I am still reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom (because it is a very long book) and for the most part I’m too caught up in the daily minutae of a desert campaign to pay much attention to the purportedly florid quality of Lawrence’s writing outside of noting his interest in and mild obsession with the geology of the desert places he passes through.
As with any good book I am largely unconscious of it as a written work at all, only allowing a flow of unfamiliar names and places to pass through me and a selection of well-illustrated scenes to arise in my mind with no doubt a mess of inaccuracies based on my lack of first-hand knowledge of what is being communicated. Appreciation of the prose and the structure of a work tend to come in the aftermath of reading, when the first full-blown blush of action and excitement have died down and there is time to contemplate just how the pulse was made to stampede and the blood rise: even in moments, quotable and poetic moments (such as Mary Renault’s “The touch of autumn struck from his youth that cosmic sadness, which time will tame like the bite of spring” in The Charioteer) which strike the reading mind like a hammer blow, it is only the appreciation of the words and never the sudden awareness of the author. Works which make me aware of the author before I have finished reading tend to be works where I am exasperated by the author: Yes, China, we know you’re clever, put the thesaurus down.
So it is with Seven Pillars that when I am reading I am only aware of Lawrence the narrator, Lawrence the figure in his own story telling his own story, a small and determined figure grinning into sandstorms (At this stifling price they kept their flesh unbroken, for they feared the sand particles which would wear open the chaps into a painful wound: but, for my part, I always rather liked a khamsin, since its torment seemed to fight against mankind with ordered conscious malevolence, and it was pleasant to outface it so directly, challenging its strength, and conquering its extremity.) and trying to achieve objectives that his conscience would not always support him in. When I look up from this dense report of raids, marches, and the cataloguing of water, I am occasionally struck by the presence of the author.
Not so much the mental image, romanticised, of Lawrence plugging away disconsolately in his attic, subsisting on chocolate bars and self-hatred; not so much the hard-chinned short Englishman eyeballing the ever-present reader from the pages, as he writes with the acute awareness of what people are already saying about him; more the cousin to a sensation I had recently (-ish) flying over the Gobi Desert, when I looked down through some very insubstantial clouds. An avid watcher of wildlife documentaries, I find there are whole landscapes I am familiar with from BBC Wildlife which occupy a position of near-mythology, lands where animals roam unconcerned by the trivial political whinging of humankind, and the sky is vast, and the storms are the size of cities. They are rendered unreal by the TV screen, and it was only with the jolt of understanding as I peered out of a tiny dirty window a mile up that I grasped the reality of that place: able afterwards only to say “I realised it was the actual fucking Gobi desert and I was annoyed because there wasn’t anyone I could tell so that they’d get it as well”.
The moments after reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom are the same: there is a moment of incredible height and realisation that he was a real person, and that he really wrote the words I’ve been reading. Part of me scolds the other part of me for being awestruck: the man was just a man. There are millions of books in the world, each of them really written by real people, all of whom would be worthy of awe. Why this one? Why experience an atheistic spiritual vertigo and hero-cultish these words came from his mind over this particular person? And I don’t have an answer for that, not a real and proper answer that stands up to analysis and doesn’t become ugly and revealing, much in the same way that I can’t give an analytical answer for why I love London, or my partner.
Perhaps it is the mythos, the pantheon of depictions that I was immersed in before I began to read what the man had to say for himself, which makes it such a revelatory moment when I remember that what I’m reading was written by the person it describes. As to his worthiness for adulation, I’ve no real, proper understanding of why so-and-so can be the hero of our dreams but such-and-such is abhorrent.
The great thing about dead people is that we can make them be anything we need them to be.