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Updated June 2012

T. E. Lawrence to Ernest Altounyan

Mount Batten


Dear E.A.,

Your letter (I'm glad you are still in England: to save me reproaches for keeping your article too long) is the sort that the most gratified writer alive would yet thank you for: and I don't feel very proud of my writing. So you can imagine how it pleased me. By all means keep the fat book so long as it suits you. That copy is a collection of spoiled sheets, cut and pressed into smallness, and usually it belongs to Mrs. Bernard Shaw - but she is away on a world cruise with G.B.S.

What the muezzin said was, I fancy - and after fifteen years it is probably fancy - 'wa el besharra'... No English word or phrase even would translate it, so I paraphrased in his spirit rather than his letter. I only wish that 'ya ahl el Sham' had been better rendered than by 'people of Damascus'. The Arabic 'ahl' is a fine word. The worst of being a habitual translator is that one gets in the way of trying to squeeze every sponge dry -and so few authors really intend all the contents of their sponges. Words get richer every time they are deliberately used... but only when deliberately used: and it is hard to be conscious of each single word, and yet not at the same time self-conscious.

I mustn't slip again into the technique of writing. Writing has been my inmost self all my life, and I can never put my full strength into anything else. Yet the same force, I know, put into action upon material things would move them, make me famous and effective. The everlasting effort to write is like trying to fight a feather-bed. In letters there is no room for strength.

Am I morbid? Only with people inclined to it, I fancy. By myself I do not brood at all, having so much to do. That vision of the wholeness of life is not a visitor to me, but always there, like a background to the diggings and the war and the R.A.F. Wherefore I get a sense of the sameness and smallness of everything, including us: and so I would not voluntarily put another into my place. Too much glory or none? Why I think the nones, who eat and drink and chase their appetites, are wholesomer. And I like cats and camels, therefore.

This is a silly letter. So was yours. I liked it, too. English people don't write about the verities as a rule, for the good reason that such subjects exceed us, and we look foolish in their shadow.

The two studies of the Euphrates are exactly in place in my cottage, and perfect there. I cannot choose between them, or consider sending one back. Call them lost to you, both! I am most glad to have them, for Carchemish was a happy place, and they form a link.

Would you be so interested in me as a writer - not a visioner of
life, but just a penman - as to wade through my next-after-the-Seven-Pillars book? It has remained in typescript, and is a study of the R.A.F. recruiting depot. Not much glory, but life, in its way. It is short, rather mannered also but better, as writing, than the earlier book, I think.



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Source: DG 758-9
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 18.1.2006

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