November 5, 2017

WANG | Nothing is Written

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Thomas Edward Lawrence was always going somewhere. As a peculiar 15-year-old boy, he and his schoolyard friend Cyril Beeson rode around burial sites in his hometown of Oxford, England, voraciously studying whatever they could and presenting their findings to the local museum. Two years later, he would ride on bike throughout France, completing survey studies and observations of medieval castles throughout the land with that same friend. A few months later, he would enroll at Oxford University to begin his studies in history.

There was something weirdly contradictory about the young man. A quiet student who rarely lifted his eyes from his books, he was a loner that lacked many friends. Yet, at the same time, he possessed a brashness that was unbecoming of most recluses. When it was time for him to prepare for his senior thesis in history, he proposed a preposterous plan that left his adviser aghast. Bored with the medieval landmarks that Europe had to offer, he suggested undergoing a survey of the crusader castles in Syria the following summer to better discern the influence Near Eastern culture had on Medieval European innovations.

But that was insanity. Syrian summers reached a blistering 120 degrees, and to complete a proper survey of the crusader castles there, he had to travel across a thousand miles of rugged mountain and desert terrain. Furthermore, lacking any money for a proper travel party to accommodate him, he simply offered to walk to cut down costs.

“Europeans don’t walk in Syria”, snorted his advisor.

“Well,” he said curtly, “I do.”

A few decades later, moviegoing audiences would be introduced to the enigmatic Lawrence as a changed man, who had not only completed his trek across Syria, but had joined the British military service after the outbreak of WWI to serve as an intelligence officer in the British Arab Bureau in Cairo. The film, Lawrence of Arabia, remains a monumental achievement in modern cinematic history, detailing in an almost tongue-in-cheek account of Lawrence’s role in the Arab revolt, as the British-assisted Arab nations rose up against the Ottomans who who ruled their land. Lawrence, loner that he was, was suddenly a household name, a symbol of intercultural conflict, an idiosyncratic leading man that followed his own whims to a foreign entity that grew to both love and despise him.

Admittedly, I haven’t given Lawrence much thought in recent years, until I stumbled up a column from a fellow Sun columnist  that reminded me of clean deserts and shadows of a prophet. Titled “I Don’t Want to Be a Suburban Mom,” the author groused about the inevitable clamp society would put on her that came in the form of a suburban mom who attended “school board meetings” and shopped for “side tables at Pottery Barn.” To her, settling down was an inevitable concession that she didn’t want to make. She wanted to travel the world, to live on her own terms. Cliches were her phobia, and stability was her destabilizer.

It’s a topic that’s weighed heavily on my mind. We live in a world where we fear the unknown more than we love the mystery. Throughout our lives, we’re taught there’s a certain path to take, but we’re never given the chance ask why, and perhaps more startlingly, why we give in anyways to the path. Perhaps, in the end, we figure it’s more pleasant to live that way. It’s easier write what we know than to write what we don’t; it’s simpler to finish a novel than to begin one.

It’s also why her column evoked Lawrence smirking at his commander when he remarks that he has a “funny sense of fun.” His lonesome pursuit of his ambition is unsettling at times, curious in others, and maddeningly perplexing in all. He circumvents, zigs while others zags, never giving you the cleanest answer. He’s aloof, but very well aware that he is.

In our first introduction to Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, he’s unhappily scribbling on a piece of parchment. He longs for the front lines in Arabia, where the war is being waged, but instead, he rots in staff position at Cairo, in a rowdy basement with poor ventilation. He vents to the man who is seated next to him:

“Michael George Hartley. This is a nasty, dark little room.”

“That’s right” says Hartley.

“We are not happy in it.”

“I am. It’s better than a nasty, dark little trench.”

Lawrence doesn’t even sigh.

“Then, you’re a big noble fellow.” He remarks, with a bit of annoyance.

When the room begins to fill up with other British officers, Lawrence makes to leave, but not before lighting up an officer’s cigarette with a match as a sign of good faith. Then, with the match still alight and the whole room aghast, he rolls up his sleeves and snuffs the flame out with his fingers.

Perhaps inspired by Lawrence’s show, his fellow officer William Potter tries the same trick. But instead of Lawrence’s nonchalant reaction, he yelps; the flame has seared his fingers.

“It damn well hurts!”

“Certainty, it hurts!” says Lawrence, amused.

“Well, what’s the trick then?”

“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”

And with a simple nod, he walks out of the room.

 

William Wang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester.