A lot of words have been spent already by other readers on his style and the oblique and poetic approach Lawrence took in a lot of his writing (including letters): many have complained it makes him hard to follow, although I rather suspect that was at least partially his intention.
I find it beautiful, and oddly immersive for writing which is supposedly so dense that it forms a barrier between the reader and the naked memories of the writer (again, I think, deliberate). There is a solid kind of pleasure in the vivid-but-dreamlike recollections and his romantic, florid prose: there is a grounding an earthy effect in his descriptions of privation which neatly counterbalances both his obsession with purity and the more spiritual or esoteric passages.
Even in the first chapter Lawrence ricochets back and forth through identities: here I am an English man proud of never spilling a drop of English blood and exhorting my countrymen to never serve another’s race; here I am an Arab who yearns for Arab self-determination and state; always I am a man without country or people.
In short within the opening pages I already find it a sublime and moving book, which is only to be expected given my attachment to the author. But the enjoyment is a guilty one, because my happiness at it is too profound, and I imagine serious bods sitting in judgement over it. Lawrence has been repeatedly deemed arrogant, problematic, an attempted White Saviour (none of these are charges I would entirely dispute except to utter the adage “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that”), and I must find a more fitting hero in line with the sensibilities of my era (although I’ve no idea what those are) and those of my peers (who cherish obscurity instigated by oppression and little else). Happily they are not reading over my shoulder and not privy to every emotion a book inspires, but the derision at ‘looking to the past’ with positivity remains.
It’s true, I am more inclined to take an interest in historical figures whose peers have mostly expired than to celebrate those whose mistakes are yet to come. With the dead there are no alarms and few surprises.
It is my desire to say when faced with this, “it’s alright, even Lawrence himself pitched tent in the past”, and indeed his youthful preoccupation with chivalry, archaeology, the Crusades, and the short-lived William Morris-esque press are typically English (for all that he later identified himself as an Irishman in his wandering man without country grasping at identity): a legitimation of the present ideals by rooting into the past and an escape from the harsh emotions of the present by the same. But it occurs that the same people who would denigrate this obsessive interest of mine would hardly accept Lawrence himself as an authoritative end to the argument, much like the Christian who learns that “it says so in the Bible” is not a rhetorical tactic that holds much water with the average atheist. We do not recognise the authority of that which we do not respect or even believe.
Religion, and laterly “scientific experts” (as dubbed by the press: learned men and women rarely refer to themselves as such, being all too aware of what must still be learned) are often attempts to provide a universally-accepted authority to which disputes can be deferred. It says so in the Bible; it’s a psychological fact (the latter will rarely cite sources or studies with commendable methodology, and often these ‘facts’ suppose that ‘the world’ is equal to ‘the West’); there are however many whole subsections of humanity whose role is to reject any authority but their own. Science is flawed because it is conducted by people who are flawed, and questions of ‘is this morally acceptable?’ are, as scientists are the first to admit, not really within the remit of the scientific method.
“Morally or societally acceptable” is a very mutable variable. History is in part the record of changes in acceptability, as cultures try on and reject acceptabilities: ownership of other people, ownership of specific groups of people, imperialist ideals, self-determination, individualism, bodily integrity, empiricism, responsibility to the state/family/self, all come up out of different roots and fade or are mutated or held to be inviolable.
Is it socially responsible to turn one’s gaze with affection upon fragments of the past, and if so, to which members of society does the right to determine the object of affection fall? In elevating one historical figure do we betray another? Is it possible to admire both Edison and Tesla?
Living as we – or I – do in an age of purported individualism and self-determination, in which individual experience and stories are to be given worth alongside the accepted narrative of nations, I believe my position is this: I like Lawrence. He speaks to me in ways others do not. If this bothers you…
… fuck off?