Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) dir. David Lean

The mystery of Lawrence of Arabia is the person of Lawrence himself. He is charismatic and captivating, but who is he? New York Times critic Bosley Crowther famously complained in his 1962 review of the film, “We know little more about this strange man when it is over than we did when it begins.”

I believe we can find a key to the problem of Lawrence in the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. His 1841 graduate dissertation On the Concept of Irony warns of the dangers of “living poetically” – a type of life that Lawrence appears to have followed. Kierkegaard’s thesis suggests that we might feel like we know little about Lawrence because by the time the war ended, there simply wasn’t much about Lawrence left to know.

(Note: I refer to the 1992 translation of Kierkegaard’s writings by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.)

What is “living poetically?”

Kierkegaard examines the idea of “living poetically” in the section of The Concept of Irony titled Irony after Ficthe. In it, Kierkegaard takes aim at a group of young people who live a life of detachment, Kierkegaard explains in a footnote, “I use the terms ‘irony’ and ‘ironist’; I could just as well say ‘romanticism’ and romanticist.'”

They are dreamers who believe they can do anything and be anything they choose, regardless of their surroundings, personal histories, or concrete realities. Essentially, these are people who take motivational GIFs seriously.

Kierkegaard’s example comes from a novel called Lucinde, by Friedrich Schlegel. Lucinde tells the story of the libertine Julian, who attaches himself to a woman named Lisette, in order to learn more about sex. Although Lisette’s life in the novel revolves around sex, she does not ascribe much emotional importance to it – instead, it is an arbitrary part of her identity that she has chosen arbitrarily.

Lawrence of Arabia

Sexual licentiousness was far from uncommon in literature, even in the 19th Century. Kierkegaard’s objection is not that of a puritan complaining about restoration theater. In fact, he writes:

“There is a moral prudery, a straitjacket, in which no reasonable person can move. In God’s name, let it break to pieces. Conversely, there are the moonlit theater marriages of exaggerated romanticism for which nature at least can have no purpose and whose unproductive labor pains and weak embraces are of no more service to Christian than to pagan counties. Just give irony a free rein against anything like that. But Schlegel does not limit his attack to only that kind of falsity.”

Kierkegaard takes aim at Schlegel’s characters because they try and invent their own sexual identities on the basis of whims, rather than develop them as an expression of their authentic selves. Schlegel’s characters consciously choose their destiny based on what they consider aesthetically attractive. For a person living poetically, Kierkegaard writes, “life is a drama, and what absorbs him is the ingenious complication of this drama. He himself is a spectator, even when he himself is the one acting.”

This type of “poetic living” can most obviously be seen in online personas, which represent real people, but are not the real people themselves. My Facebook profile does not reflect my personality, but is rather a constructed persona that I created, curating things from my real life based on aesthetic concerns.

Or, take the example of reality show celebrities.  It is impossible to tell where the character ends and the real person begins.  There is little agreement as to how much of the 2011 Kardashian – Humphries relationship was real and how much was staged.  Personally, I doubt Kardashian knows herself.

Self-invention or “self discovery” is currently considered a rite of passage for young Americans. The Onion expertly satirized this in two articles from more than a decade ago – Lesbian Identity Ends Abruptly Mid-Junior Year and College Freshman Cycles Rapidly Through Identities. From the latter article:

“I almost feel bad for introducing him to weed,” said Tim Hiller, Vanderkamp’s friend. “After meeting my friend Sky, Kirk started talking about dropping out of school and joining a Buddhist monastery. Of course, a couple days later, he also said he was going to learn to play bass and get a jam band together. He said the monks would be cool about it.”

Kierkegaard was much less gentle in his critiques:

“many an ironist, before finding rest in nothing, has run through much stranger fata [destines] than the rooter presented in Lucian, which had first been Pythagoras himself, then Aspasia, the dubious beauty from Miletus, then Crates the Cynic, then a king, a beggar, a satrap, a horse, a jackdaw, a frog, and a thousand other things too numerous to mention, then finally a rooster, and that more than once, because it found the most pleasure in being a rooster.”

This isn’t to diminish Kierkegaard’s writing into a screed against 19th-century hipsters. He warns against poetic living that divorces itself from reality or that creates a persona without a person; in postmodern language, a simulacra without a thing being simulated. What happens when I take the next step from cultivating an attractive Facebook profile, divorce it from my true self — and then cultivate my life in order to fit what I think might look good on a Facebook profile?

Kierkegaard sees that as nothing less than the destruction of the self. “in order to really and thoroughly to be able to create himself poetically, the ironist must have no an sich. [in itself]…. Therefore the ironist frequently becomes nothing, because what is not true for God is true for man — out of nothing comes nothing. But the ironist continually preserves his poetic freedom, and when he notices that he is becoming nothing, he includes that in his poetizing.”

“Irony is indeed free, free from the sorrows of actuality, but also free from its joys, free from its blessing, for inasmuch as it has nothing higher than itself, it can receive no blessing, since it is always the lesser that is blessed by the greater.”

Lawrence of Arabia’s poetic living

It is easy to find filmic examples of characters who attempt poetic living and suffer the fates Kierkegaard describes. Charles Foster Kane and Barry Lyndon each invest themselves so wholly in their public self-images that they become divorced from reality and their persons disappear behind their personas. But T.E. Lawrence, as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia, is perhaps the clearest example of the phenomenon. (I will examine Lawrence as written in the screenplay Robert Bolt; not the historical person of T.E. Lawrence)

Lawrence’s poetic life constantly bumps up against reality. On occasion, Lawrence seems to acknowledge that he’s not living as a human being – and at one point, he tries to reform. But the lure of being Lawrence of Arabia and leaving Lt. Thomas Lawrence behind is too much.

Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia

At the beginning of the film, Lawrence is quickly established as a narcissist. Actor Peter O’Toole’s upper-class English accent could be called a parody if it weren’t real. Lawrence sees himself as smartest, best educated man in the Cairo command, and attempts to cultivate that image with a condescending manner. Even here, before his journey begins, he fails, tripping and knocking over tables – putting into physical form what Kirkegaard said about an ironist who “continually collides with the actuality to which he belongs.”

Sent on a mission to the Arabs, Lawrence decides to re-invent himself as one. Despite his lack of experience in the desert, he decides to eat and drink as his Bedu guide does – ignoring the bad taste and attempting to brush off the way he can barely ride a camel. But when his guide is killed for drinking from a well, Lawrence reverts back to his Lt. Lawrence identity. He lashes out, in his natural English imperialism, “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long they will be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.”

Lawrence has composed himself by the time he crosses the desert and is received in Prince Faisal’s tent. He advises the Prince on how to conquer the area in his own name, without relying on English support. Faisal calls Lawrence out on his romanticism, telling him “I think you are another one of these desert-loving English.”

Lawrence leads an Arab army to Aqaba, but Sharif Ali rides beside him, taking every opportunity he can to deflate Lawrence’s ego. Lawrence sees a chance at heroism when he rides back to find Gasim, a man who has been lost in the desert. He is told that Gasim’s fate is written — but Lawrence doesn’t want to hear about harsh realities. Instead, he says that “nothing is written,” but promises he will survive and join the army in Aqaba because “that is written, in here,” pointing to his mind.

Lawrence miraculously survives the rescue, earning the admiration of Ali. From here on, Ali is as dedicated to Lawrence’s assumed identity as much as Lawrence is. Ali tells Lawrence that “for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.” Lawrence confesses that he is the bastard son of a nobleman, but Ali says “it seems to me you are free to choose your own name then.” Lawrence can escape his past by inventing a new, more romantic identity. “For irony, there never was a past,” Kierkegaard wrote.

Ali burns Lawrence’s clothes, and brings him a new set of robes. Lawrence rides off and prances about in his outfit, delighting in his new identity. “What takes the ironist’s time, however, is the solicitude he employs in dressing himself in the costume proper to the poetic character he has poetically composed for himself,” Kierkegaard wrote. But Lawrence’s bubble of Arabian fantasy is quickly burst – Auda ibu Tayi sees him and laughs at the silly Englishman dancing in an Arab costume. To add insult, Auda’s young son points out that even he can tell Lawrence is English; a proclamation that makes our would-be Arab’s smile fade.

Auda’s men join Lawrence’s army, and the group advances on Aqaba. But before they attack, a tribal feud erupts. Lawrence agrees to execute the instigator. The condemned man is revealed as Gasim, the very man Lawrence built his image on saving. “It was written then.”

This pattern continues through the rest of the film. Lawrence experiences success and grows more confident in his constructed identity. But then a failure crops up to challenge his ideal. Lawrence leads the army to conquer Aqaba, but there is no gold. Lawrence assumes the mantle of a prophet to cross the desert, but he leads his loyal servant to his death. His triumphal re-entry into Cairo is overshadowed by the post-traumatic stress Lawrence cannot suppress. Lawrence survives an assassination attempt, claiming he can only be killed by “a golden bullet,” and tells Ali he “not just anybody.” But, he is captured, tortured and sexually assaulted by the enemy.

This last trauma is too much for Lawrence. He returns to Cairo and asks for a desk job. But by now, the military command and the British media have both bought into Lawrence’s persona. He’s given a pep talk and sent back out to lead an attack on Damascus. At first we wonder if Lawrence has changed. Ali says he is the same man, but perhaps “humbled.”

When we see a news photographer’s truck leading the military charge, we know the familiar pattern has returned – but now with even more deadly consequences. Lawrence is a hero once again, but his image is shattered by his newly discovered taste of sadomasochism. At the Tafas Massacre, he shatters Ali’s belief in his persona. But both Lawrence and the news reporter know the charade must continue. “Here, let me take your rotten bloody picture for the rotten bloody newspapers,” he mutters.

Those rotten bloody newspapers run Lawrence of Arabia’s picture and persona on their front pages as he achieves his greatest triumph and conquers Damascus more than a day before the British regulars arrive. But the Arab Council is a failure. As it becomes clear the British will take control, Lawrence visits a hospital full of Turkish prisoners. It is terribly run, without doctors or running water. Lawrence meets the dying men and collapses in laughter as he is forced to face the horrors his fantasy has unleashed – without anything concrete to show for it except the headlines that Prince Faisal refers to as “illusions.”

Lawrence the man is left with nothing but an illusion. On the shores of Aqaba, he admits to Ali he doesn’t know if he is a prince or a man, or what he is. On the bank of the Nile, he is left speechless as the question “Who are you?”


Lawrence’s invented self has left him without a true self.  No one who knows him can even find anything genuine to say about him at his funeral.  Director David Lean brings us the romantic notion of Lawrence, but shows us the emptiness of that same romance.

The film’s intermission begins immediately after a short exchange between Lawrence’s superior, General Allenby, and the diplomat, Mr. Dryden.

ALLENBY: I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.

DRYDEN: Let’s hope we’re not.

Adam Call Roberts

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  1. Reid Butler October 23, 2013

    A very interesting take on Lawrence's attempt to create an entirely new identity for himself, to separate himself from England, the "fat country" with "fat people" (as he told his first ill-fated guide).