You are your own desert

In this pledging of their endurance, it disgraced men if, from weakness of nerve or insufficiency of courage, they fell short of the call. Pain was to them a solvent, a cathartic, almost a decoration, to be fairly worn while they survived it. Fear, the strongest motive in slothful man, broke down with us, since love for a cause–or for a person–was aroused.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

When we find so perfectly encapsulated in someone else’s beliefs the ones we hold ourselves it must behoove us to ask if we are really hearing what the other is saying, or if we are painting onto them – in desperation for companionship or validation – what we already believe and what we feel fits well enough. I cannot help thinking that Lawrence’s masochism, later shaped and expressed in what John E Mack calls his “flagellation disorder”, originally shaped and expressed in his profound need to sacrifice himself for the love of a people while simultaneously doing a deed of sufficient magnificence, bravery, and unquestionable kindness that his mother (and possibly also God, whether or not the conscious belief held him) would be moved to be proud of him as an individual entity at last and not as an extension of her own guilt… I cannot help thinking that Lawrence’s masochism finds itself almost too neatly reflected in what he claims is the attitude of the men he rode with. It is easy to express a sentiment which is not acceptable in one’s own society if one puts it into the mouth of an outsider, especially an outsider who is not around to correct that sentiment, or does not have the cultural grounding to see where they are being misrepresented.

The description of what is antithetical to “the Arab mind” here is also a description of what preoccupies Lawrence. He is afraid of his own weaknesses, and disgusted by them, and seeks to immolate what he considers his personal weaknesses: fears, desires, any motive that involves the self, which he also wishes to destroy or give over entirely to improvement, in the purifying flame of pain and endurance. There is something undoubtedly medieval and chivalric about his ideals of self-sacrifice, just as there is something deeply selfish in their motivation. I am convinced that whether or not his companions viewed endurance of pain as a badge of masculinity, they did not have the same passionate desire to cause themselves suffering where it was avoidable with prudence.

The conception of antithetical mind and matter, which was basic to the Arab self-surrender, helped me not at all. I achieved surrender (so far as I did achieve it) by the very opposite road, through my notion that mental and physical were inseparably one: that our bodies, the universe, our thoughts and tactilities were conceived in and of the molecular sludge of matter, the universal element through which form drifted as clots and patterns of varying density It seemed to me unthinkable that assemblages of atoms should cogitate except in atomic terms. My perverse sense of values constrained me to assume that abstract and concrete, as badges, did not denote oppositions more serious than Liberal and Conservative. The practice of our revolt fortified the nihilist attitude in me.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T E Lawrence

Here I am guilty of just what Lawrence is guilty of. These ideas of atomic sameness and the absence of difference between body and mind (Monism) and what he refers to as the nihilist attitude which the revolt in the desert “fortified” in him (suggesting that the attitude was present before his exercises in the peninsula) are facets of my own beliefs: the unity of matter and forces and the nature of consciousness as a variety of neural processes working together after the motion of natural selection funnelled them into plan-making and communication devices, the firm belief in a lack of greater meaning and the unattainability of any created meaning are the often gloomy foundation on which I build what there is of my beliefs. I do not think, on sensible reflection, that Lawrence is even using the word “nihilist” in its correct sense, but looking at this paragraph in the hot moment of charging through the finer points of his philosophy (arising out of his description of a bodyguard made up of the most brutal and brave and belligerent of men from across the tribes) it was hard not to wonder: did I find myself drawn to Lawrence because I already knew we had some shared beliefs? Did those shared beliefs lead him to grow into the shape that fascinated me, like some sort of training for tree branches? Could I see their shape in the thing he became?

Or am I just projecting, as he did, the things inside me onto a canvas that is partially adapted to the flaws I have?


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