Lawrence of Arabia and the art of improvisation
Transcript of this video:
I’ve chosen this magnificent building, the Cambridge University Library, as a slightly ironic backdrop to today’s video which is about my favorite scene or two scenes in fact from the movie Lawrence of Arabia.
In the first Lawrence leads his band of Arab tribesmen across the massively unforgiving Sahara (ed: actually Nefud) desert. And after many days in the searing heat they make it to the other side only to discover that one of their number, Gasim, is not with them.
He’s fallen off his camel and he is missing almost certainly dead in the desert. And when Lawrence suggests he might go to try and find him, all the tribesmen assure him that that would be an act of sheer folly. He’ll just die himself. Gasim is surely dead. “It is written,” they say.
But Lawrence goes anyway, heads off into the desert to the astonishment of the tribesmen. And in the next scene, he actually returns with the still alive Gasim stretched across the back of his camel.
And to the amazement of the tribesmen to whom Lawrence delivers the absolutely fantastic line: “Nothing is written.”
Fans of the movie will know, however, that there’s a second scene later in the movie where Gasim I think is involved in an incident where I think he steals from and kills another tribesman which creates a massive incident between the two tribes in Lawrence’s coalition because although Gasim’s tribe recognise his sin they say that the other tribe can’t execute him.
That would be against their custom and law. And the solution that Lawrence comes up with is to shoot Gasim himself once again proving that perhaps nothing is written but in a much, much darker way.
I’m very fond of this story because it’s a fantastically dramatic reminder that whatever our wonderful established knowledge, however well documented it is, life actually unfolds in the present.
The only quote I can offer you from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard is, “life can be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
And so when I’m working with people I try always to remember that whatever the theory, whatever the stories we have about the past, whatever my past experience may be of any dilemma that a person or group is facing, the solution that is created in the moment will always inevitably be, in some sense new and not stored in existing knowledge; that the essence of life is, fundamentally, that it is always being improvised.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash