1/22/08 - kahlil gibran

In today's excerpt - Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), author of the much-loved book of poems 'The Prophet.' Gibran was born to a poor family of Maronite Christians in Lebanon, moved with his mother to a ghetto in Boston in 1895, then lived the remainder of his life primarily in Boston and New York. Author of seventeen books, he was never critically esteemed and lived primarily through the generosity of the women in his life. An alcoholic, he died a recluse from 'cirrhosis of the liver with incipient tuberculosis':

"Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet of all time. Second is Lao-tzu. Third is Kahlil Gibran, who owes his place on that list to one book, 'The Prophet', a collection of twenty-six prose poems delivered as sermons by a fictional wise man in a faraway time and place. Since its publication in 1923, 'The Prophet' has sold more than nine million copies in its American edition alone. ... 'The Prophet' started fast -- it sold out its first printing in a month -- and then it got faster, until in the nineteen-sixties its sales sometimes reached five thousand copies a week. It was the Bible of that decade. ...

"What made 'The Prophet' so fantastically successful? At the opening of the book, we are told that Almustafa, a holy man, has been living in exile, in a city called Orphalese, for twelve years. ... A ship is now coming to take him back to the island of his birth. Saddened by his departure, people gather around and ask him for his final words of wisdom -- on love, on work, on joy and sorrow, and so forth. He obliges, and his lucubrations on these matters occupy most of the book. Almustafa's advice is not bad: love involves suffering; children should be given their independence. Who these days would say otherwise? More than the soundness of its advice, however, the mere fact that 'The Prophet' was an advice book -- or more precisely 'inspirational literature' -- probably insured a substantial readership at the start. Gibran's closest counterpart today is the Brazilian sage Paulo Coelho, and his books have sold nearly a hundred million copies.

"Then, there is the pleasing ambiguity of Almustafa's counsels. ... If you look closely ... you will see that much of the time he is saying something specific; namely that everything is everything else. Freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life. So, whatever you're doing, you needn't worry because you're also doing the opposite. Such paradoxes ... now became his favorite literary device. They appeal not only by their seeming correction of conventional wisdom, but also by their hypnotic power, their negation of rational processes. ...

"Furthermore, 'The Prophet' is comforting. Gibran [said] that the whole meaning of the book was, 'You are far far greater than you know -- and All is well.' To people in doubt or in trouble, that is good news. ... Finally, 'The Prophet' is short -- ninety-six pages in its original edition. ...

"While the literary journals paid some attention to Gibran early on, they eventually dropped him. This is no surprise. His leading traits -- idealism, vagueness, sentimentality -- were exactly what the young writers of the twenties were running away from. ... But, if the artists of the time were throwing off idealism and sentiment, ordinary people were not. They wanted to hear about their souls, and Sinclair Lewis was not obliging them. Hence the popularity of 'The Prophet' with the general public. After its publication, Gibran received bags of fan mail [and was] besieged by visitors."


Joan Acocella


'Prophet Motive: The Kahlil Gibran phenomenon'


The New Yorker


January 7, 2008


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