Skip to content

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

January 11, 2012

The First World War slipped from living memory within my lifetime; so too will the Second World War and, perhaps, so shall recollections of the Korean and Vietnam wars: if not in my lifetime, then certainly before the last of my generation has died.

But as these wars sink from the human conscious, they leave behind them a legacy of art from which subsequent generations and the antecedents of those who campaigned can learn the lessons, avoid the mistakes and hear the voices of their forebears from the most turbulent and changeable time within the human experience.

The poetry, plays and books of the world wars, the films of the Second World War and Vietnam War, and the myriad of other media which have drawn from a wide panoply of conflicts, owe war a debt. War changes the world around us. It furthers technology like no other force and it inspires creativity. The blood of War has stained the pages of Art for centuries and will continue to do so as long as we refuse to learn the lessons all too apparent in the martial legacy.

To my mind, one of the finest pieces of art which appears in the canon produced by war is T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

I have mentioned this book elsewhere on Artsy and I didn’t realise at the time what an extraordinary and perhaps life-changing book it would turn out to be for me. For a start, it contains a quote which perfectly sums up the way in which I feel about my life at the moment and the direction in which it is heading.

Sherif Nasir led us: his lucent goodness, which provoked answering devotion even from the depraved, made him the only leader (and a benediction) for forlorn hopes. When we broke our wishes to him he had sighed a little, for he was body-weary after months of vanguard-service, and mind-weary too, with the passing of youth’s careless years. He feared his maturity as it grew upon him, with its ripe thought, its skill, its finished art; yet which lacked the poetry of his boyhood to make living a full end of life. Physically, he was young yet; but his changeful and mortal soul was ageing quicker than his body – going to die before it, like most of ours.

It is very rare that we are able to quite express what is going on inside our head in a succinct and lucid way and we are often left with blurting and stuttering half-explanations, so it is nice and somewhat relieving when another writer has done it for us. The last sentence resounds particularly loudly with me and I have written and typed it out several times and have tried to commit it to memory.

This quote aptly acts as a microcosm for the whole novel and demonstrates perfectly what Lawrence achieved with this book: he expertly and beautifully combines action, explanation, sweeping landscapes, theology and philosophy in superb, poetic and scholarly prose. The narrative is as sweeping and as exciting as the backdrop of Arabia, and any reader would be forgiven for forgetting that this book is a journal, a transcription of real events. If nothing else, it is a testament to one man’s memory, given the fact that the original war diaries and an earlier manuscript of the book were lost by Lawrence. How many of us can remember what we were doing a week ago, let alone a decade ago, recall minutiae about the geology of a place and the people therein?

The vast dramatis personae of characters – both fleeting and enduring – which populates Lawrence’s narrative are expertly portrayed and brought to life by a man who knew them personally. Conversations are candidly and fully written, again with startling memory and even a humorous flair at times. That is not to say that Lawrence shies away from the horrors of war or showing his reader the true nature of his experience: some of the passages made for uneasy reading, especially after Lawrence’s capture. He confronts it boldly and expects us to do the same.

At 684 pages and 121 chapters, it is by no means a short book, but it never felt as though it were dragging or slowing. Rather it kept driving on with a restive and twitching energy very reminiscent of Lawrence himself, who often went days without sleep and proper sustenance.

The closest I have felt to wars before has been through either films or poetry. The imagery created by a skilful poet can be heart-breaking and gut-wrenching, and a few well-turned syllables can create worlds for us which can rarely be rendered into words. Films can show our very eyes and ears – with increasing realism – the sights and sounds of war, leaving no detail to the imagination. But this book has presented war to me in a fresh way, in a way which defies the scope of film and expands on the terse language of poetry. With all the greatest art produced by war, it presents us with war naked, truthful and real, and expects us to draw our own conclusions.

Lawrence, T., E. (1962) [1935] Seven Pillar of Wisdom. Aylesbury, Penguin

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: