“Lawrence of Arabia”—the romantic images of desert warfare, of the young British “colonel” in Arab dress leading the tribes against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, are all the sharper in contrast to the deadly, unromantic stalemate of trench warfare as World War I knew it. When Lowell Thomas’ account appeared in 1924, the starting-point for widespread interest in Lawrence, the English-speaking world may have been ready for glamor and heroism; individual bravery and skill seemed antiquated and irrelevant, yet here such qualities were still alive and effective, and set in that especially “romantic” world of The Arabian Nights, Valentino’s The Sheik, and The Desert Song.
The fifty-odd years since Thomas’ book, and nearly sixty since the fighting in Arabia and Syria, have added complications to the story. If events and biographers have tried to reduce the cloud of legend, others have added to it. Lawrence’s own books, especially Seven Pillars of Wisdom, reveal a great literary artist, but also a complex personality, and a story more profound than boyish adventure. After the blaze of glory, he sought obscurity in the Royal Air Force, then the Tanks Corps, then the Air Force again as an enlisted man, using the names of Ross and Shaw. He died—fittingly—in a crash on his motorcycle.
Politically, Lawrence and his campaign involved the British in the Arab world, and especially in promises of independent Arab states, or a single independent state. The difficulty of keeping that promise, in the light of British and French colonial ambitions, and of the promise of a “Jewish homeland” made by the British, are among the roots of today’s Middle Eastern troubles. They put Lawrence into postwar diplomacy, and then into rejection. Romance gives way to questions of sordid reality; was British military and colonial strategy using Lawrence? Was Lawrence using the Arabs? Inevitably, or as nearly so as human affairs permit, the legend attracted de-mythologizers, or denigrators. Simple search for fact led to revelations: Lawrence was illegitimate, his father a landowning gentleman in Ireland, part of the Anglo-Irish Protestant “ascendancy,” who left his wife for Sarah, the governess for the Chapman daughters. Lawrence was the second of their four sons.
One of the difficulties for biographers was that Lawrence himself, if not deceptive, was cryptic and evasive about much of his life. If various accounts circulated, he was himself in some ways responsible. To the cynicism of the later twentieth century, both the evasiveness and the search for obscurity could seem ways of retaining public attention.
The latest attempt to deal with Lawrence is by John E. Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist, and professionally more interested in Lawrence’s personality than in narrative history or biography. Several things differentiate his work from much that is called “psycho-history.” One, quite simply, is Mack’s quality of writing. Another is his respect for historical knowledge, and therefore for the historical context, historical accuracy, and techniques of the critical historian. Perhaps most significant is that his subject-patient and his approach are unusual.
Lawrence was a man of unusual gifts, literary, military, and personal. He left a considerable amount of material in his books, miscellaneous writings, and letters, and much of it is introspective and analytical. Furthermore, friends, acquaintances, and comrades left accounts of their contacts with him, many of them insightful and articulate. (How many subjects have a long friendship and correspondence with George Bernard Shaw and his wife?) Some of these, and Lawrence’s surviving brothers, were available for interviews with Mack. All of this partly makes up for the great difference between the psycho-historian and the analyst: the patient is not there on the couch. Another great difference is obvious—the object of analysis is the patient’s knowledge, not the analyst’s, save as the analyst’s is necessary to the patient’s. The object of the historian is the reader’s understanding.
Mack seems throughout aware of these differences, and of the differences in method they suggest. He is insistent on the limits to which knowledge based on the surviving materials can go, and is careful not to transgress. Moreover, he lifts his study to a different level by setting as his object not merely the understanding of Lawrence’s personality, but of the kind of personality which affects the course of history.
It is this approach, this question, which makes Mack’s study especially important. The author does not claim any “great man” or “genius” theory; on the other hand, he does not accept the notion that individual character does not count. There is, as he sees it, a convergence of...
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