Talking In My Sleep
by Mark Hahn
I was back in Chicago after being gone for thirty years. I couldn’t remember why, but I was attending a gala art event. It seemed everyone was there. So many faces that looked familiar, but that I couldn’t place.
The dream was probably spawned from a series of events. A photo of people from my past. A moment in time. The passing of one. Revisiting On the Road. Watching Lawrence of Arabia all the way through — sober.
In my dream, a woman I had once known took me around to say hello to people who she said would remember me. Even though I went along with her, I couldn’t remember who she was. In moments of social chatter, I felt comfortable and confident. I forgot about everything. The years somehow didn’t seem to matter.
While we waited for someone to come around, the woman and I sat together by a wall. The din of the event faded into white noise and I was left looking deeply into her face. She told me her name, but I didn’t remember her — I knew I should have remembered who she was.
As I looked into her aged face I attempted to peel back the years. I was struck by how far away my past really was. I tried to see this woman as a beautiful young girl. I tried to remember if she had wanted me or me her.
The woman asked questions about what I had done after I left Chicago. I just vanished one day. The questions were simple, but they were hard to answer. I evaded these questions. The answers should have been simple — one messed up thing had been followed by another. I did what I could. But when I tried to condense the story into something meaningful, it all fell apart.
My whole life was a muddled reaction to a lot of bad luck followed by bad decisions on how to cope with it. Life goes on and we make mistakes. My mistakes pushed me farther and farther from everything I had known.
* * *
Most people watch Lawrence of Arabia and are blinded by the question of Laurence’s sexuality and how he exercised it. Really, I don’t care, it’s not that interesting. The essence of sexuality is found in the inexpressible feeling of attraction we have when looking at another — intellectualization and moralization come later. We can only hope, for his sake, that Lawrence found some joy and love in his messed up life, no matter how he was able to express it or with whom.
What came out of watching Lawrence of Arabia this time was seeing how much of an outsider he was. He isn’t a gay hero. He isn’t really even a hero at all. He lived his erratic life, attempting to do the best he could. He was a lost man trying to cope with a world he didn’t fit into. An American journalist turned him into a legend and Lawrence went along for the ride.
In real life, as a kid, T. E. Lawrence suffered random and excessive beatings and humiliation at the hands of his mother — an unmarried servant living with his aristocratic father. These beginnings, especially in terms of the class uncertainty and the questionable moral grounding of his family had to be confusing for Lawrence while growing up in the Victorian age. Overcoming this tumultuous beginning would be a monumental personal challenge for any person. It’s hard to imagine how a young Lawrence could feel at peace or even safe in his position. Lawrence learned to cope by shutting down.
In the desert, with the Arab people, Lawrence seems to find the closest thing to fitting in he would ever find. He was an accepted outsider. He was special. He was different. He could be himself, whatever that was.
Laurence’s fantasy of the natural primitive purity of the Arab people and his personal delusion of elevating himself above his humanness was shattered during his beatings and homosexual rape at the hands of the governor of Deraa.
He would later write of experience, “… the force of that night will lie in the agony which broke me and made me surrender. (…) For fear of being hurt, or rather to earn five minutes respite from a pain which drove me mad, I gave away the only possession we are born into the world with – our bodily integrity. It’s an unforgivable matter…”
In various ways, we all give up different levels of personal integrity during the process of life and our attempts to avoid pain.
In the movie, the adult Laurence lives a life of detached fantasy — he is an image to himself. He never has any true intimate human attachments. He passes through life, reacting to one opportunity after another — he responds to the changes in the wind and tries to find a place for himself along the way. Maybe none of us can do any better.
A pivotal point in the movie comes after Lawrence risks his own life to go back into the blazing desert to rescue a dying man. When he returns, Sherif Ali gives him a set of traditional Arab robes and an ornate dagger in gratitude. Lawrence is accepted conditionally as “one of them” for doing something that none of them would have done. The irony is that Lawrence will later take the very same man’s life. Lawrence is no saint.
After putting on his new Arab dress for the first time, Lawrence finds himself alone in the desert and dances around in joy when he thinks that no one is looking — prancing around in gestures of exuberance which can easily be taken as feminine. The scene is viewed by many to be one of the hidden gay scenes in the film, but I choose to interpret it as Lawrence throwing off the oppressive Victorian moral code that he had been saddled with since youth and letting himself be free. Freedom is much larger than simple sexuality.
Lawrence died in a motorcycle accident while driving down the British road alone. At his funeral, we hear what people have to say about him. It is clear that no one really knew who he was. This, in spite of the fact that he was a national hero and honoured author. You have to wonder what he was thinking when he was alone — when he felt truly free — at the moment of his death.
* * *
Much like Kerouac’s personal self portrayal in On the Road, we see in T. E. Lawrence, as portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia, a man on a journey of self discovery. Both are in search of some sort of freedom — a way to put down the baggage they carry deep inside their scarred souls. While Kerouac never seems to get over his preconceived notion of what freedom should be and how he should find it, Lawrence seems to have been open to the remarkable situations that he found himself in and was able to let himself go. During the period of Lawrence’s Middle East military activities, he got to express himself in ways that he never could have foreseen. This is what freedom is all about, escaping every preconception — experiencing what is beyond what you can let yourself dream. Kerouac never opened up to anything and never found anything but loneliness and his own loathsomeness.
Perhaps it is finding the moments of freedom between all the bullshit in our lives that matters most — relishing in those moments where we let out ourselves out. For T. E. Lawrence, this came when he found himself in an alien landscape far from his home. We can romanticize this to the nth degree. There is a beauty in this type of salvation, but in real life, the opportunities for freedom and self expression are all around us. They are found in the multitude of small things that add up to a meaningful whole.
Lawrence of Arabia was just shown locally on the big screen where is was truly epic. On the Road opens in Tucson this week. I don’t have high hopes for this adaptation of Kerouac’s novel, but I will be definitely seeing it as soon as I can.
* * *
When I lived in Chicago, I slept with a world atlas by my bed. It was my book of salvation, somewhat like a Bible is to many. It gave me hope of escape. I’d read the cryptic entries describing distant cities and countries and I would flip through the pages. On many nights, I’d fall asleep dreaming of where I might find happiness. Before I lost this atlas, I had moved many places. Left a lot behind. I never found the happiness I looked for — not in the way I had imagined it anyway — but in the end, I stopped looking and found the happiness I have inside myself.