The philosopher and writer Colin Wilson died this week at the age of eighty two.
He was an English existentialist in an unforgivingly positivist age, and despite the freak success of his first book The Outsider in 1956, he remained beyond the mainstream of British philosophical thought for the entirety of his professional life.
Nonetheless, for many of us he was the most important British thinker of the 20th century, and his 'New Existentialism' - an attempt to lift phenomenological existentialism free from what he saw as the impasse of Sartrean subjectivity - remains its most interesting body of philosophical work. I predict that his reputation will endure and grow, and if his fate is to be an outsider eternal, a kind of British Kierkegaard - well, there are far worse fates than that.
In one of the most interesting parts of The Outsider Wilson discusses the controversial figure of T.E. Lawrence. It was my introduction to Lawrence as a thinker (rather than a hero), and I still think it is the best short account of the peculiar fascination exerted by Lawrence on like-minds. It's all the more remarkable in its insight for having been written in 1956, when very little high-quality analytic writing on Lawrence was in existence.
In 2002 Wilson made me welcome at his home in Cornwall to discuss his views on Lawrence, and Lawrence’s importance in his own writings. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
I mentioned that it was your book that served as my introduction to Lawrence. What was the cause of your interest, and at what age? Did you ever feel any personal sense of identification with Lawrence?
Although I’d often seen Seven Pillars in the library and looked at it, it looked just too big and difficult to get into. Then when I was first married and living in London in 1952 I discovered in North Finchley public library the book The Essential TE Lawrence, and I found that was a much easier way of learning about Lawrence and getting into Lawrence. I’d already, when I was nineteen, started putting together the material that became The Outsider. I’d written a series of short essays on various subjects that interested me: Hemingway, the letters of Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky and various other people. I bound them all together, and that was really the basis of the book. And then when I came across this Essential TE Lawrence I saw immediately that he was the kind of person that fitted into my ideas perfectly, another Outsider. By then my first wife had got a two-volume edition of Seven Pillars and so I settled down to reading it. I read it straight through and became fascinated by Lawrence because I could see he was very much my kind of person.
You also mention TE Lawrence By His Friends in The Outsider.
Yes, I didn’t immediately sit down and read everything by and about Lawrence. For years it was Seven Pillars that interested me, and I forget when I got hold of TE Lawrence By His Friends, but again it would have been in the local library, probably when I did a lot of research on Lawrence just before I wrote The Outsider.
I still think The Outsider is the best introduction to Lawrence there is, not just because it says so much in such little space but also because as you yourself write in the book, there was hardly any serious writing on him in existence. There was really only the military biographies – Graves, Liddell Hart and Lowell Thomas – and then of course Aldington’s attempt at character assassination.
Aldington had come out not long before The Outsider and of course enraged me, because he seemed such a fool. He just didn’t understand his subject. Neither, incidentally, did Kingsley Amis in that sneering review he wrote of The Outsider, where he says whatever TE Lawrence may have been as a man he was surely an egregious fraud as a writer. Absolute idiot! And this is why I felt so strongly about this whole Outsider business. Here was something that I could see so clearly – the connection between Lawrence and people like Van Gogh and Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche – and there was this fucking idiot Aldington attacking him and obviously just not understanding what he was all about.
Lawrence’s reputation as a writer has ebbed and flowed over the years. How do you think Seven Pillars and The Mint stand up today purely as books?
I don’t know about The Mint, but Seven Pillars I think is one of the great books of the twentieth century, as Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov were of the nineteenth century. Simply one of the very great books.
I want to ask you about Lawrence’s religious attitudes. He is clearly not a religious man, and is deeply disturbed by his mother’s fundamentalism, at the same time he seems to have a strong spiritual, almost mystic sense that is far from unequivocally atheist.
Really great men are never atheists. Shelley, who claimed to be an atheist, uses the word ‘god’ a lot in his later poetry and it’s obvious that in a sense he was reaching out to the universe in the way that Van Gogh was in The Starry Night. Consequently, he is bound to start using concepts like God, even if like Matthew Arnold you define it as something outside ourselves that makes for goodness.
So Lawrence you think had that kind of concept of God?
Well, you only have to read that passage in which he talks about the Arabs standing on the edge of the desert and saying that the cold eddyless wind of the desert is the sweetest smell of all, just the complete lack of any other sort of smell. He’s basically an ascetic. So his attitude is very, very close to being religious, in the same way that Nietzsche’s attitude was. Nietzsche’s not really an atheist at all.
All the great mystics have this same feeling, which even Bertrand Russell expressed once, that there is some enormous, giant, impersonal force that blows through the universe like a tornado. And it’s of course what Lawrence meant: “Not I, but the wind that blows through me.” So none of these people can be called atheists. And as soon as you recognise what we’re talking about; that feeling that we get now and then of something far bigger than ourselves picking us up like a tornado, then I think you realise that it’s no good talking about Lawrence in terms of these categories: was he religious, was he a humanist?
Similar, I suppose, to Thomas Hardy’s view of the world.
Well yes, except that I think Hardy is a fucking idiot too. I can’t stand him; he annoys me.
Yes, the pessimism. I can’t read him. I can read little bits of him, because he evokes Egdon Heath and this kind of thing so beautifully, and that’s obviously the same kind of thing as Lawrence’s cold, eddyless wind of the desert.
Lawrence almost viewed Hardy as a kind of surrogate father, and may have taken on his ideas in that way. The letters he wrote to Hardy’s wife after Hardy’s death are incredibly touching.
But Lawrence is not pessimistic. He conveys this feeling of channelling something far bigger than himself that just flowed into his work as if he was channelling a river into it. The mystic impulse.
In The Outsider you write, “We have no need to regard his conduct (after the war) as part of a ‘Lawrence enigma’.” You must have known that was a very bold and confident assertion.
I felt very strongly that Lawrence was just completely different from all of the stuff that he was surrounded by, and that it was that simple. That he was an Outsider. This is what stands out in Seven Pillars: the fact that he felt so completely and totally different from all these people, as Outsiders do. And he just felt total alienation. You know Heidegger’s phrase “the triviality of everydayness” seems to me to be the essence of what Outsiders are against. They’re trapped in it, they find themselves being swept along by it, and hate it, and they don’t quite know how to overcome it.
Do you think he embraced the Arab cause because that was the first and best thing that came along?
Well I don’t think he sought out the Arab cause in some way. He was a good archaeologist, because archaeology is about the impersonal which is what interested him. He went out into the desert anyway and therefore was a natural choice as someone to make contact with the Arabs, and he was just tossed into it by history. He didn’t make any kind of choice. What is interesting is what he then succeeded in doing, and the way that he quite unexpectedly showed himself to be a great leader.
His military reputation has always been controversial, even in his own time. Some writers have said he did a lot less than he claimed, others that he did virtually nothing at all.
He did a lot. Allenby instantly recognised a genius and did his best to push him. He knew that this was a man who could, for some weird reason, sweep the Arabs together. I’ve been around Arabia in the footsteps of Lawrence, visited all the sites where he was. And you do get a very strong feeling of the kind of person he was, and why this would have been one of the most fascinating things he had ever done. He was dipping his foot into a way of life that actually satisfied him. Whereas, if the war hadn’t occurred, he would have remained an archaeologist and probably a very good one. He’d have gone on writing about crusader castles and become some kind of an academic. Obviously a genius but deeply, deeply frustrated. The war allowed him a way out of his frustrations, a sense of freedom he could never have imagined finding.
A modern crusade, something he’d always dreamed of, carrying the Morte D’Arthur in his pocket. We know what he saw in the Arabs, but what did they see in him?
It’s very difficult to say. We talked to a lot of Arabs about it, and we talked to an Arab historian who had a very high opinion of him. But it was quite obvious that they found him a bit puzzling. He was an intellectual Outsider, and the Arabs don’t have them! They found him weird. This man who could, when called upon, become a truly great leader of men and yet was so oddly self-effacing and modest, and insecure. Quite content to be Feisal’s chief adviser.
And fundamentally divided, which must have baffled them. He says how he admired their simplicity and the clarity of their outlook, with a certain envy I should think.
As you’ve said, some of the Arabs have decided that he wasn’t all that great, that what he did was quite interesting but it could have been done by a lot of other people. I don’t think that’s true. I think it was done by Lawrence because he was Lawrence. In fact, my feeling is that Lowell Thomas wasn’t all that wrong. He was basically correct about how Lawrence was able to exert such an influence over the Arabs. They recognised a sense of purity in him, a kind of obsessive purity like their own. And also, of course, a stronger will. What interested Lawrence was the fact that his will was stronger than those of his Arab comrades.
Which was one of his key obsessions. He talks about, even in his Oxford days, living on a diet of virtually nothing, and making himself stay up all night and so on. Constantly testing his stamina and will. So he’s found a perfect outlet for that, also in the desert he is satisfying his obsession with cleanness and a Spartan lifestyle.
