September 4, 2019

When the Myth Overtakes the Man: Tom Shapira reviews DREAMERS OF THE DAY by Beth Barnett

Michael Korda’s 2011 biography of Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence is called Hero. This leaves little doubt about Korda’s opinion of his subject matter. Lawrence, of course, already had all the historical amplifying one could ask for. As the subject of the much-admired film Lawrence of Arabia, which indeed painted him as romantic (if often naïve) heroic figure, his place in history is assured. But real people aren’t usually heroes, especially real people making tough decisions on a global scale. War is never clean-cut, and World War I, and the way is shaped modern-day Middle East, is an especially murky affair.
Beth Barnetts new graphic novel, Dreamers of the Day, struggles exactly with this notion. Partly a story of the author’s time in England spending many a-happy-day lost in college libraries, and partly the story of Lawrence himself, Barnettdigs further and further into the facts of Lawrence’s life. By doing so, she finds herself projecting into the man and the emotional distance between student and subject narrows to a thin thread. An early page showcases a flattering portrait of Lawrence superimposed above a desert shot evoking the grandeur of Lawrence of Arabia with several speech bubbles pointing out the man’s many vocations – “archeologist,” “soldier,” “aircraftsman,” “translator,” “book designer” etc. That’s a list of qualification worthy of any polymath.
Yet the following page immediately sets a contrast with the view of Lawrence as a greater than life figure: eyebrows raised in a questioning manner, mouth slightly downturned, he seems so unsure of himself. By Barnett’s next drawing, the mood has soured completely – Lawrence’s head is turned low, his eyes seemingly about the weep. Here is not a legendary figure of bravery and endurance, but a real-life person, nearly incapacitated by the weight of his past decisions. Barnett’s simple and flowing style, a few lines on the page, no bothering with border panels, allows her to capture the emotion of such scene plainly – the reader can always tell what the characters are going through.
Dreamers of the Day is far from an exercise in fawning adoration (though Barnett is often very adoring in her depictions) or even a simple study of a fascinating figure. Instead, the graphic novel quickly becomes a study of its own process, asking questions of both the writer and the reader: how do we think of these grand historical figures? What happens when we cross the line from study to panegyric? Is it even possible to avoid projecting onto a subject when your work is their life? Halfway through the book, Barnett touches upon the subject of sexual identity, noting she has her own opinions (based on what she had read) regarding Lawrence’s preferences. Barnett explains that the idea of him as an asexual person was important to her, that she needed to hear about a person whose lack of desire for sexual intimacy did not diminish him as a person in the public’s perception. Yet, while unpacking that theory, she keeps in mind that just because this notion was important to her does not necessarily make it so.  
If there is an underlying theme to Lawrence’s story throughout Dreamers of the Day it is the idea that people are complex, and someone like T.E. Lawrence is doubly so. Trying to put him in any one box is bound to fail. Trying to make him into a ‘war hero,’ to view him as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is diminishing, because it was just one part of a long and varied life. By showing the reader the different (or ignored) aspects of the man’s life, with particular care given to exploring his interest and work in the field of book design,  Barnett gives both a fuller image of Lawrence’s life as well as the understanding that no picture could ever be full. You cannot ‘capture’ a life in text, the map is not territory, you can only approach it carefully.
As the book progresses, Barnett becomes freer in her drawings, moving from direct character shots, playing with portraits, maps, scenery, etc. This gives the book a free-flowing feeling that matches its subject well, refusing to limit itself to a single mood of expression. It also gives the reader some wonderful imagery that manages to pack so much into so little.   
Lawrence’s case is especially fitting for the larger questions Barnett is interested in, not just because he spent the last years of his life in what seems like an effort to remain an enigma, but mostly due to how he came to view the exploits that made him famous. Apparently, they were the cause of much shame later in his life, especially with the way the British abused their Arab allies after they were done using them to defeat the Turks. The violence he meted out during his time in the war, including personally executing a man, seems to weigh heavy on him early on and the weight of it appears the grow the more he is unable to justify the reasons for the war
The most fascinating, and challenging, aspect of Dreamers of the Day is reserved for the halfway point of the graphic novel: it turns out that later in his life T.E. Lawrence took up a new name, ‘T.E. Shaw,’ which he used for over 12 years until his untimely death. Despite that, he is referred throughout the whole book as ‘Lawrence,’ as the people who buried him did. He was buried as T.E. Lawrence (there’s a straightforward image of his grave that is quite moving in this context), and that remains the name under which he is known.
Barnett makes the valid point that this type of refitting historical people into easy-to-comprehend models is ‘uncaring,’ another way in which mythologizing a person is an act of destruction. Here is a man, a man of multitudes, who ends up trapped against his will in his own myth. The scholar and book lover T.E. Shaw became the war hero and dashing figure ‘T.E. Lawrence’ against his will. Barnett has to do this, despite knowing it’s the ‘wrong’ choice, because no one would know who T.E. Shaw is. This makes Dreamers of the Day like Sisyphus, pushing a rock up the hill of popular history (not because it could be done, but because it needs to be done).
In Dreamers of the Day the reader learns, again and again, that the writing of  history must be an act of conscious decision making and of understanding, that we cannot mold people of the past into what we want them to be; we must try and perceive them for what they were – all of it, or none at all. 
As the book draws to a close with a promise of further T.E. Lawrence (or is it ‘Shaw’?) related material to come, I considered some of the minor flaws (it really does love Lawrence a bit too much, so great were his charms and demeanor); but then I considered all the different illustrations of this one man throughout the book – all the different ways it let me see this figure. And this is what such a study should be, not a singular dominating vision, but an offering of different angles, of the endless varieties of life.
Tom Shapira is a freelance critic writing about comics for Haaretz, The Comics Journal, Multiversity, Sequart, and others. He is also the author of Curing the Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston's The Filth in the 21st Century (Sequart Press, 2013).

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