It's a strange little book, Mischa."
Those words, though uttered 40 years ago, still ring fresh and clear in my mind. They were spoken by Kahlil Gibran—a still unknown Kahlil Gibran—one night not long after the publication of his third book in the English language, a short, curiously mystical work called The Prophet.
We were alone that night, Gibran and I, relaxing in what he and I and our small circle of other expatriate Arab writers and artists called "the hermitage," Gibran's modest studio on the third floor of a drab building on West Tenth Street in Manhattan, one of many such buildings packed tightly along the upper side of the street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Although severely furnished, as a hermitage ought to be, it spoke not so much of prayer as it did of work. It contained a cot that served Gibran as a bed at night and a lounge in the daytime, three upholstered chairs and a small bed-table on which stood a telephone. The whole studio was cluttered with folios of drawings, books, and papers and the tools of creative effort—brushes, paint tubes, pencils, pens and inkwells.
I had scarcely arrived when Gibran handed me a letter and said, with a twinkle of deep satisfaction in his eyes, "Read this, Mischa." The letter was from the president of Colorado College and asked permission to engrave a verse from The Prophet on the master bell of the chimes of the college memorial chapel. The verse was, "Yesterday Is But Today's Memory, and Tomorrow Is Today's Dream."
As I handed it back with warm, congratulatory words, Gibran looked at me with eyes half moist and said in a grave voice, "It's a strange little book, Mischa."
Today, nearly a half century later, it is clear that Gibran's view of his book was singularly appropriate. Barely 20,000 words long, philosophical in nature, mystical in tone, The Prophet was hardly a book one would expect to capture the attention of the reading public. Yet, eventually, it did. At first, to be sure, it attracted only scattered attention and even that was of an odd nature. In New York, for instance, a minister in a small church in one of the city's poorer sections somehow heard of The Prophet and requested permission to give readings from it at the church. Gibran assented and young men and women of the parish began to dramatize it on quiet evenings during the week. So favorable were the reactions that the word went out that the church had an unusually interesting program based on an unusually interesting book. Attendance increased and many of those who went to the readings eventually purchased a copy of the book and, in turn, added their endorsement to its spreading reputation. How far that reputation spread we did not know until the day Gibran received a letter from a friend relaying to him the unbounded admiration of the Queen of Rumania to whom someone had given a copy.
In this way, by such curious impulses, its fame slowly increased. Puzzled publishers occasionally issued new editions which continued, slowly, to sell. Then came World War II, and suddenly, inexplicably, the demand sharpened—as if, perhaps, the message of this book, conceived from such personal pain, leaped into sharper focus amid the sufferings of war. In any case it happened, and today the sales of The Prophet total more than 1,000,000 copies, and it has been translated into more than 20 languages.
Gibran, of course, did not know that any of this was to happen. He knew only that a verse he had written was to be engraved on a bell in a college in Colorado. He knew only that after years of struggle in his lonely "hermitage," he had struck a responsive chord and that at last he could say, "Behold, I have caught the ear of the world and its fancy. I am no longer a voice in a void and a candle lit for the blind."
As we talked of the book that night I could not help but marvel at the mysterious hand that weaves human destinies. Here, in a tiny corner of that metropolis called New York, were two men born in faraway Lebanon of Biblical fame, Gibran at the foot of Cedar Mountain in the northern end of the lovely Lebanese range; myself at the foot of majestic Mount Sanneen in the center of that range, the distance between the two being no more than 50 miles. Yet Gibran and I met, not in Lebanon, but in the huge city on the Hudson. That was in 1916.
Gibran was born of a poor family in a small village called Bsharri and spent his boyhood close to nature amid the deep gorges, lofty peaks and crystal springs of northern Lebanon, a region rich in the sounds of nature and the constant shifts of light and shadow. In 1895, when he was only 12 years of age, his mother, a half-brother—his mother's son—and two sisters younger than Gibran decided to emigrate to America in search of a better life. They settled in Boston's Chinatown where a sympathetic teacher discovered Gibran's talent for drawing and painting and guided him into the study of art. Two years later, however, an intense urge to master his mother tongue—Arabic—drew him back to Lebanon for four years of study. From there he gravitated to Paris for a year's study of art, then back to Boston and finally, upon the tragic deaths of a younger sister, his mother and his half-brother from tuberculosis, to New York. Boston, however, was an important stop in Gibran's life, for it was there that he met Miss Mary Elizabeth Haskell during the exhibition of his first artistic efforts. Miss Haskell, principal of the Cambridge School for Girls, became Gibran's greatest benefactress. It was she who helped him to go back to Paris for study, who continued to help and encourage him through the later years of hardship, even to the end of his life. How important she was in his life can be seen in his dedication to her of his Broken Wings and other Arabic writings, and in his willing to her upon his death all the contents of his studio.
In New York Gibran was not entirely unknown. His fame as an original and very promising writer had preceded him to the large Lebanese and Syrian community living in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Many of his stories and other writings had already appeared in some of the Arabic journals published in New York, journals which carried his name back to the Arab countries in the old world where the younger generation hailed him as a rising and brilliant star in the firmament of new Arab literature.
Gibran, however, was not content with conquests in the small and little known cultural world of the Arab, and began to think seriously of invading the much larger and much more influential Anglo-Saxon world. His first timid step in that direction was a small book called The Madman, published in 1918. It was followed two years later by another small book called The Forerunner, a title chosen deliberately by Gibran who intended it only as a precursor of The Prophet. Neither caused any significant stir in America. And then, in 1923, came the "strange little book."
In structure, The Prophet hangs upon a very simple, yet very artificial skeleton: Almustafa—an Arabic name meaning "the chosen"—is a name borrowed by Gibran to designate a certain stranger who has lived 12 years in a certain city called Orphalese and who is awaiting a ship "to bear him back to the isle of his birth." From the top of a mountain he espies the ship and descends to the city to meet it and there faces the inhabitants of the city in a square before the temple. The inhabitants have come to bid him farewell and a woman called Almitra, "who had first sought and believed in him when he had been but a day in their city," entreats this "prophet of God" to speak to them, before he departs, of all that has been shown him "of that which is between birth and death." Speak, says Almitra, of love. Speak, says another, of marriage. And so Almustafa speaks—of love, of marriage, of work, of death, of children, of all those topics, in short, so important to the human heart.
It is not the skeleton, however, that sets The Prophet apart; it is the spirit and vision that animates it, that makes it breathe with the reactions of an impassioned, high-strung and over-sensitive soul that had known the full range of human experiences, from extreme dejection to the highest exaltation. It is too the music that cascades in words; the colors that make dead letters dance in rhythmic abandon; the shafts of light that pierce the darkness as lightning pierces the clouds. It is, finally, the gates of a heart flung open to the world that it may see what miracles the magic hand of suffering had wrought in it. It is all that and more that makes The Prophet Gibran's masterpiece.
Yet to fully understand The Prophet it is important to consider the philosophical elements that went into its conception, the sharply differing influences on Gibran's slowly maturing thought.
At the beginning of his literary life, Gibran's main intent was to make of his pen a scourge of those who, he believed, restricted the material and spiritual freedom of his people. Bsharri, his village, lay in a region that was largely dominated by wealthier families and religious leaders. Gibran, who remembered this from his boyhood and from his youth, during the period when he returned to Lebanon, rebelled against this domination, delighted in calling himself a rebel and wished his people to rebel too against traditions which he saw as inimical to the free unfolding of their rich talents. Then, years later, he fell under the spell of "Thus Spake Zarathustra," a book by the German philosopher Nietzsche in which Nietzsche, as ever, passionately renounced Christian civilization. Gibran's early style and content reflected Nietzsche's bitter pessimism so much that he once called his people "rotten teeth." He even went so far in his Arabic work The Grave Digger to compare all men to worms and to corpses waiting for someone to inter them. To that period also, when bitterness consumed him, belong his first two books in English, The Madman and The Forerunner, both of which breathe denunciations of man's stupidity and blindness. But that phase passed too, and he turned to the more peaceful and humane philosophy of the Vedas (Hindu sacred writings) and to the Christian Gospels. In the Gospels, and particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, Gibran found the deeper meaning of life expressed not in logic as the philosophers would express it, but in terms of pure poetry. And it is this last, final phase, one dominated by the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, that he breathed into The Prophet.
