Common soldiers had come between him and death,
But never before in this manner:
The cold gun hiccupping uselessly at his temple,
The cartridges silent in Bruce’s hand.
Did tenderness swoop between them, for a moment
Poised, deadlier than a bullet?
Thick as air before the thunderclap,
The peril of love must have been immanent,
Their faces naked as if sketched by lightning.
For a split infinity the thunder paused: then straiter
Than tears trapped in the throat, there passed between them
No massive and joyous meeting, but a quiet pledge
Never again to transgress thus:
The finger eased from the trigger, the hammer sliding back.
I wrote that — you will have to tell me if it works or not — in the early Eighties when I was accumulating a collection of books by and about T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, the archaeologically inclined Oxonian and British Intelligence operative who let himself be dragged kicking and screaming into fame for his Middle Eastern exploits during the First World War. It’s in a section of my manuscript poetry headed “A Calendar Of Saints.”
Lawrence has been idolized, debunked, fictionalized, cinematized and commemorated. As time went on wide-eyed speculations surfaced about his masochism, as if it were something he invented on his own and a quick tour through London phone boxes (are any still there? My memories date from 1998) doesn’t confirm an appetite for discipline and “swishing” as The English Vice. The snickers usually start when someone raises the subject of John “Jock” Bruce, a Scottish enlisted man whom Lawrence paid to birch him and then write accounts of the punishment. The elaborate fiction Lawrence concocted around those beatings — an older relative who wanted Lawrence to pay the penalty for some vague transgression against the family — suggests there was no openly erotic transaction involved; Lord knows that in Britain of that day or this a man like Lawrence could have found a matter-of-fact rent boy to flog him for a few quid.
The arresting thing, to me, is that what’s known about his courtship of pain yields little flavor of lewd, overripe Swinburnian buttock epicurism. Something else was going on and we will never know quite what. Freudians have had their day musing about shame over Lawrence’s probable illegitimacy and his runty stature (five-two, owing to broken bones in childhood). If you read enough of the explaining and debunking and even of the Boy’s Own Paper hero-worship, you get an urge to open all the windows and hope for a stiff gale: “To have news value is to have a tin can tied to one’s tail,” he commented once.
He had something to prove about endurance, did Lawrence. I doubt he ever made much confession of the spirit to anyone, but despite the loving detail he lavished on an almost surreal account of wartime rape in his memoirs — some say he made it up — reducing his appetite for pain to a kind of elaborate wank is the recreation of small minds. He tested limits: how far he could ride a camel, how long he could function ill or wounded, how many laps he could swim in freezing Scottish waters. David Lean’s film captures a bit of the feel:
Something had a gun to his head, and late in the day, Jock Bruce described a period when Lawrence seemed literally despairing and suicidal, to the point Bruce removed the cartridges from his sidearm a short time before Lawrence actually picked it up and put it to his head — a bit, I suspect, like the Hindu saint Ramakrishna, who despaired so completely of attaining the divine vision that he was in the act of turning a sword on himself when enlightenment finally smacked him.
No enlightenment was recorded on this occasion, nor anything more personal. There was a bond between the two, but I imagine Bruce less as a paid lover than as an aide-de-camp in a quest to break out of some prison of human limits; I suspect that for Lawrence ordinary physical sex was just another prison, too “mediocre, accidental, mortal,” as were the relationships and families it created. (“It is monstrous to ask us to love our parents,” he wrote once in a letter, I think to Charlotte Shaw: “we owe them too much.”)
Lawrence apologized for distressing Bruce and told him he wouldn’t try that again.
He died, instead, riding a Brough Superior motorcycle named, as all of his motorcycles were named, Boanerges or “Son of Thunder.” It was stuck in a low gear when he wiped out (or was forced off the road, if you like conspiracy theories) but he preferred to ride on the open road at terrifying speeds, occasionally racing an airplane for diversion.
Another bend: and I have the honour of one of England’ straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside. The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air’s coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight two hundred yards ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar’s gravelled undulations.
Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some house-fly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: seventy-eight. Boanerges is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop flying across the dip, and up-down up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus.
—The Mint (completed about 1926)
Sensual, and arguably erotic, but in a way that transcends sex as most people understand it. This is John Donne asking God to batter his heart, or Saint Teresa waiting for the angel to transfix her vitals. Not to mention that the bastard could write, and that while fighting a war, advising on matters of state (and probably doing undercover work), serving in the RAF and wrestling with his soul. He was dead at forty-six, in part because whatever risks he took mattered less to him than what he accomplished, or experienced, as a result: “The trick is not to mind that it hurts.”
He is one of my saints, part ascetic, part ecstatic. Someday I may come a fraction as close to leaving behind the timidity and reluctance of the body. T. S. Eliot can have his dialogue in Heaven with Coriolanus and Philip Sidney; I want to have my first dinner at Lawrence’s end of the table.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom