Skip to content

The Woods of Wildcat Mountain in Early Winter.

06-Dec-14

The Hunter.

18-Dec-14

Tracks. With drops of blood.

I love how the snow of winter produces, like a court reporter, a continual transcript of all the events that take place on the ground.  I wouldn’t have known the property was visited continually by a bobcat two winters ago, or that there was a bear to track, were it not for the snow that keeps a record.  I am always keen to what the snow tells me, and so, when I got back home from the city Monday night, I paused at the entrance to my property, because I saw something I had never seen before.

A broad, irregularly grooved, three-inch-deep band of flattened snow, about two and a half feet across, led into the woods.  A set of bootprints, not mine, was next to this trace.  I presumed it was a snowmobile, though I didn’t think a snowmobile would do very well going where it seemed to be going; but I wasn’t sure.  I resolved to come back in the morning and take a look.

The next morning I went and investigated.  I quickly determined it was no snowmobile; there was no tread, and it was too skinny anyway.  It could have been a sled, but I think it was something else.  In the track, and particularly in the center of the track, were little drops of red diluting into a brownish yellow at the edges: it was blood.

A particularly bloody spot, by the road.

Someone had dragged a body out of the woods.  It was possible that they had an oddly shaped sled for this purpose, but more likely the grooves I was seeing were just the result of the different pressure points of the animal’s body on the ground.  A sled would probably have shielded the ground a bit better from the occasional blood-drops as well.

I walked the tracks into the woods, and found the drag-marks stopped a few hundred feet in, though the footprints continued; I think the hunter had carried the carcass for a distance, before putting it on the ground and beginning to drag it.  At this point a pair of plastic gloves, lightly stained with blood, sat on top of the snow; they probably got lost in the shuffle.  There was no evidence of the deer being gutted here: no especially large quantity of blood.

The tracks ended beneath some hemlocks, where there was no snow.  I suspected this was where the kill had occurred, but the ground had already soaked up all the blood.  If the deer had been gutted here the coyotes – or the hunter’s dog – had already taken care of the entrails.  There were both canine and deer tracks leading to the spot.  Another set of bootprints came down to this point from up above, to a point of rocks where two deer paths were visible, both above and below the spot.  It was a good hunting vantage.

As clever as the other animals are, nothing compares with a human who knows what he is doing: there was an efficiency in the tracks that I admired.  From my driveway to this vantage; from the vantage to the spot of the kill; then out to the road with the body, and hunter and hunted both now gone, leaving only slight traces.  A good melt and there would be only a pair of gloves left.

Gloves in the woods.

Torturers.

09-Dec-14

I don’t like to linger very long on what human beings do to one another – it’s not really the kind of thing that makes one better.  I don’t like Holocaust Museums, and Holocaust Studies, and all that.  The only decent reaction I can come up with is something like the Nuremberg Trials – put these men in the docket for a few days, let them say their say about how necessary and justified it all was, have the court reporter write it all down, hang them and go home.  I doubt that we will get any justice on this planet – and God will be adequate to the task anyway, I do not doubt – but presuming that this senate report on U.S. torture tactics is true, then every single person whose hands are stained by this – including President Bush and perhaps Obama as well – should be put on trial and the guilty ones should hang for it.

Ownership and Strangerhood.

06-Dec-14

I walked back home from town through the woods two days ago, taking a route I had never taken before.  As I came to my own property, clothed in the strangeness of the winter woods, it seemed so weird to me that I “owned” this place – that on some map somewhere it was known by my name, and that the word “my” could be affixed to it.  That the word “my” can be affixed to anything at all, in fact.  But in particular, that it should be used to “modify” – grammatically speaking – all these thousands of living things, who lived their lives in utter mystery, so far beyond my knowing.  The slightest change in weather and I would barely recognize them, though I live with them every day.  It is not mine – just the place where no one drives me away.  So I will not call the woods in this picture mine, but I will say: the little rise of land you see in the photo – on top of that rise is where I spend my happiest days.

Copsouls.

06-Dec-14

Kerouac, in this the original scroll version of On the Road, tells of the time he was a security guard in a construction company’s barracks.  The description of police brutality and interference in people’s lives is interesting to say the least.  And timely.  I think this culture still exists.

