January 2017 Books


The Selected Letters of T.E. Lawrence, edited by Malcolm Brown

Man, where to even begin with this one–I guess with whatever I previously wrote on T.E. Lawrence (or should we be calling him T.E. Shaw?) wrt The Mint, which, for whatever reason, inspired a Great Depth of Feeling towards the dude. It’s weird, because I’m actually not interested in the whole “of Arabia” shit—and I still couldn’t really tell you what the deal was with the Arab Revolt or Lawrence’s involvement in it—but the whole rejection of fame afterwards: fascinating. He’s also just a really solid (and prolific) correspondent, as befits a Man of Letters, I guess. I’m still kind of reeling from my “discovery” of the whole literary genre of Dead People’s Letters–which is just, like, such a great genre, especially if one is both super nosy and super lonely!

A few notes and excerpts:

Lawrence is terrible at consoling people wrt the deaths of their children, Jesus Christ. I mean, not that there’s necessarily a good way to console people in that case, but his is so…weird and cold. (And also kind of hot oops)

To his parents, regarding his brother’s death:

The only thing I feel a little is, that there was no need surely to go into mourning for him? I cannot see any cause at all–in any case to die for one’s country is a sort of privilege: Mother & you will find it more painful & harder to live for it, than he did to die: but I think that at this time it is one’s duty to show no signs that would distress others: and to appear bereaved is surely under this condemnation.

(June 4, 1916)

To Hugh Bell, regarding Gertrude Bell’s death:

I think she was very happy in her death, for her political work–one of the biggest things a woman has veer had to do–was as finished as mine. That Irak state is a fine monument; even if it only lasts a few more years, as I often fear and sometimes hope. It seems such a very doubtful benefit–government–to give people who have long done without. Of course it is you who are unhappy, not having Gertrude any more; but there–she wasn’t yours really, though she did give you so much.

(September 4, 1927)

How do Lawrence scholars reconcile their entire careers with Lawrence’s own wishes? That is, wanting his letters burned, hoping that the Oxford text of Seven Pillars wouldn’t get into circulation, the general desire for anonymity and to not be remembered for his involvement in the Arab Revolt.

I mean, how am I reconciling what I’m doing right now with that? It is always a thing–I think it came up when Prince died–of whether the deceased’s wishes (whether that’s to burn manuscripts, not to release unfinished records, etc.) are more important than their potential artistic benefit to society (whatever that means). And some people seem to have really strong opinions on this–especially the people who think it’s super tacky and disrespectful to go against the deceased’s wishes. I guess I just don’t have any respect for the dead or privacy and especially not the privacy of dead people, because, like, they’re fucking dead and I’m fucking nosy. But I imagine most scholars have more of a moral compass than I do, and do they just kind of hate themselves for doing this to T.E.L.?

Concerning the book. The reprint differs, in many ways, from the ‘Oxford’ text, which is what Childs had. I do not want to leave bibliophiles of the twenty-first century two variants, to spend useful hours comparing & cross-checking: so I propose to cause the six copies of the Oxford edition to disappear.

(11/6/25, to Francis Rodd)

No such luck with that, eh?

I try now to answer letters on the flash—or not at all: and always on this paper, which rots in two years. So I’ll cheat the fellow who tries to write ‘my life and letters’, out of some of his materials, anyway.

(To Alan Dawnay; January 20, 1928)

Now I am trying to accustom myself to the truth that I’ll probably be talked over for the rest of my life: and after my life, too. There will be a volume of ‘letters’ after I die & probably some witty fellow will write another life of me. In fact there is a Frenchman trying to write a ‘critical study’ of me, now. They make me retch–and that’s neither comfortable nor wholesome.

(To H.A. Ford; April 18, 1929)

And especially ironic:

A splurge in the Daily Mail, talking of a film to be made around my squalid past. I wonder how much it is true? The article talked glibly of the Seven Pillars, so I imagine it is mostly the perfervid imagining of one of the horde of publicity men who afflict the film world.

(To Hon. Edward Eliot; May 24, 1934)

If this were fiction, it would seem like there was a lot of (super on-the-nose, frankly) foreshadowing Lawrence’s dying mere months after leaving the Royal Air Force, but nope, it’s real life and so it’s just kind of…eerie. It makes the accident seem not quite as tragic, though, since it seems like he basically considered leaving the RAF a sort of death anyway.

The very most on-the-nose:

My rackety life makes me expect an old age full of aches and ailments, so that I must enjoy myself while I can: and always there’s a feeling that perhaps I’ll miss old age by some happy accident.

(To Sir Herbert Baker; October 29, 1928)

My last to long rides have been at 49 and 51 m.p.h. respectively. It looks as though I might yet break my neck on a B.S.

(To George Brough, May 3, 1934)

But also:

In March 1935 the R.A.F. takes away from me the right to serve it longer, and I relapse into self-supporting life. My cottage, 35/- a week, 24 hours a day. I am so tired that it feels like heaven drawing near: only there are people who whisper that heaven will bore me. When they tell me that I almost wish I were dead for I have done everything in life except rest, and if rest is to prove no refuge, then what is left?

(To Lady Astor; July 27, 1934)

In March I leave the R.A.F. and it feels like the end of living–so close that nothing between now and then can count. Afterwards–well, I don’t know. How does one pass the fag-end of life? If there was any thing which I wanted to do, or thought worth doing, or seeing, or trying, or preventing even…but I’m facing a vacancy. Indeed, yes, the machine is run down. Time’s revenge.

(To Lord Llloyd; September 26, 1934)

My losing the R.A.F. numbs me, so that I haven’t much feeling to spare for the while. In fact I find myself wishing all the time that my own curtain would fall. It seems as if I had finished, now.

(to Peter Davies; February 28, 1935)

Lest we think it’s all angst and morbidity and self-deprecation, though, the more charming side:

However the arrival of a smaller (I hope not cheaper) edition is an occasion for a bookworm like myself. The editio princeps always has a special value: but in some cases (Shakespeare folios e.g.) new matter is embodied in the reprints, which gives them a market reputation little, if any, less than original. At the same time collectors, and especially collectors of sentiment, always prefer the genuine article.

However Mrs. Newcombe will regard the graft as the first. These things, as Solomon quoted from Adam’s table-talk, depend on the point of view. Please give her my heartiest congratulations.

(To Colonel S. F. Newcombe; February 16, 1920)

This fucking dweeb. This is the fucking guy who names his motorcycle Boanerges.

Really I’m hotter stuff than I thought: the wrathful portrait went off at top speed for a thousand to a Duke! That puts me for the moment easily at the head of the field in your selling plate. Of course I know you will naturally think the glory is yours—but I believe it’s due to the exceeding beauty of my face.

May I write to Orpen and say what a pity I think it that you troubled to paint 38 other people? It means of course a pity from the commercial point of view only, for there is no doubt the others set me off! What do artists’ models of the best sort fetch per hour (or perhaps per job, for I might fall on a Cezanne, and I don’t want to get rich)? It seems to me that I have a future.

(To Augustus John; March 19, 1920)

Regarding this, apparently?

I don’t know, it’s a 500+ page collection of letters, so it shows a lot of different facets of Lawrence and there’s probably something worthwhile in all of them; it’s hard to neatly summarize without just tons and tons of excerpts what exactly is so compelling about them. The whole “please read my book, but no don’t, it’s terrible and I’m terrible and you shouldn’t waste your time with it, but no, please give me feedback” surrounding the (various) publications of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the lengths he goes to to join the R.A.F., the semi-relatable and semi-unusual feelings wrt his physical body and sexuality and degradation, the literary allusions, the general sharpness, etc. Apparently, previous compilations of letters were more censored, to protect his living relatives or his reputation or whatever, but this one claims not to be.

The Life to Come and Other Stories, E.M. Forster

Ah, the reason we got into T.E. Lawrence in the first place. And this volume contains the stories that the beloved E.M.F. and T.E.L. discussed in their letters (oh, to get my hands on their full correspondence).

Really a more accurate title would be E.M. Forster’s Posthumously Published Gay Short Stories, since that’s what all but maybe two of these are? And more specifically, overcoming social stratification through the magic of gay sex. I mean, that’s really reductionist of me and seems more like the Cracked approach to history, so let’s try again. It’s a theme we see in a lot of the work published in his lifetime as well–where the ultimate victory for the characters is in breaking from the social conventions and class prejudices preventing them from pursuing true happiness in connecting with nature, the physical body, and Truth (or their ultimate tragedy lies in their inability to make such a break). But the work published during his lifetime was also pretty sexless–and it’s pretty easy to find criticism (from now and from the time of publication) of EMF’s depictions of the relationships between, say, Leonard and Helen in Howards End or Lucy and George in A Room with a View as somehow lacking. And one wonders to what extent that was due to not wanting to out himself (or anyone connected with him) and to what extent it was due to only losing his virginity later in life–i.e. post publishing most of his major works; at the very least, the posthumously published stories show that it probably wasn’t a stylistic choice or prudishness.

Which is all to say that the characters in the posthumously published gay stories definitely do fuck, although it’s not, like, pornographic; for the most part titillation doesn’t seem to be the central aim, and sex is treated as the key that enables the characters to transcend social boundaries between classes, races, etc. (To “only connect,” let’s say.) Although a few of the stories seem slightly less, say, deep and meaningful and more “Oh ho ho! How bawdy!” But the intro to the collection covers all of this better than I could, probably.

