Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Source of book: I own this. My wife found a beautiful boxed hardback with the original author’s illustrations at a library sale.

Quick, name the three most three best-selling poets of all time. If you guessed “William Shakespeare,” you would be correct. No surprise there. But who are the other two? Number two is Lao-Tze (aka, Laozi and Lao-Tzu), author of the Tao Te Ching. (Which I own, and is on my reading list.)

The third, believe it or not, is Kahlil Gibran.

Gibran was a Lebanese American, who came to the United States as a child, returned to Lebanon during his teens, and then came back to the United States. He attained fantastic success with The Prophet, pioneered a prose-poetry fusion which is the form of that book, had some success as a painter, and later became a major influence on the counterculture of the 1960s, three decades after his death.

As with many artists, Gibran’s personal life was both fascinating and tragic. He died of alcoholism at age 48. But he also had a long-term relationship with Mary Haskell, ten years his senior, which was, well, complicated. There is a lot of argument over whether he physically consummated the relationship. The were, however, romantically, intellectually, and spiritually enmeshed. The letters they wrote each other are almost as famous as his poetry.

The Prophet is an interesting work. It essentially tells of a messiah-like figure, “The Prophet,” who comes by ship one day to a mythical land, and gives his teachings on life, the universe, and everything.

It is easy to see Gibran’s influence on popular culture. Definitely, some of the “New Age” stuff of the 1960s and beyond can be traced to this. I think I remember a few of the aphorisms that were popular during my childhood.

But the work is much more than that. It is, in its way, a retelling and reinterpretation of the lives of the great teachers, Christ included. Obviously, the Fundie tradition I grew up in would find most of it highly offensive...for many of the same reasons they would find the teachings of Christ himself highly offensive if they actually read them without their theological defenses against their meaning. After all, the Prophet also takes aim at religious legalism, systems of power, and oppression. Don’t expect systematic theology. Think instead of poetic musings that pack a lot of truth and wisdom.

The form is one of “prose-poetry.” At the time, this was in line with other experimental forms, although not exactly like other novel formats. It fits in well with free verse in general, and with such poets as Whitman and many in the later 20th Century. It lacks meter, rhyme, and regular line length, but it retains other poetic ideas, such as alliteration, metaphor, and a keen sense for the sound of the words as they flow. So yes, “prose-poetry” fits. It isn’t exactly poetry in the classic sense, yet it isn’t straight prose either. The sound and flow are at least as important as the straight meanings of the words. It is easy to see why this work has been immensely popular. To the educated reader, it is easy to see flaws and glibness. But it also difficult to deny the power of the language. There is something magic about both the ideas and the way they are expressed. It reminds me of the difference between, say, Brahms, and Dvorak. Now true musician would claim that Dvorak had the technical prowess and depth of thought that Brahms had. (Oh, I love Brahms to be sure.) But Dvorak had a way of touching the soul of a wide variety of people - and if I want to introduce neophytes to Classical Music, Dvorak is always one of the ones I think of. (And, honestly, I never tire of playing Dvorak either.)

Let me mention some of my own favorite sections from The Prophet.

In the introduction, the prophet is musing about is potential influence.

And he said to himself:
Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering?
And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn?

The prophet is met by a woman - a seer - by the name of Almitra. Throughout the work, she is his foil, often asking the best questions. And, at the end, anticipating that she might be the mother of the next incarnation of the prophet. She starts off the dialogue by asking the prophet about the most important thing in the universe: love. From there, she asks of marriage. I think a portion of the response is absolutely fantastic. It represents a good bit of my own marriage.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give each other of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

It is so hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it what this is like. We are both fairly independent, yet bonded to each other. We are not just one person (and certainly not the “traditional” view of marriage wherein they are one because the female half disappears into the male.) We are two people bonded by love, independent, yet a beautiful partnership. We love each other deeply, but we also cherish our own space and personhood.

Also intriguing in this work is the startlingly Christ-like approach to social justice. I particularly love the way Gibran turns “charity” on its head.

You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worthy of all else from you.
And he who has deserved to drink from the ocean of life deserves to fill his cup from your little stream.
And what desert greater shall there be, than that which lies in the courage and the confidence, nay the charity, of receiving?
And who are you that men should rend their bosom and unveil their pride, that you may see their worth naked and their pride unabashed?
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life - while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

This is, in a lot of ways, the delusion of the Right these days. They alone deserve, and everyone else may as well die. They insist on placing themselves in that arrogant position where they have earned their privilege, and deserve everything. As Christ noted, the Kingdom of God is upside down: those who have now will be destitute, and the poor and oppressed are far closer to God than the wealthy.

