Kahlil Gibran and the Curse of the Oriental Sage

No facts, no assembly of facts, no recital of incidents or experiences can give any true conception of the reality of Gibran. He was one of the rare gestures of the Mighty Unnameable Power and in his voice and his being were vested an authority not to be confounded with mere human excellence, for he was never wholly and entirely in this world.

Barbara Young, This Man from Lebanon: A Study of Kahlil Gibran (1944)

There are two cruelties that can be inflicted upon poets: one relegates their work to the reader-less desert of obscurity; another, far more diabolical, anoints the poet as a saint, oracle, or icon, such that the only possibility of engagement with their work is a fawning, preening adulation. The second fate long ago befell the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931), the beatified bard whose work receives almost no critical analysis but is drawn on with regularity for both weddings (where all must feign some faith in love) and funerals (where transcendence is the need of the moment). I’ve inwardly scowled and literally cringed every time I have seen the accessibility of Gibran mistaken for the prosaic or the easily appropriated. I’ve spotted quotations from The Prophet in birthday cards and on throw pillows and heard them in yoga classes from southern California to Sardinia. There is a verse of Gibran, it seems, for every occasion, easy appropriation. Even John F. Kennedy, I learned over coffee one day, got into the act. His famous words “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” were never Kennedy’s words. They belong to Gibran, a poet whose simplicity has been misunderstood, reduced rather to a lack of complexity, making critical engagement with it, utterly beside the point.

Contrary to Barbara Young’s reverent estimation at the beginning of her “study,” Gibran was — like all the rest of us, poets and otherwise — very much of this world. It is a particular tragedy that she would not think so, because, unlike biographers who have come later, she knew and spent time with him when he was living in New York. But the desire to recall him as an Oriental sage dropping poetic pearls is apparently hard to resist: Even when Gibran asked Young to share a bowl of soup in his studio, she had to account for his very human act of eating with: “This was another of his ways of putting off for a time, the weight of his endowment.”

Gibran’s endowment was indeed great, but the heft of his genius or the mystic element that helped shape his poetry should not define all encounters with him and his verse. Within its lines also lay a keen expression of the alienation felt by a brown man living amid the whiteness of a foreign land that delivered the “suffering” that would make him one of the “massive characters that are seared with scars.” Gibran arrived in South Boston after being wrested from his beloved village of Bisharri on Mount Lebanon by a mother fleeing an abusive marriage. He was only eleven but thrust deep into the complications of immigrant survival in Boston tenements. At fifteen he was sent back to complete his schooling at home in Beirut, where the resources of his well-to-do maternal grandparents may have come to his aid. His political views — expressed in a desire for a Lebanon free of both feudalism and Ottoman rule — date from this period. When he returned to Boston at nineteen, grief awaited. Two of his siblings died from tuberculosis and his beloved mother from cancer. He wrote of his mother, “She lived countless poems, but never wrote one.”

Bereft from these losses, Gibran nursed his art and his poetry, while his sister, a seamstress, paid the bills. He was, by this time, becoming known among Arab poetry circles in the city but had little to show for it in publications, let alone royalties. Expectedly, sorrow and his alienation were dual themes in his work at this time. In the words of scholar Eugene Nassar, the Gibran of this moment was “a tragic dualist whose exultation [was] fixed only in the idea of an ever upwards striving spirit.”

While Gibran’s universalism appealed (as it still does) to a white and Western audience, its incipient rejection of the particularities of identity was less attractive to an Arab world caught in the midst of identity wars and the imminent breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. In 1913, when the First Arab Conference was held in Paris, Gibran ached to go but didn’t, even though, in his friend Mary Haskell’s words, “K wanted revolution.” His complex sense of his political and cultural identity reflects the cosmopolitan milieu of his border-crossing childhood, but one that translates to the specificities of his family and culture. Gibran tried to explain his position in “To the Muslims from a Christian Poet,” a prose poem that called for an alliance of disparate religious factions in Ottoman-occupied countries. At the end he encourages them: “I shall remain an Easterner. Eastern in my manners, Syrian in my desires, Lebanese in my feelings, no matter how much I admire Western progress.”

All this, addressed as it was to the Arab world, has been duly ignored by Western commentators on Kahlil Gibran’s work, most of whom seek to emphasize the ethereal and to sideline the political. Gibran’s refusal to denounce World War I presents a similar challenge for modern readers. Before and during the war, The Seven Arts, a magazine that he had been involved in launching and for which he wrote, became a forum for the staunchly anti-war. Gibran found himself unable to denounce the conflict — because within it he saw hope for the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Veering the other way, he mulled enlisting, writing in a letter, “If I enlist, others will also enlist. But they might decide that my mind was the part of me that was most useful.” Such a confession would have been astounding to Young or others who insisted that “there was not an atom of aggressiveness in the man.”

Gibran didn’t go to war, but he did suffer its vicissitudes, forced to watch the bloodshed in Lebanon from a distance, aching to do something and condemned to doing nothing. In the throes of all this he penned another poem published in the Arabic newspaper Al-Funoon. Titled “Dead Are My People,” it is an elegy dedicated to the terror of what was happening at home and his own helplessness. “What can an exiled son do for his / Starving people / And what value / Unto them is the lamentation of an / Absent poet. This is my disaster, and this is my / Mute calamity which brings humiliation. / Before my soul and before the phantoms / Of the night.”

Those earlier agonies of Gibran, his refusal to see war as a contradiction of love and of his ardently professed humanism was all forgotten when “The Madman” was published in 1918. Many reviewers began comparing him to Rabindranath Tagore, the eminent Bengali poet. Here, in the words of Gibran’s biographer, was “a mysterious hero and ready-made genius” and the “Middle-Eastern counterpart to Tagore.” His past, political or otherwise, was now effectively erased and in its stead there was “the work of the greatest poet in Arabia.”

When The Prophet was published in 1923, the adulation reached even greater heights. “Oriental philosophy holds a strange fascination for occidental minds. And doubly attractive is this philosophy when it is couched in the beautifully simple poetic prose of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet,” declared one reviewer. Another went further, declaring it a book “beautiful in thought” and exercising “a deeper enchantment” than simply that of form. Mastery of form, after all, would be what poetic geniuses of the human sort can paw at; magic is more appropriately the work of the mysterious soul of the East.

The anointing of Gibran thus was also his erasing, or rather his transmogrification, into the Oriental wise man who fit the box the Americans had for him. The box exists still today, and he and others inhabit it, and not by coincidence. Nor can its persistence be wholly explained by the difficulties, linguistic and otherwise, of understanding “other” poets beyond their simplest, most easily available meanings. Then as now, the possibility of an Arab as complex and contradictory, created as much by the vagaries of being the progeny of a single mother in a Boston tenement as by a wondrous far and mystical land, is an idea that largely escapes the imagination of Western publishing.

The Oriental sage, though, still serves a purpose, particularly as it permits the admissibility of Gibran’s verse into the English poetic lexicon without really interacting with meaning or context or imputation. There is no need to wonder what spiritual evolution may mean, for instance, in relation to the struggling immigrant, or what “freedom as yoke and a handcuff” means in relation to the tribulation of the immigrant and the exile — “free” in a legal sense but never belonging. Relegating all of this to the mystical or the esoteric, permits and even demands that it be left unintelligible, beyond critical engagement or thoughtful acclaim — a mighty power not so much unnamed as hidden from view.

Photo of Kahlil Gibran (c.1898) by F. Holland Day; via Wikipedia and the Louise Imogen Guiney collection at the Library of Congress.

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