Thursday, April 21, 2011

T.E. Lawrence, or the Search for the Absolute (1955, Jean Beraud-Villars)

Publishing Info:

Beraud-Villars, Jean. T.E. Lawrence or the Search for the Absolute. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1959. Original French publication 1955. 358 pp.


This interesting biography might be called T.E. Lawrence: A French View. One of a surprising number of French books on Lawrence, it presents one of the most balanced and interesting portrayals of Lawrence, holding up well even after fifty-plus years of research and revelations. Only when the author lets his personal hobby horse interfere in the narrative - i.e., by depicting Lawrence as a Francophobe - does the book test one's patience.

The Author:

I couldn't find much biographical information on Beraud-Villars. He served in the First World War as a French pilot and had a prolific career as a military historian. His most famous work is probably Diary of a Lost Airman (1918), an autobiographical account of his wartime service.

The Review:

Almost every Lawrence biographer has an ax to grind, and few do a good job of hiding it. Lowell Thomas had wartime propaganda to sell; Richard Aldington had a deep resentment of the British "Establishment"; Suleiman Mousa was an employee of the Hashemites; Desmond Stewart apparently had some personal issues to work out. Monsieur Beraud-Villars views Lawrence as being fundamentally anti-French, blaming him for focusing "solely on the interests of Arab nationalism... and... neglect(ing) those of the Allies" (148). To reach this conclusion, Beraud-Villars engages in some special pleading and extreme applications of hindsight.

For instance: Beraud-Villars argues that Britain and France "obvious interest lay in remaining closely united" (352). In hindsight, this indeed seems "obvious," but Beraud-Villars strangely ignores the centuries-old Anglo-French political and colonial rivalry that created the post-war tension. Lest we forget, their wartime alliance against Germany was an aberration, the two countries only two decades removed from Fashoda. Finally, Beraud-Villars sees the post-war settlement as sacrificing French goals in the Middle East for Arab ones, a mirror image of what actually happened.

Beraud-Villars' allegation is not groundless. More recent authors like David Fromkin and James Barr have shown the degree to which Britain and France jockeyed for prestige and position in the region, even after nominally agreeing to divide Turkish lands. However, it's simply wrong to suggest the British sold the French out to a greater degree than the Arabs, whom they had misled into fighting for independence. And to blame Lawrence, first and foremost, for the dispute is extremely dubious.

Did Lawrence hate France? Certainly he was a vocal opponent of France's imperial designs in Syria and Lebanon, desiring to "biff the French out of" those regions. On the other hand, he had a great love of French history and architecture, and was a lifelong admirer of French literature. Contrary to Beraud-Villars's depiction, he portrays the French contingent in the Hedjaz with respect in Seven Pillars, if one overlooks his personal enmity towards Colonel Edouard Bremond. Speculating on "what humiliations, which incidents [had]... created in him... the strong enmity" towards France (20-21) takes the wrong track. Dislike of French policy is not hatred of France.

It must also be noted that Beraud-Villars is extremely harsh towards the Arabs. Just a few examples: Beraud-Villars refers to the Bedouin as "semi-savages" (153), Syrian Arabs as "a heap of rootless bazaar-keepers and scoundrels" (210), and Iraq's population as "a few million illiterates" (285). All of the Revolt's successes are attributed to Lawrence and the other Allied advisers. His argument that an Anglo-French alliance was worthwhile "even if a few local patriotisms had to suffer" (352) is revealing. His views certainly reflect his time, when France was embroiled in a ferocious war in Algeria, but have a nasty ring to modern ears. After reading this, the resentment of George Antonius and Suleiman Mousa towards Western depictions of the Revolt becomes understandable.

If we restrict ourselves to Beraud-Villars' portrait of Lawrence, however, the book is much more satisfactory. He's one of the few biographers to capture something of Lawrence's tortured complexity. Even if this Lawrence is anti-French, he's not only anti-French. This Lawrence is a well-rounded, flawed but largely admirable man.

Beraud-Villars takes Lawrence to task on a number of issues, including his account of the strategic interlude at Wadi Ais and his specific level of authority within the Arab Bureau. Beraud-Villars amusingly deflates Seven Pillars's account of Lawrence's first trip to the Hejaz: "Lawrence is certainly here abusing... the first person" (122). Most of all, he views Lawrence as an extremely neurotic individual, suffering from a "persecution mania" (336) and being essentially a split personality. In a particularly incisive comment, the author states that "no impostor ever made such sacrifice to make his imposture credible" (346), criticizing his mischievous treatment of biographers and ambivalent attitudes towards Lowell Thomas.

In other ways, however, Beraud-Villars's portrayal of Lawrence is largely positive. He views Lawrence as, in many ways, an extraordinary personage, "one of the rare men... to have been at once a war leader and an artist" (xi). He refutes the view that Lawrence succeeded only due to money: "There was genuine popularity... which cupidity alone does not explain" (175). Lawrence is presented as a skilled military leader, a great writer, and, if anti-French and unduly pro-Arab, at least honest in his convictions. One can accept or reject what they want of this, but Beraud-Villars's attempt at a well-rounded portrait is admirable. As the book was written simultaneous to Aldington's Biographical Enquiry, it shows that an extreme reaction to the "Lawrence Bureau" wasn't required for a more measured portrayal to occur.

Beraud-Villars presents Lawrence as a latent homosexual and suggests a personal motive for Lawrence's northern ride. He's curiously reluctant to name Dahoum as S.A., on the bizarre grounds of Dahoum's lack of political sophistication, but doesn't present a credible alternative. He accepts Lawrence's account of Deraa uncritically, arguing that his vivid description of torture and male rape was crucial in shaping modern perceptions of political violence.

Like most Lawrence biographies, T.E. Lawrence or the Search for the Absolute mixes interesting presentation with speculation and politicking. Unlike most biographies, however, it presents a balanced, complex portrayal of Lawrence that is extremely commendable.

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