When Kahlil Gibran published his magnum opus, The Prophet, over ninety years ago, he wouldn’t have, perforce, realised the true, perennial import of his work: a structure with a timeless appeal. All the same, his insuperable work was a roseate contribution to literature — one that has in it just about every ingredient a book of substance, albeit abstract, would need to inspire, or even synthesise, every known tradition of ancient times with modernity.
You get the point, though it’s quite another thing that a handful of Gibran critics, and others, don’t really agree with the invocation of Gibran’s genius. And, they may have good reasons to believe in their analysis. Gibran, for all practical purposes, was too human — with all his warts and moles.
The Prophet, however, appeals to everyone, whatever one’s religious belief; it’s everyone’s Bible. It’s full of good moral values and great teachings — not necessarily settled opinion, but just pure wisdom. It is a narrative, where the prophet, Almustafa — Arabic, for the Chosen as well as the Beloved — is set to return by ship to the isle of his birth after an exile of twelve years in the city of Orphalese…
INSPIRED BY NATURE
Not just a tale inspired by nature, a longing for the Unity of Being, and mystical extraction, which Gibran himself championed, The Prophet is the most widely read work of all time — an ageless work that speaks of love and marriage, joy and sorrow, reason and passion, beauty and death. In the process, it brings harmony and peace for anyone seeking solace and wisdom in a world that has gone wacky — even if some of its most vociferous critics wouldn’t like its design one bit.
The book’s delectable prose may appear to be actually instructive, thanks to a growing sense of responsibility against the oppressive political and/or social order of Gibran’s native land — including Turkish colonialism, or its ‘empiric’ underpinnings, feudalism, the corrupt clergy, or the near-to-the-ground status of women.
This was only to be expected. Because, Gibran loved freedom: of autonomy of action and expression. The idea extended to his avowed espousal of peasants’ welfare, juxtaposed by his role of a social reformer and a patriot with intensity… Besides, he was a member of The Golden Links, a society of young Syrian men for improvement of life.
Gibran, who had a fervent passion for home rule, contributed zealously to Arabic newspapers in the US — most notably, al-Mohajer [The Emigrant]. However, what was most pronounced in his mental compass was a love-hate relationship for his homeland. It was a paradox of sorts. He always longed for the land of birth, Lebanon, all right, and also criticised its society. He equated his society to “decayed teeth… rotten, black and dirty… that fester and stink” — for which people got gold fillings instead of pulling them from the base. He also related to the fact that a nation with putrescent teeth was damned to have a diseased stomach. In another essay, he was clinically acerbic of Arabic society — which he determined was ailing and drowsy.
SPECIAL, LIFTING ELEMENT
What makes Gibran’s writing in The Prophet so special is its fundamental, lifting element — a beauty derived out of a thought-provoking, spiritual range for life. Of a range that is not related to any single literary tradition — but, one that wraps not only the intangible, fresh, aesthetic, and political elements, but also a convention of both joy and pathos. A disavowal, so to speak? Not really, because Gibran’s assemblage of contemplation of thought, and its high level of hopefulness, matched by a great strut of thoughtfulness, hold both elevated divergence and amplification of a full range of emotions.
The writing in the book maybe deliberately old-fashioned, even familiar, and lavish with [in]exact metaphysical twists. Of sentimentality, which describes internal consciousness rather than external events. Yet, Gibran — pronounced Jabran, or Jourban — cannot be absorbed, nay assimilated, with just one reading, because of his broad canvas, hidden layers and sounds. Characteristics which surprise us the most with every new reading. Add to it Gibran’s elevated and consequential poems, including verses, which have more than a component of prose — aphorisms, parables, tales, and homilies — and, you have a radiant grove of a thought process that shapes a classic model of his art.
The Prophet has an inventive track. Also, its appeal has been universal. Its every piece has in it a sense of instant accessibility. What comes out truly and neatly, in them, with a sense of magical likeness, is Gibran’s exquisite artistry: of a writer with a passion for philosophical orientations in his literary excursions. It’s also a reflection of his mindset: his love of the Lebanese countryside, its valleys, mountains, famous cedars, not to speak of turmoil, or ‘division’ of religious tendencies etc., common to that part of the world. It also speaks of his understanding, beliefs, and espousal of the Christian faith — albeit his views are unorthodox vis-à-vis traditional thought of his time.
Gibran was hugely talented. It’s not astonishing that he, in his teens, edited a literary/philosophical magazine called The Truth: an ‘incursion’ that did not come in-between his pursuit of education and excellence. But, there were other things he was destined to do.
ART OF THE MATTER
Well, after a few years in Lebanon, Gibran went to Paris: to study art. Come 1903, he was able to rejoin his family, who had migrated years before, in Boston, US. It was only then that he published his first literary essays and met Mary Haskell, who was to be his benefactor all his life. Besides, it’s was only after Gibran shifted his base to New York, in 1912, and devoted himself to writing literary essays and short stories, and painting, that his writings began to expand with such themes as love, bereavement, nature, and a yearning for his homeland. They were, as was his wont, expressive of his own sense of romanticism, or deeply religious, mystic nature.
Gibran absorbed, and developed, most of his thoughts from women, especially his talented mother, who was as much artistically inclined. But, what takes the cake is his monumental love affair with a young Lebanese fan of his, May Ziadeh, who he never met. Not only that. Gibran, like most creative geniuses, was as much a ‘victim’ of disappointments of the heart. At an early age, for instance, he fell desperately in love with a young woman whose father, under social contrition, married her to someone else. Gibran was forlorn, disconsolate, rueful, and wounded. It’s a story he so meaningfully portrayed in his brilliant novella, Broken Wings: a book that also opened his eyes to the indomitable connotation of love in the world.
Not that the church did not teach Gibran the supreme importance of love: that god is Love. It did. So, love became an experiential fact of life for him — not just an abstraction or standard parable. Love lives in Gibran’s works fully in the love of a human being for their soul mate, although critics find there’s more to it, especially in his personal life, and his many affairs, than what meets the eye. As a matter of fact, Gibran often returns to the topic in his stories, underlying the power and significance of love, combined with his potent belief in reincarnation. In one classical story, for example, he tells us of love surviving for centuries until the time it could meet its realisation.
Tragedies marked Gibran’s life. He was, therefore, acutely conscious of the fragility of life — “here today, gone tomorrow” sort of an existence. Which, perforce, offers us an almost Buddhist concept of suffering pervading most of Gibran’s works: a distress that also encircles love, but with a distinct probability; the possibility of self-realisation. It’s one reason why Gibran advocated the cause of true love, and liberty, the cause of the poor, and the tyranny of conquest, the rich etc., throughout his life — a postulate that wasn’t liked one fraction by the church, and his native Lebanese government.
It’s obvious that many of Gibran’s works are a reflection of a definitive thought process. Most importantly, they mirror his masterly and velvety feel for words. What stands out most, in them, is his majestic ingenuity for their explicit usage in both Arabic and English — a grand blueprint that is more than just perfect. His genius, to use his own principal component, “[was] but a robin’s song at the beginning of a slow spring.”
A bravura wordsmith, who hums in our silences, Gibran was a truly great ‘pulsation:’ a voice like no other. His supremely gifted visage celebrates not only a truly outstanding understanding of the cosmos, but also looks at the world as one, complete whole.
Put simply, Gibran’s wordy, and worldly, vibrations will continue to embrace every reader’s soul — the very hem of the garment of god Himself — for today and tomorrow.