Monday, December 6, 2010

Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry (Richard Aldington, 1955)

Publishing Info:

Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry. Regnery: Chicago, 1955. 448 pp.


Revisionist history is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, generally accepted history is often sanitized, and going over historical figures and events in detail allows more ambiguous, complex and thorough interpretations. On the other hand, revisionism leaves the door open for men and women with their own motives for tearing down (or building up) an historical image, crafting history just as biased as what they're claiming to replace. Further, many readers assume that revisions of the "official" story are to be taken at face-value, that new works trumpeting "the true story" or "shocking revelations based on original research" are more truthful than common knowledge.

Richard Aldington was savagely attacked for going after T.E. Lawrence in 1955. No doubt some of the reaction was due to his assault on one of Britain's greatest heroes. However, I strongly suggest the vitriolic tone of his "Biographical Enquiry" is his main demerit. Instead of a rational debunking of the Lawrence legend, it's an angry screed that accepts sensationalism, bias and wild speculation as valid historiography. The result is a book that, while undeniably important, is ultimately of little practical merit.

The Author:

A veteran of World War I, Richard Aldington (1892-1962) was a distinguished poet and novelist before tackling Lawrence. An early founder of the Imagist movement, Aldington became famous for his acerbic, bitingly-satirical writing style, evidenced in his most famous novel, Death of a Hero (1929). Later in life, disenchanted with English society, he exiled himself to Paris, and then spent some time in the United States. Despite his distinguished WWI service, he was ostracized for spending World War II in the United States, and his attack on Lawrence gained him few friends and many detractors. He remained largely a pariah from British society before his death in July 1962.

The Review:

If Aldington's book remains relevant, it's in providing a corrective to the hagiographic portrayal of Lawrence that prevailed up to then. The hyperbolic adulation of Lowell Thomas is pretty hard to swallow, even if it makes a great story, and a counter-view was needed for discussion to advance beyond simple hero-worship.

Unfortunately, Aldington's book is a nasty piece of work, a vitriolic screed that goes out of its way to demonize Lawrence. His general viciousness and sensationalism undermines any valid points he has to make about Lawrence's character and truthfulness, and his work provides a crude playbook for a half-century of Lawrence detractors to repeat ad nauseum.

The most unattractive thing about the book is Aldington's tone. The text is dripping with sarcasm, acidic parenthetical commentary on Lawrence's every word and action. At times, Aldington comes up with modestly clever asides and bon mots, but at other times he just seems childishly hateful. One example: noting a discrepancy over dates in Lawrence's demobilization (p. 296), he remarks that "it illustrates so well Lawrence's modest confession 'that... he could recall any date.'" As this is, by Aldington's own account, a trivial detail, such an insulting comment is completely uncalled for. He repeatedly parrots lines that are less-than-flattering to Lawrence or his associates - for instance, he repeats Lloyd George's comment on denying "agnostic, atheistic France" a mandate in Syria three times. Aldington's condescension quickly grows tiresome, coming off as a playground bully picking on a popular kid. The sarcastic tone that serves him so well as a novelist undermines his credibility as an historian.

Another problem is Aldington's lack of scholarship. Aldington's method of research consists of comparing Lawrence's account with his biographers (specifically Robert Graves, Basil Liddel Hart, and Lowell Thomas), and accounts of others. There is some value in this, but the problem here is that Aldington always assumes that: a) Lawrence is the one fibbing, b) Lawrence's biographers cannot be blamed for the discrepancies (highly suspect in Thomas's case), and c) Lawrence is deliberately lying in all cases. That Lawrence may have somewhat embellished facts, or more mundanely misremembered them, is a valid point, but to go a step further and claim him a pathological liar is something else entirely. Aldington's disuse of primary documents - for instance, government reports - can be somewhat excused, but certainly hurts his case.

Aldington employs many strawman arguments. He says that Lawrence claimed his own responsibility for creating the idea of the Arab Revolt, and inventing the campaign against the Hejaz Railway. He also claims that Lawrence's subtitling of Seven Pillars as "a triumph" is vanity or egoism rather than irony over the ultimate failure of the Arab Movement. To be fair, Lawrence took undue credit for certain aspects of the campaign, particularly the raid on Aqaba, and Aldington is right to point this out. And he does a good job of deflating Robert Graves's claim that Lawrence read 50,000 books at Oxford, and discrepancies in his accounts of specific events between, say, personal correspondence and his memoirs. It's something else, however, to use this as proof that Lawrence deliberately lied about everything.