Yes, absolutely. And what you have to recognise about Lawrence is that he was a member of the dominant five per-cent. Shaw knew about the dominant five per-cent. Shaw had said to the explorer HM Stanley: ‘How many people in your party would be competent to take over if you fell ill?’ And Stanley shot back: ‘One in twenty’. That was in 1900. Robert Ardrey told me he’d seen the same thing during the Korean War. There were no escapes by American prisoners because the Chinese had watched the Americans very carefully, separated out those who were dominant, who could lead and inspire, and they were exactly five per-cent. Now, Lawrence was a member of the five per-cent. In fact he was more than that, because every foreman and every sergeant in the army is a member of the five per-cent. He was of that very small number, that also includes the Hitlers and the Stalins and the Nietzsches, who are more like the dominant 0.005 per-cent! Simply one of those very, very rare and remarkable personalities.
Try to think: what would have happened to someone like Henry Irving, who had been a bank clerk for years, and then went to the theatre and decided he wanted to be an actor, and even then spent something like fifteen or twenty years unknown, until he came to London, and the real Henry Irving exploded out of him. But suppose he’d stayed in the bank. He’d have been so frustrated he’d probably have died of cancer and never known why he felt so unfulfilled all of his life. It’s the lack of understanding of oneself, and Lawrence was the same. He found his outlet in the Arab revolt, but never found anything to replace it.
My own motives were simpler. I was working class, and my only desire was to get out of this boring working class background, and the sheer futility of working class life. That’s what I was escaping from. It wasn’t a question of having a goal to move towards, though I’d been interested in science since the age of ten. It was a question of wanting to get away from something: the sheer bloody boredom. Now, Lawrence didn’t have that, and it’s sad in a sense that he didn’t. He never gained the sort of fierce determination that I gained, via my hatred of my background. You know, why did DH Lawrence create so much more than TE Lawrence? Because he had a far greater forward drive, from trying to flee his awful working class background.
Do you think the John Bruce revelations enhance or distract from a fair and coherent understanding of Lawrence?
In my book The Misfits I talk about it as being very important. I think Lawrence was a classic masochist, God knows why. He may have been flogged at school or whatever.
I think his mother used to beat him as a child.
And obviously this thing about his being a bastard worried him like mad. So for some reason he had retreated into an attitude of humiliation, which is quite easy to do if like Lawrence you are born into the upper strata. Much more difficult for me as a working class person. You just struggle along and you are used to all the people around you struggling along, and therefore you don’t get yourself into this state in which you begin to feel humiliated. A friend of mine pointed out the other day the immense significance of childhood humiliation in the histories of serial killers. It has a terrific explosive effect, and I think that this was probably inside Lawrence and explains a lot about him. On the other hand, this thing which I am speaking about, the fascination with the impersonal – “not I but the wind that blows through me” – this is something that applies to all men of genius. Read Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind. He’s obviously talking about that. Lawrence, in so far as he was able to get on top of his fairly small phobias, was a pretty good mind. The kind of person I would have enjoyed knowing. I asked Robert Graves about him, but he was pretty cagey about him unfortunately.
You say that Lawrence “lacked the healthy conceit of the man of genius”. This is something that the Aldingtons of the world would disagree with, and even Lawrence’s friends, like Shaw. What exactly are you saying here?
Well actually I’m saying something rather different. When The Outsider came out and I tended to get a lot of publicity, my attitude towards publicity was very ambivalent. If you’re unknown, and suddenly you’re getting publicity, you can’t help feeling: “let it rip, why not? It can’t do me any harm.” Of course, in fact, it did do me a lot of harm. But that is the basic feeling. Now, Lawrence had been unknown all his life, and suddenly with the Lowell Thomas lectures became famous, and he rather enjoyed what you and I would probably enjoy doing; turning up at the theatre and hearing people whisper as they recognised him. You know, backing into the limelight as the phrase goes. We all have the basic need for a certain amount of self-esteem, and self-esteem is fed by the liking and the respect of other people. Now, as Shaw said, until a person has had enough attention, and is absolutely overflowing with it, he’s not really going to have a sense of latitude towards it. It’s like water on parched ground, it’s got to soak and soak until the ground is saturated. And that’s what happened to Lawrence, by which time it was too late. Did you say Shaw felt Lawrence was conceited?
Well, he said something like “What is your game really, Lawrence?” As if Lawrence was feigning certain characteristics so as to disguise others.
And Lawrence must have looked at Shaw with mild astonishment, and thought if someone as brilliant and intelligent as Shaw doesn’t understand nobody ever will! Because in that sense Lawrence didn’t really have a game. What Shaw didn’t know about was Lawrence’s background and his upbringing and whatever brought him to the state he was in at that time, but above all his Outsiderism. And the revulsion against the world he felt after what he thought to be his betrayal of the Arabs.
So you don’t share the view of some writers that Lawrence was never unaware of the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement?
