Thoughts on The Prophet by Khalil Gibran, part I
21 July 2018
Make no mistake, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet is not a collection of poems no matter how much people insist on calling it that. It is an early-20th century prose poetry self-help book that draws its tautologies from spiritual teachings.One can argue that there are parallels between Broken wings and Gibran’s idea of love in The Prophet e.g. ‘Limited love requires the possession of the beloved but infinite love does not ask for itself’ in the former work and ‘Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love ... Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself’ in the latter work. That said, I do not want to give the reader the false impression of my distaste with the book because I enjoyed it for what it was thoroughly.
Despite being Gibran’s most famous work, this is his second book I am reading after Broken wings; this gave me a look at The Prophet that I believe is slightly different from how I may have perceived the work had it introduced me to the author. His take on life and love in particular are similar although Broken wings is its own sort of tragedy unlike The Prophet which, despite its initially tragic start, is chapter after chapter of Gibran’s take on various parts of human life and society shrouded in poetry leaving interpretations largely to the reader and hence lost to what the author himself intended to say. But it is on some level, undeniably, a beautiful work.
The book has a sense of mysticism about it, surprisingly, despite the limited character development (which, of course, is not what one would look for in a book like this). The almost magical effect this has is that it causes the book to wax and wane between 19th century modernism and ancient religious prophetism. What makes the reader take Gibran all the more seriously, and what separates this book from religious moral teachings, is his reluctance to blame things on God—except, understandably, in his chapter on religion—thereby making his advices more practical and appealing.
The Prophet starts off with Almustafa—which means ‘the chosen one’ in Arabic—preparing to leave on a voyage back home from the fictional city of Orphalese where he has been living for the past twelve years. Just as he is about to leave a seer by name Almitra asks him to take a moment to impart some of his wisdom to the people of Orphalese. I find it interesting that Gibran chose a seer to ask the first question in this book. Not only does that put our prophet above the seer but also speaks of Gibran’s own beliefs in the unity of religions. ‘Speak to us of love’, she prompts him, thus setting the stage for the entire book where person after person from different occupations asks the prophet about life, marriage, work and such.
Almustafa’s emotional dilemma at the start of the book (despite his decision to leave Orphalese being strong right from the start) is summed up by the following sentences: ‘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; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?’ The beauty of this paragraph, to me, lies in its insistence on uniting the act of departing towards a loved one with the idea of pain; that even though you leave for a land you have longed for for over a decade you still feel pangs of sorrow. Never, though, does Gibran give in and equate Almustafa’s hometown with the town that has been his home for twelve years: some things will always be above others. But Orphalese nonetheless gets its due nod as the prophet acknowledges that he ‘cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache’.
Feel free to skip this section as these are my personal ramblings about The Prophet and books like it.
My biggest peeve with Gibran’s works (this is in The Prophet and in Broken wings too) is that, far too often, he employs the rusty old tool of the modern-day life coach: stating the obvious making it appear to be shrouded in genius when it is in fact the author shying away from making a bold statement by writing down something meant solely for the reader’s interpretation. The benefit of this method is that the author is always right. I find such authors unpalatable.
Consider, for instance, the following statement from Broken wings: ‘One may never reach dawn except through night.’ What does it mean? That the dawn follows the night? All it takes is for the reader to be convinced that there is more in this sentence and then to go out of his way to interpret this as meaning that all of life’s positives come at the cost of a negative stint. And therein lies the problem: the reader’s interpretation based on the blind insistence that there must be more to this sentence—not the author’s own sentence—made the author a genius of sorts. And poeticism risks becoming nothing more than a ruse here.
When it shrouds lessons in metaphorically-rich stanzas how is a book like The Prophet anything more than a diluted version of a religious moral text, another great culprit when it comes to equivocation and leaving interpretations blindly to the reader? I would rather ask people to read ancient philosophies or the works of Shakespeare because both of these put the lesson forward with much greater clarity and almost no vagueness. If you want something more from our own time look at Spencer Johnson’s 1998 classic Who moved my cheese? which gets to the point the way all books spewing out life lessons ought to.
I will end by saying this: let none of this give you the impression that I disliked The Prophet. It is both an entertaining and thought-provoking read, and if you are looking for a book to make your own I certainly recommend it. Gibran is not even close to the worst offenders of the equivocation genre. Yet, although one might argue that the many possible interpretations of The Prophet are what make it a gem, you would have to agree that sometimes there appears to be no semblance of the author trying to make any definitive point whatsoever.
Some of Gibran’s statements are purposely designed to make the reader pause and think. Consider, for example, the following:
But if in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure, then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor, into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
The prophet claims that central to love is its ability to make you feel the entire spectrum of emotions you are capable of: from extreme joy to extreme sorrow. And that someone who understands this alone—as opposed to someone who might expect only one of these—is ready to love and be loved. What I particularly like is how Gibran acknowledges the existence of laughter and sorrow even outside the world of love. It is present, he says, as anyone who has ever fallen in love can attest, but not to the fullest.
