Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence (1976, John E. Mack)

Publishing Info:

Mack, John E. A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976. 561 pp.


A Prince of Our Disorder is, by a pretty wide margin, the best Lawrence biography I've read. Mixing impeccable research with insightful analysis, Mack creates the most complex and complete portrait of Lawrence to date. Unlike other writers who try and delve into Lawrence's psyche, Mack actually has the credentials to do so, and despite minor flaws Prince is extremely convincing.

The Author:

John Edward Mack (1929-2004) was a psychiatrist and Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Interested in how a person's worldview affects their actions and relationships with others, Mack wrote several books on dreams, nightmares and suicide before tackling Lawrence. Mack won a Pulitzer Prize for Prince, but is best-remembered today for his controversial works on alien abduction. He died in a car accident in 2004.

The Review:

In a nutshell, Mack's book has everything you'd want from a biography. It's more accessible than Jeremy Wilson's tome, more insightful (and credible) than Anthony Nutting and Desmond Stewart, and more balanced than most any other account.

Mack's greatest strength is his relative objectivity. Writing an objective account of Lawrence is a difficult proposition, and Mack probably comes as close to a balanced portrayal as possible. Perhaps because he advances from a psychological vantage point, Mack avoids the political and historical pre-occupations of other biographers, taking Lawrence on his own terms as man heroic and admirable, but also flawed and extremely tortured.

The genre of "psycho-biography" has become much-maligned, but Mack here shows its practical applications. Where a Richard Aldington might simply use Lawrence's writings and private correspondence to divine his personality, Mack engaged in exhaustive research to profile his subject: interviews with Lawrence's friends, family and acquaintances, primary source documents. Mack's hobby horse, viewing all of Lawrence's actions as personal rather than idealistic, has its drawbacks, namely in elliding the greater ramifications of Lawrence's life. On the other hand, though, it allows for a deep and insightful analysis of an ever-elusive individual.

Mack portrays Lawrence as, essentially, a boy who never went through a proper adolescence. In Mack's view, Lawrence's odd home life, with parents living out of wedlock (yet the mother fanatically religious), combined with Lawrence's love of history and literature to create a strangely stilted personality. Analyzing Lawrence's relationship with John Bruce, the Tanks Corps soldier Lawrence persuaded to flog him, Mack writes that Lawrence's personality was "vividly... split... between the adult and childhood aspects of himself, which... he never fully integrated" (439). This seems a spot-on analysis of a man who, until the end of his life, reveled in deliberate misdirection, playful exaggeration, silly practical jokes and a rather childish view of sex. And it might also account for his "craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known."

Drawing on Lawrence's childhood preoccupations with romantic literature and the Crusades, Mack hypothesizes that Lawrence's Arab exploits were a real life extension of his "hero fantasies" (100), relishing the chance to play Richard the Lionheart or Sir Gallahad in real life. If one accepts Mack's argument that Lawrence never fully matured, this portrait seems extremely plausible. It certainly accounts for the epic style and florid language of Seven Pillars, his comparisons of Feisal and Auda abu Tayi to medieval knights, and his schizophrenic view of war as both good fun and utter horror.

Instead of focusing on Lawrence's need for "father figures" like Hogarth, Storrs and Allenby, Mack provides a more complex view of Lawrence's relationships. Whatever the difficulties with his parents, Lawrence had a warm and loving affection for his brothers, especially Arnold. Some of the most interesting sections involved Lawrence's very close relationship with Jimmy Newcombe, the son of Lawrence's wartime colleague Colonel Stewart Newcombe. The testimony of Lawrence's service mates in the Tank Corps and RAF show a great deal of affection for "Private Shaw." Through this analysis, Lawrence's relations with Arabs like Selim Ahmed and Emir Feisal can be viewed in a more complete light.

