Jan 062006

In 1917, the same year a generation of Englishmen were being slaughtered on the killing fields of Europe, Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was captured by Turks at Der’a, beaten and threatened with rape. By his own account, he liked it.

“I remembered smiling idly at him, for a delicious warmth, probably sexual, was swelling through me; and then that he flung up his arm and hacked with the full length of his whip into my groin. This doubled me half-over, screaming, or, rather, trying impotently to scream, only shuddering through my open mouth. One giggled with amusement. A voice cried, ‘Shame, you’ve killed him,” 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.”

Lawrence survived and escaped, but not without his experience leaving a lasting effect on him.

Lawrence had a difficult childhood, being the illegitimate son of an Irish nobleman and a Scottish woman. He was close to his mother, yet was frequently beaten by her, whereas his father once stopped a carter from beating a horse. From an early age, he immersed himself in study of the Middle Ages, particularly the lives of the saints and the crusaders, ascetic warrior-monks. Had he not died in 1935, Lawrence might have found kinship in the post-war biker culture, a nomadic, all-male, homosocial tribal warrior society.

To say “T.E. Lawrence was homosexual” may be accurate, but it doesn’t really cover the complexity of his personality. His Puritan disdain for sexuality in general, seen as the opposite of intellect, combined with a taboo against intimacy with women, left him with chaste friendships with men. Like Arthur Munby, Lawrence was an upper-middle class intellectual who preferred the company of working class people, men in this case, whom he saw as closer to nature. (Again, physical affection from nurses contrasted with distant or cold parents during childhood.) During his Tank Corps days, he wrote to a friend:

“A filthy business all of it, and yet Hut 12 shows me the truth behind Freud. Sex is an integer in all of us, and the nearer nature we are, the more constantly, the more completely the product of that integer. These fellows are the reality, and you and I, the selves who used to meet in London and talk of fleshless things, are only the outward wrapping of a core like these fellows. They let light and air play always upon their selves, and consequently have grown very lustily, but have at the same time achieved health and strength in their growing. Whereas our wrappings and bandages have stunted and deformed ourselves, and hardened them to an apparent insensitiveness… but it’s a callousness, crippling, only to be yea-said by aesthetes who prefer clothes to bodies, surfaces to intentions.”

Yet his writings betray a certain paranoid anxiety about the thought of being physically intimate with the men he chose to live with, suggesting he both dreaded and longed for it.

“The lower creation I avoided as a reflection upon our failure to attain real intellectuality. If they forced themselves on me I hated them. To put my hand on a living thing was defilement; and it made me tremble if they touched me or took too quick an interest in me. This was an atomic repulsion, like the intact course of a snowflake. The opposite would have been my choice if my head had not been tyrannous. I had a longing for the absolutism of women and animals, and lamented myself most when I saw a soldier with a girl, or a man fondling a dog, because my wish was to be as superficial, as perfected; and my jailer held me back. Always feeling and illusion were at war within me, reasons strong enough to win…. I liked the things underneath me and took my pleasures downward. There seemed a certainty in degradation, a final safety. Man could rise to any height, but there was an animal level beneath which he could not fall.”

Years after the Der’a incident, Lawrence created a convoluted system of penance and self-discipline. He recruited Scotsman John Bruce, a younger friend from the Tank Corps, into this project. Lawrence told Bruce that he had committed a serious criminal offense, some kind of financial fraud, and his (imaginary) uncle, to avoid public disgrace, demanded that Lawrence enlist and that Bruce should periodically beat him, as per instructions in letters from the “Old Man”. Lawrence also told Bruce he would show the resulting marks to a doctor, who would report to the aunt and uncle that the punishment was sufficiently severe. The hypothetical uncle threatened to reveal Lawrence’s illegitimacy to keep him under control.

Bruce apparently believed all of this, though Lawrence’s reputation as a war hero and personal charisma probably helped, as did the money paid for his services. He carried out the beatings and also arranged for swimming, boxing and physical therapy instruction. Lawrence’s sketchy diaries of this period include notations like, “Saturday 23rd June, 30 from Jock” (Bruce’s nickname). The numbers, presumably counting the lashes, ranged from 30 to 75. There were also four entries referring to “G.”

Lawrence also used the Old Man fantasy to recruit another man from the service to witness his penance . The letters purporting to be from the uncle, signed “R.”, reveal how deeply conflicted Lawrence was about his self-imposed penance.

“From what you tell me, and from the reports of those who have examined Ted since, it is clear that he had a sound thrashing, which was after all what he wanted. I hope he will take the lesson to heart, and not make it necessary for us to repeat it. Please take any chance his friendship for you gives, to impress upon him how wrong it is for him, at his age and standing, to force us to use these schoolboy measures against him. He should be ashamed to hold his head up amongst his fellows, knowing that he had suffered so humiliating and undignified a punishment. Try and drive some sense into his head.”

In classic masochist fashion, Lawrence even added further crimes to his fantasy.

“Ted’s punishment at X had proved not enough, due to the inadequacy of a belt for use upon a grown lad, and not through any fault of yours or your friend’s. Unfortunately you could not arrange another does at the time, and while we were thinking about it Ted allowed himself to give offense upon quite another subject. It was with this second offense that Hills [i.e. Bruce] dealt with last month. Ted still owes us (as he very well knows) proper payment for his very mean action in trying to steal money in transit from me to you.”

He also made sure his punishment was harsh enough.

“I shall call upon you with confidence if Ted again makes it necessary. Please let me correct on misapprehension in your letter, however. 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 by post.

“If the emergency arises, I shall agree to Ted’s coming to you in flannels.”

Lawrence also used the uncle persona (“Mr. E. Shaw”) in his letters to various physiotherapists, dietitians, and riding and swimming instructors, inquiring about his “nephew’s” progress.

The whole complex fantasy had multiple functions. The imaginary Old Man provided a pretext for Lawrence to involve Bruce and the others in his scenes, and absolved them of any guilt for beating a man they admired, because they were saving him from even worse treatment.

Even though Lawrence organized his self-imposed penance in the 20s and 30s, they were really a Victorian phenomenon. He had at least some familiarity with the writings of Freud, but his self-discipline reveals a Victorian way of thinking. Instead of recognizing and resolving his psychological conflict between his Puritanism and the suppressed desire for physical intimacy that the assault forced him to recognize, he saw it as a flaw of his body, one to be corrected by precisely the kind of physical sensation that awoke the conflict in the first place. His program of exercise and rehabilitation also indicate a desire to repair and perfect his body.

Whether Lawrence found any peace of mind from his self-inflicted ordeals is unknown. The letters he wrote in the last few months of his life suggest depression. His death, resulting from a motorcycle accident in 1935, could be seen as a suicide of opportunity.

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