For self is a sea boundless and measureless. We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words. —Kahlil Gibran
Among my mother’s books was a copy of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. I remember still the cream color of the cover, adorned with a soft-focus drawing of a young man with a thin moustache staring, Svengali-like, into some kind of philosophical infinity. Although—or was it because?—The Prophet was so popular at the time, selling by the million worldwide, I resisted reading it. I suspected that its profundity, or rather its straining after profundity, was bogus, and I was right. It is precisely in its ersatz quality that its popularity resides.
Gibran was an artist as well as a writer, and his drawings, with some of which this Collected Works is interspersed, suffer from a defect that is closely kindred to the defect from which his writing suffers. They consist mainly of naked men and women, often intertwined, as seen through a censoring mist. They are pornography without the genitalia. If ever there were an exhibition of his drawings, it might with justice be titled Nudity for Prudes.
It is no coincidence, I think, that in Sand and Foam, subtitled A Book of Aphorisms, in which appear large numbers of propositions that are short without being aphoristic, we should find the following: “A work of art is a mist carved into an image.” In Gibran’s case, the reverse would probably be nearer the truth; at any rate, he certainly mastered the difficult art of writing entirely in clichés without saying much that is true. He is so greatly loved because he never forces us to think.
Admittedly, he is a feeler rather than a thinker, though even his feelings end up being bogus precisely because of his refusal to discipline them by anything resembling thought. Another of his aphorisms, for example, is “Thinking is always the stumbling stone to poetry.” He seems to have swallowed whole the Man-from-Porlock theory of poetry, that poetry in essence is automatic writing that emanates from a divine afflatus, the divine in this case being coterminous with the self. It is no surprise, then, that Gibran—who took Coleridge’s theory more seriously than Coleridge, who was lying, took it himself—wrote poetry that is halfway between greeting-card doggerel and TV evangelism. One looks in vain in these many pages for an arresting or poetic metaphor. I quote at random:
Dip your oar, my beloved,
And let me touch my strings.
It is impossible to plumb the shallows of this.
Gibran’s great weakness—a profound moral failing—was a cowardly refusal to confront the ambiguities, paradoxes, and refractoriness of life, preferring instead the illusory comforts of a vague, saccharine, and undemanding goodwill. His outlook was partly Christian in inspiration, partly pagan; indeed, nothing spiritual, in a Californian guru’s sense of the word, was alien to him. He was, in fact, a founding father of the New Age school of charlatanry.
On the very first page of this extremely long and tedious volume one sees the appeal of Gibran to the 1960s counterculture, an appeal that would otherwise have been rather mysterious given his quasi- or sub-biblical style (in the King James Version). He also exhibits the imprecision that is the hallmark of his work, and that renders nugatory practically everything he ever wrote.
In the preface to a short book of parables entitled The Madman, the narrator tells us that he woke one day from a deep sleep to find that “all my masks were stolen—the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives.” Maskless, he was regarded as mad by other people, but “the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time.” In his madness he found freedom and safety, “the freedom of loneliness and the safety of not being understood.” This is R. D. Laing avant la lettre, another man whose writings, in a different but equally unpropitious style, were foundational documents of the counterculture of the 1960s. The last two lines of Gibran’s preface read:
But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a thief in jail is safe from another thief.
Actually, this is not so. Theft in prison is quite common, and would be more so were there not the danger of retributive violence by the victims of theft. No man has so little that he cannot be deprived of something, and the less everyone has, the greater the marginal utility of whatever possessions anyone might have. Thus there is no honor among thieves; at best there is only fear among thieves.
No doubt it was not Gibran’s fault that he did not know this, but a writer should use illustrations drawn from his personal knowledge or experience, or, if he writes imaginatively, his intuition should be accurate. Otherwise, what he will write will be inapt and superficial. He will mistake what he would like to be the case for what actually is the case; his success will be confined to the community of wishful thinkers. This, of course, does not preclude commercial success.
The Prophet is often described as Gibran’s masterpiece. I think epitome would be a better word. Let us just take a few examples.
The Prophet of the title is a man who is about to set sail from the city of Orphalese after a residence of twelve years. Before he goes, various inhabitants of the city ask him questions of a philosophical nature, and most of the poem consists of his replies. For example, “a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children.” And the Prophet replies:
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
For their souls dwell in the house of
tomorrow, which you cannot visit even in your dreams.
Perhaps the latter is a strange sentiment for someone called the Prophet to express, but in these lines we see the characteristic modern failure to understand that human beings grow into freedom and independence of thought, rather than have it thrust upon them at birth like an injection of Vitamin K. Of course, if they are never granted any such freedom they remain stunted, but they remain stunted in a different way if they are allowed too much freedom (and the authority that freedom brings with it) too early in their lives. The exercise of freedom of thought requires tools that do not develop spontaneously; without them, everyone ends up thinking the same. A large part of the difficult art of parenting, no doubt never carried out to perfection, consists of encouraging children to grow into a freedom from which they, and others, can benefit. Error is always possible and indeed likely wherever there is exercise of judgment, but that does not make exercise of judgment any the less necessary, which explains why our lives so little resemble a hot knife slicing through butter; and it explains why a categorical statement such as “You may give them your love but not your thoughts” is not only stupid, but also bad in its effects if not in its intentions, since it wilfully evades difficulty by substituting a warm, fuzzy sentimentality for the real work of reflection. It is child-rearing advice for parents too busy to give their children much attention. It is also materialistic in the worst possible sense: for giving children the latest electronic gadget is love, but saying no to them (which is much harder) is giving them thoughts.
Thus The Prophet is indeed prophetic in its way, but not in a sense that does any credit to Gibran. He expresses very clearly the idea that moral authority belongs to children and not to adults: “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” The cultural results of such advice, when it has been taken seriously, are all around us for us to see, but since it is easier for adolescents to stamp themselves on a culture than for children to do so, the resultant culture is adolescent rather than childish in the strict sense. In reading The Prophet we begin to see why so tedious and unimaginative a writer as Gibran should have appealed so strongly to the counterculturals.
In The Prophet, Gibran expresses some of the economic ideas (or, rather, feelings) that have not only been disastrous economically, but have led to hideous outbursts of brutality, feelings that united the Nazi and Communist ideologies. Fuzzy sentimentality is again made to do the work of thought, with horrible logical consequences:
When in the market place.
… suffer not the barren-handed to take part in your
transactions, who would sell your words for your labour.
To such men you should say:
“Come with us into the field.
For the land shall be bountiful to you even as to us.”
Pol Pot couldn’t have put it better.
By now, it will hardly surprise the reader that Gibran is not very good on the subject of good and evil. We cannot look to him for illumination on this difficult subject matter. When one of the elders of the city asks the Prophet to speak of good and evil, he replies:
Of the good I can speak, but not of the evil.
What is the good, then, of which the Prophet speaks?
You are good when you strive to give of yourself.
You are good when you are fully awake in your speech.
You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good.
In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.
Now it is true that The Prophet was first published in 1923, that is to say well before Auschwitz, but even by 1923 it was pretty clear that many men had walked firmly to their goals, but that their goals were not good, quite the reverse in fact, and that therefore something other than a decisive tread was required if one were to lead the moral life. Gibran’s message seems to boil down to the goodness of doing exactly what you please, so long as it really and genuinely pleases you, and you do it wholeheartedly. This was a message that millions wanted to hear, especially after all the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century. Compared with Gibran’s philosophy, if that is not too strong a word for his concatenation of unctuous sentiment, putting Prozac in the water supply would be a subtle means of procuring universal happiness.
Of evil we get not a word. It is an unpleasant subject, so Gibran doesn’t think, or emote, about it, oleaginously sliding past it. One the day after I read The Prophet for the second time (to make sure I hadn’t missed something), I examined a woman for the courts who was charged with a relatively minor offense, and who described the conduct of her father during her childhood. She would stop her ears at night to prevent the screams of her mother or sisters from reaching them. Her father would demand of her sister that she come home by a certain time at night, and then put the clocks forward to give him a pretext to throw her around the room, hurling her from wall to wall. I do not think my informant had the imagination to make it up; besides, I have heard of such things a thousand, ten thousand, times.
What illumination does Gibran bring to this, what does he tell us about this aspect of the human condition that was soon to become of such incalculable historical importance? That the brutal father had a longing for his giant self, and was therefore all right because we are all all right, so everything is all right, ex officio, as it were? Gibran can’t tell us anything worthwhile about Mother Teresa, let alone about Adolf Hitler, et al.
As you would expect, Gibran is not very sound on law and order. One of the judges of the city asked the Prophet about crime and punishment though, given the reply, I think the information flow probably should have been the other way round: for Gibran dissolves all moral distinctions and distinctions of responsibility and desert, and therefore the notion of right action itself. Once again, one understands how the counterculturals learned to love turgidity.
And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.
The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
What penalty lay you upon him who slays in the flesh yet is himself slain in the spirit?
And how prosecute him who in action is a deceiver and an oppressor,
Yet who is also aggrieved and outraged.
It would take an entire book to elucidate all the intellectual and moral evasions contained in these lines, which operate on the inglorious principle that the quarter of the truth that you prefer is more important than all the rest of the truth that you choose to ignore because it is so painful not to do so. It is the case, for example, that many victims of murder are not moral exemplars, but what system of law of any conceivable use to society could fail to make an important distinction between a nasty piece of work and a murderer? Again, mercy, desirable as it often is, becomes mere moral cowardice when it is applied indiscriminately. Moreover, only God has the right to universal mercy, and for man to usurp the right is blasphemous.
Sentimentality is often (perhaps not quite always) but a short step away from cruelty. The Prophet’s conception of guilt would not have been out of place in Vyshinky’s or Roland Freisler’s court.
What judgment pronounce you upon him who though honest
in the flesh yet is a thief in spirit?
Remember, the Prophet has not been asked about character or morality, he has been asked about crime and punishment, that is to say about an organized system of justice. By comparison with Queen Elizabeth I, who famously did not seek to look into men’s souls, Gibran is shallow and implicitly, though perhaps unconsciously, on the side of totalitarian executioners.
Except, of course, that he wishes to punish no one. The last line of his advice on crime and punishment is the following:
the corner-stone of the temple is not higher than the lowest stone in its foundation.
No wonder the purveyor of this pseudo-mystical kitsch—for Gibran is easily the kitschiest writer I have ever read—was beloved of everyone who thought that self-control was the great enemy of mankind. He is sex, drugs, and rock and roll translated into language that makes Sir Walter Scott sound contemporary.
Is Gibran important, even sociologically? He is not as popular as he was during the 1960s and 1970s, perhaps, but when I last looked, The Prophet still came in as the 700th most sold book on Amazon. Of the 238 online reviews, 210 gave it five stars out of five. “In a few hundred years,” wrote one reviewer, “this book will be a bible.” Another wrote that he first became aware of Kahlil Gibran “when I read a poem of his on the menu at my favorite Lebanese restaurant.” Tablets of stone have been replaced by tablets of laminated plastic.
“It’s the answer to everything.” “It is the exploration of self, soul, community, nature and the universe.” “This work rings of an eastern spirituality reconciling with a distinctly western despair.” “The Prophet is a must for anyone on the path to self-discovery.” “Gibran is definitely the people’s philosopher”—in precisely the same way, I suppose, as Princess Diana was the people’s princess. Indeed, it is possible to interpret the princess as a reincarnation of Gibran.
According to the Amazon reviews, many people were given the book by their mother, or found it among her belongings. Many found it still relevant, despite its great antiquity (published all those years ago, in 1923, even before iPods!). One reviewer came quite near the truth when he wrote, “This is the sort of poetry that makes you weep.” Actually, it makes you want to pull your hair out and smash china ornaments. It destroys—or ought to destroy—your equanimity.
Does it matter if substantial numbers of people find consolation in Gibran’s vapidity and excruciating bad taste? It boils down to the question of whether kitsch matters. I feel instinctively that it does, though I do not find it altogether easy to explain why.
Let me leave you with a typical Gibran aphorism:
The flowers of spring are winter’s dreams related at the breakfast table of the angels.
If that doesn’t nauseate you, you must subsist on a diet of marrons glacés: though there is, in fact, a big difference between Kahlil Gibran and marrons glacés. It is that the first mouthful of marrons glacés is delicious.
- The Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran, by Khalil Gibran; Everyman’s Library, 880 pages, $27.50. Go back to the text.