Conflicted Possession: A Pentadic Assessment of T.E. Lawrence’s Desert Narrative

Jason Ingram, North Carolina State University

Abstract: This paper uses Kenneth Burke’s and Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of purpose to assess T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence’s account illustrates a tragic potential of human pursuits that, in turn, illuminates dangers of extreme purpose that both Burke and Sartre would have us avoid. Lawrence drew upon his intimate knowledge of the region and culture to construct a rhetorical vision to motivate Arab resistance to Turkish and German forces during the first World War. His story demonstrates limitations of attempting to found resistance upon strength of purpose with insufficient regard to scenic constraints. Furthermore, Lawrence’s conflicted desires turn against him, providing a cautionary tale of the danger posed by calculative appropriations of nature.

OVID DESCRIBES ACTAEON'S DESTRUCTION by his own hounds in the Metamorphoses (III. 115-248). Actaeon, after a successful morning of hunting, calls off the day’s chase at noontime. It’s scorching hot, so he wanders around through dense woods in a valley and finds his way, unaware, into a cave sacred to Diana. She happens to be present, bathing in a pool after her own hunt. Diana’s nymphs see him and are quick to surround her, shielding the goddess so that she can only be seen “up from the neck” (1983, p. 83). Still, she is enraged at this disturbance of her modesty and throws water into Actaeon’s face, magically transforming him into a stag. His hunting hounds pursue him into the woods. They cannot recognize their master because he is a beast, deprived of speech, and they rend him to death. Kenneth Burke (1939, p. 349) discusses Shakespeare’s use of the figure of Actaeon in Twelfth Night to personify the transformation of action into motion. Duke Orsinio sees himself in place of the hunter, driven by his desires:

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn’d into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me. (I,i)

Orsinio’s pursuit of the object of his obsession promises purity but initially tears him apart. The image of a hunter destroyed by the agency of his hunt dramatizes the tragic potential of action, where human pursuits have turned upon themselves. The scene of the hunt provides a representative anecdote of purpose’s danger. Jean Paul Sartre uses Actaeon’s story in Being and Nothingness to explain scientific inquiry, which is premised on gaining knowledge of the natural world. Sartre conceptualizes knowledge as a form of appropriation that often engages in a “violation by sight,” part of an Actaeon complex (1953, p. 578). Sartre’s account of scientific appropriations of nature illustrates dangers of representational choices about wilderness spaces. Actaeon’s story combines two significant rhetorical figures: the hunt and desire’s turn against itself.i His pursuit of new vision brings about a self-destructive transformation.

Burke (1945) provides five key terms for appreciating various relationships between transformation of scene, agents, agency, and purpose through action. These topoi constitute the Pentad. Burke’s discussion of scene as a key factor in human action provides a useful perspective for assessing scientific approaches to mastering wilderness resources, one that complements Sartre’s. The materialism of the scientific quest for knowledge of the natural world threatens to reduce action to motion, enacting a sort of ‘bad magic’ that, at its worst, harnesses consumption to destruction (Burke, 1939 p. 6). Similarly, Sartre emphasizes science’s demand that nature reveal her secrets. He also focuses on the sexual dimension of the Hunt, highlighting the bodily connection to knowledge by underscoring the alimentary and erotic metaphors used in discussing knowledge (1953, p. 579). Both Burke and Sartre thus reference the desire, the hunger, and the sexual charge of the hunt.ii For Sartre, desire for knowledge of nature takes the form of a sexually charged hunt involving conflicted possession. For Burke, over-reliance upon any one element of action at the expense of discerning resources provided by other pentadic elements courts tragedy.

This paper examines T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a basis for exploring Burke and Sartre’s analysis of purpose as a hunt that risks reducing action to motion. The obsessive hunt provides a representative anecdote for tragic miscarriages of human action. Examples range from Ahab’s obsessive hunt in Moby Dick through Gene Hackman’s compulsion at the end of The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) to the field of conspiracy theories such as those depicted in Foucault’s Pendulum (Eco, 1988/1989). Sartre articulates the myth to scientific inquiry and to human possession, regarding it as an ontological wound that can never heal: Burke would be quick to point to parallels of the Actaeon myth in nuclear technology. These stories show the tragic consequences of becoming ensnared in the coils of an obsessive purpose. Burke’s insights are particularly helpful for appreciating the harm of reducing action to motion. Actaeon’s inability to speak ensured his destruction by the agency of his hunt, his hounds. The agent of his destruction, a goddess who punishes him for venturing into forbidden realms, illustrates the limits of human pursuits and the negativity attending the hubristic exercise of agency. Lawrence, a British serving officer who led an Arab revolt in the first World War, enacts the Actaeon complex.

Lawrence’s conflicted purpose illustrates the danger of attempting to possess and make use of wilderness spaces. This paper builds a basis for investigating representations of the desert wilderness in Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (2000), perhaps better known through the film adaptation Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962).iii Lawrence (2000) exemplifies the strategic use of rhetoric to motivate revolution through a transformative vision. Assessing his representation of the desert as an architectonic scene helps us to understand dialectical relationships between place and the development of agency: the desert structures Lawrence’s account. Nevertheless he places faith in his purpose’s power to transform the region. Lawrence draws upon cultural and religious commonplaces to solidify the dream of overthrowing the Turks, who had long dominated the region.

Historically, Lawrence worked to unite scattered Bedouin tribes in the name of an Arab nation. He selected Sherif Feisul (or Feisal—Lawrence purposefully transliterated place names and people’s names inconsistently) as a suitable leader against the German and Turkish enemy forces and acted as a liaison with the British to solicit important war resources. Statements in the past tense refer to historical effects or antecedents of Lawrence’s revolt in the desert, whereas his story dwells in the present tense. Lawrence’s purpose was to attain a measure of independence for this new political entity, and also to help win the war.

Lawrence writes about his rhetorical vision, which he crafts out of mystical-prophetic purpose and strategic invention, building collective identification upon prevailing commonplaces and a shared enemy. Lawrence’s rhetorical vision exemplifies constitutive rhetoric. Similar in some respects to the people Québécois Maurice Charland discusses, Lawrence weaves a powerful narrative of collective identification to instigate “a teleological movement towards emancipation” premised on attaining “sovereignty as the ultimate point that must be reached in order to attain narrative closure and liberate its subjects” (Charland 1987, p. 144). Lawrence uses the desert’s resources—its culture, traditions, environment, and inhabitants—to sustain a transformative rhetorical vision, and he attempts to transform the geopolitical scene of colonial domination by means of that vision. However, as later sections illustrate, such transformation and re-identification of national character must found itself on more than negation of oppression. Ultimately, in pentadic terms, scene trumps Lawrence’s purpose.

In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke implies that Lawrence’s purpose shatters after he leaves the desert, recrystallizing as a substitute “mysticism of speed” where the shards of his purpose goad him to his death (1950, p. 332). Devoid of a legitimate end, Burke implies, Lawrence fixates upon movement for its own sake, enacting the turn of the hunt upon one’s self as a means of escape. In this sense Lawrence’s story follows Actaeon’s path. Extremes of purpose are intimately tied to transformations. The motif of the hunt and the danger of transformative vision are typically articulated to wilderness scenes: Actaon surprises Diana in a grotto, and Lawrence gains insight through a retreat into the desert. Burke discusses the force of such perspectival shifts:

For the dialectic of mysticism aims at a systematic withdrawal from the world of appearances, a crossing into a realm that transcends everyday judgments—after which there may be a return . . . the period of exile, withdrawal, and negation terminates in a new vision, whereupon the visionary can once again resume his commerce with the world, which he now sees in a new light, in terms of the vision earned during his stage of exile. But in his homecoming to the world of appearances, he sees things quite differently . . . . (1950, p. 95)
Returning back to everyday life after war is, by all accounts, difficult, even aside from Lawrence’s immersion in a radically dissimilar culture. Burke highlights the conflicts characterizing enmeshment in multiple value systems as well as those attending transformative vision by using the term via negativa (95), which taps into mystical-religious discourses. This paper elaborates Lawrence’s sense that his sources of identification ultimately turn against him. Not only does his purpose exhibit this turn, but his identification with the desert (scene) as a resource also evidences the Actaeon complex.

The desert is often represented as a special place, set apart from civilization. It shelters prophetic visions in many religious traditions, offering to clarify vision and to purify character. The desert offers physical as well as symbolic resources, enabling those capable of adapting to its harshness to evade capture and to strike against occupying forces. The first section of this paper provides one theoretical basis for subsequent assessment of the desert as resource by examining the figure of the hunt. Sartre highlights a phenomenological ambivalence, an internal negativity that problematizes human relations with the external world. Scientific appropriations of nature, and of the desert wilderness in particular, use denuding vision to effect changes, at a price, which Sartre explains in terms of an Actaeon complex. The second section of the paper examines this internal negativity in Burkean terms: Burke stresses the danger of reducing action to motion through over-valuing scientific approaches to nature, and especially to human nature. The desert provides a crucial scene enabling transformation, but Lawrence’s rhetorical vision ultimately rests on purpose. His conflicted duties and the collapse of the resistance movement upon its success illustrates the inability of purpose alone to enable transformation. The third section summarizes this line of inquiry by reference to the figure of desire’s self-destructive turn and its union with the hunt. Burke and Sartre converge in their treatment of conflicted purpose. Lawrence’s hunt against enemy resources and his obsessive purpose turn against him, constituting a cautionary tale. Attempts to use techné to master aspects of the world—whether through military science or otherwise—share common dangers.

Pursuing these lines of inquiry has value for a number of reasons, which the following sections will amplify. First, it affords insight into the rhetorical construction of agency while exposing limits of collective identification based on abstract negation. As such it clarifies constitutive rhetoric. Second, it illustrates Burke's Pentad with implications for our self-understanding, helping to make sense of relations between scene and purpose. Burke’s pentad provides helpful terms for evaluating Lawrence’s tale, which provides a representative anecdote of the turn against one’s self. Third, analysis of conflicted possession clarifies the phenomenology of relations with the natural world in terms of a rhetorical turn, Actaeon's metamorphosis from hunter into prey. These benefits rest on a shared concern to ward against the reduction of action to motion.

The Hunt of Pan: A Figuration of Purpose’s Self-Destructive Turn

The wilderness by definition has yet to be tamed, and to an extent is untamable. At the same time, scientific knowledge makes use of the wilderness as what Martin Heidegger calls a “standing-reserve,” a calculable coherence of forces that can be appropriated for human use (1954/1977). Lawrence treats the desert as a crucible for the development of national character, as a source of power, and as a scene for messianic redemption. The desert wilderness provides a scene with a range of different attributes; it can be a frontier for growth or a deadly inhospitable barrier, depending on the story in question.

This section considers Sartre’s analysis of attempts to gain knowledge of wilderness spaces. Sartre points out that scientific approaches to nature tend to have taken a gendered stance reflecting a masculine bias.iv He mentions Francis Bacon in particular, who laid important groundwork for a scientific approach to nature that stresses invention’s value for providing food, shelter and comfort. One of Bacon’s famous metaphors from the Advancement of Learning rather violently conceptualizes what we now call science as a conceptual rape of nature, the hunt of Pan. Bacon wishes to reveal nature “as she is bound, and tortured, pressed, formed, and turned out of her course by art and human industry. . . . for the nature of things is better discovered by the torturings of art, than when they are left to themselves” (1902, p. 27). He critiques earlier thinkers who sought to unravel nature’s mystery, observing that due to their crude methods “it is no wonder that nature has not opened herself to them” (p. 26). On this influential view, reason sets upon the natural world to bind it—or her—and torture her to reveal her secrets. We dream of communion with the natural world but must possess and consume resources to survive; this constitutes one form of mastery. Sartre builds his phenomenological account of scientific knowledge and appropriations upon this basis to argue that our possessions, even our knowledge, rest on constitutive contradictions aptly characterized in terms of a hunt.

Sartre extends analysis of the hunt of Pan to suggest that the world will always escape our grasp. We pursue knowledge by pushing the world to reveal itself to us. Such revelation can be harmful, as it rests upon a troublesome split between knower and known. The Actaeon complex, according to Sartre, represents the quest to surprise nature, to fix her in a compromising position:

We speak of snatching away her veils from nature, of unveiling her . . . . Every investigation implies the idea of a nudity which one brings out into the open by clearing away the obstacles which cover it, just as Actaeon clears away the branches so that he can have a better view of Diana at her bath. More than this, knowledge is a hunt. Bacon called it the hunt of Pan. The scientist is the hunter who surprises a white nudity and who violates by looking at it. Thus the totality of these images reveals something which we shall call the Actaeon complex. (1953, p. 578)
Sartre discusses scientific research as a form of revealing, and adopts a phenomenological approach to exploring the ways we pursue mastery of the external world. He argues that research reveals the world to us as knowledge, the researcher’s own thoughts and representations of the world. Knowledge is both part of and apart from individuals, distinctively one’s own yet potentially available to all. Knowledge is thus a peculiar possession, one that simultaneously retains both personality and impersonality: “my knowledge . . . appears in a certain way as maintained in existence by me. It is through me that a facet of the world is revealed; it is to me that it reveals itself” (1953, p. 577). Despite this, scientific knowledge is not merely subjective. We learn about the world, and thus our knowledge has external referents. Our relation to the world, whether mediated by experience or as knowledge, exhibits a certain lack. Knowledge at this point in Being and Nothingness comprises private thoughts that yet have “independent existence” insofar as “this thought which I form and which derives its existence from me . . . is thought by everybody” (p. 578). The world reveals itself to the thinker through personal investigation, but in a way that is also anonymous. The appearance of scientific knowledge, and especially empirical knowledge, gains a public character (p. 578). Discovery, the moment of invention, thus exhibits a peculiar negativity. In finding knowledge I am not establishing a unique relation of self to world, but am rather pulled in opposite directions. The pursuit of scientific knowledge engages in a disclosure, typically as part of a mode of life devoted to sharing new discoveries. Knowledge exhibits a duality, as it is both possessed and impersonal; it represents a synthesis of self and not-self that Sartre describes as possession. Knowledge is a possession in the sense that it is “mine” (p. 578); but the pursuit of knowledge can also take possession of us as a drive. At this point Sartre presents the Actaeon complex to explain the appropriative enjoyment present in discovery or the revelation of nature. He writes:
What is seen is possessed; to see is to deflower. If we examine the comparisons ordinarily used to express the relation between the knower and the known, we see that many of them are represented as being a kind of violation by sight. The unknown object is given as immaculate, as virgin, comparable to a whiteness. It has not yet “delivered up” its secret; man has not yet “snatched” its secret away from it. All these images insist that the object is ignorant of the investigations and the instruments aimed at it; it is unconscious of being known . . . . Figures of speech, sometimes vague and sometimes more precise, like that of the “unviolated depths” of nature[,] suggest the idea of sexual intercourse more plainly. (p. 578)
The Actaeon myth presents an active object, a woman who becomes aware of the revealing gaze and who exacts revenge out of proportion with civilized norms for the violation. In contrast, Sartre emphasizes the passive quality of nature in the imagination of the person pursuing knowledge. The sexual charge is undercut by knowledge’s external, impersonal aspect.v

Knowledge of an object resides within the knower, but also reminds us that something remains outside (Sartre, p. 579). The conflicted character of knowledge provides a useful heuristic for assessing certain representations of nature and the wilderness. We want to have our wilderness and consume it too, to make use of the wild while also maintaining it as inviolate space. Possession establishes a relation between self and other, but a relation marred by the fact that to possess something it has to be external, apart from the self. Sartre argues that “the desire to have is at bottom reducible to the desire to be related to a certain object in a certain relation of being,” a relation that hopes for an ideal identification and is haunted by the unattainability of this ideal (p. 589). Possession rests on a movement between subject and object, what Sartre calls a “magical relation” that can lead to destruction as a paradoxical form of absolute possession. The recognition that we cannot fully appropriate objects, that true possession is impossible, “involves for the for-itself [subject] a violent urge to destroy” the objects of knowledge: “In annihilating it I am changing it into myself. Suddenly I rediscover the relation of being found in creation, but in reverse . . . . Destruction realizes appropriation perhaps more keenly than creation does, for the object destroyed is no longer there to show itself impenetrable” (p. 593). Sartre presents this phenomenon to explain some of the pleasures of consumption. Consuming an object provides a unique form of possession that erases the external reminder of our limited power. In this sense scientific mastery promises to enhance our possession through transforming the natural world, but risks savaging the agent in the process.

Sartre’s analysis illustrates the ambivalence at the heart of being, a negativity emphasizing the destructive urge underlying knowledge and possession. Burke might characterize this as action’s tragic cast. Focusing on what can be calculated may distort other considerations, as the next section demonstrates through analysis of Lawrence’s war in the desert. This mode of representing nature also involves enframing nature as a standing reserve (Heidegger, 1954/1977, p. 17). Technology is not merely instrumental, not merely a tool to achieve a desired end, because it also involves a way of representing the world that disposes us to certain relations and courses of action. Burke presents a similar warning against the materialism of scientific appropriations of nature, and against extensions of such views to human nature.

The hunt changes its nature when no longer needed for sustenance, becoming surrounded by rituals, rules, and restraints. Burke’s discussion of Purpose leads him to methods of protecting groups from motivations towards destruction:

what we now most need is to perfect and simplify the ways of admonition, so that men may cease to persecute one another under the promptings of demonic ambition that arise in turn from distortions and misconceptions of purpose. . . . And so human thought may be directed towards “the purification of war,” not perhaps in the hope that war can be eliminated . . . but in the sense that war can be refined to the point where it would be much more peaceful than the conditions we would now call peace. (1945, p. 305)
This represents one possibility of ‘transcendence upwards’, where protections of method move the hunt from motion to action. Successfully enacting protections of method requires a difficult balancing act, involving rhetorically sensitive leadership to counteract the rhetoric of war. Actaeon personifies a countervailing movement, from action to motion. Actaeon ventures into a dangerous, forbidden scene and loses his self.

One price knowledge exacts is defamiliarization, as Actaeon’s transformation indicates. His hounds no longer recognize him as master of the pack and tear into him when he returns to them. Diana explicitly observes Actaeon’s inability to speak—he cannot transmit knowledge, so cannot tell others what he saw when he surprised the goddess at her bath. Similarly, Lawrence faces resistance from British officers at the thought that he might have ‘gone native’. He cannot fully translate between desert conditions and conventional British military life. He is dispossessed by his knowledge, fully at home in neither world. Sartre’s analysis articulates two figures—the hunt of Pan and Actaeon’s self-destructive pursuit—in order to explain such ambivalence and internal conflict. These figures suggest that getting too wrapped up in pursuit can turn our goals against us, or turn us into despoilers of what we seek to preserve.

Wilderness places such as the desert provide scenes of transformative vision. Making use of this resource, however, alters agents. The figure of Actaeon provides one cautionary example. Lawrence’s participation in war against the Turks provides another. The next section demonstrates how Lawrence takes advantage of his insight into desert conditions to tap resources beyond those used by the Turks, Germans, and Arabs he fought. Lawrence’s war in the desert evidences the bond between possession and destruction, a union perfected in the SF novel Dune’s depiction of desert power (Herbert, 1965): One aspect of true possession is the ability to destroy a resource absolutely. Lawrence’s conflict highlights the duality Sartre discusses. A closer reading of the way some of these strands are woven together in Lawrence’s tale provides insight into the desert’s value, especially when viewed as scene. This scene, where Lawrence’s calculative rationality is brought to bear upon Arab agents and used to knit desert commonplaces into his rhetorical vision, enables military victory. By mistaking the interplay of scene and purpose, Lawrence enacts Actaeon’s self-destructive turn.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom Read through the Pentad

This section assesses the semi-mythologized account Lawrence presents of his own actions in terms of the pentad, focusing on his attempts to utilize scenic resources to motivate successful rebellion. Burke’s pentad helps to assess mechanisms by which Lawrence’s rhetorical vision motivates partially successful revolution. Burke discusses Act, Agent, Scene, Purpose, and Agency as key elements of the human drama (1945, p. 128). Combinations of these elements provide ratios that afford insight into narratives. Lawrence sets himself up as a prophet of an idea, though he is careful to root this idea in the soil of commonplaces. As Lawrence (2000) writes, “I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence” based on the rhetorical construction of “an inspired dream-palace” (p. xlviii). Lawrence adds strategic vision and a detailed plan to the raw material of Bedouin fighters. Accordingly the desert scene becomes an agency of transformation both by providing commonplaces suitable for motivation and by providing tactical advantage to those inured to its harsh mysteries. The character of the Bedouin fighters who joined Feisal had been shaped by the desert; this forms the substance of effective agents of change. The desert terrain and climate provide constraints which Lawrence employs for effective acts of resistance. Intimate familiarity with the desert enables the resistance to drive out Turkish rule, at least in concert with allies. Lawrence, however, places too much hope in the ability of revolutionary action to reshape the scenic influence on character: divisions and the lack of a common enemy splinter the nascent Arab movement and allow a colonial frame to define the postwar scene. To the extent that he maintains loyalty to two masters, Lawrence’s purpose suffers from internal conflict. The element of scene subtends each of these components of the pentad.

In this story scientific knowledge, or at least calculative rationality, is brought to bear on a people to reconstruct their identity. Lawrence’s efforts to help Feisal build an Arab movement and to form an Arab nation are also attempts to rewrite the tribal identity of desert The rigors and commonplaces of desert life that enable successful resistance and motivation create a stumbling block to success once the Turks are repelled. Lawrence’s efforts also founder upon European treaties. Unfortunately these new bases for identification are negative in character, and so provide little durable substance for new social and institutional formations. The basis for Lawrence’s Arab revolt disintegrates with the end of the war: fighting off the Turk leaves little basis for reconstruction aside from partially shared languages and religious traditions. The act of overthrowing Turkish rule is insufficient to transform a scene of colonial domination.vii This paper tests the notion that scene is primary in Lawrence’s tale despite his emphasis on purpose by examining the relevant pentadic ratios.


Lawrence discusses the desert in different ways in his memoirs. Often the desert functions as a crucible or an anvil suitable for forging a strong character. He also discusses limitations of the cultural norms guiding his allies, but typically attributes those to other causes. Lawrence stresses the desert’s ability to shape individual character, a line of thought Burke recognizes in Thomas Carlyle’s work:

The scene-agent ratio, where the synecdochic relation is between person and place, is partly exemplified in this citation from Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-Worship: “These Arabs Mohammed was born among are certainly a notable people. Their country itself is notable; the fit habitation for such a race. Savage inaccessible rock-mountains, great grim deserts, alternating with beautiful strips of verdure . . . . Consider that wide waste horizon of sand, empty, silent, like a sand-sea . . . . Such a country is fit for a swift-handed, deep-hearted race of men.” (1945, pp. 7-8)
Burke observes that this ratio correlates “the quality of the country and the quality of its inhabitants” (p. 8). Lawrence understands the character typically forged by life in this region. He portrays the Bedouin as rooted in tradition, allowing very little change over vast spans of time (Lawrence, 2000, p. 341). At the same time, he understands them well enough to transform identification through rhetorical appeal and revolutionary action (see Burke, 1939, p . 227). Lawrence motivates resistance by appealing to his audience based on a deep knowledge of their different belief systems and his enmeshment in a radically dissimilar cultural scene. Lawrence’s rhetorical vision has implications for his own character, as discussion of his purpose will evidence. He interpellates audiences to follow his attempt to constitute an Arab nation, soliciting identification in support of Feisul and against a common enemy, and thereby works to constitute a nation.

Modern warfare changed the ratio of success in this conflict. Enemy agents, tactics and strategy proved inappropriate for the scene even though the Turks had maintained rule for over four centuries. Unified resistance against a common enemy replaced tribal factionalism—to an extent and for a time. The Arab revolt took advantage of the enemy’s trained incapacities and occupational psychoses. The enemy leadership was, Lawrence suggests, blinded by predisposition and limited by their calculative, constrained approach to strategy. One limitation rested on their training of agents. The Turks were restricted by the requirement for dependable troops.

Lawrence observes that military discipline requires the “submergement of individuality” so that the unit becomes a true unit, “in order that their effort might be calculable [emphasis added], and the collective output even in grain and bulk. The deeper the discipline, the lower was the individual excellence; also the more sure the performance” (p. 279). Invention is one cost of dependability. By contrast, revolt remains unpredictable. Tribal factionalism limits options for concerted attack but allowed a wide dispersal of self-sufficient forces (p. 278). The lack of discipline and uniformity would create insuperable problems after the Turks departed, but resisting calculability constitutes one key to the success of the resistance. Lawrence argues that the discipline of a regular army erodes individual initiative and what he calls the “subjunctive mood”—the ability to think differently and to imagine contingencies (p. 432). Lawrence speaks of how the Arab guerilla forces possess a desert discipline that provides mobility and secrecy needed to offset the coordinated discipline and responsiveness to command cultivated through conventional military training. This represents another facet of the scene-agent ratio.

The desert provides a scene for a prophetic imagination that makes use of scientific calculation and Western technology. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence recounts insights that came to him in the desert as he suffered from fever. These distempered insights represent the synthesis of Oxford knowledge and his intimate understanding of the desert. The way Lawrence describes it, inspiration suffused him as he lay tossing in the grip of near-delirium. His feverish musings eventuate in invention. Michael Asher notes that “In his delirium, Lawrence had discovered desert power” (Introduction in Lawrence, 2000, p. xix). Lawrence strategizes a war of ideas tailored to the scene and backed by guerilla resistance. The desert provides a sense of freedom tied to a religious belief in “the emptiness of the world and the fullness of god”; such a belief system made desert Arabs useful servants of “the prophet of an idea” (Lawrence, 2000, p. 14). Accordingly, Lawrence attempts to become the secular prophet of the vision of an Arab nation, attaching himself to an established leader with high religious standing: Sherif Feisal. Lawrence emphasizes renunciation in discussing the motivational basis of his appeal for an Arab Nation, but develops a strategy premised on minimizing casualties and maximizing the destruction of enemy resources. This constitutes more of a hunt than a war. The character of his rebel forces allows effective utilization of the desert and also affords superior intelligence in the field. The desert scene turns its denizens’ character into a valuable if unreliable military resource. It enables agency in other ways, too.


Lawrence’s strategy for the Arab resistance reflects both inspiration and doxa, a combination of Oxford schooling, military training, and his knowledge of the scene. Lawrence’s episteme of revolt relies upon the destruction of the enemy’s reserves, and in particular of material resources.viii The rationalized philosophy of war to which Germany had introduced the Turks (Lawrence, 2000, p. 97) rested on calculation, an “essentially formulable” estimation of known variables and fixed conditions (p. 148). Lawrence discusses this in terms of “biological” and “psychological” components of troops. The Turkish army, in Lawrence’s mind, had imposed a fixed model on the “biological” element of troops and exhibited inflexibility in the “psychological” dimension. He takes advantage of this rigid calculative mindset. Troops comprise a significant variable of warfare, both in terms of morale and in terms of movements; but Lawrence argues that they were only one component of material ‘reserves’:

The components were sensitive and illogical, and generals guarded themselves by the device of a reserve, the significant medium of their art. Goltz had said that if you knew the enemy’s strength, and he was fully deployed, then you could dispense with a reserve: but this was never. The possibility of accident, of some flaw in materials was always in the general’s mind, and the reserve unconsciously held to meet it. . . . it applied also to materials. In Turkey things were scarce and precious, men less esteemed than equipment. . . . The death of a Turkish bridge or rail, machine or gun or charge of high explosive, was more profitable to us than the death of a Turk. (p. 149)
Lawrence’s enemy had to defend resources and territory; they could not penetrate far enough into the desert to trap resistance forces. That focus and the need to guard static resources—bridges, railways, artillery and the like—created an opening for hit-and-run resistance, enabling neutralization of the enemy’s agency. In this sense Lawrence used calculative rationality to defeat a more calculative approach.

His insight into the enemy’s conception of agents and agency provides a tactical as well as a strategic edge. Scattered resistance could defeat a much larger force (Lawrence estimates 600,000 Turkish solders against 50,000 “zealots” with intermittent attendance) by destroying its standing-reserves. The enemy saw Arabs in terms of motion, as calculable units, and thereby created a debilitating inflexibility. Lawrence takes advantage of that tendency to reduce action to motion, destroying the standing reserve of the enemy in the process.ix

Dwelling in the desert provides another dimension of the Scene-agency ratio. The desert shelters fighters from detection, allowing Lawrence to strike at railroad lines, telegraph lines and isolated fortifications and then to retreat where Turkish forces could not follow. Lawrence fights to minimize losses and not to consolidate territorial gains, though cities such as Akaba would provide valuable new bases. These dimensions of the desert’s purposiveness for guerrilla warfare illustrate the Scene-agency ratio. The film understandably de-emphasizes the calculated and calculative foundation of Lawrence’s victory, presenting a much more dashing and heroic figure in a way that illustrates the dual relation between agent and scene: Lawrence changes the political scene even as his own character undergoes a disturbing transformation.

