Analysis

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Kahlil Gibran, who immigrated to the US from Lebanon as a child, is most famous for his 1923 work The Prophet . The book is a popular bestseller translated into fifty languages, but it has not been beloved by literary critics. The book has sold millions of copies, but it...

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Kahlil Gibran, who immigrated to the US from Lebanon as a child, is most famous for his 1923 work The Prophet. The book is a popular bestseller translated into fifty languages, but it has not been beloved by literary critics. The book has sold millions of copies, but it does not show up on lists of best American literature, being considered by many to be sentimental, vague, and overly idealistic. These were traits associated with nineteenth-century literature that the twentieth century literati were working hard to shed when The Prophet arrived on the scene.

In The Prophet, the wise sage (prophet) Almustafa is on the verge of leaving Orphalese, his home for twelve years. The seeress Almitra asks him to share his wisdom with the people before he leaves. He answers questions on twenty-six important subjects in life, each comprising a short chapter. He provides wisdom on love, marriage, passion, pain, talking, religion, friendship, teaching, time, death, and many other subjects. Almustafa speaks in aphorisms, which are short, pointed statements conveying truths. Most of his paragraphs are only one sentence long, allowing his work to flow and be easily read in small pieces. An example of his writing style is below, as Almustafa speaks on marriage:

You were born together, and together you shall be for evermore.

You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.

Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness.

And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Many attribute The Prophet's popularity to the fact that Gibran draws from a variety of religious and cultural traditions to state universal truths that are broad enough to be open to various individual interpretations. The book was exceptionally popular in the 1960s and has been associated with "hippie" culture. It is often quoted at wedding ceremonies.

In 1928, Gibran published Jesus, the Son of Man, considered by many critics to be his finest literary achievement. It was praised in early reviews. In it, seventy-seven people, such as Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Mary Magdalene, Judas's mother, a shepherd, and others talk about Jesus as if they are being interviewed. The book is noted for its ability to provide rounded characterizations of its speakers and for allowing them to express individual points of view. It is less popular than The Prophet because it focuses on one religion rather than universal truths. It is also less inspirational than The Prophet.

Broken Wings was published in Arabic in 1912 and later translated into English. It is set in Lebanon around the year 1900 and critiques religious hypocrisy and the lack of women's rights in the Middle East. In it, as in Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers meet secretly, because the woman, Selma, has been engaged by her family to another man. The two lovers are discovered and separated. The book explores the theme of happiness versus money.

Analysis

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Kahlil Gibran was a world-renowned Lebanese American poet, author, visual artist, and journalist. In addition to his literary and artistic career, Gibran is also considered a philosopher who harmoniously mixed Western philosophy—particularly Christian philosophy and existentialism—and the Middle Eastern philosophy he absorbed during his youth. Kahlil Gibran's writing style is poetic and esoteric in nature, reminiscent of poet William Blake's style of writing. Gibran's writing style is also similar to that of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet-philosopher.

Kahlil Gibran's poems—both those in traditional verse and those in prose format—are highly vivid with imagery and symbolism, giving his writings a Freudian quality that speaks to the subconscious, or primal state, within the reader. Kahlil Gibran explores many Christian themes—for example, good versus evil—and imagery, but Gibran believed that both "light" and "dark" elements in people are symbiotic parts that are essential. Gibran spoke of a universal type of love in his literary works, which involved accepting both pain and ecstasy in order to grow spiritually.

In this regard, his works are reminiscent of ancient Buddhist and Hindu philosophies. While some readers—especially those with a contemporary taste in literature—may find Gibran's style dated and flowery, it is his sensitivity to language and human emotions that helps deliver his philosophical ideas to readers.

Other literary forms

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The collections of Kahlil Gibran (jih-BRAHN) include poetry, parables, fragments of conversation, short stories, fables, political essays, letters, and aphorisms.

Achievements

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As a poet, Kahlil Gibran made his greatest impact on Arabic literature. His Arabic publications broke new ground in poetic form and in the stridency of their exhortations. Barbara Young asserts in This Man from Lebanon (1945) that the West knows a soft Gibran, while the East knows a Gibran who encased “steel in velvet.”

While Time (January 22, 1945), in reviewing This Man from Lebanon, would only concede that Gibran’s “poetry in Arabic was apparently more striking,” Joseph Sheban in Mirrors of the Soul (1965) is more enthusiastic. Sheban claims that Gibran “created a new era in style, influenced by Western thought, and a revolution in the minds of the younger generation of his country.” Annie Salem Otto concurs in The Parables of Kahlil Gibran (1981), saying that Broken Wings “was greeted by the Arab world as an innovation in that it was the first work” to break away “from the imitation of the old classics.”

Gibran’s writing in English is more prose than poetry. Gibran found his second language exceedingly inadequate for creating poetry and he frequently voiced his frustration to friends. Young claims that Gibran knew fifty Arabic words for the English word “love” and this was only one example of the way in which he felt inhibited when he attempted to render into English that which he conceived in Arabic. The fact is, as Sheban states, that Gibran actually has “very little poetry” among his voluminous works in English.

Nor have translations of Gibran’s Arabic works done them justice. Sheban calls them “often inadequate,” and Young attributes his “soft” image in America partly to the translation problem. What reads as angry and original poetry in Arabic tends to translate into what Stefan Kanfer, writing in The New York Times Magazine (June 25, 1972), calls “limp, mucid hooey.” As a result, Gibran’s English writings have made little impact on the American literary tradition. In spite of this lack of literary recognition, Gibran’s impact on American readers has been unparalleled by any other single poet, if sales are any indication. In 1965, Time reported that The Prophet was selling five thousand copies a week. In 1972, Nancy Wilson Ross in Saturday Review reported that it was still selling about half a million copies a year. More than eleven millions copies had been sold by the beginning of the twenty-first century.

No biographer or critic seems completely able to explain Gibran’s popularity. Time (August 13, 1965) says that The Prophet “appeals to the bereaved,” can be used for “seduction,” and “seems to provide a philosophy for the somewhat immature.” Kanfer agrees, with a vengeance; if Americans come home “too pooped for Lear,” they turn to Gibran as to a “tranquilizer.” One critic, writing for Masterplots (1996), however, takes a more temperate view: “The Prophet owes much of its popularity to the young, who find in Gibran’s poetry the elusive quality of sincerity.”

One cannot fail to mention Gibran’s painting in speaking of his achievements. His paintings are sprinkled throughout his books and many were seen in public exhibitions during his lifetime. Gibran was a recognized portrait painter and painted many significant persons of his era; among them were Sarah Bernhardt, William Butler Yeats, and John Masefield.

The subject of his paintings was almost always the naked human form or the head and shoulders of a figure fading into mist. The paintings frequently superimpose a dominant figure on other vague figures so that a story is told or a theme implied. In this art, he was predominantly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, one of his earliest heroes. Like the Renaissance painters, he used a complex background of a vast army of figures to broaden the meaning of the work.

During his lifetime, much of which was spent in New York City, Gibran was sought after as a speaker, reader, and socialite. He organized an academy of Arabic writers living in New York and published books in Arabic that incensed both the Maronite church and the Turkish rulers of the Near East. His personal charisma, his godlike image among his friends, is legend. Women were especially attracted to him and were willing simply to drop what they were doing with their own lives to support, help, or accommodate him. Barbara Young, herself a poet, is the prime example. She served as his secretary for the last eight years of his life after hearing his work read once in a church.

Discussion Topics

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Was Kahlil Gibran more a man of Lebanon or of the United States?

Gibran’s influence as a writer has been immense. Of his recognized literary virtues, which best explain the popularity of The Prophet?

If Almustafa in The Prophet is Gibran, how does the author avoid a display of egoism?

Discuss Gibran’s capacity for perceiving and adapting insights that are more characteristically feminine.

Characterize Gibran’s god.

Bibliography

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Bushrui, Suheil B., and Joe Jenkins. Kahlil Gibran, Man and Poet. Boston: Oneworld, 1998. A biography of the poet and philosopher with a critical study of his writings. Bushrui, an authority on Gibran, and Jenkins, a research fellow at the University of Maryland, rely on sources gathered during a ten-year study to capture Gibran’s life. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Daoudi, M. S. The Meaning of Kahlil Gibran. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1982. This study is divided into three parts: The first contains biographical information, the second provides critical commentary on Gibran’s works, and the third discusses his politics. An appreciative look at Gibran, noting that he was a prodigious author, not just the author of a single work as commonly supposed, and a philosopher of substance. The book concludes with an interesting essay, “Gibran and Arab Nationalism.” Includes a useful select bibliography.

Naimy, Mikhail. Kahlil Gibran: His Life and Works. Beirut: Philosophical Naufal, 1974. An intimate biography by Gibran’s close friend and associate. Naimy dispels much of the myth that surrounded Gibran during his last years and reveals instead the human being who struggled and pulsated with life. Includes some hitherto unpublished writings and sayings by Gibran as well as his last will and testament. An important biography for Gibran scholars.

Najjar, Alexandre. Khalil Gibran: A Biography. London: Saqi, 2009. Examines the life and works of Gibran, looking at his poetry and philosophy.

Otto, Annie Salem. The Parables of Kahlil Gibran: An Interpretation of His Writings and His Art. New York: Citadel Press, 1963. This study concerns itself with those parables that Gibran wrote directly in English. Includes a description of his life, singling out the experiences that formulated his ideas on humankind and society and that are reflected in his writings and art.

Sheban, Joseph, and Joseph P. Ghougassian. A Third Treasury of Kahlil Gibran. Edited by Andrew Dib Sherfan. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1975. A full-length study of Gibran that looks at his formative years, his philosophy, his views on love—both poetic and analytical—and his political outlook. Included in the second book are extracts from Gibran’s writings. Particularly noteworthy is Ghougassian’s essay, “Love, the Quintessence of Human Existence,” in which he explores Gibran’s theory of love and relates it to those of other philosophers.

Waterfield, Robin. Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Complete biography with bibliographic references and an index.

Young, Barbara. This Man from Lebanon: A Study of Khalil Gibran. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973. Written by a personal friend of Gibran, this biography covers his life, focusing on the last seven years.

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