Aldington's motives are highly suspect. He had his own traumatic experiences in France during World War I, where he was wounded. Obviously this affected him a great deal, as evidenced by his body of work and troubled life. The overall tone seems to be of a man who fought in France, the decisive theater in the war, angry that someone from "the sideshow of a sideshow" got all the glory. Aldington even admits this, particularly in this revealing passage (p. 381):

"I have tried, but perhaps not always successfully, to give evidence... fairly and in such away that it can be instantly verified, though not without some indignation that such a man should have been given the fame and glory of the real heroes of 1914-1918" (emphasis added)

Ergo, Aldington's motives as suspect if not more so than what he claims of his subject. Apparently Lawrence's hardships in the desert, helping to unite disparate Arab tribes and providing a front that, at the very least, proved a useful "sideshow" to the British war effort, while under extremely harsh and trying conditions, is nothing compared to Aldington's own contribution, because Lawrence did not serve in France. To which I say, phooey. Even if we accept that Lawrence gilded the lily in Seven Pillars and elsewhere, Aldington's self-righteousness insults Lawrence and others who fought in peripheral theaters of WWI.

I might also suggest, if only parenthetically, that Aldington, already disenchanted with British society, wanted to bring the despised British Establishment down a peg by attacking one of their cherished heroes. The final line of the book, "Lawrence was the appropriate hero for his class and epoch" (p. 388), is highly suggestive of this.
Aldington creates the playbook for what Robert Bolt called the "facile Lawrence denigrators." Everything is here: emphasis on Lawrence's illegitimacy (Aldington was the first English writer to mention this, though Frenchman Leon Broussard first brought this to light in 1941), the downplaying of the Arab Revolt, the downplaying within that of Lawrence's own contribution, the treatment of Lawrence as pathological liar and egomaniac, etc. He also posits Lawrence as betraying the British cause by supporting the Arabs, a claim that exemplifies the tendency of Lawrence revisionists to view his political sympathies from extremes (as we'll see with Suleiman Mousa). Just about the only thing later skeptics would disparage is his acceptance of the Deraa Incident; it wasn't until Suleiman Mousa's T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View (1962) that a biographer strongly questioned Lawrence's account.
For any discussions of Lawrence's sexuality, I think it's key that Aldington is the first major biographer to strongly assert Lawrence as homosexual; this seems tacked on as a kick in the teeth, with absurd psychoanalysis culminating in the charge that Lawrence's evil mother warped his personality (!!!). Without expanding into a full-blown discussion here, I don't think it's a coincidence that allegations of Lawrence's homosexuality originated with Aldington, and have largely been parroted by Lawrence detractors since. The charge's general acceptance by even those sympathetic towards Lawrence shows the dangers of uncritically accepting "revisionism" as more valid than the "official" story.

All in all, Aldington's book is a bloody-minded hatchet job, saved only by virtue of being reasonably well-written. Any value it has as a corrective to what he calls "the Lawrence Bureau" is undermined by its overall smuttiness. This wouldn't be so much a problem if many people, unwilling to concede that old-fashioned heroes may have a grain of honor to their name, take Aldington and his successors at face value. There's room for debate in any area of history, but vitriol and dishonest scholarship is something to be discouraged.

What Others Say:

"If psychoanalysing someone is difficult by a licensed psychiatrist speaking with his subject, it's ridiculous for it to be attempted by a writer after his subject is dead and gone." - CooperToons

"Aldington's 'debunking' was made with such ill-conceived sarcasm and vitriol that he virtually demolished his own case." - Michael Asher

"Reading Aldington’s book is a bit like standing under a waterfall of venom." - Robert Irwin

"[Aldington provides] a sharper, deeper, cagier assessment... than... any of his predecessors." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"[Aldington] had come to see Lawrence as the hero of a decadent society which he detested. He seems to have believed that if he could destroy Lawrence's reputation, this would in some way deeply wound the British establishment." - Jeremy Wilson

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