Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Incident at Der'a

A review of A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence by John E. Mack
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976)

One of the most stirring romantic myths of the twentieth century was destroyed in 1968 when John Bruce, in the Sunday Times, revealed "the secret life of Lawrence of Arabia," to wit, that the visionary crusader was a flagellomaniac. Since then, the life of T.E. Lawrence has been treated more as a case study of a private neurosis than a case study of a political movement's leader, or, more precisely in this instance, a convulted study of how one man's private fears and fantasies became the motivation behind public campaigns involving millions of people.

There is much to be said for burning one's diaries and private correspondence and journals shortly efore one's death. Now that I know Lawrence's secrets, or have evidence darkly hinting at them, I cannot help but find him an unsympathetic character, and almost wish his biographers had been more discreet. I find particularly distasteful his surviving letters giving instructions to Bruce on how to whip him, involving the subterfutge of describing himself as the fictitious schoolboy "Ted" who must be whipped for some minor offence, e.g.:

Unless he strips, the birch is quite ineffective. The twigs are so light that even the thinnest clothing prevents their hurting. I fully understand your reluctance to strip him; so I was making up my mind to ask you to use either your friend's jute whip (which you mentioned to me in a former letter) or a useful little dogwhip which I could send you byu post. If the emergency rises, I shall agree to Ted's coming to you in flannels."

Perhaps even the noblest of men have composed such private pornography, but most of them, or their friends, have had the decency either to suppress it or to sel it for profit.

The desire to be whipped purely for the sake of pleasure of one thing; the desire to be whipped for the sake of an extreme form of guilt-ridden penitence of quite another. Some of Dr Sade's heroes I admire; St Teresa I find repellent. The beatings which Lawrence voluntarily submitted to at the hands of Bruce were particularly sadistic: a metal whip brutally thrashed his bare buttocks a precise number of lashes until he ejaculated. Humiliation and shame was the desire goal, a goal which ony renewed the need for more punishment, extending even to elaborate "training" rituals involving swimming in icy water and "medical electricity."

And why all this self-inflicted torture? Solely because Lawrence was once gang-raped by Arab soldiers and couldn't come to grips with the fact that he enjoyed it. The chapter describing the notorious Der'a incident was rewritten nearly a dozen times for Seven Pillars of Wisdom, letters and journals. The agonies are desdribed with the loving-yet-loathing detail of the pornographer straining after a vivid immediacy, e.g.:

I was being dragged about by two men, each disputing over a leg as though to split me apart: while a third men rode me astride. . . . I remember smiling idly at him, for a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me: and then that he flung up his arms and hacked with the full length of his whip into my groin. This doubled me half-over, screaming, or, rather, trying impotently to screan, only shuddereing through my mouth. One giggled with amusement. . . . Another slash followed. A roaring, and my eyes went black: while within me the core of life seemed to heave slowly up through the rending nerves, expelled from its body by this last indescribable pang.

But this wasn't the first time a man had been raped by men. Nor is it the first time such a victim felt, as did Lawrence,that it "degraded me to beast level." Why should it have been such a monumental catastrophe for Lawrence, journeying with him ever since, "fascination and terror and morbid desire, lascivious and vicious perhaps, but like the striving of a moth towards its flame"? Because – And the answer is embarrassingly simple – Lawrence never had the courage to act out his homosexual desires in a positive and direct manner, but had to satisfy them through the circuitous route of denying them.

He never seems to have had a straight-forward sexual contact with his first and foremost lover, Dahoum, the donkey boy at Jerablus, sometimes known as Sheikh Ahmed,the Arab/Hittite boy to whom Seven Pillars was dedicated. Lawrence met this 14-year-old in 1911 (when he was 23), and immediately idealised him as the natural man, joyuful and innocent, unspoiled by Western society. He was the noble savage "wjo wrestled beautifully," who was "beautifully built and remarkably handsome" (who even posed for a nude limestone statue which Lawrence carved and mounted atop his house) – in other words, Lawrence's own ideal self. But Lawrence lacked the good sense – either because of his puritanical upbringing or a personal quirk – to grasp his destiny by the flesh, and when Dahoum died in 1914 Lawrence lost his own soul "and now not anywhere will I find rest and peace." Lawrence took Damascus for Dahoum, but found his demon at Der'a.

At least this is my (oversimplified) version of the sad, sad story. Dr John Mack's 500-odd-page analysis is much more complex, and at times most annoyingly psychiatric. It is also pretentious and patronising, and each chapter is prefaced by a Freudian primer defining such things as "trauma" in the most puerile prose, apparently intended for the non-specialist. Perhaps his desire to clarify his terms is laudable, though an obtrustive nuisance, but I was really put off by his trite justifications of postuhumous psychiatry: "Lasrence would, I am quite certain, want others to benefit from any knowledge or insights gained from stuidying and analyzing the struiggles he could not resolve altogetheer for himself." I was neither benefited nor amused, and though the title of the book a gross impertinence.

Rictor Norton


(This review was originally published in Gay News in the 1970s. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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