Lawrence seeks to deny the Turks determinate targets. The revolt thus becomes a war of ideas in significant respects. Rather than engaging in direct contact with enemy forces, Lawrence takes advantage of rhetoric’s quicksilver and imaginative resources: “suppose we were (as we might be) an influence, an idea, a thing intangible, invulnerable, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? . . . Our kingdoms lay in each man’s mind; and as we wanted nothing material to live on, so we might offer nothing material to the killing” (p. 148). Sedition and motivation to rebel promise to aid Lawrence’s task, whereas losses in battle would threaten his support (p. 149). Accordingly, Lawrence develops warfare based on the denial of presence. The premium on minimizing casualties distinguishes this war from suicide missions. The desert shelters fighters, allowing a controlled focus on the enemy’s resources, including communications. The scene allows Turkish supply lines (such as railroads) and intelligence resources (such as telegraph lines) to be cut almost continually. Lawrence’s construction of the desert emphasizes its usefulness for evading detection. In contrast, his enemy’s perception of the desert as a limited resource constrains their options.

The desert allows Lawrence’s forces to seize upon critical advantages and to deny real battle to the enemy. Rather than engage in a traditional “war of contact, both forces striving to touch to avoid tactical surprise,” Lawrence employs a “war of detachment” (p. 150), where the desert itself serves as a weapon:

We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert, not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attack might be nominal, directed not against him, but against his stuff; so it would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material. In railway-cutting it would be usually an empty stretch of rail; and the more empty, the greater the tactical success. We might turn our average into a rule (not a law, since war was antinomian) and never engage the enemy. (p. 150)
Here Lawrence discusses the desert as a sheltering agency, in itself threatening to the Turks. Calculation remains central to Lawrence’s strategy: his plan requires near-perfect intelligence about the enemy’s location and movements. Turkish armies tended to remain in fixed positions and were relatively easy to track. The desert provides refuge from air attacks, given moderate preparation, and so the revolt could remain hidden until the proper moment for it to disclose itself by striking inadequately defended resources. While such hit-and-run tactics are ancient, Lawrence adds new theory and a certain strategic inspiration.


The conclusion of Lawrence’s fevered thought is that the rebels could use advanced equipment, secrecy, speed, propaganda, and a friendly population to defeat their “sophisticated alien enemy” because it was disposed as “an army of occupation in an area greater than could be dominated effectively from fortified posts” (p. 152). Small, fast strike forces might attack along a very wide front, forcing the Turks to “strengthen their defensive posts beyond the defensive minimum” (p. 177). Such tactics are consistent with the goal of minimizing rebel casualties. Part of Lawrence’s genius is to mix the immiscible, combining thorough knowledge of a calculative mindset with deep sensitivity to a foreign culture, engaging in a hunt against enemy resources rather than a war of troops (though that dual vision carries a cost). The acts of his guerilla resistance are different than the acts of typical armies, mainly because they rest on different relations with the desert as scene. In this sense, the desert shelters and supports acts of resistance.


An unanticipated consequence of the reactive constitution of the Arab army was that it dissipated after the Turks were driven out. This failure to endure through peace-time occurred in part due to the characteristics that Lawrence used to advantage during times of conflict—“the Arab Army, born and brought up in the fighting line, had never known a peace-habit, and was not faced with problems of maintenance till armistice-time: then it failed signally” (p. 433). Discipline constrained the resistance as well as the Turkish army. The cross-purposes of factionalism rather than agency thwarted the ideal of an Arab nation, though scene remained a crucial factor.x A scene of war provided a common enemy to sustain revolutionary purpose. This enabled motivation of extreme acts that succeeded because they made better use of strategic resources. A peacetime scene, however, deprived the nascent Arab nation of their unifying ground. Fractured identifications were submerged but not subsumed in the common purpose of freedom; they provided bases for division once the enemy left. Fighting off European hegemony would require a different sort of transformative vision.

Lawrence develops his vision as an outsider of sorts, but one with a deep knowledge of indigenous culture. He lives a double life, crossing and recrossing borders. This leads to conflicts of purpose, limiting his attempt at change even as it reveals resources for invention. Lawrence gains insight from his dual perspective, using his knowledge of various ways of thinking to develop a strategy suited to taking advantage of the available resources for persuasion. He moves between two worlds and two cultures, gaining insight as well as travail from the constant effort of mediation: “In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me” (p.5). The price of this transformation is that Lawrence is no longer comfortable as simply a British subject. The customs and conventions constituting Lawrence’s lifeworld lose their natural cast. Lacking means to overcome his new trained incapacities, he rots in a sense after leaving the desert.

Lawrence explicitly discusses the duality of possession in relation to one’s environment. He observes that a leader or servant in a new land lives a double life that threatens to betray both sources of allegiance:

A man who gives himself to be a possession of aliens leads a Yahoo life, having bartered his soul to a brute-mater. He is not of them. He may stand against them, persuade himself of a mission, batter and twist them into something which they, of their own accord, would not have been. Then he is exploiting his old environment to press them out of theirs. Or, after my model, he may imitate them so well that they spuriously imitate him back again. Then he is giving away his own environment: pretending to theirs . . . In neither case does he do a thing of himself, nor a thing so clean as to be his own . . . (p. 5)
Lawrence is tragically caught between two cultural scenes, turned against himself. This represents a destructive facet of the Scene-agent ratio, where environmental conditions and loyalty reshape individuals. The ‘Yahoo life’ Lawrence lives is a dispossessed life, but also a life possessed by the haunting lack Sartre discusses. Lawrence observes that one risk of denaturalizing convention by adopting foreign customs is madness, which haunts “the man who could see things through the veils at once of two customs, two educations, two environments” (p.6). The film version dramatizes his flirtation with obsessive possession. In any event, Lawrence’s story presents the danger that estrangement will subvert the ability to see commonplaces accurately.

