Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph, by T.E. Lawrence (1922)

Monday, March 7, 2016

The cult of celebrity around T.E. Lawrence was created by the American journalist Lowell Thomas immediately after World War I and expanded with the 1962 release of David Lean’s magnificent film Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole. Lawrence contributed to his own mystique through this memoir. Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of the greatest books to come out of World War I (rivaled only by All Quiet on the Western Front) and surely the greatest ever written by an insurgent.

In muscular, elegant prose, it recounts Lawrence’s adventures as a British adviser to the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire from 1916 to 1918. On the very first page he strikes a winningly modest note: “My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy. In reality I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them.” Yet he remains indelibly identified with the Arab uprising which combined with a conventional British offensive to strip the Turks of their Middle East empire. In the end, however, his account is hardly a “triumph”; the title is ironical. He emerged bitterly disappointed that the Arabs were not granted the freedom he and they desired; they simply traded British and French sovereignty for Ottoman rule. “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 wrote. “In this hope they performed some fine things, but, of course, instead of being proud of what we did together, I was continually and bitterly ashamed.”

The fact that Lawrence was ultimately disappointed with the result of the Arab Revolt only added further to his mental anguish and made Seven Pillars a work of considerable psychological complexity as well as a manual for generations of insurgents and counter-insurgents. Its aphorisms (e.g., “Irregular war was far more intellectual than a bayonet charge”) remain quoted to this day.