The Prophet (1923) by Kahlil Gibran
This is almost certainly the most successful of the handful of self-help books based on allegories and fables. It tells the story of the fictional prophet Al-mustafa, who visits the mythical island of Orphalese. After sharing the Arcadian life style of the local people for twelve years the prophet finally he decides to return from whence he came. Before doing so he agrees to answer some of the islanders’ fundamental questions about the human condition. His replies form the substance of the book, which consists of twenty-six, beautifully crafted poetic essays. The first covers the subject of love, the second relates to marriage where he counsels: ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness. And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. … Fill each others cup, but drink not from one cup.’ After that he reflects on children and then on giving, where he suggests : ‘You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.’ The next sections cover the subjects of eating and drinking, work, joy, sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship and talking. After that there’s a brief entry about time – ‘Yesterday is but to-day’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream’ – and finally a consideration of good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death. Few will question the elegance and lasting impact of Gibran’s mystic writing, and yet it rates not a single entry in the authoritative ‘Oxford Dictionary of Quotations’.
There seems little need to justify the short-listing of this book, which has been translated into over forty different languages and is one of the best selling books of all time. To date it’s sold in excess of one hundred million copies and still sells five thousand copies a week. As a result some claim that Gibran is the most widely read poet in history, after Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. He’s now so well known that he’s regularly copied, and frequently parodied, which is probably a more sincere form of flattery than simple imitation. My favourite spoof is ‘The Profit: Albran’s Serial’, a book which was published in 1973 under the nom de plume Kehlog Albran. Another critic described his writing as ‘gibrish’, and dubbed him the ‘profiteer’, a snide reference to his ill-concealed love of money.
Kahlil spent his early life in the Lebanon, and developed his love of poetry at an early age, when he learnt by heart many ancient Arab sayings, such as ‘Life is but a cobweb woven by a spider.’ His father was another major influence during his formative years, and would teach him lines of Bedouin folk lore like ‘a nomad’s tent is better than a nobleman’s castle.’ Unfortunately Gibran’s father was also an alcoholic, who regularly beat his son, brought him up in poverty and taught him that solace could be found in liquor. The father’s tipple was arak; the son’s poor qua
lity prohibition whisky. This was the cause of his premature death from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of forty-eight. Because of the family’s impoverished circumstances Gibran received no formal schooling during his childhood except what he learned from the Catholic priests who regularly visited his home. The family were members of the Maronites, a Catholic sect named after a Syrian saint who died in 400 AD, and this early indoctrination helps to explain the intensely spiritual quality of his writing. To encourage his talent his younger brother encouraged him to study the Old Testament writings, particularly the psalms of David and Solomon’s ‘Song of Songs.’ As a result, even his closest fans today would find it difficult to decide whether lines such as ‘The palms of your hands, my beloved, are fountains of overflowing plenty’ are those of Gibran, or direct quotations from the Bible. But then the prophet Solomon also said: ‘There is no new thing under the sun’, a judgement which applies to the whole corpus of self-help texts. As a writer, he also owed a great debt to Nietzsche, and often urged his friends to read ‘Thus Spoke Zarathrusta’ which he described as ‘one of the greatest works of all times.’ Under the influence of Nietzche he changed from being a romantic dreamer to becoming a decidedly arrogant man who longed for status, wealth and power. He wrote eighteen books, but none could match the influence or success of the ‘The Prophet’.
The great tragedy of Gilbran’s life was that his personal behaviour fell far short of his impeccable teaching. His biographer and life long friend, Mikhail Naimy, claimed that he had a djinee or double warring inside him. He preached social equality, but in practice was an unmitigated snob. His gospel was one of unconditional love, yet he treated his female partners with disdain. His first American patron, Josephine Peabody, was an unmarried school teacher ten-years his senior, who described him as ‘an absolute genius’, but seemed to be more captivated by his personal charm and beauty. ‘His eyes have the longest, silkiest lashes I have ever seen,’ she wrote. For the rest of his life he pocketed her money and relied on her to edit, and even write, large sections of his books, since his command of English at the time was not of the highest order. Yet he didn’t hesitate to discard Josephine when he found a wealthier benefactor in Mary Haskell. He told Mary that, because of his high principles, he wouldn’t take her to his bed, but assured her that her ‘pure love for me shall bring out my talents’. During their twenty-three-year relationship he wrote her more than six hundred ‘love’ letters, which after her death she bequeathed to the University of North Carolina. It was with Mary’s money that the family eventually bought the Mar Sarkis monastery, to fulfil Gibran’s wish that his body should be interred in Lebanese soil. This is now a Kahlil Gibran museum. Through the influence of Mary, his lifetime ‘spiritual’ friend, the world also has a Kahlil Gibran Memorial Garden in Washington a Kahlil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, and a Kahlil Gibran pavilion in Montreal.
The Lebanese Muslim community has criticised Gibran for his double moral standards, quoting the words of the great Imam Ali: ‘Whoever would be a teacher of men let him begin by teaching himself before teaching the others; and let him teach by example before teaching by word.’ Since many health gurus fail to meet this exacting standard, we’ll be selecting our short list on the quality of the books rather than the moral standards of their authors.