Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East. By Scott Anderson. Doubleday, 2013, 592 pp. $28.95.
It begins with his eyes, “light blue and piercingly intense.” The eyes are synechdochic for the man, a tell; the myth precedes them. That’s of course the challenge of a book about T.E. Lawrence: the myth inevitably precedes him. The man has been so thoroughly freighted with hero worship as to vanish under its weight.
Scott Anderson’s exhaustively entitled Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the Making of the Modern Middle East isn’t, nor does it intend to be, pure antidote to those heady vapors of history-as-fable. Instead, Lawrence in Arabia is an engaging and heroic effort at contextualization. This titular “in” contrasts itself self-consciously with the “of” of the finely hagiographic Lawrence of Arabia, and is forcefully underlined on the work’s cover. Lawrence will be located, will be situated, and the structural conceit that drives that undertaking is the joint biography of Lawrence alongside three contemporaries: American oilman William Yale (of the family and the university); spymaster, Zionist, and agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn; and polyglot German agent provocateur Carl Prüfer.
Juxtaposing Lawrence’s Middle Eastern exploits with his fellow participants in the Great Game, Anderson puts forward an account of why Lawrence should have become a figure of such staggering presence without reducing his achievements to sterile happenstance. Anderson’s answer: the neglect shown the Near East by the Powers That Were allowed the weird and the wayward, the oddly qualified and the ethically entrepreneurial, to wield outsized influence over the course of events in the region.
It’s a smart line to take, but also a frustrating one. Gifted as Anderson is at enlivening his cast of characters, it’s no easy task for the comparatively diminutive Yale, Aaronsohn, and Prüfer to stand toe-to-toe with the man himself. That’s not to say that these arcs don’t bear a healthy portion of the dramatic weight Anderson asks them to; they do, on their merits and on the merits of Anderson’s own writerly talents. But they don’t have Lawrence’s historic heft, enjoying neither his factual nor his fictional influence; “Aaronsohn of Arabia” did not captivate, and President Wilson did not eulogize Yale. They’re ultimately also-rans, and the framing device they constitute leaves in place essential questions in the biography of T.E. Lawrence—that is, to what degree his is a story of heroism, chance, or fakery—even as it casts useful light on the ground truth of Europe’s Middle Eastern imagination during World War I.
A word about the degree to which Lawrence, as we find him “in Arabia,” finds himself amongst the Arabs. Certainly Anderson doesn’t elide or diminish the roles of the key figures in the Arab Revolt, but they regrettably fail to emerge as the rich characters found in Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom (a work, as Anderson cites coyly, “more often praised than read.” This reviewer has been through the much-abridged Revolt in the Desert). Still, Anderson’s Arabia is not Camus’s Oran—a place infamously depopulated of Arabs in The Plague. Rather, this European emphasis comes across as a statement on what was, in the end, the decidedly Eurocentric character of the dynamics that drove the construction of the troubled states of the modern Middle East. After all, the titular deceit and imperial folly are both European in their character. All the same, one wonders if the ink spilled over Yale might have been better spent bringing a figure like Faisal to life in the same depth and color.
Extensive, insightful, striking, Lawrence in Arabia lacks all the same a certain sense of biographic closure; in the case of Lawrence, this may be inevitable. At the end of the day, it would be difficult to say whether Anderson is too credulous or insufficiently so, whether his Lawrence is too large or too little. The work’s clever architecture places certain brakes on its ambitions, and even as Anderson speaks to and feints towards Lawrence’s exceptionality within the historical framing proposed by this group portrait, that exceptionality is, in the final accounting of things, underserved by that same framing. One instinctively feels that Lawrence must have been either the greatest of men or nothing at all; his image, constructed or congenital, is too singular to occupy the middle ground.
If the question cannot be resolved to any kind of satisfaction, Lawrence in Arabia is still a decidedly worthwhile entry in the dialogue on Lawrence, as well as on certain modern themes in the development of the Middle East. Anderson has charted a sure path through treacherous territories of hero, image, and mythos—and this is no small task. Perhaps we must conclude by weighing this measured accounting against the essential lyricism of Lawrence’s own account, which can perchance be tamed but can hardly be matched. Lawrence wrote: “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 their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
And this T.E. Lawrence most certainly did.