Mack spends a lot of time discussing Lawrence's sexual predilections. Mack mostly avoids the puerile "Was Lawrence gay?" debate that's raged since Aldington, seeing it as almost irrelevant. Instead, Mack views Lawrence as essentially incapable of physical love, both remarkably ignorant of and disgusted by "self-degradation." Deraa only exacerbated Lawrence's neuroses, channelling them into disturbing, self-destructive impulses. He also shows that, contrary to many biographies, Lawrence was not a misogynist - indeed, he had many female friends, including Charlotte Shaw, Gertrude Bell and Lady Astor. And Mack disputes the preoccupation with Seven Pillars's description of Bedouin homosexuality, arguing that his candor "must not be confused... with what Lawrence would or could tolerate in himself" (425).

Mack was the first to uncover the story of Janet Laurie. A childhood friend of Lawrence's, Laurie was shocked when a twenty-one year old Lawrence spontaneously proposed to her. Other writers have cast doubt on Laurie's veracity, especially since she didn't publicly come forward for decades. But Mack finds other witnesses - including Reverend E.H. Hall, an Oxford acquaintance of Lawrence's - to corroborate the story. If one accepts Laurie, it certainly complicates matters for the Aldington/Stewart/Lawrence James school who bluntly state Lawrence was gay.

Like many biographers, Mack places particular emphasis on Deraa. Mack concludes that "Lawrence underwent a painful, humiliating assault at Deraa... and the element of sexual pleasure he experienced... was particularly intolerable and shameful to him" (233). And yet Lawrence felt compelled to relive the experience, through John Bruce at least, "serv(ing) to gratify... the very desire for which Lawrence needed to be punished" (439). In Mack's eyes, Lawrence's inconsistent accounts of Deraa are an unwillingness to fully confront the incident, despite his need "to make... private suffering a matter of public record" (228).

By focusing on Lawrence's personality, the historical ramifications of Lawrence's actions get relatively short shrift. Mack recuses himself of analyzing Lawrence's military or political achievements - fair enough for a psychologist, but still a cop-out. At the very least, though, Mack convincingly argues that Lawrence was neither a cynical imperialist nor a naive Arab nationalist, rather doing his best to reconcile these oppositional viewpoints. Certainly he rebuts Knightley and Simpson's assumption that Lawrence was an intelligence agent before the war, claiming that "Lawrence hardly behaved like the model secret agent" (103). And, citing writer Anis Sayigh's work and the testimony of Bedouin who knew Lawrence during the war, he shows that Arabs hold (or held) Lawrence in more esteem than Suleiman Mousa suggests.

A Prince of Our Disorder will likely remain the definitive Lawrence biography for years to come. Mack's well-rounded portrait of Lawrence confirms his view of the man as "one of the most moving personal sagas" (459) ever, and stands as a really excellent book.

What Others Say:

"Clearly a book that tries to be objective and discusses the pros and cons of whether T. E. told the truth or not. John was a psychiastrist at Harvard Medical School and yet the book doesn't fall into trying to figure out history by psychoanalyzing the subject... This book deserved its Pulitzer Prize." - CooperToons

"A balanced answer to the Aldington-inspired line of criticism: it was the most serious and solid of all Lawrence biographies ever to appear up to the end of 1987." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"I most admire John E. Mack's A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence (1976) for its thoroughness and sensitivity." - June Turner, Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing

The following quotes from Mack's website:

“A hugely admired, and Pulitzer prize-winning, biography which concentrates on the relationship between Lawrence’s inner life and the actions and events which grew out of them. It is easy to warm to a biographer who, while drawing on his training as a psychiatrist, is never deceived into thinking that theory can ‘explain’ his Lawrence. The more Mack discovered about the social contexts of Lawrence’s actions and the demands on a public man, the more he understood Lawrence’s psychology. The result is a resounding confirmation of this approach to his subject.” — Desmond Christy, The Guardian

“Unlike many ‘psycho-biographies’, this was written by a trained psychologist who had also done his biographer’s homework: it remains the best biography of T.E. Lawrence.” — Contemporary Review

“Takes us closer to the core of Lawrence than any previous biography.” - Time

“A great book which honors its subject, its form, and its author.” - Boston Globe

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