Quite the opposite is the author’s extreme use of symbolism to the point of futility, such as in the next chapter on marriage:
But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
What exactly are the winds of heaven? Is it merely a convoluted analogue for winds signifying empty space? There is little to be said definitively here because such sentences that are wide open to interpretation to the point of being naked are a dime a dozen. Most modern-day sages make a living off this routine. However my discomfort with The Prophet has more to do with the tautologies that follow this passage than with this passage itself:
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another 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.
Five sentences of the same thing said over and over again; and all this, not to forget, after the same point was made twice immediately before this (see the paragraph quoted earlier). Anybody could go further: serve onto each other’s plate but eat not from one plate; give your minds openly but not into each other’s blindness; share your sight but not blind your own eyes; make merry and play and work together, but let each of you be alone et cetera. Perhaps this redundancy is why Gibran is not, from a literary perspective, taken all that seriously. Nonetheless, while acknowledging this curious shortcoming of his prose we must be careful not to dismiss the important lesson he is imparting here so we move on with some paraphrasing: stay bonded, not bound.
There are some true gems in The Prophet, such as the reminder, ‘And you receivers—and you are all receivers—assume no weight of gratitude, lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who gives’. In the first half of this book this is perhaps my most loved statement. It is also, in my opinion, the deepest without being vague. We generally associate yokes with givers. The Sanskrit phrase ‘Nishkāmakarma’ for example, which means to give without expectations of return, lays warning on the giver to not weigh others down by expecting from them. While this is true Gibran’s take reverses the ideology adeptly. With a subtle reminder that every one of us is a receiver he offers comfort by universally lifting up the weight of gratitude one might feel they owe to someone who gives them something. This is an idea I have always believed although not universally: when you love someone, when someone means something to you and you to them, you owe them nothing.
However, a phrase much earlier in the same chapter can make one draw swords:
You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
Gibran appears to be dismissing the act of giving of one’s possessions as though only giving oneself counts. This is a strikingly pessimistic view uncharacteristic of the rest of this book. There is always the alternative, indeed one that many civilisations had come to believe long before Gibran, that giving joyfully—whether you give of your possession or give of yourself—is meaningful to some degree. Gibran’s approach may be interpreted as an extreme everything or nothing scenario and is rather discouraging to people who would, understandably, only want to wet their feet first; where else would such people start if not by giving of their possessions rather than themselves and their time right off the bat? Is it even fair to expect such a thing of people?
Despite such polarising views there is also some practical advice. Gibran, coming from a meat-eating background himself, would have been no stranger to the question of how justified it is to kill an animal for its meat. Perhaps at least in part because of this his advice resounds with pragmatism: ‘But since you must kill to eat, and rob the young of its mother's milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship...’ In other words, do it like it means a great deal to you—value it, cherish it, celebrate it, be thankful, and be grateful.
But Gibran is careful not to put animals on a pedestal, like so many others are wont to do. He follows his previous advice with a subtle nod towards man rather than animal: ‘And let your board stand an altar on which the pure and the innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed’, he says, ‘for that which is purer and still more innocent in man’.
Some of his advices are seemingly generic and there is a lot more in the way they are put than in what they put forth. In speaking of how all work must be treated as equal Gibran (or rather Almustafa) says the following:
Often have I heard you say, as if speaking in sleep, “he who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is a nobler than he who ploughs the soil. And he who seizes the rainbow to lay it on a cloth in the likeness of man, is more than he who makes the sandals for our feet.”
But I say, not in sleep but in the over-wakefulness of noontide, that the wind speaks not more sweetly to the giant oaks than to the least of all the blades of grass; and he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.
It can be argued that the wind here is representative of fortune, life, goodwill etc. but, from a more practical perspective one will be hard-pressed to find something of the type in the real world.Some readers may start to wonder why I am focussing on practicality rather than enjoying Gibran’s prose poetry for what it is. Therein lies the error: poetry written for embellishment or to praise that which exists is completely different from poetry written to advise. The former is to be admired and absorbed; the latter is to be put to use. Hence practicality necessarily becomes central for a work like The Prophet. As much as we despise it inequality is all around us: the most hard working can end up being the least paid and vice versa. It is not that this advice is bad as much as it could have been replaced by something more practical. However, I do think this goes to show where Gibran’s intentions lay in writing this book: he was likely establishing a foundation of idealism atop which to build something practical. If this is indeed the case the foundations are shaky at best because soon after he follows it up with some effective mental stimulation for workers everywhere, promptly making it redundant by repetition like before:
And what is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth. It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house. It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
The overstated point is clear: work as though you are doing it for your dearest. This is sound; this is worth keeping in mind. As for the repetitiveness, some would argue there is beauty in it, some would wildly attempt to find beauty in it because they are not satisfied with the observation that this paragraph is (and some others like it are) quite simply redundant, and others would not care too much because the point is made. Whatever your cup of tea is, sip it to your heart’s content.
