“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence is one of the most remarkable books ever written: it is poetical, lyrical and it`s language flows with the elegance of a Venetian gondola cruising lightly down the Grand Canal. On the surface, it is a book about war; a very special kind of war though. It revisits the Arab Revolt of 1917, which, assisted by the British government against it`s Ottoman Turk enemy, was a guerrilla war, aided and abetted by a singular young British officer who has gone down in history as the legendary Lawrence of Arabia.
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom reads like a boys own adventure yarn – but with a difference. Lawrence was a scholar, an historian and an archeologist who`s psyche was saturated by knowledge of the cradle of civilisation and the biblical lands of the middle east. The language he uses throughout his book is almost biblical in tone and structure, as he quite visibly struggles with divided loyalties and inner conflicts; on one level, he is attempting to slay the demon of Ottoman rule over the Arabs and free them from it`s yoke; but another, far more powerful force holds and twists him, and from which there is no easily won freedom……..Himself. It`s very likely that Lawrence didn`t even know himself who he really was.
His almost medieval code of honour and fair play is at work here within him: he knows that he is merely helping to replace one imperialist master for another, but hopes that by melding the Arabs into a unified fighting force and forgetting the petty rivalries of a millennia, he can instil pride enough in who they are to allow them to stand up for themselves and dictate their own future. He fails of course. The victorious European colonial powers exploit Arab disunity and carve up their lands between themselves. Lawrence has forged the Arabs into a formidably cohesive military force, but knows that his political hopes for them have come to nothing, and leaves for England feeling that he has betrayed them.
After the war, he settled down to writing up ( some would say lathering up his reputation) his memoirs of the desert war, the first draft was completed by the autumn of 1919, and then was almost immediately stolen along with the briefcase it was in at Reading station. Early the next year while the first manuscript was still fresh in his memory, he started on a second version; the result was a “hopelessly bad” version of some 400,000 words. He revised and polished his script until 1922, when he sent it to be typeset at the Oxford Times.
Lawrence`s always fragile personality, fractured and buckled under the stress of completing Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and suffered a breakdown. He later recounted: ” I nearly went off my head…..heaving at that beastly book of mine.” Persuaded by his friends and admirers to abridge the original text to make it more digestible for a mass audience, the book was eventually released in a slimmed down version as “The Revolt in the Desert,” which allowed the juggernaut of history to slide down the slipway and eventually lead to David Lean`s great movie, Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. There is a line in the western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which is about mythologizing the past: “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It sums up perfectly humanity`s gift for self deception and eulogy.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom has never been out of print: part mythology, part self promotional and part fact, the legend has been remembered and revered ever since it`s publication, while any inconvenient facts have been forgotten and left in the desert sands along with the memories of the dead.
The full, unexpurgated version of Lawrence`s masterwork is available ( as they say) at any good bookstore or online site. It contains some of the most beautiful language ever written in English, and remains a high water mark in literature. if it`s enigmatic writer remains a mystery, his book isn`t. It is, and always will be, a great work of art by a great writer.