February 28, 2006

Research Notes: Arabia and the geography of asceticism

Follow-up to Research Notes: T.E. Lawrence and Abu Ghraib – the necessary consequences of war from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

One hundred and fifty pages into Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence, with the Arabian campaign fully open, a wider and still relevant geophilosophical perspective is ever present.

In the opening chapters of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence foretells the geo-ideational forces arising when the Arab army is released from its territorial and tribal divisions, into the delirial existence of nomadic desert fighters. Contrary to the myth and the movie, many of the constituent parties of the army, accounted for meticulously in the text, were not Bedouin desert dwellers, rather having come down from the hills of the Hejaz or from the more comfortable coastal plains. This was then a new movement, breaking out of the timeless circulation of peoples and their livestock into and across the desert – a sudden and unprecedented mass carrying with it bodies from the diverse geophysical and social distributions of people into places.

As the great Arab army of Feisal embarks upon its first significant campaign, across inhospitable desert terrain, Lawrence again revisits the geo-ideational effects of the desert upon those who adapt to it. The momentum towards battle is stayed briefly with a consideration of asceticism, as exhibited by one of the many tribes within the march.

The Wahabis, followers of a fanatical Moslem heresy, had imposed their strict rules on easy and civilized Kasim. In Kasim their was but little coffee-hospitality, much prayer and fasting, no tobacco, no artistic dalliance with women, no silk clothes, no gold and silver head-ropes. Everything was forcibly pious or forcibly puritanical. p.148

A significant point in understanding Lawrence is here, in that this rejection of the will to pleasure, by a fundamentalist sect, is not posed as anti-nature. Rather, Lawrence conceives it as being immanent to the geographical, meteorological and cosmological plane in which it grows. Lawrence the map maker seeks to draw a cartography of ideation.

It was a natural phenomenon, this periodic rise of intervals of little more than a century, of ascetic creeds in Central Arabia. Always the votaries found their neighbours' beliefs cluttered with inessential things, which became impious in the hot imagination of their preachers. Again and again they had arisen, had taken possession, soul and body, of the tribes, and had dashed themselves to pieces on the urban Semites, merchants and concupiscent men of the world. About their comfortable possessions the new creeds ebbed and flowed like the tides or the changing seasons, each movement with the seeds of early death in its excess of rightness. p.148

There is, in this natural phenomenon, a desert aesthetic. The asceticism of the desert is a kind of unchecked delirium of the senses, that is to say, a movement so light and without relation that the only remaining sense is that of the movement itself, without distraction. And at the same time the movement becomes almost imperceptible, thus bearing the mind down more anxiously upon its continuation and progress. Distances are far, out on the gravel plains and in the dune fields. Looking into these horizons, the eye covers innumerable grains of reality in an instant, whilst the body traverses the distances so slowly as to become absorbed to the point of almost being part of the desert itself – just another grain of sand, but with a will to overcome casual drifting. A will all the more powerful in response to the enveloping power of emptiness and geological flow.

Seemingly it was a plain, with an illimitable view downhill to the east, where one gentle level after another slowly modulated into a distance only to be called a distance because it was a softer blue, and more hazy. p.245 Chapter XLII
The Fejr Bedouin, whose property it was, called our plain El Houl because it was desolate; and to-day we rode in it without seeing signs of life; no tracks of gazelle, no lizards, no burrowing of rats, not even any birds. We, ourselves, felt tiny in it, and our urgent progress across its immensity was a stillness or immobility of futile effort. p.246 – Chapter XLII

The nomad must, by necessity, travel with few social connections and possessions. But at the same time must enter into this plain with a single strong possession – a belief in the journey, a righteousness of the path. At the extreme, the body and its immediate functional extensions (camel, cloak, water container, dagger) becomes one of five reference points, along with the sun, the earth, the day and the night. At its most extreme, travel by day becomes impossible due to the extreme heat, and so darkness removes even the earth as a point of reference. The passage into the desert may then work to transpose the traveller from the un-fathomable chaos of urban life (a virtuality of which he will never be master), into the immense but conceivable chaos of desert (a virtuality over which skill can be obtained).

Doubtless they must recur so long as the causes – sun, moon, wind, acting in the emptiness of open spaces, weigh without check on the unhurried and uncumbered minds of the desert dwellers. p.148

A plane of immanence is found, acting as a powerful generator of distances, reducing all within it to simple principles of survival, whilst necessitating a determinism and determination the repetition of which suggests a transcendent mastery. And this suggestion of transcendence is the germ of its own death identified by Lawrence. When the tide of asceticism reaches the rocks of the urban, it becomes dissipated into a virtuality entirely different to that which made its life possible.

Earlier in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence indicates that the great wave of Arab nationalism that he helped to release would be followed by further, possibly greater, waves. Perhaps he could see that in becoming the massed nomadic war machine of Feisal's army, the force would be effected by the desert, washing back into the urban with more impact than any of the smaller recurrent tides? Perhaps even a tide that might succeed in converting the urban into a kind of desert?

A link to consider:

  • The page in Logic of Sensation in which Deleuze talks of the diagram, a great zero from which intensity "descends".
  • Francis Bacon's painting of a face with, as Deleuze says, "the distances of the Sahara" within it.

Later in Seven Pillars, Auda explains how the desert forces a kind of group interdependence:

…Auda was glad to rub into a townsman the paradox of tribe and city; the collective responsibility and group-brotherhood of the desert. contrasted with the isolation and competetive living of the crowded districts. p.256 XLIV - After retrieving Gasim from the desolate plain of El Houl

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