I’d forgotten, but it’s T. E. Lawrence’s birthday today.
I write a lot about Lawrence, and this is proportionate to both my affection for him and my admiration for the idea of him: the self-contained enabler who knows himself too well to allow himself real happiness, but who nonetheless repeatedly turns his mind to the improvement of the world for others. Not just his well-publicised and morally questionable attempt to “lead the Arab peoples into freedom” (morally questionable because it smacks rightly of White Saviour), but also later as Shaw, as Ross, striving to protect his fellow servicemen – and throughout his life, handing away his money and selling his possessions to help his friends without a thought for how he would survive.
It is therefore appropriate (in the light of this and of it being his birthday and all) perhaps to use Lawrence as a jumping-off point to talk about the importance of modern legend to the individual psyche, not least because he was both opposed to and attracted by the growth of his own legend in his lifetime, creating a golden caricature of himself and attempting to flee from it in order to become Lawrence The Man rather than Lawrence The Legend. He was also keenly self-aware when it came to this dichotomy of the public perception of a man and his private self.
While a public figure is alive there are two versions of that figure: the person they are, and the shadow cast by the myths, rumours, stories, and scandals attached to them, which is almost always larger and distorted. Once the public figure is dead, the actual person at the centre of the shadow is no longer there to anchor it. He or she may live on in the memories of their intimates, but those too will be coloured by time and emotion: as they start to die the legend – no matter how hard biographers may try (and they really cannot work against it, only add to it) – is all that is left of the figure, like an indentation in the sand where they once lay.
This is a natural process in a world in which society continues past the death of the individual. I would argue that this business of creating new versions of the dead – and later “debunking” them with new evidence – is also healthy and necessary for the social psyche. It demonstrates that, in enacting deeds or in merely taking credit for deeds individuals live past their natural lifespans (very important to a social animal afraid of mortality and impermanence). With each new allegation, reverence, or debunking (the latter especially as it requires renewed focus on the figure) we are reminded of the individual and their deeds, in the manner of a ritual.
It becomes immaterial to fact if Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays as long as the argument keeps people recalling the 16th century; it becomes irrelevant that Hawksmoor’s occult connections were largely manufactured post-mortem when they renew a passion for his architecture.
Likewise, then, it is of no real consequence when a parade of books assert that Lawrence was a good man, a bad man, a good man, and occasionally a complex and morally ambiguous man in the right place at the right time. The glittering and factually inaccurate tall Lawrence of the cinema screen remains, embedded in the social consciousness. The tiny, compact, thick-chinned Lawrence with his childish humour and terrible self-knowledge remains in the hearts of his devotees. The real Lawrence has been dead for a lifetime, and no amount of new research will resurrect him, or Wilde, or any other of our legendary personal heroes. We will never know them.
What we have access to is the legend, and that, as a product of public consciousness, is the property of anyone who experiences it. Lawrence The Man is gone, Lawrence The Memory belongs to those who knew him. Lawrence The Legend, a vast shimmering shadow beast who expands and contracts to fit the needs of the time (heroism or empiricism, Empire or self-governance) and of the individual, this Lawrence is eternal for as long as there are audiences willing to participate in recreating him.