Lawrence’s self-conscious mythic design features Purpose, a mode of ‘transcendence upwards’ that provides a frame for subsequent analysis. Such higher vision, when successful, avoids the disintegration and destruction characteristic of ‘transcendence downwards’. Burke explains this in terms of the representative anecdote, which presents danger as well as a possible protection:

And so it is with the dialectical principle of the Upward Way. Beginning with the particulars of the world, and with whatever principle of meaning they are already felt to possess, it proceeds by stages until some level of generalization is reached that one did not originally envisage, whereupon the particulars of the world itself look different, as seen in terms of this “higher vision.” . . . Usually, this dialectic resource takes the form of a generalization carried to the point of some metaphor or image, after which all particulars are seen in terms of it. (1945, p. 306)
Lawrence’s story taps into Actaeon’s representative anecdote of purpose’s double nature. It shapes action, directs agency, and can motivate transformation; but placing too much faith in the ability of purpose to reconfigure scenic factors courts tragedy.

Lawrence (2000) has to retain aspects of British civilization in order to negotiate his sometimes conflicted loyalties. His pledges to the Arabs perhaps lack the best faith:

It was evident from the beginning that if we won the war these promises [of Arab self-government, made by the British] would be dead paper, and had I been an honest advisor of the Arabs I would have advised them to go home and not risk their lives fighting for such stuff: but I salved myself with the hope that, by leading these Arabs madly in the final victory I would establish them, with arms in their hands, in a position so assured (if not dominant) that expediency would counsel to the Great Powers a fair settlement of their claims. (xlix)
Lawrence places hope in the ability of his insurgency to transform the broader scene of colonial domination through the revolutionary self-constitution of an Arab nation, ensuring autonomy for the community developed in resisting the Turks. He is also torn between conflicting dreams. His rhetorical construction of the desert fails to account for enduring antagonisms that undid his work of identification, constituting one of many incomplete attempts at nation-building. Lawrence hopes that success will constitute a new nation, but his rhetorical vision is not enough to create an enduring self-fulfilling prophecy.

However compelling Lawrence’s vision may have been, its achievement was ultimately limited. His purpose was insufficient. Lawrence’s vision foundered, as it was unable to sustain itself much longer than its foe: The Arab movement of his time was based upon the negation of Turkish rule and had little positive content to enable unification once the common enemy had been defeated. Religious and cultural commonplaces limited transformation (Lawrence, 2000, p. 67). Absent supportive traditions and institutions, the abstract negation characterizing opposition to the Turks provided an inadequate basis for self-governance. The broader geopolitical scene also worked to thwart Arab self-determination (see Burke, 1945, p. 6).

Burke argues that such self-dissolution is typical of mystical approaches such as Lawrence’s because over-reliance upon purpose tends towards self-subversion: “The fact that, in mysticism, Purpose is made absolute, always complicates matters by requiring us to lose purpose at the very moment when we find it. . . . All told, of the five terms, Purpose has become the one most susceptible of dissolution” (1945, p. 289). Arab unity compensates for divisions so long as a common enemy exists, but this negative purpose provides little resource for forging an autonomous nation. Without firm grounding, Lawrence’s purpose cannot unify itself through a dialectical transformation of political reality and thus is pulled further apart by a recalcitrant scene. Perhaps the ghost of his purpose tears him apart upon his return to England.

Conflicted Possession

Actaeon becomes a stag who is devoured by the instruments of the hunt. Lawrence undergoes a transformation into a creature of the wilderness which allows him to understand the desert’s potential as a weapon, but this transformation estranges him from a former way of life. These fates illustrate the miscarriage of purpose. Learning nature’s secrets has manifold effects, but destruction is a common theme. Desert power in Lawrence’s narrative rests on the ability to destroy valuable resources held by the enemy. Conventional uses of nature in warfare deploy a standing reserve (in the form of weapons, logistical support, and other resources derived from civilian populations) to destroy, even if only in the form of a threat meant to deter. Strategy and tactics make use of features of the terrain to take best advantage of local situations. Destruction and the threat of destruction are wrapped up in the possession of nature. Lawrence’s tragedy of estrangement, where he feels alien upon his homecoming, illustrates the ambivalence Sartre discusses. Lawrence attempts to master the desert, but his efforts to alter the scene by acting in furtherance of his purpose alter his character, illustrating the Act-agent ratio (see Burke, 1945, p. 16). Actaeon likewise cannot go back, though his price is destruction by his familiars when recognition fails. Sartre’s Actaeon complex calls attention to certain constitutive paradoxes attending relations with the natural world, including representations of wilderness spaces as resources. Such representations are useful, but carry a price. Lawrence becomes a cautionary symbol.

This conclusion assesses the lessons of Lawrence’s encounter with the desert, Sartre’s phenomenological approach to scientific mastery of nature, and Burke’s Dramatistic account of rhetoric. Lawrence’s purpose drives him compulsively. Perhaps his temperament is to go to extremes, and he acknowledges his tendency to self-mortification; but Lawrence tends to stress how the consequences of his purpose tainted him: “in my heart I felt . . . that anyone who pushed through to success a rebellion of the weak against their masters must come out of it so stained in estimation that afterward nothing in the world would make him feel clean” (p. 566). Overwhelming purpose can submerge agency and critical thinking, rendering agents into vessels. This denies action, working backwards from sublimation to possession by the desire of the hunt. Lawrence’s mysticism of speed illustrates how, when left with only purpose, we risk becoming blind to obstacles down the road. Extreme purpose risks subversion of our goals by the agency of our pursuit. Lawrence risks destroying the very movement he wishes to support and is possessed by his drive, driven to self-destruction. Desire for possession can lead to self-excoriation. Lawrence harnesses internal conflicts to productive ends, but still suffers from the dissonance Sartre described.

It would not be too difficult to apply the terms of this analysis to current American involvement in the region, but assessing narratives of transforming the Iraqi scene to one of peaceful, self-sustaining democracy through the act of regime change, elections, or constitutional reform belongs to a different paper. Another manifestation of this dream includes the transformation of regional agency, transcending traditional enmity and conflict through the calculated use of technology to achieve ‘shock and awe’. These approaches reflect belief in the magical capacity of purpose or advanced technology (military or political) to transform reality. The abstract negation of tyranny, such as Lawrence achieved by fighting off the Turks, is insufficient. It fails to achieve the status of determinate negation required to build self-sustaining democratic institutions. The value, the ‘equipment for living’ that this study provides is that of a cautionary metaphor, the hunt turned upon the hunter. Lawrence enacts the process Sartre describes in outlining the Actaeon complex. His story illustrates limitations of founding identity upon strength of purpose with insufficient regard to scenic constraints.

The hunter haunted or even destroyed by his pursuit constitutes a significant rhetorical figure useful for understanding the tragic potential of obsessive purpose. The duality of calculative knowledge is important for scholars interested in the ways discourses such as science can be employed to reduce nature and to transform it into agencies of human use. Illustrating dialectical conflicts characterizing purpose and possession by means of mythic figures and a Pentadic framework clarifies a broader dynamic of unanticipated transformations of the self. Rhetoric can transform agents and even reconstitute polities, but such transformation must remain sensitive to its motivating source and to scenic constraints lest we be blinded—or worse—by our vision.


i See Judith Butler’s Psychic Life of Power (1997) for an extended analysis of the trope of the turn and its force for constituting and potentially transforming subjectivity.

ii Burke (1945) mentions the bodily hunger that provides a genesis for hunting: “another purely biological motive involved in mysticism derives from the fact that at the very centre of mobility is the purpose of the hunt” (p. 303). The hunt contains a sexual dimension based on hunger, ranging from a bodily hunger for sustenance to the metaphoric hunger to achieve goals and to a more eroticized desire, where we represent “the desired as that for which we ‘hunger’, so that the quest for prey can become transformed into the erotic quest” (p. 303). These represent what Burke would call ‘purifications’ of hunger, a transcendence upwards through the symbolic that makes the victimage of the hunt less destructive. In contrast, militarizing the cult of the Hunt without the protections of method Burke advocates risks aestheticizing war and politics (c.f. Burke, 1950, p. 256).

iii This paper leaves substantive analysis of the film for another work; it mentions especially vivid moments or complementary themes from Lean’s film to illustrate Lawrence’s written account.

iv Bacon’s position is familiar, in part through the work of Carolyn Merchant (1980). Discourses representing nature as passive before reason’s active investigation are in some sense an attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophecy about human-nature relations. They reflect, consolidate, and reconstitute gender roles and relations. Chandra Mohanty argues that colonial expansion relied upon scientific justifications for ‘discovering’ and mastering new realms, typically characterized as a masculine act of exploring a feminized natural realm (1997, p. 269). The rhetorical implications of gendered personifications of nature and science are worth pursuing in a subsequent work; Sandra Harding’s (1991) extension of rhetorical analysis of Bacon represents one influential approach.

v Knowing may be a form of appropriation, a metaphorical ingestion and digestion of the other, and knowledge may inherently involve a certain degree of appropriative enjoyment. However, by stressing the violation of sight Sartre proves too much: his account expands violation to encompass all of being, at least for knowing subjects. Indeed, Sartre extends the critique to possession in general as well as to knowledge as a particular type of possession. On the other hand, he does mention a playful relationship as perhaps one way of avoiding possession’s destructive threat.

vi We have Lawrence’s account, with all its respectful Orientalism; but insofar as he motivated rebellion in the region he evidenced formidable cultural attunement. It would be worthwhile to use Lawrence as a basis for reconsidering critiques of colonialist and post-colonial representational strategies, but such analysis belongs to a different work.

vii Burke notes that an emphasis on scene characterizes materialist, possibly determinist theories. Lawrence consistently refuses the determinsim of reducing action to motion; the character depicted in the film dramatizes as much by his insistence that “nothing is written.” Lawrence’s transformation of desert life carries messianic overtones. The film plays up this element substantially, even referencing Moses in a scene emphasizing the human ability to write one’s own fate. An emphasis on agent would favor idealist theories, whereas emphasizing purpose favors mysticism. Lawrence develops tactics to guide military acts that take advantage of agents and the agency enabled by the desert scene; an emphasis on act benefits from a realist approach, such as Lawrence’s assessment of terrain, resources, and intelligence.

One might argue that in any war scene will be the determining factor, but that is by no means obvious. The typology listed above suggests that such a view says more about the evaluator’s perspective than about the essence of warfare. In many cases advantages in firepower or technology (such as aerial superiority and artillery support for land combat) will prove decisive. In these cases agency trumps scene. Heroic tales from Classical Antiquity and Arthurian legend emphasize the character of individual warriors, prioritizing agent. Conceptions of combat holding that the just side will win (such as romanticized notions of trial by combat) emphasize purpose, typically divine purpose. Often the ability to choose the proper ground for battle is represented as a decisive act, or a component of strategic genius (agent). Appreciating Napoleon’s ability, for instance, would involve examining how he selected various sites or adapted his tactics to fit specific occasions; these would touch on scene but only in relation to more important pentadic elements. Alternatively Napoleon’s inauguration of ‘total war’ could be seen as creating additional agency for sustaining conflict as civilizations pit their entire substance against one another, rendering traditional ratios of military strategy less effective.

viii Lawrence (2000) uses the Greek words episteme, doxa, and noesis to discuss leadership and strategy: great commanders require a sense of “the ‘felt’ element in troops,” which is not teachable in school. Honing this instinct for the unpredictable quality of troops and other irrational components of war can consolidate doxa into episteme, which “the Greeks might have called noesis had they bothered to rationalize revolt” (p. 149); this provides a terminological link to Sartre’s phenomenological assessment.

xi The Turks attempted a similar approach, committing acts such as poisoning wells with camel corpses; but they were rather less effective. A related project would consider Lawrence’s struggle in terms of Heidegger’s work on viewing nature as a “standing reserve” (1954/1977) in more detail, where Lawrence allows the desert to reveal itself rather than forcing it into a more limited, albeit predictable, frame.

x The film emphasizes the value of artillery (agency), denied by the British; this was not an element in Lawrence’s history: The British supplied artillery pieces and trainers along with armored cars and other relatively advanced weapons.


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