Another bon mot was this bit on “modesty culture.

And the weaver said, Speak to us of Clothes.
And he answered:
Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.

Oh, heck yes. As one who grew up in that culture, this is totally true.

The Fundies obsess about female bodies, and how much skin and shape shows. But all this cannot any longer conceal their vicious racism, misogyny. It cannot conceal their endless failures to actually address sexual assault and rape - or their protection of powerful and predatory old men.

Oh yes. They insist that women conceal the beauty of their bodies. But they cannot hide the festering cancerous ulcers of their evil. People like my wife are slut shamed, while pussy-grabbing Trump becomes the new messiah of white fundamentalism.

I also liked the discussion of the role of reason and passion. Or, perhaps, logic and emotion. But reason and passion are better terms. Because passion encompasses empathy, which has seemingly been purged from much of our public discourse.

And the priestess spoke again and said: Speak to us of Reason and Passion.
And he answered, saying:
Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the dischord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can but 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.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion, that it may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason, that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix, rise above its own ashes.
I would have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.
Surely you would not honor one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.

Yes, both are important. And both should be subject to the law of love. I have noted a few times that a major factor in why I left Evangelicalism is that I was tired of being expected to leave both my brain and my conscience at the door. Gibran notes the interplay of reason and passion. And I agree both are important. Gibran also starts his argument with a discussion of love - as did Christ. (See: the greatest commandments.) Instead, for my Fundie tradition, the foundation is a theological edifice that was developed to justify colonialism, racism, slavery, and misogyny. As I have come to realize, that is why I cannot really have a fruitful discussion with anyone still in that belief system. I cannot appeal to reason. Because centuries of denying empirical reality is central to defending the theological system. And I cannot appeal to empathy either. Because empathy has been systematically purged from the theology - because it had to be compatible with genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow. Gibran has it better, I must admit. First, start with the premise that we must love, above all, and that we cannot consider ourselves better than everyone else. Then, we can combine reason - the embrace of empirical evidence and logic - with a passionate empathy for the disenfranchised and oppressed. You know, like Christ’s teachings and example.

It gets even better.

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”
Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”
For the soul walks upon all paths.
The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed.
The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.

Yes! I am so sick of the endless arrogance of my tradition. Indeed, someone in the 1900s - or 1600s - fathomed all truth, and now we just contemn everyone who thinks differently. Nope. We see in part. We know in part. We see as through a glass, dimly. We struggle toward the truth, and attain a mere fraction of the whole at best. Without love of our neighbor, it is meaningless - or worse, evil. But there is a better way, as St. Paul noted.

Let me end with this passage, from the end of the prophet’s discourse, before he embarks on his boat and sails away.

And an old priest said, Speak to us of Religion.
And he said:
Have I spoken this day of aught else?
Is not religion all deeds and all reflection,
And that which is neither deed nor reflection, but a wonder and a surprise ever springning in the soul, even while the hands hew the stone or tend the loom?
Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations?
Who can spread his hours before him, saying, “This for God and this for myself; This for my soul and this other for my body?”
All your hours are wings that beat through space from self to self.

He who wears his morality but as his best garment were better naked.

All our life is our religion. It isn’t the pieties we spew on Sunday morning. We can say “love your neighbor” all we want in church, but if the rest of our life is “keep the dirty brown people out, end health care for the poor, and stave the gays,” our actions speak louder than our words in church. As someone famous once said, “by their fruit you shall know them.” For American Evangelicalism, the fruit is Ayn Rand and David Duke. I am still astounded that my Evangelical friends - most of them anyway - seem to have exactly zero fear that Christ might actually judge them on how they treated the vulnerable. Zero fear. Instead, they are sure that “I opposed gay marriage and abortion” is the sum total of necessary faith.

Gibran wrote a provocative and thoughtful work, which is why it has remained popular. It was at the time - and remains today - a challenge to the complacency of arrogant, overfed, and moralistic “slaveholder religion,” which dominates the supposed “Christianity” these days in our nation. It points to a freedom which grants dignity and well being to all, and asks us not whether others deserve our love and assistance, but whether we are worthy of being part of the Kingdom - and decent humanity.

This was an interesting read. I’m not a particular fan of either the New Age movement or of the 1960s in general. (Okay, except the music - so much good stuff there…) But The Prophet unexpectedly resonated with much of what I have read of the teachings and life of Christ. It was yet another reminder that Christ consistently challenged power, moralism, and privileged. And most of what we call “religion,” then and now, is mostly about retaining power, privilege, and a sense of superiority.


My edition contained Gibran’s original illustrations. I feel they add to the experience. 

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