I want to give thanks to Josh Gross for contributing this excellent post to my blog. Please be sure to check out his blog: Jaguar and Allies .
Underground Library Society Post
In May of this year, Dr. Charles French extended an invitation to join his Underground Library Society (ULS). The ULS began as a project for Dr. French’s English 2 class, in which students were required to create a poster and blog about a book they would memorize. In this way, they might be able to save it from censorship.
Dr. French’s invitation asked readers to do the same thing: make a poster and blog about a book they would memorize. I selected the Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia.
While I have not constructed a poster, what follows is an essay about why I would memorize this book.
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
(A portrait of T. E. Lawrence, as seen in Lowell Thomas’ With Lawrence in Arabia
. Public Domain
image retrieved from Wikimedia
In these pages in not the history of the Arab movement, but just of what happened to me in it…It treats of daily life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no events to shake peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake it for history (it is the bones from which some day a man may make history), and partly for the pleasure it gave me to recall the fellowship of the revolt (Lawrence, 2011, p. 9).
I first picked up the Seven Pillars of Wisdom on a whim. I had just finished reading The Outsiders by Colin Wilson, which quoted Lawrence repeatedly. Lawrence’s words struck a chord with me, so I ordered a copy of his book. I had no idea what I was getting into.
The Seven Pillars is the memoir of the fabled “Lawrence of Arabia,” whom Michael Korda (2010) describes as, “a scholar, an archaeologist, a writer of genius, a gifted translator…a soldier of startling originality and brilliance; an instinctive leader of men; and, above all, a hero” (p. xvi).
(T. E. Lawrence, second from right in the middle row, accompanying Emir Faisal Hussein of Mecca at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Public Domain image retrieved from Wikimedia.)
Lawrence’s memoir chronicles his experiences in the Arab Revolt of 1916, in which the Arabic peoples rose up against the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire. Little did they know, they had entrusted their fates to a far more devious power than the Turks: the British Empire.
The Arab Revolt was both encouraged and supported by the British. At this time, Europe was locked in the bloody stalemate of World War I – with the British and Ottomans fighting on opposite sides. The British therefore helped to instigate a rebellion of the Arabs against the Ottomans, promising to grant their ‘friends’ freedom and a sovereign state.
But in a real-life conspiracy, the British and French met behind closed doors; deciding to carve up the Middle East amongst themselves however they saw fit. There would be no freedom for the Arabs.
From the beginning, Lawrence was a firm believer in the Arab Revolt. He initially supported it indirectly as a desk-based intelligence officer in Cairo. But when the revolt began to flounder, he entered the field as a liaison between the Arabic and British armies. His time in the field makes up the bulk of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
(Much of Lawrence’s sympathy for the Arabs stemmed from his Oxford days, when he worked as an archaeologist at Carchemish. Public Domain image retrieved from Wikimedia.)
What first struck me about the Seven Pillars, and the primary reason I would memorize it, is the sheer beauty of its prose. Lawrence wrote with more skill, passion, and care than any author I have yet found. He described the scenery of Arabia so perfectly that the hues of the desert come to life; he writes about the characters so intimately that they seem like old friends; but, most of all, he describes his own thoughts and emotions in such detail that it is impossible not to be affected by them.
(Wadi Rum, shown here, was one of Lawrence’s favorite places in Arabia. Wadi Rum by Dan. CC BY-SA 2.0)
It is in these moments of self-disclosure that the Seven Pillars truly shines. To be fair, I disagree with many of Lawrence’s sentiments. However, that does not detract from the quality of his writing. It is also during Lawrence’s ‘deeper’ passages that the central theme of the Seven Pillars becomes apparent: that of a man torn in two.
Lawrence was a proud Englishman, and felt that his first duty was to his homeland. Despite this, he also believed in a free Arabia. As the Seven Pillars progresses, the incompatible drives between serving his British masters and helping his Arabic friends gradually rip him apart.
This is the primary reason I would choose to memorize the Seven Pillars of Wisdom: it shows what happens when one chooses to obey authority over doing what they know to be right.
(Lawrence died on the morning of May 19, 1935, following a tragic motorcycle accident. TE Lawrence Effigy Wareham Church by Julian Hutchings. CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Lawrence never recovered from the war, and neither did the world. How different would the modern age be if the Arabs had been allowed to govern themselves, instead of being turned into the colonial play-things of the British, French, and later the Americans? We will never know.
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is more than a literary masterpiece. It is the story of broken promises, of failed dreams, and of a world that almost was. As Lawrence (2011) wrote:
I meant to make a new nation, to restore to the world a lost influence, to
give twenty millions of Semites an inspired dream-palace of their national
thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made
them play a generous part in events: but when we won, it was charged against me
that British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French
colonial policy mined in the levant (p. 10).
I hope to preserve Lawrence’s words forever, so that the world never forgets the price of deception.
Korda, M. (2010). Hero: The life and legend of Lawrence of Arabia. New York, NY:
Lawrence, T. E. (2011). The seven pillars of wisdom: A triumph: The complete 1922 text.
Blacksburg, VA: Wilder Publications, Inc.
Once again, thank you to Josh Gross!