Here’s T. E. Lawrence on “Dr. Woolacott:”

Now I have your short story. It’s the most powerful thing I ever read. Nearly made me ill: and I haven’t yet summoned up the courage to read it again. Someday I’ll write you properly about it. A great privilege, it is, to get a thing like that.

Virginia [Woolf] obviously hadn’t seen it: or she wouldn’t have put so much piffle in her note on you. Which note also holds some very good stuff. I liked it: but she has only met the public side of you, apparently. Or else she doesn’t know the difference between skin and bone.

I say, I hope you know what a wonderful thing Dr. Woolacott is. It is more charged with the real than anything I’ve ever met yet.

And the odd, extraordinary thing is that you go about talking quite carefully to us ordinary people. How on earth…

(To E.M. Forster; October 27, 1927)

Also man I am like 80% convinced that I should write a screenplay for “The Life to Come.”

Selected quote:

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention. I racked my brains for some remark that would serve to keep my self-respect, but could find none.

(from “Ansell”)

From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe

A fun, short book on 20th century architecture. Witty and enlightening.

(If you were wondering why we seem to have all convinced ourselves that minimalism is, like, The Ideal, this has some answers.)

Selected quote:

Gropius’ interest in “the proletariat” or “socialism” turned out to be no more than aesthetic and fashionable, somewhat like the interest of President Rafel Trujillo of the Dominican Republic or Chairman Mao of the People’s Republic of China in republicanism. Nevertheless, as Dostoevsky said, ideas have consequences; the Bauhaus style proceeded from certain firm assumptions. First, the new architecture was being created for workers. The holiest of all goals: perfect worker housing. Second, the new architecture was to reject all things bourgeois. Since just about everyone involved, the architects as well as the Social Democratic bureaucrats, was himself bourgeois in the literal, social sense of the word, “bourgeois” became an epithet that meant whatever you wanted it to mean. It referred to whatever you didn’t like in the lives of people above the level of hod carrier. The main thing was not to be caught designing something someone could point to and say of, with a devastating sneer, “How very bourgeois.”

The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T., Stewart Brand

So Stewart Brand hung around MIT’s Media Lab for a few months in the ’80s and wrote this book about it; would make a nice pairing with Douglas Coupland’s Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent, which probably also namedrops the shit out of Marshall McLuhan, if I remember correctly. 

It’s cool to see how many of the researchers’ dreams have been fulfilled and exceeded since the ’80s. Jesus Christ, in terms of the predicted coming together of the Broadcast & Motion Picture Industry, Print & Publishing Industry, and Computer Industry–look at where Amazon is now. A few things did not go as expected–there’s one quote from a researcher who expects newspapers will outlast broadcast television, which…lol okay—but on the whole, it feels super prescient.

In general, I guess I find it valuable to get historical perspective on computers and to not take the current state of technology as a given–to consider how people were doing things before, why things are the way they are now, how likely it was that [insert thing here] could have been foreseen 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, etc. What actually turns out to be game-changing technology and what turns out to be over-hyped and ultimately forgotten. And blah blah blah every technology eventually just becomes another tool or becomes obsolete.

Also, a shout-out to the beloved EMF, because everything comes back to him, apparently:

If there is a single science fiction story most pointedly expressive of the future the Media Lab is inventing—of the hazards of totally addictive total connectivity—it is “The Machine Stops,” by E. M. Forster. Yes, the one who wrote A Passage to India and A Room with a View. It was 1909, he was thirty, he was incensed by the optimistic materialism of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and he wrote a brilliant fictional riposte that hasn’t dated a line in eighty years.

Selected quote:

My experience with the medium is that e-mail creates writers. I’ve seen dozens of professional writing careers begun with total inadvertence by people chatting away online, being encouraged by their friends, then being quoted in print somewhere, then getting paid for it, and then they’re hooked. Because their writing began as conversation, it’s good writing. The magic ingredient is instant reinforcement by peers. Every time you say something useful cleverly online, somebody says “Bravo.”

Marshall McLuhan used to remark, “Gutenberg made everybody a reader. Xerox made everybody a publisher.” Personal computers are making everybody an author. E-mail, word-processing programs that make revising as easy as thinking, and laser printers collapse the whole writing-publishing-distributing process into one event controlled entirely by the individual. If, as alleged, the only real freedom of the press is to own one, the fullest realization of the First Amendment is being accomplished by technology, not politics.

Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

Probably would have helped to have lived in the Soviet Union at some point for the satire to really be effective, but like, okay, sure.

Ayoade on Ayoade, Richard Ayoade

Super enjoyable, would recommend.

No quote–it’s all pretty consistently funny and so no passage seemed especially noteworthy as being significantly funnier than the rest and thus worth bookmarking.


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