These barracks were for the temporary quartering of overseas construction workers.  The men who came through stayed there waiting for their ship.  Most of them were bound for Okinawa.  Most of them were running away from something – usually the law.  There were tough groups of brothers from Alabama, shifty men from New York, all kinds from all over.  And knowing full well how horrible it would be to work a full year in Okinawa they drank.  The job of the special guards was to see that they didn’t tear the barracks down.  We had our headquarters in the main building, just a wooden contraption with panelwalled offices.  Here at a rolltop desk we sat around shifting our guns off our asses and yawning, and the old cops told stories.  It was a horrible crew of men, men with copsouls, all except Henri and I.  Henri was only trying to make a living, so was I, but these men wanted to make arrests and get compliments from the Chief in town.  They even went so far as to say that if you didn’t make at least one arrest a month you’d be fired.  I gulped at the prospect of making an arrest.  What actually happened was that I was as drunk as anybody in the barracks the night all hell broke loose.  This was the night when the schedule was so arranged that I was all alone for six hours… the only cop on the grounds; and not that anybody knew it, but everybody in the barracks seemed to have gotten drunk that night.  It was because their ship was leaving in the morning.  They drank like seamen do the night before the anchor goes up.  I sat in the office, in a rolltop chair, with my feet on the desk, reading Blue Book adventures about Oregon and the north country, when I suddenly realized there was a great hum of activity in the usually quiet night.  I went out.  Lights were burning in practically every damned shack on the grounds.  Men were shouting, bottles were breaking.  It was do or die for me.  I took my flashlight and went to the noisiest door and knocked.  Someone opened it about six inches.  “What do you want?”  I said “I’m guarding these barracks tonight and you boys are supposed to keep quiet as much as you can” or some such silly remark.  They slammed the door in my face.  I stood looking at the wood of it against my nose.  It was like a western movie; the time had come for me to assert myself.  I knocked again.  They opened up wide this time.  “Listen” I said “I don’t want to come around bothering you fellows but I’ll lose my job if you make too much noise.” “Who are you?” “I’m a guard here.”  “Never seen you before.”  “Well, here’s my badge.”  “What are you doing with that pistolcracker on your ass?”  “It isn’t mine” I apologized “I borrowed it.”  “Have a drink, for krissakes.”  I didn’t mind if I would.  I took two.  I said “Okay boys?  You’ll keep quiet boys?  I’ll get hell you know.”  “It’s allright kid,” they said, “go make your rounds, come back for another drink if you want one.”  And I went to all the doors in this manner and pretty soon I was as drunk as anyone else.  Come dawn, it was my duty to put up the American flag on a sixty foot pole, and this morning I put it up upsidedown and went home to bed.  When I came back in the evening the regular corp of cops were sitting around grimly in the office.  “Say bo, what was all the noise around here last night.  We’ve had complaints from people who live in those houses across the canyon.”  “I don’t know” I said “it sounds pretty quiet right now.”  “The whole contingent’s gone.  You was supposed to keep order around here last night—the Chief is yelling at you—and another thing—do you know you can go to jail for putting the American flag upsidedown on a government pole.”  “Upsidedown?”  I was horrified; of course I hadn’t realized it; I did it every morning mechanically.  I shook out its dust in dew and hauled her up.  “Yessir,” said a fat cop who’d spent thirty years as a guard in the horrible prison known as San Quentin, “you could go to jail for doing something like that.”  The others nodded grimly.  They were always sitting around on their asses; they were proud of their jobs.  They took their guns out and talked about them, but they never pointed them.  They were itching to shoot somebody.  Henri and me.  Let me tell you about the two worst cops.  The fat one who had been a San Quentin guard was potbellied and about sixty, retired and couldn’t keep away from the atmospheres that had nourished his dry soul all his life.  Every night he drove to work in his 37 Buick, punched the clock exactly on time, and sat down at the rolltop desk.  They said he had a wife.  Then he laboured painfully over the simple form we all had to fill out every night—rounds, time, what happened and so on.  Then he leaned back and told stories.  “You should have been here about two months ago when me and Tex” (that was the other horrible cop, a youngster who wanted to be a Texas ranger and had to be satisfied with his present lot) “me and Tex arrested a drunk in Barrack G.  Boy you should have seen the blood fly.  I’ll take you over there tonight and show you the stains on the wall.  We had him bouncing from one wall to another, first Tex hit him with his club, then I did, then Tex took out his revolver and snapped him one, and I was just about to try it myself when he subsided and went quietly.  That fellow swore to kill us when he got out of jail—got thirty days—here it is SIXTY days and he ain’t showed up.”  And this was the big point of the story.  They’d put such a fear in him that he was too yellow to come back and try to kill them.  I began to worry he might try it and mistake me for Tex in a dark barrack alley.  The old cop went on, sweetly reminiscing about the horrors of San Quentin.  “We used to march ‘em like an Army platoon to breakfast.  Wasn’t one man out of step.  Everything went like clockwork.  You should have seen it.  I was a guard there for thirty years.  Never had any trouble.  Those boys knew we meant business.  Now a lot of fellows get soft guarding prisoners and they’re the ones that usually get in trouble.  Now you take you—from what I’ve been observing about you, you seem to me a little bit too LEENENT with the men.”  He raised his pipe and looked at me sharp.  “They take advantage of that, you know.”  I knew that.  I told him I wasn’t cut out to be a cop.  “Yes, but that’s the job that you APPLIED FOR.  ow you got to make up your mind one way or the other, or you’ll never get anywhere.  It’s your duty.  You’re sworn in.  You can’t compromise with things like this.  Law & order’s got to be kept.”  I didn’t know what to say: he was right: but all I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country.  The other cop, Tex, was short, squat, muscular, with a blond crewcut, and a nervous twitch in his neck like a boxer always punching one fist into another.  He rigged himself out like a Texas ranger of old.  He wore a revolver down low, with ammunition belt, and carried a small quirt of some kind and pieces of leather hanging everywhere like if he was a walking torture chamber: shiny shoes, low-hanging jacket, cocky hat, everything but boots.  He was always showing me holds: reaching down under my crotch and lifting me up nimbly.  In point of strength I could have thrown him clear to the ceiling with the same hold and I knew it well; but I never let him know for fear he’d want a wrestling match.  A wrestling match with a guy like that could end up in shooting.  I’m sure he was a better shot; I’d never had a gun in my life.  It scared me to even load one.  He desperately wanted to make arrests.  One night we were alone on duty and he came back pissing mad.  “I told some boys in there to keep quiet and they’re still making noise.  I told them twice.  I always give a man two chances.  Not three.  You come with me, and I’m going back there and arrest them.”  “Well let me give them a third chance,” I said, “I’ll talk to them.”  “No sir, I never gave a man more than two chances.”  I sighed.  Here we go.  We went to the offending room and Tex opened the door and told everybody to file out.  It was embarrassing.  Every single one of us was blushing.  This is the story of America.  Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.  So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink in the night.  But Tex wanted to prove something.  He made sure to bring me along in case they jumped him.  They might have.  They were all brothers, all from Alabama.  We all strolled back to the station.  Tex in front and me in back.  One of the boys said to me “Tell that crotch-eared meanass to take it easy on us, we might get fired for this and never get to Okinawa.”  “I’ll talk to him.”  In the station I told Tex to forget it.  He said, for everybody to hear, and blushing, “I don’t give anybody no more than two chances.”  “What the hail,” said the Alabaman, “what difference does it make.  We might lose our jobs.”  Tex said nothing and filled out the arrest forms.  He arrested only one of them; he called the prowl car in town.  They came and took him away.  The other brothers walked off sullenly.  “What’s Ma going to say?” they said.  One of them came back to me.  “You tell that Texas sonofabitch if my brother ain’t out of jail tomorrow night he’s going to get his ass fixed.”  I told Tex, in a neutral way, and he said nothing.  The brother was let off easy and nothing happened.  The contingent shipped out; a new wild bunch came in. (166-70)

When the Primitive Way of Thinking Is Truer.

03-Dec-14

Ancient societies typically did not distinguish between various types of human-caused human death in times of peace.  The distinctions we have (first degree, second degree, and third degree murder, as well as manslaughter, negligent homicide, wrongful death, justifiable homicide, etc.) did not apply then.  The killer incurred some kind of guilt, simply because he had taken a life, and some kind of atonement was required.

I think there is something deeply true about this: when a person dies because of a car we were driving, or a mistake we made, or anything of the like, it seems to me that some kind of ritual purification is required – some kind of penalty, some kind of restitution, that has to be done, even if it is just to reassure the killer, that he can take his place in a world of fragile living things again.

The closest thing to this that we have is a trial, where day after day the killer has to sit in court while others debate and evaluate his action, and the killer knows that terrible penalties will be enacted if his actions are not found to be justifiable.  But even to sit there, and go through the trial, is a kind of suffering – it is something.

Does it not seem obvious that every time a person dies, and we know who was involved in their death, that the sanctity of that life requires at least a trial?

A Little Bit of Wisdom and Perspective.

29-Nov-14

A very well-put, thoughtful piece by Erik Lindberg on how even the most liberal democrats and greens are probably climate change deniers nearly as myopic as any Republican.  The democratic problem is a belief that no serious change of lifestyle is required: that all we need to do is shift the sources of our energy draws, and we will save the planet – just put the plug in a different outlet.  The different outlet is renewables.  The problem with this is that renewables almost certainly can’t produce enough energy to allow us to live the way we do now.  In a renewable, sustainable world, everything would be different: we would necessarily be returned to the lifestyle human beings have had for millennia.  This is the kind of traditional, Christian life the traditional Christians of America have very little interest in.

But the “green energy” people don’t want it either.  But in all probability the only green energy is the energy we don’t use.  Simplicity is the only green option.  But since almost no one wants that option – it involves giving up so much power – they’ll talk about something else.  As Lindberg puts it:

While the transportation sector is responsible for a lot of our emissions, the carbon footprint of any one individual has much more to do with his or her overall levels of consumption of all kinds—the travel (especially on airplanes), the hotels and restaurants, the size and number of homes, the computers and other electronics, the recreational equipment and gear, the food, the clothes, and all the other goods, services, and amenities that accompany an affluent life.  It turns out that the best predictor of someone’s carbon footprint is income.  This is true whether you are comparing yourself to other Americans or to other people around the world.  Middle-class American professionals, academics, and business-people are among the world’s greatest carbon emitters and, as a group, are more responsible than any other single group for global warming, especially if we focus on discretionary consumption.  Accepting the fact of climate change, but then jetting off to the tropics, adding another oversized television to the collection, or buying a new Subaru involves a tremendous amount of denial.  There are no carbon offsets for ranting and raving about conservative climate-change deniers.

I think we all understand this to some extent – which is why the “ranting and raving” has such a tone of hysteria to it: nothing adds energy to our accusations like the subtle feeling that we, too, are guilty.

Lindberg makes some interesting and plausible claims about what the middle-class American/European lifestyle really requires in terms of resources:

This global economy may seem like it needs little more than an army of creative innovators and entrepreneurs tapping blithely on laptop computers at the local Starbucks.  But the real global economy still requires a growing fleet of container ships—and, of course, all the iron and steel used to build them, all the excavators used to mine it, all the asphalt needed to pave more of the world.  It needs a bigger and bigger fleet of UPS trucks and Fed Ex airplanes filling the skies with more and more carbon dioxide, it needs more paper, more plastic, more nickel, copper, and lead.  It requires food, bottled water, and of course lots and lots of coffee.  And more oil, coal, and natural gas.  As Juliet Schor reports, each American consumer requires “132,000 pounds of oil, sand, grain, iron ore, coal and wood” to maintain our current lifestyle each year.  That adds up to “an eye-popping 362 pounds a day.”

But when you look at the massive levels of consumption in our society of everything – gravel, cement, road salt, deodorant, apples, corn, cosmetics, beer, paper, everything – you realize just how much must be required to make all these things we so take for granted.  We don’t need most of them, of course – that’s the great secret – but the problem is that foregoing them requires such a sacrifice of personal power.

Because we have come to take the power and energy-concentration of fossil fuels for granted, and see our current lifestyle as normal, it is easy to ignore the way the average citizens of industrialized societies have an unprecedented amount of energy at their disposal.  Consider this for a moment: a single $3 gallon of gasoline provides the equivalent of about 80 days of hard manual labor.  Fill up your 15 gallon gas tank in your car, and you’ve just bought the same amount of energy that would take over three years of unremitting manual labor to reproduce.  Americans use more energy in a month than most of our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime.  We live at a level, today, that in previous days could have only been supported by about 150 slaves for every American—though even that understates it, because we are at the same time beneficiaries of a societal infrastructure that is also only possible to create if we have seemingly limitless quantities of lightweight, relatively stable, easily transportable, and extremely inexpensive ready-to-burn fuel like oil or coal.

Throughout history there has been a continual chorus of praise of the simple life, from a human tradition where the word “poverty” has often been listed as one of the desirable things, for Cistercians the kind of thing you make a vow to follow, for Francis a lover, for Diogenes the only way to live “in harmony with nature.”  Thoreau is our American soloist from the same chorus.  They rested their case entirely on spiritual arguments.  But how much more clear is the case now, when simplicity is recommended not only by our own happiness, but by the well-being of every other beautiful living thing on the planet.

Trick-or-treating on Thanksgiving.

28-Nov-14

My father used to talk about this, that in his day they used to Trick-or-treat on Thanksgiving, not Halloween.  I never disbelieved him, but here is confirmation of what he used to say.  It’s odd to think of traditions changing so quickly – within a single generation, the notion of Thanksgiving being used for trick-or-treating seems inconceivable.

On Love and Marriage.

23-Nov-14

A brilliant sermon on love, marriage, and monogamy, by Jonathan Sacks, given at the Vatican.  This is well worth the time to read.  Whenever you see good sermonizing it is amazing how bad the normal stuff is.  This is a defense of monogamy which actually works: not by demonizing alternatives but by showing the virtue of committed love.  It always seems so much easier to work with someone, when both lives are dedicated to an infinite purpose.  It seems to me that Art and Religion and Nature are just about the only things which can offer this kind of stability-via-purpose to relationships, but then again, who knows.  One of my favorite parts:

In biblical times each Jew had to give a half shekel to the Temple to remind us that we are only half. There are some cultures that teach that we are nothing. There are others that teach that we are everything. The Jewish view is that we are half and we need to open ourselves to another if we are to become whole.

 

Epic.

23-Nov-14

The Sera Pelada gold mine of Brazil. From the series "Workers."

A friend recently introduced me to the work of Sebastiao Salgado, who I think can lay claim to being the greatest photographer who has ever lived.  I can say that the show I just saw at the International Center for Photography, Genesis, is the best photography show I’ve ever seen.  In fact, in my mind there’s no clear second.  If you love the epic and the grand, Salgado is your photographer.  His work makes Ansel Adams look like point-and-shoot piffery.

Several years ago he put together a collection of photographs about the most extraordinary things that people are doing on earth – entitled Workers – and throughout he managed to combine the epic with the surreal in a way that is reminiscent of Bosch.  In this latest collection, which is literally hundreds of massive photos, the exhibit itself on a truly epic scale which just about exhausts the little mind, his focus is on nature and man in nature, and it in every way earns its epic title, “Genesis.”  Confronting almost every image you are left with the feeling, “This is the mind of God.  I can’t understand this.  I can’t understand this.”

 

From "Genesis."

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence.

23-Nov-14

We all know that something happened to the collective soul of the West during “the Great War”: that somehow or other before the War civilized people were busy making panelled billiard-rooms, velvet dresses, and gilded opera houses; and afterwards they were throwing themselves with humanity-destroying panic into Money or Ideologies, looking to Communism or Eugenics or Materialism or Fascism or Atheism or Racism to solve the Great Problem – whatever it was – that somehow had been pressed to the fore in the war years. Before the War there was Oscar Wilde and lilies and poems about Hellas; afterwards Wilfred Owen and bloated corpses and grinning eye sockets. Before the War Fritz Haber was the greatest scientist the world had ever known, the great technical saint, who had saved the world from starvation by cheaply fixing atmospheric nitrogen and inventing fertilizer; afterwards he was the incarnation of evil, the inventor of chemical weapons, posing so perfectly the problem of the problem-solving brain in all its amorality that it became necessary for an amoral, problem-solving age to forget him.

One of the men of that era who has not been forgotten by us – or at least whose name has not been forgotten – is Thomas Edward Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia.” But why this is so, beyond the fact that one of the most entrancing movies ever made was about him, is not entirely clear. He certainly had his own look, which is a crucial point – it’s hard for us primates to remember anyone who can’t be made into a Halloween costume – and there is something meaningful in the beautiful British face behind the Arab robes which always tugs at the globalized mind. But otherwise, what was he? He was a soldier, but never attained a rank higher than colonel; he was a diplomat, but vanished a few years after the War and had no further role in the development of the Middle East; indeed he very nearly vanished from the world entirely, changing his name and spending the rest of his life as a mechanic in the Air Force (what an unusual man, one must confess). He left a few written works, all to be found in used bookshops but none of them either popular or canonical. One might say, as the figure in the movie, who gestures at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where his bust was erected, “Did he really merit this?”

But his contemporaries chose to put him there, even after a decade and a half where he contributed nothing to public life, and they put him there because in some way they understood him: they knew that what had happened to him in particularly vivid ways, had happened to them all: he was a man who stood in symbolic relation to his age. His case was more acute, because he fought the Great War as a stranger in another’s land, largely alone – the Arabs were by his side, but to them he was a foreigner and a curiosity. He had no true trench-mates. And so he reflected, and agonized, and reflected more. It was not merely that he saw men blown to pieces by bombs, or grow septic from simple wounds in the unmedicined desert, or turn over in their blankets onto a viper and die of the bite, or slip on an icy patch on a trail and plummet to their deaths: he saw also that there was no pattern to it, that the careful or good died while the careless or wicked survived, or vice versa. The dangers could at any moment suddenly claim his life; but the senselessness behind it all, like a good general exploiting an advantage, was more methodical, slowly, with constant meaninglessness, plundering him not of his life but of his will to live.

And it is the character of Lawrence’s book to chronicle this, in one brief narrative conspectus which seems to start nearly from the age of chivalry and end in the horrors of “absolute war.” The Arabs begin as a mounted army of great knights with their retinues, and they come in like Crusaders, “riding in to swear allegiance” to their holy cause, led by Feisal, the golden son of the King of Mecca:

Feisal swore new adherents solemnly on the Koran between his hands, ‘to wait while he waited, march when he marched, to yield obedience to no Turk, to deal kindly with all who spoke Arabic (whether Bagdadi, Aleppine, Syrian, or pure-blooded) and to put independence above life, family, and goods. (175-6)

As he plodded through the wastes making converts to the religion of revolt a still-idealistic Lawrence had time to mentally enlarge on his theme, and justify to himself what he was doing:

The cool of the night was pleasant after the day of checks and discussions which had so dragged at Rabegh. Tafas led on without speaking, and the camels went silently over the soft flat sand. My thoughts as we went were how this was the pilgrim road, down which, for uncounted generations, the people of the north had come to visit the Holy City, bearing with them gifts of faith for the shrine; and it seemed that the Arab revolt might be in a sense a return pilgrimage, to take back to the north, to Syria, an ideal for an ideal, a belief in liberty for their past belief in a revelation. (78)

And everywhere he finds the legendary hospitality of the Beduin tents, “whose owners ran to us when they saw us coming; and, taking our head-stalls with hospitable force, led us in” (184-5), and he passes three years in this life, through weird deserts and blooming oases, where people had lived so long, and by manners so constant, we call them timeless.  All very poetic.

By the end of his chronicle Lawrence is calling in airstrikes onto hapless retreating armies, and is responsible for (along with the sanitation, police, electricity, newspapers, currency, etc.) the Turkish military hospital, where the Turks evacuating Damascus some weeks before had left their dying. There was such chaos that he went to see the place alone, and the resulting confrontation of the solitary individual with the realities of mass society at war is one of the great, strange horrors of all literature:

I stepped in, to meet a sickening stench: and, as my eyes grew open, a sickening sight. The stone floor was covered with dead bodies side by side, some in full uniform, some in underclothing, some stark naked. There might be thirty there, and they crept with rats, who had gnawed wet red galleries into them. A few were corpses nearly fresh, perhaps only a day or two old: others must have been there for long. Of some the flesh, going putrid, was yellow and blue and black. Many were already swollen twice or thrice life-width, their fat heads laughing with black mouth across jaws harsh with stubble. Of others the softer parts were fallen in. A few had burst open, and were liquescent with decay.

Beyond was the vista of a great room, from which I thought there came a groan. I trod over to it, across the soft mat of bodies, whose clothing, yellow with dung, crackled dryly under me. Inside the ward the air was raw and still, and the dressed battalion of filled beds so quiet that I thought these two were dead, each man rigid on his stinking pallet, from which liquid muck had dripped down to stiffen on the cemented floor.

I picked forward a little between their lines, holding my white skirts about me, not to dip my bare feet in their puddled running: when suddenly I heard a sigh and turned abruptly to meet the open beady eyes of an outstretched man, while ‘Aman, aman’ (pity, pity, pardon) rustled from the twisted lips. There was a brown waver as several tried to lift their hands, and a thin fluttering like withered leaves, as they vainly fell back again upon their beds. (656)

This is Wilfred Owen, but grown to a greatness every bit as great and disgusting as Dante’s. And the spectacle of such sensitivity of soul – how many verses of Shelley and Shakespeare and Arnold had the British schoolboy Lawrence to learn by heart, before he could write like that? – ingenuously, even desirously, stepping into the charnel-chamber to look at the suffering of man – there is nothing quite like it. Nowadays we would know what to expect at the war-hospital and sagely avoid it – we would know, if we wished to enjoy Keats later on in life, to delegate such horrors to other kinds of men. And this world-weary wisdom would stop our hands from composing such prose as Lawrence’s.

It is not clear what kind of wisdom Seven Pillars of Wisdom is supposed to impart – intriguingly enough, he never engages with the title, never producing seven lessons from his experience nor talking very much about wisdom at all. (He does say of one sheikh, quite ingenuously I think, “He was old and wise, which meant tired and disappointed,” which may be the qualities Lawrence wishes to signify when he writes ‘wisdom’).

But it is hard not to take my own disappointment in Lawrence’s silence as his intention: he means to give the reader his experience, which was to delve into life seeking after a promised wisdom, and find nothing, find it not even mentioned in all that experience; to turn around at the end, and look through the rubbish, wondering if the proffered wisdom had been left behind somehow, overlooked when the mind was intent on other things.

And in particular, intent on itself. Those who have no patience for agonized introspection will not enjoy Lawrence. He was capable of going on and on about himself. But the result is something very thorough – a kind of catalogue of the movements of the mind, which will look familiar to all those who spend much time alone (and are of similar composition, as I suspect I am myself) – and the account is, I think, surprisingly honest. Honesty always gives value to our formulations.

I spent hours apart by myself, taking stock of where I stood, mentally, on this my thirtieth birthday. It came to me queerly how, four years ago, I had meant to be a general and knighted, when thirty. Such temporal dignities (if I survived the next four weeks) were now in my grasp – only that my sense of the falsity of the Arab position had cured me of crude ambition: while it left me my craving for good repute among men.

This craving made me profoundly suspect my truthfulness to myself. Only too good an actor could so impress his favourable opinion. Here were the Arabs believing me, Allenby and Clayton trusting me, my bodyguard dying for me: and I began to wonder if all established reputations were founded, like mine, on fraud.

The praise-wages of my acting had now to be accepted. Any protestation of the truth from me was called modesty, self-depreciation; and charming – for men were always fond to believe a romantic tale. It irritated me, this silly confusion of shyness, which was conduct, with modesty, which was a point of view. I was not modest, but ashamed of my awkwardness, of my physical envelope, and of my solitary unlikeness which made me no companion, but an acquaintance, complete, angular, uncomfortable, as a crystal.
With men I had a sense always of being out of depth. This led to elaboration – the vice of amateurs tentative in their arts. As my war was overthought, because I was not a soldier, so my activity was overwrought, because I was not a man of action. They were intensely conscious efforts, with my detached self always eyeing the performance from the wings in criticism. (562)

The “falsity of the Arab position” over which he interminably agonizes was this: the British were encouraging the Arabs to revolt against Turkey because they wished to win their war with Turkey; but they hardly intended to let the Arabs have their independence after the war. By an agreement known to Lawrence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, France would take Syria and Lebanon and Britain would take the rest: what is now Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, Iraq, and Kuwait (none of which existed as nations; they were parts of the Ottoman Empire). Lawrence’s solution to the problem was one of the best available: he disclosed the Sykes-Picot Agreement to Prince Feisal, and counseled him to take as much as he possibly could for himself, and not let the British “liberate” places. Lawrence apparently made his beliefs somewhat clear to British command, but they did not remove him, probably because he was an effective officer in the field and they felt they could deal quite easily with the Arabs later. The end result was, in fact, something somewhat similar to what Lawrence suggested to Feisal: the British kept Palestine, which they had conquered, and the Arabs kept Arabia, which they had themselves taken from the Turks; the British and French later took Transjordan and Syria. Feisal so trusted Lawrence that he had Lawrence serve as a member of his own delegation – rather than the British delegation – when negotiating the status of Syria in 1920. And yet Lawrence was never treated as a traitor by the British. For a diplomat to be held in such high esteem by both sides is remarkable.

But the British seemed to be losing their heart for empire, and perhaps they agreed with Lawrence’s criticisms of it. Lawrence was the prodrome of an order higher than Empire. This is made clear enough towards the end of the account, as he and the Arabs have to work with British and their cowed Indian troops:

My mind felt in the Indian rank and file something puny and confined; and air of thinking themselves mean; almost a careful, esteemed subservience, unlike the abrupt wholesomeness of the Beduin. The manner of the British officers toward their men struck horror into my bodyguard, who had never seen personal inequality before. (638)

“Had never seen personal inequality before” – what a marvellous thing to say. Would that we were all so innocent, and had never seen such a thing.

When he meets up with General Barrow just outside Damascus:

I had studied Barrow and was ready for him. Years before, he had published his confession of faith in Fear as the common people’s main incentive to action in war and peace. Now I found fear a mean, overrated motive; no deterrent, and, though a stimulant, a poisonous stimulant, whose every injection served to consume more of the system to which it was applied. I could have no alliance with his pedant belief of scaring men into heaven: better that Barrow and I part at once. My instinct with the inevitable was to provoke it. Therefore, I was very spiny and high. (636)

As he keeps Barrow from entering towns, he rushes to establish an Arab civil government:

He [Barrow] had had no orders as to the status of the Arabs. Clayton [the intelligence officer/diplomat played by Claude Reins in the film] did us this service, thinking we should deserve what we could assert: so Barrow, who had come in thinking of them as a conquered people, though dazed at my calm assumption that he was my guest, had no option but to follow the lead of such assurance. My head was working full speed in these minutes, on our joint behalf, to prevent the fatal first steps by which the unimaginative British, with the best will in the world, usually deprived the acquiescent native of the discipline of responsibility, and created a situation which called for years of agitation and successive reforms and riotings to mend. (636)

There is something about this which is impressive, and seems like a genuine achievement – the government he helped set up governed for two years in Syria after the war before it was colonized, and it still exists as the government of Saudi Arabia now, which is something, but Lawrence found it all utterly joyless:

By the charred hangars my guards, fickled-surfaced as the sea, squabbled after their wont; and there to-night for the last time Abdulla brought me cooked rice in the silver bowl. After supping, I tried in the blankness to think forward: but my mind was a blank, my dreams puffed out like candles by the strong wind of success. In front was our too-tangible goal: but behind lay the effort of two years, its misery forgotten or glorified. Names rang through my head, each in imagination a superlative: Rum the magnificent, brilliant Petra, Azrak the remote, Batra the very clean. Yet the men had changed. Death had taken the gentle ones; and the new stridency, of those who were left, hurt me. (638)

This joylessness is one of Lawrence’s hallmarks; and I think it is commonly a quality of those who strive to do good, which is sad to me, but also intriguing. The evil just as much as the simple really do seem capable of enjoying life, as one of the Arab’s stories about Enver Pasha, the Turkish general, serves to show:

He went to see it, in a penny steamer, with Prince Jemil and a gorgeous staff. The Bulgars, when they came, had massacred the Turks; as they retired the Bulgar peasants went too. So the Turks found hardly anyone to kill. A greybeard was led on board for the Commander-in-Chief to bait. At last Enver tired of this. He signed to two of his bravo aides, and throwing open the furnace door, said, ‘Push him in.’ The old man screamed, but the officers were stronger and the door was slammed-to on his jerking body. ‘We turned, feeling sick, to go away, but Enver, his head on one side, listening, halted us. So we listened, till there came a crash within the furnace. He smiled and nodded, saying, ‘Their heads always pop, like that.’ (622)

It is not clear, from almost seven hundred pages of text, what Lawrence would listen for in this world, and smile and nod when he found. Everything seems sad and stained. He quotes poetry as he rides off to battle,

For Lord I was free of all Thy flowers, but I chose the world’s sad roses,
And that is why my feet are torn and mine eyes are blind with sweat. (304)

Not much of a battle-song. Like most good people he wonders about whether altruism is really just self-service, but with Lawrence it rises to a truly pathological brilliance:

To endure for another in simplicity gave a sense of greatness. There was nothing loftier than a cross, from which to contemplate the world. The pride and exhilaration of it were beyond conceit. Yet each cross, occupied, robbed the late-comers of all but the poor part of copying: and the meanest of things were those done by example. The virtue of sacrifice lay within the victim’s soul.

Honest redemption must have been free and child-minded. When the expiator was conscious of the under-motives and the after-glory of his act, both were wasted on him. So the introspective altruist appropriated a share worthless, indeed harmful, to himself, for had he remained passive, his cross might have been granted to an innocent. To rescue simple ones from such evil by paying for them his complicated self would be avaricious in the modern man. He, thought-riddled, could not share their belief in others’ discharge through his agony, and they, looking on him without understanding, might feel the shame which was the manly disciple’s lot: or might fail to feel it, and incur the double punishment of ignorance.

Or was this shame, too, a self-abnegation, to be admitted and admired for its own sake? How was it right to let men die because they did not understand? Blindness and folly aping the way of right were punished more heavily than purposed evil, at least in the present consciousness and remorse of man alive. Complex men who knew how self-sacrifice uplifted the redeemer and cast down the bought, and who held back in his knowledge, might so let a foolish brother take the place of false nobility and its later awakened due of heavier sentence. There seemed no straight walking for us leaders in this crooked lane of conduct, ring within ring of unknown, shamefaced motives cancelling or double-charging their precedents.

Yet I cannot put down my acquiescence in the Arab fraud to weakness of character or native hypocrisy: though of course I must have had some tendency, some aptitude, for deceit, or I would not have deceived men so well, and persisted two years in bringing to success a deceit which others had framed and set afoot. I had had no concern with the Arab Revolt in the beginning. In the end I was responsible for its being an embarrassment to the inventors. Where exactly in the interim my guilt passed from accessory to principal, upon what headings I should be condemned, were not for me to say. Suffice it that since the march to Akaba I bitterly repented my entanglement in the movement, with a bitterness sufficient to corrode my inactive hours, but insufficient to make me cut myself clear of it. Hence the wobbling of my will, and endless, vapid complainings. (551-2)

As I have said, he can go on like this for quite some time. The insistence and self-torment are magnified, I think, by the logical leaps and strange motions of his brain: because you know that at one time these were not leaps, but considered steps, which have become tracks so worn in his guilt-ridden inner dialogue that he lopes in the retelling, making the contortions of his mind difficult to understand. It resembles Augustine.

This is guilt – the inner kind – and it intrigues me. It is often considered a feeling derived from religion, though I am not at all convinced of this; Lawrence does not seem to have any particularly religious thoughts, but he is utterly guilt-ridden. It seems to be an important first step in the creation of an ethical person; but somehow it has to be shed, and a new way of thinking replace it. Of course Lawrence could not be perfect; of course his motives were mixed, and his ego was immense; but one must have faith, to let, as the parable tells us, the weeds grow together with the wheat: to give up on perfection, and proceed, and act. I understand that being in the employ of the British Empire, selling people on a freedom you know your bosses wish to steal in the end, is a particularly difficult situation; and I have no solution for it either. But one must do one’s best and have some trust. Nothing will be good but God alone, in the end.

This is particularly a thought of thoughtful warriors. A friend of mine, who served as an American soldier in Iraq, summed up the problem thus: “‘How do good people do bad things?’ I once asked. By the end of my time in Iraq, I asked, ‘How do people do good things at all?’” When you interrogate your motives, nothing seems very impressive or beautiful. And for a certain sort of person – a person with a well-developed ego and a strong desire to be good – this is agony. In Lawrence it is taken to an extreme. This is what he has to say about marriage and childbirth:

After an hour he excused himself, because he had just married a Shobek wife. We talked of their marriage, whose end was the bearing of children: I withstood it, quoting old Dionysius of Tarsus [not only is this an odd use of ‘withstood,’ I have no idea who Dionysius of Tarsus is]. At his [Dionysius’s?] sixty years without marriage they were shocked, holding procreation and evacuation alike as inevitable movements of the body; they repeated their half of the commandment to honour parents. I asked how they could look with pleasure on children, embodied proofs of their consummated lust? And invited them to picture the minds of the children, seeing crawl wormlike out of the mother that bloody, blinded thing which was themselves! It sounded to him a most excellent joke. (496-7)

If this is the regard in which he holds motherhood, imagine then, what he makes of war. His description of pursuing the retreating Turkish Fourth Army – which was massacred almost to a man as Lawrence watched – is all the more chilling for seeming so logical and unavoidable. It was the simple horror of war, with no one to blame.  The Turks were killing everything in their path: so how could they expect mercy?

The village [Tafas] lay stilly under its slow wreaths of white smoke, as we rode near, on our guard. Some grey heaps seemed to hide in the long grass, embracing the ground in the close way of corpses. We looked away from these, knowing they were dead; but from one a little figure tottered off, as if to escape us. It was a child, three or four years old, whose dirty smock was stained red over one shoulder and side, with blood from a large half-fibrous wound, perhaps a lance thrust, just where neck and body joined.

The child ran a few steps, then stood and cried to us in a tone of astonishing strength (all else being very silent), ‘Don’t hit me, Baba.’ Abd el Aziz, choking out something – this was his village, and she might be of his family – flung himself off his camel, and stumbled, kneeling, in the grass beside the child. His suddenness frightened her, for she threw up her arms and tried to scream; but, instead, dropped in a little heap, while the blood rushed out again over her clothes; then, I think, she died.

We rode past the other bodies of men and women and four more babies, looking very soiled in the daylight, towards the village; whose loneliness we now knew meant death and horror. By the outskirts were low mud walls, sheepfolds, and on one something red and white. I looked close and saw the body of a woman folded across it, bottom upwards, nailed there by a saw bayonet whose haft stuck hideously into the air from between her naked legs. She had been pregnant, and about her lay others, perhaps twenty in all, variously killed, but set out in accord with an obscene taste.

The Zaagi [one of the other officers] burst into wild peals of laughter, the more desolate for the warm sunshine and clear air of this upland afternoon. I said, ‘The best of you brings me the most Turkish dead,’ and we turned after the fading enemy, on our way shooting down those who had fallen out by the roadside and came imploring our pity. One wounded Turk, half naked, not able to stand, sat and wept to us. Abdulla turned away his camel’s head, but the Zaagi, with curses, crossed his track and whipped three bullets from his automatic through the man’s bare chest. The blood came out with his heart beats, throb, throb, throb, slower and slower.

Tallal [the sheikh of the village] had seen what we had seen. He gave one moan like a hurt animal; then rode to the upper ground and sat there a while on his mare, shivering and looking fixedly after the Turks. I moved near to speak to him, but Auda caught my rein and stayed me. Very slowly Tallal drew his head-cloth about his face; and then he seemed suddenly to take hold of himself, for he dashed his stirrups into the mare’s flanks and galloped headlong, bending low and swaying in the saddle, right at the main body of the enemy.