There are other influences to be found in the book too. One is the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation, reflected in at least four passages, especially that which says: "But should my voice fade in your ears and my love vanish in your memory, then I will come again." There is also the reference to the "vast man" within all men. "It is in the vast man that you are vast," says Almustafa to the people of Orphalese and one wonders if Gibran's "vast man" is not another version of Nietzsche's "superman." If that be true Gibran accomplished a great feat; he made of the German iconoclast one of the fishermen of Galilee who became fishers of men.
Out of such influences was born the message of The Prophet: that man's end is nothing short of omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and immortality and that in that light love, charity, compassion, forgiveness, gentleness and kindred virtues become necessities for right living in the same sense that bread, water, light and air are necessities for the body. They become the law and to deviate from them is to invite pain to oneself. Pain, therefore should be looked upon as an eye-opener to make man see his transgressions against the law. To use Almustafa's words to the people of Orphalese: "It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self."
There is another side to The Prophet which escapes most people, an intensely personal side. It is Gibran opening up his heart and speaking of things entirely personal. That side is thinly veiled by artificial names such as Almustafa, Orphalese, Almitra, the isle of Almustafa's birth, the ship and the mariners, as well as by certain numbers and dates such as the 12 years in Orphalese. By lifting the veil one can easily identify Gibran as Almustafa; the city of New York as Orphalese; Mary Haskell as Almitra; Lebanon as Almustafa's isle of birth; the 12 years in Orphalese as the 12 years Gibran spent in New York prior to the publication of the book.
When read in this light the prologue and epilogue in The Prophet become much more than beautiful literature. They become pulsating fragments of Gibran's heart, a heart so sensitive that it responded with tears at the merest suggestion of human sorrow. Thus, it is Gibran baring his loneliness in New York in his early days there and expressing his consuming thirst for wider recognition when Almustafa, about to leave, says:
"How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city. Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness..."
Thus, too, it is Gibran expressing a farewell to New York and gratitude for the recognition it finally accorded him when Almustafa says:
"You have given me my deeper thirsting after life. Surely there is no greater gift to man than that which turns all his aims into parching lips and all life into a fountain."
In the longing to go and the reluctance to depart, expressed so touchingly in the prologue and epilogue by Almustafa, there is an even deeper poignancy if one realizes that Gibran, prior to the publication of The Prophet, had taken steps which were to lead to a permanent return to Lebanon. About a year before the book came out Gibran had begun to talk to me of a real hermitage, not just his small studio on West Tenth Street. It was a small deserted monastery called Mar-Sarkees just outside his beloved village of Bsharri. He had begun negotiations to buy the monastery because he craved intensely the peace and solitude of that charming corner in northern Lebanon, not only for his weary soul, but for his overworked and ailing body as well. For some time he had been complaining seriously of physical disturbances whose precise nature he did not know. They terminated in his death at the age of 48 the night of April 10, 1931, in a New York hospital not far from his studio. Mar-Sarkees, where he planned to spend the rest of his days in fruitful work and peaceful meditation, became the final resting place for his lifeless body only.
In this light it is easy to understand how very true and apt was Gibran's answer to one who had asked him how he happened to conceive and write The Prophet: "Did I write it? It wrote me."
It is indeed a strange little book.
Mikhail Naimy, a Lebanese writer, poet and philosopher, was an intimate friend of Kahlil Gibran for nearly 15 years and is the author of a biography of Gibran. He studied in Russia and France and lived in America for almost 18 years, before returning to the village of Biskinta in Lebanon where he was born in 1889.