Monday, April 21, 2008

Books: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence

I have never seen Lawrence of Arabia, which is based on this book (and for that I blame the many friends who refused to go with me when it was being screened, both in San Francisco and New York, in all its 70 mm glory). I didn't know, though, that this book, the one that's been on my current reading list since that list's inception (which was a list of recommendations from a person whom I trusted better before I began reading the books on that list), belonged to that movie. Of course, both feature Lawrences, but what do seven pillars of wisdom have to do with Arabia?

What are the seven pillars of wisdom? Gosh, I don't know. I read each and every one this brick's 660 (paper thin, yellowed) pages (albeit, some while on the stairmaster; cardio makes even the worst of tasks seem diverting), and I don't remember finding any pillars at all, much less seven. Plus, Lawrence seems to be constantly bent on his very lack of wisdom, calling his work something like a charade, telling us that, though he's living in the desert with Arabs, wearing their clothes, eating their food, riding their camels, and leading them into battle (with the Turks, alongside England and against Germany (it's WWI)), he's only a poseur. He constantly tries to quit, but the English won't let him.

I find war books/movies sort of tedious, and aside from a sparse scattering of philosophical asides, that's what this book is, even if it does take place on camels instead of airplanes, and even if the specter of thirst and starvation are always near. One person I encountered while reading suggested that President Bush ought to read the thing, given our situation in Iraq right now, but I wasn't able to get anything out of it to explain anything, except that all native Middle Easterners are not the same, and nor are they all friends, which is something that we already (ought to) know.

A small point I would like to make has less to do with the book than something I read in the news while I was reading the book. South Korea banned the use of dog meat in restaurants to comply with Western "culinary" (animal rights) sensibilities. And yet, many restaurants continue to serve dog meat, illegally, because there is a demand for it. Now, because the dog slaughtering isn't monitored, there is an increased health risk. And Americans still decry the eating of dogs, because, well, dogs are our friends. Which brings me back to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in which Lawrence and his Arabic army eat camels, even though camels carry them through the desert (only when starvation is imminent and other food isn't available, and they always choose the oldest, mangiest, least otherwise useful animal). Hence: you eat what you can to survive, and if you're going to "use" an animal in one way (and don't think keeping a pet isn't "using" the animal) you might as well use it in another way, for food, if you have to.

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