No, I think he found it out later, and was furious. And that’s the reason that he went to the Paris Peace conference: to do his best to try and alter things. But of course it was too late. Although actually Feisal did eventually get his position, and this was probably in large part due to Lawrence’s arm-twisting.
Did Lawrence enlist in the ranks after the war in the same spirit of revulsion, or were there deeper psychological motives?
It would be a great mistake to underestimate the extent to which Lawrence was a 'monk'. I think this was very deep in him, that sort of mysticism. Having been through all this myself in my teens, having been fascinated by the mystics, this meant an enormous amount to me before The Outsider came out. When I first met my wife, I said it’s quite likely that I’m going to disappear into a monastery one day, so don’t count too much on me as a permanent husband!
You talk in your autobiography about the idea of a community of artists and writers living together in a monastic sort of way.
That’s right. Yeats was the first one to really think about that. Yeats wasn’t all that much older than Lawrence, and Lawrence was full of this kind of thing. This feeling that it ought to be possible to create a completely different kind of world. Yeats’s father said that Ruskin had told him that every day as he walked to the British Museum, he saw the faces of the people becoming more and more corrupt. So there’s this sharp division that people like that make between this world that we live in and the ideal. Heidegger started off like that, hating everything to do with technological civilisation, a totally Yeatsian romantic. Now, when you’ve got someone like Lawrence, here is someone totally cut off from his time. Had he been living in the middle ages, he would like to go into a monastery. But he’s not living in the middle ages, he’s living in the twentieth century, so what does he do? He shows contempt for civilisation by entering the army and the air force at the lowest level.
But he must have known that he wasn’t going to live a terribly monastic life there.
But he was also a masochist, and therefore to some extent he was rather enjoying the degradation of that life.
He talks very unsparingly in The Mint about how alien barrack-room life is to him, and how much it disgusts him, yet it attracts him at the same time.
I think he’s saying what any monk might say: what I wanted was God, what I’ve got is a lot of fucking monks! What the world’s million lips are searching for just doesn’t seem to be around. And also, another interesting thing is that one of Lawrence’s favourite novels is a novel by Algernon Blackwood, I think it’s called The Satire, which is worth reading because it’s one of those really 1890’s kind of novels about a longing for nature and the natural existence. And Lawrence thought this was a very great novel, which tells you a lot. I can’t read the thing; it’s so full of purple prose that you can’t stand it. But it appealed very deeply to Lawrence because he could see what Blackwood was expressing. Lawrence didn’t mind the overblown Romantic language because he was closer to the Romantics than we are.
Seven Pillars is often criticised for having an overblown style. Lawrence himself, I think, thought the book failed in its style, and part of the reason why The Mint is so bare was in reaction against that.
I don’t find Seven Pillars overblown. That’s an Aldington-type accusation. It reminds me of Shaw’s Heartbreak House, where Hector says there’s a basic enmity between their seed and ours, and I think it’s Shotover who says: well, they don’t do us any harm. And he says, on the contrary: the very fact that the bastards are there kills our aspirations before they’re born. And they have confidence in themselves, when we have confidence in ourselves we shall kill them! This explosion of TE Lawrence-type stuff.
There’s a full-length portrait of Lawrence in Shaw’s Too True To Be Good.
Yes, it’s rather amusing. The later plays of Shaw, of course, are sort of tossed together, so you can’t really take them terribly seriously, but it’s worth looking at. The Lawrence character is asked why he got rid of his rank, and he says ‘well, it bored me’. So it really does tell you something about Lawrence.
Would he have liked it?
Oh I should think he was probably quite flattered to be put into a Shaw play.
One of the most hotly contested episodes in Lawrence’s story is the assault at Deraa. What do you think happened?
He told Mrs Shaw that he did allow this man to bugger him. I think almost certainly what happened was that he was badly beaten, though those marks on his backs may well have been due to some other masochistic episode. And you’ll notice that he comments on a “probably sexual” sensation.
Yes, extraordinarily forthright.
He was probably sure that nobody would understand it. In all probability, we just don’t understand enough about Lawrence and about what made him a masochist. I mean, I can’t understand the idea of taking pleasure in being beaten.
But it certainly wouldn’t make sense to say that it started there, that the later masochistic episodes are in some way attributable to whatever happened at Deraa.
No, it would have been deeply ingrained. I think that if he was beaten as a child then it may well have been a case like Swinburne, who developed his masochism very early on. You’ll find all that in The Misfits. But I don’t understand masochism any more than I understand sadism. Powys claims that he was a sadist from a very early age. He went past a window once on a train, and saw a woman raising something to hit her daughter with, and he experienced an intense sexual thrill as he went past. I can’t imagine experiencing a sexual thrill at that.
