Thursday, May 11, 2006

More Brown Sand Sailor Thoughts

With a bit more time on his hands in Kuwait than he thought, the Brown Sand Sailor sends:

I started reading Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom this afternoon while sitting in the shade acclimating to the 105 degree heat. There is a certain appreciation one gains for a tale of the desert when you yourself are in one, with the dust from the great gravel and lava plain stretching north to the alluvial plains of Mesopatamia and south and west across Arabia to the dune-filled Nejd desert. One feels it on your fingers, hears it grind under your boots, sees it blowing in the lightest of blue skies haze-filled with dust and the magnifying lamp that is the sun, smells it in the flat emptiness marred by burning diesel fuel used to power generators and the occasional stench of garbage and, most especially, one tastes the desert on your lips and tongue on the very air you breathe. There is an immediate emptiness to the land that makes you realize this is an alien place.

Putting my eye to the page (I have a 1991 reprint of the 1926 edition) one is immediately struck by the fluidity and grace of Lawrence's writing style. Still possessing that flair and beauty of a previous age, with the stinging wit of a public school education that reminds one of Christopher Hitchens. Some examples:

In response to an editors queries, Lawrence is pithy in his replies.
"Slip 16: Bir Waheida, was Bir Waheidi?" "Why not?
All one place."
And my favorite; "Slip 47: Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40." "She was a splendid beast."

He can also be biting: "Since the adventure, some of those who worked with me have buried themselves in the shallow grave of public duty. Free use has been made of their names. Others still possess themselves, and here keep their secrecy." On, and in the course of three pages I also discovered the answer to both of my previous questions. "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" has nothing to do with the five (or six) pillars of Islam. Indeed, it comes from the Book of Proverbs (ix. I) "Wisdom hath builded a house: she hath hewn out her seven pillars." Supposedly the title was originally for another book, ultimately unpublished, and Lawrence transferred the title as a memento. A line from the dedicatory poem at the start of the book may explain why Lawrence kept the Biblical "seven pillars" as relevant to the Arab Revolt:

"I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my
hands and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy
house,that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came."

And to Eckstein's question about soldiers and reflection might be answered, at least partially, by the following: "In these pages the history is not of the Arab movement but of me in it. It is a narrative of daily
life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history, and partly for the pleasure it gave me to recall the fellowship of the revolt."

Lawrence also raises some difficult questions aboutintent and idealism that echo today, but I need some time to mull over that, so that will have to wait. Maybe a good thing, since I'm off to the desert for some camping for a few days. Will be in touch soon.

Fair Winds and Following Sands!


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