Gertrude Bell is a pile of contradictions. Wandering the desert at the turn of the 20th century, she is a woman who breaks all the rules of Arab culture and eats with the men; back home in England she actively opposes woman’s suffrage. An upper class graduate of the first female college at Oxford, she spends her life admiring uneducated desert nomads. Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she is nevertheless emotionally broken and disappointed to have not found a man to marry during the traditional courtship years of a Victorian English woman. She loves the loneliness of the desert and yet spends her time in voluminous correspondence with friends and family. She ends up with the official title of “Oriental Secretary” in Baghdad, a British euphemism for “Spy Master”, and yet she is trusted by all. Bell is ambivalent about religion and yet is one of the most respected translators of the highly spiritual poems of Hafiz.
If Gertrude Bell is not entirely explainable by an outside observer, perhaps that is because this is the way it is with all human beings. We are not ideas or logical propositions, we are Persons. Persons are subjective actors, we change our minds, and we are not consistent from start to finish. We are a jumble of hidden motivations and tangled experiences that inform, consciously or not, everything we do. Isn’t it great to be a Person?
Gertrude Bell wants nothing more than to be a Person. When she says as much, what she means is that she wants to be known. In her early years as a traveler in the middle east, she has no official title or role, she is not acting in an official capacity. She is acting as a Person and she wants to meet other Persons, to break down barriers of culture, language, economics, and sex. In particular she wants to meet interesting Persons: desert sheiks, mysterious adherents to a platonic cult, dangerous nomads, English ex-patriots, poets, archeologists of Roman ruins, the Damascene children who crowd after her in the streets of the ancient city… anyone, really. If you are an interesting Person, Gertrude Bell probably would want to make your acquaintance.
Biographer Janet Wallach, who advances the thematic element of Personhood that I am elaborating, writes,
Great persons, like great empires, leave their mark on history.
Bell certainly did leave her mark.
A Person who I have found endlessly interesting is Werner Herzog, the German nihilist/existentialist filmmaker. Herzog is fascinated by all sorts of Persons, too. He also loves/hates nature in all its forms and finds contained therein a constant battle for human meaning or lack thereof.
He is an aficionado of hypnotizing chickens. He makes films about opera loving, jungle rubber baron madmen who pull steamships over the top of mountains, and vampyres, and men who live with grizzly bears in Alaska. He once ate a leather shoe to honor a wager. One of his actors, the potentially insane Klaus Klinski, threatened to murder him on the film set…and Herzog continued to work with him because he was so good at the role. Herzog is fascinating in his own right and clearly seeks out interesting Persons to spotlight for the world to see. Rumor has it that he is currently working with some serious star power on a film about Gertrude Bell.
I am marking my calendar right now to seek out whatever obscure art theater happens to show it on opening weekend. If anyone is interested, Herzog has a massive back catalogue to work through between now and then, and you feel like reading a biography about the endlessly fascinating Gertrude Bell, I can recommend the biography by Janet Wallach.