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Review commentary by Jeremy Wilson on Lawrence, the Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher

(London, Viking, 1998)

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Chapter 2: Dominus Illuminatio Mea
Schooldays, 1896-1905 (10 pages)

24/1/24- I am less sure about the discussion of Lawrence's attitude to organised games: "Actually the motto 'never compete' was an aspect of Lawrence's paradoxical mask which hid a nature so extremely competitive that he could not even bear to hear someone else praised without feeling diminished." No source is given for the last part of the above, which is a paraphrase, badly out of context, from Seven Pillars, chapter CIII: "The hearing other people praised made me despair jealously of myself, for I took it at its face value; whereas, had they spoken ten times as well of me, I would have discounted it for nothing. I was a standing court-martial on myself, inevitably, because to me the inner springs of action were bare with the knowledge of exploited chance." [Seven Pillars of Wisdom, London, Jonathan Cape, 1935, p. 565]
   In a fairly trivial sense, what Lawrence says there must be true for most people, and anyone who is honestly self-critical will admit it. In another sense, whatever the race, every competitor would like to win. The prize-giving inevitably reminds the losers that they lost.
   But how significant is all this? As I have said earlier, I think one should be cautious about the "Myself" chapter in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is written in grandiose language, but some of the elements that Lawrence included in his self-portrait are, necessarily, commonplace (just as most portraits contain eyes, noses, and the like). Was this particular facet present in Lawrence to an unusual degree, or just part of human nature in general, that he recognised introspectively and singled-out for mention? He himself gave out praise liberally. Did it hurt him so much to hear others do likewise? Id like to see some evidence.
24/1/30 et seq.

Following the familiar observation that Lawrence did not like competitive school sports because his short stature was a disadvantage, we are told here that his refusal to take part in organised sport "was his most overt expression" of a "rejection of the norms of middle-class society", which in turn was an aspect of his "reverse exhibitionism." This conclusion, for which Asher offers no logical argument whatsoever, is amateur psycho-babble.
   By contrast, the content of the last few lines on page 24 and the beginning of page 25 is fair comment - though hardly new. It is a relief, after the first chapter, to find Asher paying some attention to the social mores of the day. 
   Unfortunately, however, it turns out that his purpose here is devious. Having set up masculinity as an ideal of Edwardian imperialism, a fair biographer would point to the fact that Lawrence achieved considerable sporting status, despite the handicap of his size, through his remarkable performance in individual activities such as cycling. In those days cycling was a widely followed sport in this country. For example, in the early years of the century there was a British equivalent of the Tour de France.
   That, however, is not the conclusion Asher wishes to foist upon us. Instead, he claims that: "For much of his life, Lawrence idealised masculinity because he knew that he was not conventionally masculine himself." In the succeeding sentences Asher attempts to prop up this bald assertion by citing Lawrence's boasts about his physical strength and endurance. No matter that such statements merely underline Lawrence's consciousness of his small stature. Asher's allegation - which the "evidence" presented here most certainly does not support - is that size was not Lawrence's real problem: it was that he was "not conventionally masculine."
   It is important to note, therefore, that this crucial step in Asher's argument - which is the introduction of the idea that Lawrence may have been homosexual - has no foundation in either evidence or logic. Next page

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