kubrick created for the “trip” sequence in 2001. Where Kubrick’s otherworld is an artifact of the ‘60s, Young’s desert grows more vivid with the passing years. Some of his purely natural outdoor locations, such as the Masturah Well, where Lawrence meetst Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), look like symbolist theatrical sets. Young looked for textures, patterns, odd juxtapositions, striking contrasts, symmetries, asymmetries. Whether beautiful or menacing, he sought to bring out the strangeness of the environment, and to disrupt our sense of scale and proportion. Young found how to make the desert a living presence and because of that Lean was able to use the landscape to answer dramatic needs. It is a landscape of the soul, a divine emptiness. Lawrence encounters many powerful personalities, but it is clearly Freddie Young’s desert that attracts and inspires him above all else. Lawrence’s exaltation at encountering this landscape is the audience’s exaltation. We feel why he wants to become like one of the creatures of the desert, like the people who so lithely appear and disappear in its recesses.

The accomplishment of Lean, Bolt and O’Toole is to have created a character who works as a conventional character—we easily identify with him—but who has at his center a huge unenunciated desire that can only be suggested by depicting a sublime landscape. Creating identification with this character, and then throwing the doors open to the Absolute, in a way that only the epic films of the early ‘60s could do, creates a response in the viewer that is unique. In 1962, Lean found the real function of the epic mode in filmmaking. No one ever found it again, Lean included. Terence Malick, another epic-scale eccentric, comes perhaps the closest. In Days of Heaven the great weather and the endless fields of wheat buffet and batter the little human story in the center of the movie until it becomes primal and Biblical.

Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab Revolt, part 1

Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab Revolt, part 2

Maybe the key scene of the movie comes just after Lawrence arrives at the Arab camp, in Prince Feisal’s tent, when Feisal has dismissed everyone but Lawrence. Feisal (Alec Guinness), with his back turned to Lawrence is talking about the desert. No Arab loves the desert, he says. Arabs love green trees and water. There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. And as he goes on, we are watching O’Toole in extreme close-up, daimonic blue fire in his eyes and we know that here is one who does need this kind of nothing.

One of the few self-revealing things that the character of Lawrence says in the movie comes just after the port of Aqaba has been taken by the Arabs, the deed which will elevate him from Lieutenant Lawrence to Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence escapes the chaos of victory and rides his camel to the Red Sea shore at sunset, where he is met by Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). “My God I love this country,” Lawrence says. His thoughts, wherever they were headed, are interrupted by the sound of an explosion from the town. But for the audience who have been watching so far, we are pretty sure that he doesn’t mean a national entity, and only secondarily the culture and the people. He means the country, the land, the landscape.

In the second half of the movie Lean’s horizon-encompassing eye begins closing down, as Lawrence’s spirit begins to collapse in on itself. We experience no more wonder at the landscape. The vista becomes utilitarian, just enough of it to encompass the action. In the end amid the wreckage of the effort to set up a viable Arab administration in Damascus, when Auda says to him, “There is only the desert for you,” we know that the desert he means is no longer the holy emptiness of the first half, but the wasteland that Lawrence will occupy for his remaining years.

There is a secondary story here that creates the narrative, such as it is. The story of an idealist who is betrayed in equal parts by the powers of the world–political, military–and by the emptiness within himself. The dull military men in Lawrence tend to be stock Colonel Blimps of anti-imperial satire; and the cleverer, more perceptive representatives of British power like General Edmund Allenby (Jack Hawkins) and the diplomat Dryden (Claude Rains) are almost completely unscrupulous. But their malignancy is as unmotivated as the Imperial forces in Star Wars. Lawrence, as processed through Lean and Bolt, has a general sympathy with the nascent anti-imperial tide in Britain and around the world, but no real interest in politics. The Byzantine behind-the-scenes skullduggery that led the Great Powers to sell out the Hashemites and disastrously apportion the modern map of the Middle East is barely portrayed at all.


If one is patient, there is always a new book about Lawrence to read.  And though I acquire them as fast as possible and read and re-read them—pore over them would be the right phrase—I am always disappointed. I’ve become a storehouse of T.E. Lawrence lore, but that’s not really what I want. If obsession fixes you in the moment of your life that you became obsessed, I am always nine years old in relation to that character in that movie. There is something in the character that is so important that I am compelled—repeatedly and with much more frustration than success—to try to ground it in facts and history. Scholars tend to regard “unanswerable” as an inadequate response to historical or artistic riddles–but this is how obsession is created. I’m like a Biblical archeologist who is also a Christian fundamentalist, always searching for and never finding the rock solid proof of something that doesn’t exist on the rock solid layer of life.

