John E. Mack’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography, A Prince of our Disorder, gently uses the tools of psychology and psychoanalysis to understand T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), an Irish-English, second-child of an illegitimate marriage whose self-confidence, personal charisma, and feverish imagination propelled him to the forefront of some of the most pivotal events of the early 20th century.
Lawrence became famous while serving as tactical adviser to the leaders of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. Combat destroys illusions, but it also creates myths, and Lawrence (to this day) serves as one of the Great War’s greatest heroes, as well as its most disappointed solider. After an early childhood spent fighting off his domineering mother, he studied medieval archeology and poetry at Oxford, and began touring the Middle East as an archeologist. Like many of his peers, his war-like medieval fantasies collided with reality at the outbreak of war with the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and (most importantly to Lawrence) the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps too short for immediate acceptance as a British officer for the war in Europe, Lawrence leveraged his Middle Eastern expertise into service as an intelligence officer in Cairo. He grew restless, however, after two of his brothers died on the Western front, and thereafter Lawrence accelerated his ambition to participate in a conflict in the Arab world. Lawrence always measured the present against an impossible and imaginary medieval ideal, “and his most important actions may be seen as efforts to impose upon grimmer circumstance, to which had also to adapt, his utopian imaginings.” He welded a rich fantasy life to absolute action—a combination with which he won victory after victory in simultaneous support of the British Army and Arab nationalism.
Lawrence remained painfully aware of his own dual identity: “The two selves [the Bedouin and the overcivilized European],” Lawrence wrote, “are mutually destructive… so I fall between them into the nihilism which cannot find, in being, even a false God in which to believe.” The timeline of Mack's book goes far beyond the reach of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and places a much greater emphasis on Lawrence's life before and after the war. Mack, for example, reports the Arab revolt and capture of Damascus over a course of fifty pages, whereas Seven Pillars of Wisdom uses some seven hundred pages for the same task.
Mack’s use of psychoanalysis and social psychology do not impede the flow and structure of the book. He wisely avoids pedantic diatribes on psychological theory. He keeps the focus on Lawrence, except where he anticipates a necessary corrective to the ‘popular’ psychology of TIME, television, and the like. Mack’s expertise works quietly throughout the text, and pays steep dividends when he examines contradictions and tensions within Lawrence’s self-representations.
For example, Mack astutely reports two accounts of an Arab ambush of Turkish forces, one written for a fellow soldier, and another for a civilian audience. To the fellow soldier, Lawrence viewed combat as a “stunt” with such “beautiful shots” that the violence only took “about ten minutes… I hope,” Lawrence wrote, “that it sounds as fun as it is.” Yet in a separate record of the exact same ambush, Lawrence wrote a civilian friend that “This killing of the Turks is horrible… I hope when the nightmare ends I will wake up and become alive again.”
Mack’s remarkable biography shows that Lawrence’s fun ended with the writing of his famous memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Yet the nightmare of relishing in war relentlessly pursued Lawrence until his death in a motorcycle accident in 1935. In the interim period, even as the press lionized the ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ the real Lawrence abandoned all political hopes for Arab nationalism, and sought personal purification through sexual abstinence and menial servitude in the British ranks. Throughout the journey, Mack provides a bright light with which to see even the darkest corners of Lawrence’s tremendously beautiful psyche.