As mentioned in Dreamers of the Day, some former Oxonian acquaintances of mine were not wholly impressed by my admiration of T. E. Lawrence and took especial exception to the phrase “won’t see his like again”; I stand by this assessment, although not perhaps for the reasons they assumed at the time.
I think that Lawrence’s withdrawal from public life and occasional returns, and indeed the entire vast mythology of Lawrence of Arabia the larger-than-life heroic shadow cast by a very small-in-stature man would be impossible in the 21st Century, and it’s down not so much to the opportunities for heroism (which still exist) nor the lack of appreciation of humanity for similar acts, nor even the highly doubtful assertion that we’ve grown a lot better at identifying bunkum and hyperbole in the intervening 80 or so years.
It appears to be a product of the increased efficacy of celebrity culture and the
commodification of suffering as part of the machine of mythmaking, where control of image itself has become an industry.
When Lawrence completed his campaigns in the desert, and returned to England, the inflation of his legend and the initial groundwork for catching public imagination was undertaken by Lowell Thomas, who toured the US giving lecture-and-film accounts of the war. Originally he had talked of the Western Front as well as several other theatres of war, but it was the exploits of the untidy blond Englishman that caught the attention of the public and fired their imagination.
While Lawrence’s writing of Seven Pillars of Wisdom was undoubtedly therapeutic (and also undoubtedly aggravated some of the psychological damage he incurred during the war as he relived it in the writing and repeated redrafting and editing of the book), there was a self-acknowledged element of trying to build a more useful version of the myth of “Lawrence of Arabia” than that which was already taking shape. T. E. participated in the construction of his own myth in order to control the myth, and while he failed at this he managed to pass – at least during his lifetime – the majority of biographies (certainly the Liddell Hart and Graves biographies) through his own critical hands to make sure they were within the field of accuracy or image that he required. He did this without making a spectacle of himself or becoming a public figure once more, and yet even years after his participation in the peace talks after WW1, he managed to command both a degree of respect from his “equals” and to still hold the interest of a public eager to hear about him. This latter feat would certainly be impossible in a world used to discarding any figure of interest in a few weeks if they do not continue to appear and to entertain.
He was able to exert some form of control over his image (whether from genuine seclusion or while still “backing into the limelight”*) through friendships with politicians and newspapermen that derived as much through his personal charm as through any connection they might have had as alumni of Oxbridge colleges. He was able to do this directly, by writing letters, rather than through a squadron of agents and PR people who would distort and undermine his position and attempt to work a solution that was best for them, and not for him.
My former Oxonian acquaintances would no doubt argue that this represents the removal or reduction of the alumnus networks (of which they themselves are members) and the breaking down of the privileged order of the educated elite, and to an extent it is; however what has replaced the closed circuit of Old White Men is not the egalitarian situation I am assuming (or hoping!) they were looking for, not a meritocracy, but another closed circuit of elites in which all admittance to the myth-making machine is controlled by connections within agencies and who they went to school with. The methods have hardly changed – money and patronage still rule the roost – but the way is now barred for everyone to have their say in how they are viewed, or to use their “fame” for good. Even someone as strong-minded and iron-willed as the funny little corporal doesn’t have the clout any more, regardless of what they’ve done, to sway the bin-riflers from their obsession with shame.
We’ve spent decades shaping ourselves into people who no longer “need” heroes, and then make heroes of anyone who is given the correct “overcoming a personal tragedy” narrative on competitive television. Psychologically we need a hero figure, but we’re no longer able to trust the deeds of the people we lauded before (Lawrence has certainly spent a significant portion of the collective imagination being derided, critiqued, and plucked at), and no longer able to raise individual heroes to a communal plinth without the help of a myth-making machine that has other ideas about whom we should admire.
I would hate to have anyone mistake this belief (as the Oxonians did) for romanticising the past or a yearning to return to a time when the class system was even more rigid than it is now; I am a committed socialist and a great supporter of the idea that anyone should be able to become anything, and helped in this as much as possible by their society. My observation is not so much that things have not drastically improved since the 20s and 30s, but that in some respects the progress has not been as total as we would have liked, and that it has been deceptive in its supposed destruction of class elitism.
* Lowell Thomas’s assessment
(If anyone is interested in what I’m reading now that I’ve finished with A Prince of Our Disorder, I am making my way grudgingly through Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and enjoying it very little at present.)