Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet at 100
I have been thinking of writing, of giving form, to the one thought that changed my inner life – God and the Earth and the human soul. A voice is shaping itself in my soul and I am waiting for words. My one desire now is to find the right form, the right garment that would cling to the human ear.
Gibran Khalil Gibran wrote this to his dear Mary Haskell from Paris already in 1908 about what would eventually become a trilogy, a full fifteen years before the publication of its first volume, The Prophet. And in another letter to Haskell shortly after it was published, he wrote:
The whole Prophet is saying just one thing: you are far far greater than you know – and All is well.
The first words of The Prophet were quoted in the eulogy for Nelson Mandela; he influenced David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and John Lennon; Marilyn Monroe was inspired by it. Johnny Cash, given a copy of The Prophet by his wife, June Carter Cash, narrated Kahlil’s posthumously published The Eye of the Prophet; Elvis wrote in his copy of The Prophet, gave away thousands of copies, and before he died, had plans to make it into a film. More recently, the 2014 animated film of The Prophet produced by actress Salma Hayek with Liam Neeson as the voice of Mustafa, and musical score written and performed by Yo-Yo Ma. We’ll be viewing and discussing this film the next two weeks in my Tuesday morning class in Plymouth Chapel at 9:30.
Memorials to him abound – Washington DC not far from the National Cathedral, Boston, Beirut, Armenia, Buenos Aires, Brazil. The University of Maryland sponsors the Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace and the Arab American Institute calls its highest honor the Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Award; recipients include Ralph Nader, Senator George Mitchell, Muhammad Ali, Christiane Amanpour, Sting, journalist Helen Thomas, and Jordan’s Queen Noor.
And even though it doesn’t come from The Prophet, see if you can guess where you’ve heard this before – from a 1925 article written by Kahlil in Arabic titled The New Frontier:
Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in the desert.
Twenty years in the writing, The Prophet, which Kahlil originally wanted to call Counsels, sold out in a month, and by 1944 it was a best-seller, even though it received largely unfavorable reviews. 13,000 copies a year were sold during the Great Depression, 60,000 in 1944, and 1,000,000 by 1957. During the 1960s, it was selling up to 5,000 copies a week, in the ‘70’s, 7000 weekly – interestingly, it peaked during the recovery from the Great Depression in the ‘30’s and the social upheaval of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, over 9 million copies sold in the US alone; it’s been translated into over 100 languages, and it’s never been out of print, making Kahlil, with his other writings, the best-selling American poet of the 20th century and among the four best-selling poets of all time (Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, and Rumi are the others). In all, he wrote 17 books, nine in Arabic, eight in English, including The Prophet.
Khalil Gibran was born on January 6, 1883, 140 years ago last Friday, the Lebanese village of Bsharri (Lebanon was part of Syria which in turn was part of the Ottoman Empire). His father, Khalil, a disreputable taxman who drank and gambled away his family’s money, was finally arrested for embezzlement leaving them destitute. This led Khalil’s mother, Kamila, to emigrate to the US in 1895 with her four children – Bhutros, Khalil (12), Marianna, and Sultana, settling in Boston’s multi-ethnic and rough South End – he was a “Southie.” She sold fabric door-to-door; within a year, set up Bhutros with a dry goods store, the two girls became seamstresses – neither ever learned to read or write. But she sent Kahlil to school, the only one of the family with an education.
During this time he met the 32-year-old eccentric artist and photographer, Fred Holland Day, who became one of his mentors. Day was the leader of an avant-garde art group; he also liked taking erotic pictures of young ‘exotic’ boys he recruited from South Boston streets. Kahlil became one of his models at age 13, who Day called his “Middle Eastern princeling.”
Kamila and Bhutros didn’t approve of Day and others of Kahlil’s friends so they sent him back to Lebanon at age 15 to study at a Christian school there. He returned in 1902 at age 19 to Boston; a registration error upon arrival in Boston changed the spelling of his name. Two weeks before he returned, his baby sister, Sultana, died of tuberculosis at age 14, and the following year, Bhutros, too, died of TB and his mother, Kamila, died of cancer. The only family left was his sister, Marianna, who was devoted to him and took care of him and, with Mary Haskell, financially supported him for the rest of his life.
Back in Boston, at an exhibit Day held for Kahlil at his studio, he met the woman who would become his friend, patron, confidante, editor, and even fiancé for awhile, Mary Haskell - a progressive school headmistress nine years his senior. From 1908-1913, she supported him with over $7500, $150,000 in today’s money. In 1908, she sent him to Paris to study painting. Called the “Luminous Years,” in Paris at the time Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall. He also met Rodin during this time; his portrait of Rodin is well-known.
In these days at the beginning of WWI, in his “Open Letter from a Christian Poet to Muslims,” he referred to himself as a “Christian who placed Jesus in one half of his heart and Muhammad in the other.”
It was while in Paris, that his and Mary Haskell’s friendly letters progressed to speak of longing and love. Upon his return, they became engaged, but it only lasted a year. Even after his 1912 permanent move to New York and her later marriage to a wealthy businessman, they remained very close throughout his entire life; she continued supporting him financially (eg. she paid the rent on his Greenwich Village apartment, which he called “the Hermitage”), advising him as well as editing his essays and books, including The Prophet. And during the next decade he would meet the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats; Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore; and psychiatrist Carl Jung; among Kahlil’s 700 works of art can be found their portraits.
During World War I, as famine ravaged the Mediterranean, his feelings of Syrian nationalism and criticism of Ottoman rule grew, and he raised relief funding in the US for the starving back home. Also, along with Robert Frost and others, he founded the prominent literary magazine, The Seven Arts. And in 1918, he inaugurated his literary career in English with the publication of The Madman.
In 1923, The Prophet appeared in English, following twenty years of on-and-off writing. Fast forward to 1928, and Jesus, The Son of Man, was published. He had told Mary Haskell that he had recurring dreams of Jesus, who he called “the Supreme Light.” Jesus, The Son of Man, was reviewed much more favorably than The Prophet; it includes memories from 78 real and imaginary, friendly and hostile people who knew Jesus – Pontius Pilate, Joseph of Arimathea, Anna, Mother of Mary, and Mary Magdalene, three times; also, an old shepherd, Rachel, a woman gardener, and “A Man From Lebanon Nineteen Years Forward,” Kahlil himself.
We’ve already seen how deeply moved Kahlil was by the figure of Jesus of Nazareth (not, as he put it, “Jesus of the Christian”). He called Jesus in one of his paintings, ‘The Supreme Light,’ and in his writings, ‘Master Poet who makes poets of us all,’ ‘Master Singer,’ ‘Sky-heart,’ ‘Master of our lonely hours,’ and ‘Knight of our fairer dream’; he “lived his human life to the full, there was no cup of human rapture that he did not drink, no extremity of human anguish that he did not comprehend, the most supremely good and wise of all the wise and good who have walked the Earth; Jesus our Lord and our Brother; Jesus, the Son of Man.”
But by this time he had become sick from an excessive consumption of arak (like ouzo), supplied to him by the gallon by his only surviving sibling, Marianna. He published a few other non-descript works in Arabic and English in the next few years, and, as he had done throughout his life, he fictionalized many of the details of his life: eg. he said he came from nobility so he could fit in with the societal elite and to compensate for his emotional and social insecurity. He became increasingly sick in his mid-40’s and died, an alcoholic, of cirrhosis of the liver on April 10, 1931, at the age of 48. The New York Sun’s headline: “A Prophet is Dead.”
Standing room only memorial services in New York and Boston, his body taken by Marianna home to Lebanon for burial. Feted by politicians, an honor guard of 300 for the 80-mile journey from Beirut to Bsharri, his hometown, the road lined with “young men in native dress brandishing swords and dancing women scattering perfume and flowers before the hearse,” (Jean Gibran, niece-in-law), Bsharri, where his museum is located, and where he’s still celebrated today as a literary hero.
We know, too, that The Prophet was Kahlil’s first book of his planned trilogy. He was working on the second volume, The Garden of the Prophet when he died, published posthumously in 1933. While the first volume, The Prophet, dealt with humanity’s relationship with the Eternal, The Garden of the Prophet dealt with humanity’s relationship with nature through the Prophet Mustapha’s conversations with nine of his disciples upon his return home. The third volume, The Death of the Prophet, was to have discussed humanity’s relationship with each other.
Let’s now dig deeper into his thought and especially, the message of The Prophet. Picture 1923 when it appeared: The world was still reeling from World War I, yet in the US, Prohibition mobsters, and “the roaring ‘20’s.” Stalin began his ascent to Communist General Secretary, the Turkish War of Independence ended 400 years of Ottoman Rule, Adolf Hitler was arrested in an attempted coup, and Britain officially assumed control of the Palestine Mandate for what would become, 20-something years later, the State of Israel. A resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the US, wireless transmission across the Atlantic was established, King Tut’s tomb was opened, Time Magazine appeared, Lon Chaney debuted in the silent film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Walt Disney Company was founded.
So it was in the autumn of 1923, 100 years ago, a few months after Kahlil Gibran’s 40th birthday, The Prophet, was launched with its first public reading at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church-in-the-Bowery, by acclaimed actor Butler Davenport, with Kahlil in attendance. The Church-in-the-Bowery, under leadership of Rev. William Norman Guthrie, had a history of programs of “faith and the arts” – Frank Lloyd Wright spoke there, Carl Sandburg and William Carlos Williams read their poetry there, Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham danced there, and Harry Houdini performed there. Kahlil and Rev. Guthrie were friends; Kahlil had read some of his earlier work there, and said he had wanted The Prophet first read in a church.
The Prophet became the “bible of the 1960’s counterculture” – Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, and disenchantment with organized religion and other trappings of their parents’ culture. It preaches no dogma and contains meaning for both the religious and non-religious alike, a non-moralistic spirituality. President Woodrow Wilson told Kahlil: “You are the first Eastern storm to sweep this country, and what a number of flowers it has brought.”
Scholars have debated Kahlil’s intellectual and spiritual influences; his inspiration comes from a variety of sources. He admired Leonardo da Vinci from his childhood; he acknowledged his indebtedness to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, both in substan9e and style – substance, his criticism of traditional religion, focusing on the question, “What does it mean to be authentically, deeply human?” and style, the hermit, Zarathustra, spends ten years in solitude in the mountains then returns to the world to share his wisdom – both Zarathustra and Mustafa speak about freedom, friendship, children, marriage, and death.
We also find influences of Sufi mysticism, theosophy (through his friendship with Fred Holland Day), the Baha’i faith (after meeting Abdul Baha, its leader, Kahlil said, “I have seen the Unseen and been filled”); William Blake’s pantheism (also his art), Jungian psychology, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, and their Transcendentalist “Oversoul.”
He described in a 1918 letter to Mary Haskell the passion behind The Prophet, driven by the voice of some inner spirit:
It is the biggest challenge in my life. My entire being is in The Prophet. Everything I have ever done before was only a prelude to this. One large thought is filling my mind and my heart; I want so much to give it form before you and I meet.
The first thing you encounter when you pick up a copy of The Prophet, on the title page is Kahlil’s drawing of the “Face of Almustafa, the Prophet,” which he said took him six years to perfect. This is his description:
“I told you, did I not, how I saw the face of the Prophet? I was reading one night in bed late and I stopped, weary, and closed my eyes for a moment. When I closed my eyes, I saw quite plainly that Face. I saw it for one or two minutes, perfectly clearly, and then it disappeared. The Prophet was my attempt to reproduce the Jesus face.
So, The Prophet. It begins like this:
Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth And in the twelfth year … in the month of reaping, he climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld his ship coming with the mist.
While delighted to be heading home, he is sad that he is leaving the people on the island who consider him a wise man. The islanders want one last word from him, so they sent the young seeress, Almitra, to implore him to share his wisdom with them.
Prophet of God, this we ask you to give us of your truth; we will give it unto our children and they unto their children, and it shall not perish. Therefore disclose us to ourselves and tell us all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.
What follows, then, are 26 chapters, Almustafa’s wisdom on the big questions of life “between birth and death,” accompanied by 12 of his original drawings. Here are a few:
On Children, to a woman holding a baby in her arms:
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
On Giving, to a rich man:
You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward. Ad there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism. It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding. You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.” See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
On Reason and Passion, to a priestess:
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetites. Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul. If either your sails are rudder be broken, you can9but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas. For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
On Time, to an astronomer:
The timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness, And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream. And that which sings and contemplates in you is still dwelling within the bounds of that first moment which scattered the stars into space. Who among you does not feel that his power to love is boundless. And is not time even as love is, undivided and spaceless. If in your thought you must measure time into seasons, let each season encircle all the other seasons, And let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing.
And the poem that’s been read at 10’s and 10’s of thousands of weddings, On Love, which I include in full:
When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you, yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.
Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
For love is sufficient unto love. When you love you should not say, ‘God is in my heart,’ rather, ‘I am in the heart of God.’
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.
Paradox lies at the center of Kahlil’s thought, the creative tension of seeming opposites, beyond two and three, transcending all duality, in the unity of all being; all is one, sides of the same Reality: Good & Evil, Life & Death, Humanity & Nature, as we’ve seen, Reason & Passion, and the Self & the Other, Me & You.
One day you will ask me which is more important, my life or yours?
I will say mine and you will walk away, not knowing that you are my life.
And one of the most quoted passages from The Prophet, On Joy and Sorrow:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
Here is Kahlil’s great insight: Truth is found to be the generative energy, the pulse that beats at the heart of all living things (feel your pulse) – it is the self-same pulse from the Singularity 14 billion years ago that begat the universe, stardust, and you; to the flutter of the bird’s wing; to the seed that grows into a flowering tree; to the explosive mountain-forming friction of tectonic plates; to a baby’s breath, that little life birthed to squeeze its mama’s finger. Beat … Beat … Beat! He writes:
I cannot teach you the prayer of the seas and forest and mountains. But you who are both on the mountains and the forests and the seas can find their prayer in your heart. If you but listen in the stillness of the night, “Our God, who are our winged self, it is thy will in us that willeth, thy desire that desireth, the urge that turns our nights into days.”
God, for Kahlil, who elsewhere he calls, ‘Eternal Wisdom,’ ‘Great Intelligence,’ ‘Nature,’ ‘Unbounded Sea,’ the primal force, that universal, natural, dynamic, generative, pulsating energy that is You, that he calls here “On Prayer,” the “winged self, the will that willeth, the desire that desireth, the urge that turns night into days.” Beat … Beat … Beat!
One day near the end of his life, he said to his long-time assistant, Barbara Young,
“I am a life-ist, the Bard of life. Life is evidence of hope itself.” “Religion? What is it? I know only life. Life is the field, the vineyard, the loom. The Church is within you. You yourself are your priest.”
“A Life-ist!” I like that.
And finally, as Kahlil confesses in On Death:
You would know the secret of death. Life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one. What is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountaintop, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
YOU HAVE YOUR THOUGHT, I HAVE MINE (excerpts)
Your thought is a tree rooted deep in the soil of tradition
and whose branches grow in the power of continuity.
My thought is a cloud moving in the space. It turns into drops which, as they fall,
form a brook that sings its way into the sea.
Then it rises as vapour into the sky.
Your thought is an ancient dogma that cannot change you nor can you change it.
My thought is new, and it tests me and I test it morn and eve.
You have your thought and I have mine.
Your thought advocates fame and show.
Mine counsels me and implores me to cast aside notoriety
and treat it like a grain of sand cast upon the shore of eternity.
Your thought begets dreams of palaces with furniture of sandalwood studded with jewels,
and beds made of twisted silk threads.
My thought speaks softly in my ears,
“Be clean in body and spirit even if you have nowhere to lay your head.”
Your thought makes you aspire to titles and offices.
Mine exhorts me to humble service.
You have your thought and I have mine.
Your thought advocates Judaism, Brahmanism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.
In my thought there is only one universal religion, whose varied paths
are but the fingers of the loving hand of the Supreme Being.
In your thought there are the rich, the poor, and the beggared.
My thought holds that there are no riches but life;
that we are all beggars, and no benefactor exists save life herself.
You have your thought and I have mine.
Your thought holds that the glory of the nations is in their heroes.
It sings the praises of Rameses, Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, and Napoleon.
But mine claims that the real heroes are Confucius, Lao-Tse, Socrates, Plato,
Abi Taleb, El Gazali, Jalal Ed-din-el Roumy, Copernicus, and Pasteur.
Your thought sees power in armies, cannons, battleships, submarines, aeroplanes, and poison gas.
But mine asserts that power lies in reason, resolution, and truth.
No matter how long the tyrant endures, he will be the loser at the end.
You have your thoughts and I have mine.