Asymptote to Asymptote

Over the course of the last couple of days BBCFour TV showed:

Tilda Swinton (June 2017) as Gertrude Bell in Letters from Baghdad

@RoryStewartUK (2010) Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia Episode 1 and Episode 2

These caught my attention because apart from her association with T E Lawrence, Bell is of local interest and I’m guessing showing the one provided an opportunity to re-show the other, older documentary. The significance of “the Middle East” as a ubiquitous issue for UK, US & European politics is reason enough to take the lessons of Bell and Lawrence seriously. Like Rory I’ve been fascinated by TEL since childhood, read just about everything by or about him and visited UK and Jordanian locations of his life. Bell I’ve only known by association and general knowledge until recently moving back to living not far from her Redcar home.

In fact it was that moving around, US and Norway and back to the UK that meant I missed Rory’s documentary first time around. It was 2012/2013 before I picked-up on Alan Little’s Lawrence Man & Myth and Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia and the fact that US-led operations in Iraq were drawing on TEL’s contributions to working with Arabs, and taking them perhaps too prescriptively rather than simply learning his lessons.

Somehow since then I also managed to miss the critically panned Werner Herzog / Nicole Kidman Queen of the Desert

Anyway, this is just a link-gathering post for now. The Asymptote to Asymptote title is a quote from TEL used by Rory illustrating TEL’s overly flowery classical language in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He was a classics scholar of course, and I still find his poetic writing very relevant – both content and style – to my epistemological and humanist agendas, despite the original interest like everyone else in the flawed visionary hero.  It was also instrumental in my seeing barriers broken between the practical military engineering and a man of letters – in some small way not unlike C P Snow’s Third Culture.

Full on-line copy of Seven Pillars here.

The irony is that the choice of the word asymptote in the quote is self-deprecating in a later quote where he admits he’s using it inaccurately in its true mathematical sense. He is of course talking about the perennial swing between binary extremes that dominates any more subtle discourse. More truth in literature than scientific fact.

Their thoughts were at ease only in extremes.

They inhabited superlatives by choice.


Also published on Medium.

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