For William Blake, the things that exist in the imagination are truer than the information that is mediated by our physical senses, but he means “imagination” in a particular way. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about what he called the Primary Imagination, the Secondary Imagination, and “Fancy.” The Primary Imagination is a way of seeing, or perceiving realities not available to the physical senses. Primary imagination is a small scale version, an analog, of the imagination that creates the cosmos, “…a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.” It is artistic and spiritual truth. Humans perceive and receive the objects of the Primary Imagination more than they create them. The things that the Primary Imagination conveys to us have in a mysterious way an existence independent of us.

Lawrence of Arabia: Nothing is written…

The Secondary Imagination is the ability to take what you have received from the Primary Imagination and manifest it, give it form, make it perceptible and accessible.

“Fancy,” as far as I understand it, is the ability to “think things up;” or make things up; to dream things up. It is what we usually mean by “imagination.” It is the ability to devise a solution to a creative problem.  It is a useful and essential faculty for everyone from novelists to carpenters to astrophysicists.

The unforgettable stories, the ones you never get over, are the ones that respect that autonomous quality of the Primary Imagination. With what care Lean, Bolt, Wilson, Young and O’Toole escorted “Lawrence” down the emanations, from Primary (envisioning the character) to Secondary (writing the screenplay) to Fancy (the cinematographer, set designers, location scouts, props men, wardrobe people, editors, sound designers).

The Primary Imagination has the power to intersect history, and it does at certain places and times. The movie suggests that the life of T.E. Lawrence was one of those places. And I think that most Lawrence fans would say that the movie itself is one of those places. Because of Lawrence, I’ve spent much time searching for places where Imagination intersects history.


So–what is the relationship of the movie character to the historical person, the Imagination to history? “Lawrence,” the character, is not identical to T.E. Lawrence. Somewhere along the way I accepted that.  But there is some kind of relationship. That’s the question.

Here’s my best attempt at it: Far from ignoring the workings of imperialism, I think Lean and Bolt decided to depict the original sin of imperialism, the psychic ground that makes imperialism possible.  They propose that the origin of imperialism is in the soul, not in contingent historical or economic circumstances. It is the temptation to realize your desires through large manipulations of the world. The idea is that that your psychodrama is so enormous that whole nations are needed to enact it, the kind of acting out that having an empire makes possible. There is a creative potential in this freakish variety of desire. Sometimes the desire of a whole people can express itself through one person’s drama. Sometimes they do overlap, for a while. Such power in fallible human hands can have terrible consequences. Lean and Bolt were sensitive to the crooked ways in which idealism, or something that looks like idealism, can lead to massacre.

Lawrence of Arabia: A prophet’s shadow…

It’s clear that T.E. Lawrence did have moments when he thought that he was a prophetic or messianic figure. “[Psalm 137] ‘By the waters of Babylon,’ read as a boy, had left me longing to feel myself the node of a national movement” he wrote. And he had just as many other moments when he felt horrified that he had ever felt that way. In the end, of course, he didn’t come down on one side or the other. But he was able to communicate this sense of himself to other people. “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time,” said Churchill. “Beings”–not “men” or “humans.” A strangely occult or religious choice of words.

That is why Lean and Bolt are not particularly interested in history or politics. The function of history and politics are to provide the circumstances where a “Lawrence” can enact his drama. It’s a very 60s idea, the notion that political/historical convulsions have their ultimate root in the soul—in the “head,” as they would have said back then. It’s possible to think of Lean and Bolt as naïve for accepting the full-blown romantic idea of Lawrence as the leader, the central figure, the genius of the Arab Revolt. But it’s also possible that they deployed the romantic Lawrence as a critique of imperialism.  By accepting the mythic Lawrence they make him more responsible when things go wrong. We don’t see Lawrence telling “half-lies” to the Arabs, as Dryden accuses him of, but the charge is never rebutted. A person capable of seemingly colossal achievement can also create colossal catastrophe.

“Illusions can be powerful things. Especially when they take this form,” says Prince Feisal, as he shows General Allenby Lawrence’s picture on the front page of the Times. The indeterminacy and liminality of the historical Lawrence opened up a potential for those who encountered him, for the people and events he came into contact with. He served as a locus for the Primary Imagination. So does the movie. Lean saw what the historical Lawrence’s liminality had done for the imagination of the world in the 1920s. So he made a story about a man who fit nowhere so he could fit everywhere. “The man for whom nothing is written may write himself a clan,” as one of the Harith tells Lawrence when he gets his Bedouin robes. It is as if Lawrence  enacts a founding drama, a ritual for the “different” of the world–as if lack, liminality, being neither here nor there on the agreed-upon map of the world, can open out on to something sublime, something fearful and wonderful that exists in places where personality and subjectivity can’t even go. In depicting the way in which the external world and the individual psyche can together create a soul, the construction of the character of Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia is one of the great modern works of the Primary Imagination.

Happy 50th, Aurens (a birthday T.E. Lawrence never saw). Long may you baffle and obsess.

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