It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying. – Marcel Proust
In the summer of 2011, I was sitting in a packed church. The soon-to-be married couple were exchanging vows. The groom recited the following quote:
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…
It was beautiful and seemed like sound advice to me and potentially a decent slogan for His and Hers coffee mugs. I later found out it comes from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Here and there I started coming across more and more Gibran quotes. They are easy to stumble upon online. I even spotted one on an inspirational poster in someone’s office.
This is not surprising given the staggering sales figures behind “Gibran’s masterpiece”. While he is the author of several other lesser known titles, The Prophet alone accounts for his sticking out like a sore thumb on the list of all-time best selling poets. According to estimates, the early twentieth century Lebanese-American poet ranks third, behind only Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.
My frequent encounters with curious quotes and its overwhelming popularity were enough to make me see what all the fuss was about. Because of its number three ranking, this book, or phenomenon rather, no more deserves a spoiler alert than, say, Hamlet.
Welcome to Orphalese
Spread out thinly over less than a hundred pages, it goes like this: a man named Almustafa (meaning the chosen and beloved in Arabic), has been waiting patiently in the city of “Orphalese” when, finally, his ship comes in. About to depart for his native land, all the people of the city drop what they’re doing and run out in one adoring mob to hear what he has to say.
The book’s twenty-six sections are dedicated to life’s basics: Children, Marriage, Work, Houses, Clothes, Beauty, Death, etc. and are actually given in answer to questions. The Each section corresponds to a different individual. A mother asks about Children, a rich man asks about Giving, an inn-keeper asks about Eating and Drinking, etc. The teachings are packaged softly. It is not preaching, but rather debriefing:
In your aloneness you have watched with our days, and in your wakefulness you have listened to the weeping and the laughter of our sleep. Now therefore disclose us to ourselves, and tell us all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.
Only one other character is named: Almitra, the priestess of the city. She is the first to speak and tellingly asks about Love and Marriage. She also has the distinction of being the one “who had first sought and believed in him when he had been but a day in the city”. Almitra’s romantic love for Almustafa is again implied in some of the final lines:
And a cry came from the people as from a single heart… Only Almitra was silent, gazing after the ship until it had vanished into the mist.
The main body of the work is beautiful. But there isn’t much more you can say about it. It’s extremely vague. Far from esoteric, it’s thoroughly accessible, a spiritual text or “inspirational literature” without dogma or doctrine. It imposes little upon the reader; you see what you want to see – quotes for all occasions.
But I had a strange feeling as I closed the book. While it was at times quite moving, something about the flawless character of Almustafa, a prophet in a foreign land surrounded by adoring fans just did not sit right with me. The priestess loves him, but so what? It seemed too good, too idyllic, too nice, to be true.
Making a Prophet
There was only one place to go for answers: the source. The only thing I had known about the author was that he was an immigrant and lived in New York for much of his life.
The masses may cry with a single heart, but Gibran does not have friends in high places. Few academics believe Gibran’s place on the list is deserved. If not wholly indifferent, they are generous in their scorn. Joan Acocella’s 2008 New Yorker article, “The Prophet Motive,” is at times a scathing example of lit crit via character assassination and is but the latest addition to a long standing tradition. The article uses a post-modern approach which is usually neither fair nor helpful, but in this case proves to be both.
While his army of readers makes him an easy target, Gibran himself deserves a lot of the credit too. As Acocella uncovers, The Prophet is full of enough self-referential details to make it seem like a thinly veiled, idealized, if not delusional, would-be autobiography.
Almustafa, we are told, has been waiting in the city of Orphalese for twelve years – the same amount of time Gibran had been in New York when the book was published. Those masses of adoring fans crying with a single heart are in fact New Yorkers it would seem.
Gibran was an admirer of all religions, but had a complex relationship with Jesus – or a Jesus complex, rather. He claimed that Jesus came to him in his dreams and shared teachings with him that never made it into the bible. It probably didn’t help either that his first patron in the States affectionately called Gibran “The Prophet”.
An additional detail, overlooked by Acocella, is a striking connection between the smitten priestess, Almitra, and, Mary Haskell, Gibran’s chief patroness and lover. For her to receive tribute in the book makes sense; she helped write it. She also paid his rent.
Haskell received little else in return, however. Acocella implies that Gibran was a nightmare of a boyfriend. “When they were apart, he said, they were together. They didn’t need to have ‘intercourse’; their whole friendship was ‘a continued intercourse.’” Haskell clearly loved him, but wanted more than to fulfill the role of a figment of Gibran’s imagination worshipping him from a distance. She eventually gave up and married someone else, but continued to support his writing.
Accounts of Gibran’s life are full of his own home-spun myths, a burden for any biographer. He once told Haskell that “he had intuited the theory of relativity before Einstien; he just hadn’t written it down.” But far from the image he wanted to convey, Gibran comes across as being riddled with affectation and full of naïve, adolescent pretentions – not to mention a narcissist. Sounds like fine writer to me, so what went wrong?
A False Prophet
Soon after The Prophet’s publication, he descended into alcoholism. In less than eight years, he drank himself to death. His chief biographer, Robin Waterfield, believes Gibran was tortured by his own hypocrisy, a life that stood in stark contrast to his view of himself as a holy man. “[Waterfield’s] speculation seems to be that Gibran drank himself to death out of a sense of fraudulence and failure,” writes Acocella.
The highly encouraging sales figures were of no comfort. Even if critics and academics had responded positively, no amount of praise would have been enough to confirm Gibran’s own delusions of grandeur. Now that The Prophet was out there, there was no where hide from it. In his New York apartment, needlessly lit by candles, he sat alone and drank, tortured by his dream come true.
The dismissive thrust of Acocella’s review is unfortunate. It is incredible that a book so comforting and inspiring to millions of readers was, in the end, a source of torment to its creator. Many of his admirers still deny the cause of his death, thinking it diminishes the spiritual authority of the work – and in a sense it does.
The book has long been one of the bibles of the New-Age movement, but perhaps it is time to read it differently. Read through the lens of the author’s life, The Prophet stands as a rich example self-delusion. But far from detracting from its depth, his slow death was brought about by the very same delusions that enabled him to produce the book – his life was sacrificed for the sake of his work. Ironically, Gibran turns out to be something of a Christ figure. He died for his art, you could say, or at least was killed by it. And for that, Gibran deserves credit and praise – just not the kind he wanted.