And also, don’t forget that it’s all about frustration. My wife once said, as she was looking at dirty Blackpool postcards, ‘it’s all about frustration, isn’t it?’ And she put her finger on it exactly. And Powys, and all his obsession with these sweet girls on the beach showing their ankles, that’s all frustration. And Lawrence and his masochism; that’s all frustration.
Is that a universal malaise or a distinctively British one?
They used to call flagellation le vice anglais in France. I’ve often wondered why the British have always had this peculiar thing based on frustration. If you’ve been brought up in England you can sort of understand it. Particularly if like me you were born in the early nineteen-thirties and can remember what a working class childhood was like then. DH Lawrence remarked on the prudery of the working classes. You’d imagine that the working classes would be less prudish, you think of the Victorian age, and Whitechapel brothers and sisters sleeping together and getting up to an enormous amount of shagging. In point of fact, in the world I was brought up in there was incredible prudishness. You didn’t take off your clothes if your brother or any member of your family was around.
You talk of Lawrence’s ‘mind suicide’ and discuss his death as somehow inevitable. You are presumably aware that there are all manner of crackpot theories about Lawrence committing suicide or being murdered or not dying at all and the whole thing being faked. I assume you don’t subscribe to any of them.
No, no, not for a second. We know that he was off to send a telegram to Henry Williamson about going to meet Hitler. He was going too fast as usual, saw an errand boy and swerved, and that was the end of him.
So he was consciously risking death, courting death, but not actually seeking it.
I don’t know about ‘courting death’. He was in a hurry to get to the post office.
But he often spoke of his obsession with speed and how it would probably kill him eventually.
Well don’t forget we’re once again talking about the cold, eddyless wind of the desert. When you’re whizzing along at ninety miles an hour on a motorbike, once again you get this sort of heightened consciousness, heightened vitality. That was when he felt alive. He didn’t want it to kill him; he just knew that it might.
While we’re on crackpot theories, you mention in one of your books a book that purports to be psychic communications from Lawrence from beyond the grave.
Yes, it's shit! I’ve got it downstairs but I don’t take it very seriously. It’s by some lady who claimed to be in touch with Lawrence’s spirit. I’ve got another one by some lady who claimed to be in touch with the spirit of HG Wells and it doesn’t sound in the least like HG Wells.
Yes, I’ve got one called Psychic Messages From Oscar Wilde. Presumably it was quite a popular little genre at the time.
I can dig it out for you; I know where it is. But I’ve only ever glanced at it and then threw it down. I don’t know what it’s about, really. I didn’t go deeply enough into it to find out. It just didn’t interest me.
Will Lawrence be remembered in a hundred years time, and if so will it be as a literary figure, as a military hero or as an enigmatic personality?
Well, he’ll be remembered all right, because he was one of the great men of the twentieth century. And he’ll be remembered as the author of Seven Pillars. No doubt whatever about that. And probably military historians will be very interested in what he did.
In Alien Dawn you nominate John Mack’s A Prince Of Our Disorder as the best book ever written on Lawrence. What are the qualities that you think this book possesses that the others lack?
Simply that I hadn’t read a book on Lawrence for years until I picked up John’s book, and I immediately saw that it had real insight in a way that none of the books I read when I was writing The Outsider did have. They all seemed to miss the point. How far John was influenced by me I don’t know.
Some critics have said that it skirts too lightly over Lawrence’s compulsions, and gives him the benefit of too many doubts.
Well, as I said, it seems to me that the Lawrence problem is immensely simple. Recognise that he was basically a kind of monk, and that therefore he felt a revulsion against the world, and you have all the information you need. Some monks enjoyed flogging themselves with whips with nails stuck in them and all the rest of it, and they probably got a sexual thing out of it too. The same thing goes for St Theresa of Avilla talking about Jesus as the bridegroom, and so on. God knows how many nuns had orgasms thinking about ‘the bridegroom’. There’s a close connection between religious and sexual energy.
So in the final analysis, then, you think Lawrence didn’t know himself, rather than, as some suggest, he knew himself too well.
He didn’t know himself at all! In The Outsider I quote an old schoolteacher looking at Lawrence and saying that he is one of the most powerful men he has ever come across, but he does not know who he is. He never experienced that feeling of being totally carried away that Shelley felt when writing Ode to the West Wind and so on. Lawrence only felt that travelling at ninety miles an hour on a motorbike. And that’s what killed the poor devil off.
(a slightly less sweary version of this interview was first published in Abraxas Unbound)
(a slightly less sweary version of this interview was first published in Abraxas Unbound)