Monday, August 16, 2010

Celebrating Lawrence or How TE Lawrence Introduced Me to Henry Adams

"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 dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did."

The 16th of August is more than just the mid-point of my least favorite month, it is (on a far happier note) the birthday of one of the tortured genius types I'm so drawn to: TE Lawrence. Rather than expound on Lawrence's accomplishments or gush over/trash David Lean's incredible film (and yes, I can argue both sides of the Lawrence of Arabia film debate pretty fairly) I thought I'd wander off in a slightly different direction.

I came to Lawrence in what I expect is the usual way for teenage girls, by way of a VHS tape and Peter O'Toole's azure blue eyes, sun-bleached hair, and aquiline nose. O'Toole's mesmerizing performance sent me to the library to find out all I could about this sphinx-like, desert-loving Englishman.

A more logical and less single minded brain than mine might have tried to learn a little bit more background information on the Arab revolt or Middle Eastern politics of the time, or even read Jeremy Wilson's brilliant biography, but I dove head first into Seven Pillars of Wisdom. (I don't hesitate to say that I'd recommend SPW for *anyone* considering waging a war of any kind in the Middle East. **ahem**) I loved Lawrence's slightly archaic prose and his descriptions of people and places, they spoke to me. While I'm sure some of his military philosophy went right over my head at the time, I knew I was reading a kind of kindred spirit when I learned of his love of reading and all things medieval.

So with my new medievalist mentor as guide, I went in search of a copy of Crusader Castles, the published version of TE's undergraduate thesis for his Oxford B.A. More scholarly than engrossing, it still provided insight into Lawrence's character. The photos he took and sketches he made of Crac de Chevaliers and the other castles/defenses were a revelation to me (remember this is before the Internet of 2010 that we know and love.) And then there were the photos of Mont St Michel and St Malo and his letters home to his mother describing what he'd seen on his bicycle journey around France touring the ruins of medieval fortresses. The architecture of the French Middle Ages absolutely stunned me, and I was smitten. (Yes, I'm a Middle Ages loving cathedral geek--from trefoil or quatrefoil clerestory windows and fan or barrel vaulted ceilings to the elegance of Cistercian Romanesque, I love 'em all.)

My new literary companions, thanks in one way or another to Lawrence, were William Morris and his design and print work with Kelmscott Press and beyond; John Ruskin and his Stones of Venice and Seven Lamps of Architecture; and finally, to my favorite literary traveling companion and virtual uncle, Henry Adams.

Henry Adams' Mont St Michel and Chartres has been my most constant and faithful traveling companion. My well-loved and slightly tattered paperback edition really shows the miles. This volume has accompanied me across the ocean many times (including a trip to London when I told my parents I was going to Chicago...) and been dragged through France, England, Ireland, New York, Boston, Budapest, Vienna and even of all places, Greece. If it would've been possible, I'd have had this book stamped right along with my passport in each country. When I didn't have any other journal with me, it became my travel diary. If I wanted to sketch out a point Adams was making about Le Mont I did so in the margins.  This treasure is highlighted, scribbled in, and annotated within an inch of its life. The interiors of both the front and back covers contain notations and exclamations in every which direction and even some colorful language. It has also been a kind of portfolio for travel postcards, train tickets and other small souvenirs. Sand grains blown in from the beaches around Mont St Michel still escape from the taped binding now and then, triggering a treasured memory of sheep grazing in salt marshes and sea water quickly encroaching on the causeway.

Throughout all my cathedral and non-cathedral visits, Adams was my little non-red Baedecker. I followed in his footsteps on my pilgrimages across Northern France to places like Coutances, Rouen, Amiens, and Chartres. At each stop I'd pull out my trusty little book and make my own notations to add to Adams' astute, if often slightly over the top, observations.

I'm quite certain TE would have approved of my obsession as well as my literary companion. He carried a few of his own favorites with him during his various desert campaigns. In London's National Portrait Gallery there is a stone effigy of Lawrence that portrays him as a recumbent medieval knight. (The other one is at a small church in Moreton, Dorset.) The knight's knees are crossed, but otherwise he is clad in typical Arab robes, and there is a small pile of books sitting next to the shoulder of the fallen hero representing the volumes that accompanied Lawrence over the years--books like Mallory's Le Morte d'Arthur and Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta.

TE Lawrence brought me to some of the best and most intriguing of my reading obsessions--in addition to his own life I loved reading about Gertrude Bell and Freya Stark. My family has always been more inclined toward polar exploration, but through the likes of Lawrence, Bell, Stark and Durrell I've developed a lasting fascination with the vast expanses of the Arabian desert and a minor obsession with old Cairo and Alexandria during the first half the last century.

For all the rich study and consuming reading, I thank Lawrence. He'd be unlikely to want any credit for it and it'd be decidedly wrong to drink a toast to his memory, but I'm grateful for all the literary richness and adventurous companions that I met by way of this enigmatic and talented man.


sidfernando said...

you are an adventurer, yes, but also a well-read scholar; each piece here adds yet another piece to the puzzle of MLA; i've always been able to picture you, red nails, scarf, in Old Cairo, at some bazzar with Peter Lorre, and this post proves just why; surely you have notes of that meeting somewhere within the worn covers of your travel companion? haha!

The Paper Tyger said...

I was half afraid of running into Peter Lorre around a dark alley in Budapest or Vienna! Only my memoirs will reveal my go-to nail colour :) You're too kind as usual, Sid!