Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Richard Aldington Rides Again: Nick Pope on Lawrence, Aldington and "Legends"

This piece by Nick Pope appeared in Monday's edition of The Majalla, a magazine focusing on the Arab World. Given the magazine's focus it's not surprising Lawrence comes under fire: Arab writers like Edward Said and Suleiman Mousa have long criticized Lawrence, alongside more liberal-minded Westerners. What is strange is that it posits Richard Aldington's 1955 Biographical Enquiry as "unravel[ing] the hype and fabrication behind the Lawrence story."

Mr. Pope admits he's "no scholar" in Lawrence studies, yet evinces familiarity with Seven Pillars and other biographies. That said, his read on both Lawrence and Aldington proves annoyingly superficial. This piece reads like the breathless reviews that invariably accompany new Lawrence biographies, boldly intoning again how this book "cuts the Lawrence legend down to size" or "reduces its subject to human scale." 

First, it's wrong to characterize Aldington as "a mere footnote... in the Lawrence legend industry." Anyone vaguely familiar with Lawrence studies knows Aldington's profound impact on public and scholarly discourse. His revelations of Lawrence's illegitimacy and connivance with early biographers, alongside critical analyses of Lawrence's writings and more spurious accusations of homosexuality, pathological lying and egomania, forced future biographers to reassess Lawrence. Certainly they remain prevalent in public consciousness; the film Lawrence of Arabia notably incorporates much of Aldington's characterization. For better or worse, Aldington continues to color the Lawrence debate. 

Pope's criticisms of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, drawing on Aldington's book, aren't very convincing either. Note his disparagement of Lawrence claiming Aqaba's capture as "another Gallipoli" (not a direct quote) when "it had been done [by the British] twice before." Yes, by small Royal Navy hit-and-run raids too small to actually hold the town. Anyway, Lawrence's comment occurs when his superiors Murray and Wingate proposed an Anglo-French landing at Aqaba. Having visited the region, Lawrence feared that a massed landing of troops would be
as unfavorably placed as on a Gallipoli beach, would be under observation and gun-fire from the coastal hills: and these granite hills, thousands of feet high, were impracticable for heavy troops: the passes through them being formidable defiles, very costly to assault or to cover. (p. 173, 2001 Penguin Classics edition of SP)

True, the Turks maintained only a small regional garrison at Aqaba, small enough for Royal Marines to periodically come ashore and capture them. But then the Turks had few troops guarding the Dardanelles in early 1915, either. The landing of an entire army would produce a major reaction, with terrain giving the Turks a decided advantage. Hardly a baseless boast by Lawrence but a shrewd tactical assessment.

It's true that Allenby's British regulars did the lion's share of the fighting in Palestine, with the Arab Revolt a "sideshow." Does Lawrence claim otherwise? He consciously admitted to writing a subjective account of his personal experiences serving with the Arabs. Nor was Lawrence's oft-stated distrust of French imperial designs - harped on incessantly by Aldington - remotely unique among British policymakers of that era, as David Fromkin and James Barr have shown.

But then Aldington's whole book harps on minor points. When Lawrence dismissively refers to Bulgaria's surrender as "insignificant to us" (SP 649) during a raid, Aldington thinks it "a degree of more than usual egotism" (240) to downplay such a momentous event. To Lawrence's Bedouin campaigning in the desert though, the news probably didn't matter. Deflating the claim that Lawrence read 50,000 books at Oxford (31-32) is amusing but pointless: surely this was playful exaggeration rather than a psychotic lie. If Robert Graves reported it uncritically the fault doesn't lie with Lawrence.

This sarcastic pedantry characterizes Aldington's entire work, finding fault with Lawrence even where there's none to be had. Aldington may have started with "no particular feelings towards Lawrence" but his writings drip with contempt towards the British establishment that lionized T.E. Certainly he loathes that Lawrence won fame instead of "the real heroes of 1914-1918" (381) - Western Front veterans like himself. Not for nothing did Robert Irwin compare Aldington's book to "a waterfall of venom." 

My main complaint though comes in positioning Aldington as the Rosetta Stone to Lawrence. Pope mentions John Mack and Michael Korda's books but dismisses them as hero worship, marking the authors as dupes or worse. All the revelations of the post-Aldington era - the release of War Office documents in 1969, witnesses like John Bruce and Janet Laurie, Jeremy Wilson's authorized biography and publishing of Lawrence's private papers - go unmentioned. By ignoring this, Pope strangely undercuts Aldington's importance.

Finally, there's the implied dichotomy between Lawrence worship and Lawrence hatred. Granted, Aldington was savaged in his time by the "Lawrence Bureau," with A.W. Lawrence and Basil Liddell Hart (whose book I'll soon review) trying to suppress and smear his work. And authorized biographer Jeremy Wilson can be viciously defensive towards Lawrence. That doesn't mean a nuanced view of Lawrence isn't possible. Some people can square Lawrence's disreputable side with his achievements and still find him admirable. Lawrence wasn't a mythic construct, but a human being - more interesting than either Aldington or Liddell Hart would have us believe.