It was a long ride down a gentle slope and across a hollow. We sat there like stone while he rushed forward, the drumming of his hoofs unnaturally loud in our ears, for we had stopped shooting, and the Turks had stopped. Both armies waited for him; and he rocked on in the hushed evening till only a few lengths from the enemy. Then he sat up in the saddle and cried his war-cry, ‘Tallal, Tallal,’ twice in a tremendous shout. Instantly their rifles and machine-guns crashed out, and he and his mare, riddled through and through with bullets, fell dead among the lance points.

Auda [the warrior played in the film by Anthony Quinn] looked very cold and grim. ‘God give him mercy; we will take his price.’ He shook his rein and moved very slowly after the enemy. We called up the peasants, now drunk with fear and blood, and sent them from this side and that against the retreating column. The old lion of battle waked in Auda’s heart, and made him again our natural, inevitable leader. By a skilful turn he drove the Turks into bad ground and split their formation into three parts…. In a madness born of the horror of Tafas we killed and killed, even blowing in the heads of the fallen and of the animals; as though their death and running blood could slake our agony. (632-3)

The destruction of the Turkish army took all night: “This was one of the nights in which mankind went crazy, when death seemed impossible, however many died to the right and left, and when others’ lives became toys to break and throw away” (634).

What is one to make of this? This is war; can anything good come of it? Yet we are told that much that is beautiful and important in the world was born in precisely this way; and if not born, at least preserved. Lawrence was wracked with guilt for his generalship in a battle, in which a thousand Turks were slaughtered at the loss of just thirty of his own men. This counts as a great success in war, but Lawrence felt he could have avoided battle and forced the enemy to capitulate without firing a shot; but the Turks, superior in numbers, had attacked him.

I thought of the depths between here and Kerak, the ravine of Hesa, with its broken, precipitous paths, the undergrowth, the narrows and defiles of the way. It was going to be a massacre and I should have been crying-sorry for the enemy; but after the angers and exertions of the battle my mind was too tired to care to go down into that awful place and spend the night saving them. By my decision to fight, I had killed twenty or thirty of our six hundred men, and the wounded would be perhaps three times as many. It was one-sixth of our force gone on a verbal triumph, for the destruction of this thousand poor Turks would not affect the issue of the war….As we turned back it began to snow; and only very late, and by a last effort did we get our hurt men in. The Turkish wounded lay out, and were dead the next day. It was indefensible, as was the whole theory of war; but no special reproach lay on us for it. We risked our lives in the blizzard (the chill of victory bowing us down) to save our own fellows; and if our rule was not to lose Arabs to kill even many Turks, still less might we lose them to save Turks. (482)

The war-passages, horrid as they are, are very easy to read: there is something atrociously mesmerizing about war-narratives.  A war is inherently a story, with its own momentum and narrative force, and it is a story where everything matters, from weather to geography to character. It allows for such final statements as “The best of you brings me the most Turkish dead.” But Lawrence wrote not merely a war-narrative. He was also a portraitist. There was the old man mystic Lawrence encountered at a pool in Wadi Rumm, who said before shambling off, “The love is from God, and of God, and to God.” There is the man who tended a garden in an oasis only large enough for one family:

The inhabitant of Kurr, the only sedentary Belluwi, hoary Dhaif-Allah, laboured day and night with his daughters in the little terraced plot which he had received from his ancestors. It was built out of the south edge of the valley in a bay defended against flood by a massive wall of unhewn stone. In its midst opened the well of cold clear water, above which stood a balance-cantilever of mud and rude poles. By this Dhaif-Allah, morning and evening when the sun was low, drew up great bowls of water and spilled them into clay runnels contrived through his garden among the tree roots. He grew low palms, for their spreading leaves shaded his plants from the sun which otherwise might in that stark valley wither them, and raised young tobacco (his most profitable crop); with smaller plots of beans and melons, cucumbers and egg-plants, in due season. The old man lived with his women in a brushwood hut beside the well, and was scornful of our politics, demanding what more to eat or drink these sore efforts and bloody sacrifices would bring…. He was free and wanted nothing for others; and only his garden for himself. Nor did he see why others should not become rich in a like frugality. (231)

Lawrence collected many men on his journey – capturing them as he could with his fine words (he also commissioned artists to make portraits of those who had survived the war). And there is the desert behind it all, which, paradoxically, simultaneously dwarfs human things and makes them precious. It makes Seven Pillars of Wisdom one of the distinguished curiosities, worth one’s attention in one of those interludes of life where not much seems very hopeful, and a companion for the lonely way is looked for.

I cannot close this review without noting my admiration for the David Lean film about Lawrence, and the Robert Bolt screenplay which captures so much of the man. Many of the most impressive scenes in the movie are to be found in Lawrence’s book almost precisely as they were shot on film. Some others may come from the journalistic accounts of Lawrence which had appeared in the press, but I suspect several scenes in the movie which are not found in the book are Bolt’s inventions. These inventions are almost always impressive artistically. For example, Lawrence did indeed ride back through the desert to save a man who had been lost; and Lawrence did execute a man to prevent a blood-feud from arising in the army. In the movie these are (inaccurately) made the same man. The result, of course, is to distill into narrative form all Lawrence’s questions as to his own role: whether he was really doing anything good, whether all his “nobility” amounted to anything, whether he was really making a difference or not. Bolt appears to have added the question of fate versus free will, which serves as a functional narrative device to contrast Lawrence’s anguish (as one too free) versus the other characters’ blithe acquiescence in fatalism. Lawrence never specifically mentions such a tension, but it is a compact mode of presenting the problem. Other alterations are similarly effective without ever seeming to betray the film’s efforts at portraiture.