Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Titanic Triumph

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph

"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."  -  T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

The source of the title of T. E. Lawrence's masterpiece is the book of Proverbs:
"Wisdom hath builded a house: she hath hewn out her seven pillars." (Proverbs, 9:1)

This quotation is used as an evocative phrase for the title of a book that Lawrence compared to Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov, and Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra. He considered these "titanic books" that were distinguished by "greatness of spirit". I would agree that his literary achievement at least approaches those levels and also demonstrates the bravado demonstrated by his comparison to them. His book was published in 1926 even though he wrote most of it about 1919 following his return from the desert.

Reading this classic account of Lawrence's exploits is both exhilarating and informative. I was impressed by his depiction of Arab culture of the time and its seeming connection with past and present. The importance of tales told around the hearth as the heart of Arab culture seems to be similar to the culture encountered by Muhammad as he was growing up centuries earlier. Under the most arduous conditions, Lawrence found time for keen analysis: he applied that analysis to the differing forces that were interdependent within the Arab culture and did so with out betraying his loyalty to all or surrendering his loyalty to any.

Further, Lawrence's keen ability to describe his surroundings and bring the events, of which he was often the center, alive is shown in almost every chapter. He is able, through the extensiveness of his narrative, to share both bristling detail and a sense of the intricacy of the events he portrays. He often takes time to share descriptions of the terrain and the weather which provide background for his continuing struggle. At the same time this detail provides as sense of both a documentary approach and also the drama of his escapades. The portraits of the Arab leaders from Abdulla and Auda to Feisel are fascinating in their detail and psychological insight. Lawrence, it seems, was born for this journey and fated to share it with us. T. E. Lawrence acted upon his dream 'with open eyes' and made it happen. In a book filled with deception he gives us a view into the world before the end of World War I changed everything. We see the various Arab factions and the deals made with the British. More importantly we are given insight into the men through Lawrence's eyes, his acute judgement, and his poetic narrative. He notes the keys to the Arab Revolt in the common language they shared and their heritage of the greatness that existed under the Caliphs going back to the six centuries following the death of Muhammad. We share in his pangs of conscience and his judgements of others and his own life and actions.

He notes that "feeling and illusion were at war within me" and it reminded me of the birth of modernity with Faustian man. Also important are his comments on the British in the Middle East and the nature of the soldier in war. Reading this treatise was a moving experience as I gradually found support for my own subjunctive mood in this inspirational book.


Brian Joseph said...

I must make a terrible confession. Years ago I began to read this and only read about a quarter of it.

There is no good reason for putting it down. In retrospect I think that it was a very worthy book to read. I never not finish what I start anymore, unless it is ghastly, but at the time like many readers, I would begin to read books, sometimes good books, and then put them down simply because my interest and patience in things was too unfocused.

I remember it as being so very well, even poetically, written.

Your commentary on the book and how it effected you is suburb. There is something about a book that one connects with like this.

I must read this.

James said...


Thanks for your comment and confession. I must add that I have done the same with books that I later find to be better than good reads.
Sometimes I think we are not ready for a particular book for one reason or another.
This book had been on my shelf for several years before I picked it up and fell in love with it. This review is a revision of one I wrote several years ago. I hope to return to this book again in the coming years.