This is my second favourite line from the book: ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.’ Here Gibran is being incredibly optimistic about things. After all we can all do with a more positive outlook on life. While most poets revel in the perceived depths of darkness, sorrow and other melancholia, Gibran cheerily speaks of a soul that is inherently positive, joyous and optimistic, painting sorrow as a mask that temporarily covers one’s joy rather than the other way round.
I will conclude the first part of my thoughts on Gibran’s work with a comparison of three chapters that seemed to me to be stark opposites to one another: the first two bordering on outrageous, the third boasting absolute sense. In sequence The Prophet talks of houses, clothing and crime and punishment.
Personally, I find Gibran’s idea of a house awkward. While there is the explorer in (perhaps) all of us it does not in any way diminish the home-maker in us. Striking a balance is important, with travel and life at home, but Gibran seems to be urging people to wander before building a home as if the two are mutually exclusive—they are not. On the other hand an interpretation may be made that Gibran found man alienating him from nature, in which case he would have been proud of today’s travellers and flabbergasted by today’s urbanity. None of this is wrong, but Gibran’s way of putting it is curious to say the least:
In their fear your forefathers gathered you too near together. And that fear shall endure a little longer. A little longer shall your city walls separate your hearths from your fields. And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
His next set of questions—whether rhetorical or not—seem targeted to a specific subset of the populace:
what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors? Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power? Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind? Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain? Tell me, have you these in your houses? Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and becomes a host, and then a master?
Oh, by Almustafa, I have all that and more in my home. I have memories, peace and quiet, and lots of beauty not as replacements for woods and mountains but not replaceable by them either. And no, there is no lust for comfort although there is comfort. These thoughts in The Prophet border on Cynicism which is, once again, unlike any other in the rest of the book. The only reason I can think of is that perhaps housing has changed over the nearly hundred years since the ideas for this book were first sowed in the author’s mind. My only complaint, and a valid one too, is that in the entire chapter on houses Gibran brushes aside the work of a mason (who asked him the question in the first place and that too in a chapter that, ironically, follows closely on the heels of the chapter on work) and insists on viewing stone houses and civilisation as an insult to nature, which it is not and never has to be. If the point were that one must keep in touch with nature it could have been made more eloquently.
In the chapter that follows (on clothing) Almustafa comes off as a staunch believer in naturism. In this short chapter he first reminds people that clothes do not hide what is ugly in a person (speaking, of course, spiritually rather than physically), which is quite valid.Speaking of clothing Gibran makes another characteristic equivocal quip. I am yet to understand what he means by ‘the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind’. It feels like comparison just for the sake of it. It is one of those sentences that, if you decide has some hidden meaning, you will end up finding plenty, all to no end. Then he takes a turn: he likens clothing to harnesses and asks if one would not wish the sun and the wind touch their body more often, and blames the whole clothing industry on the wind saying it is our shame and society’s perspectives (frowns) that drive it.
Since clothing will not be going away anytime soon, why does Almustafa not take this wonderful opportunity to remind people that the clothes they wear, while their choice, ought not define who they are entirely. Alas such a remark is never made in this chapter save for that one beautiful sentence noted above (to quote, ‘Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.’). It is worth pointing out here that Gibran himself, traveling across Paris and New York, was quite the fashionable urban-dweller pioneering a silent crusade in the Middle East against, of all things, classical lyrical poetry.To see what I mean by Gibran moving against—or evolving, if you wish—the classical Arab literary style look up Mahjar poets.
In any case, whatever awkwardness arose in these two chapters is outshined by the whipping beauty of the next chapter where Gibran speaks of crime and punishment. I have to admit the title of this chapter effortlessly pushed my mind towards Dostoyevsky and I was tempted to draw comparisons (not least because Dostoyevsky is among my favourite authors) but I have since been in two minds about it. On the one hand these are works of entirely different genres that happen to be talking about the same ideas; on the other these can complement each other rather nicely. Whereas Dostoyevsky’s is an individual’s character exploration Gibran’s statements paint an analogous picture on a societal level.
Almustafa says ‘Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world; but I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you, so the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also’, which is a beautiful reminder that we are one as a society, that felons are humans just like us misled because we were not strong enough as society. It is not that society is always entirely to blame for an individual’s wrongdoing but that society is not entirely blameless either.
This idea becomes especially impressive when one considers that Gibran wrote this in a somewhat tormented era and with encouragement for liberal punishments for crimes being showered by Abrahamic religions. Seeing a criminal—whether a robber or a burglar or a murderer or a forfeiter—punished mildly but later welcomed and rehabilitated into society was rare; it perhaps still is. And The Prophet boldly, and rightly, points out that all of society has a role to play because one man’s crime and punishment are not isolated from the rest of us: ‘...when one of you falls down he falls for those behind him, a caution against the stumbling stone...and he falls for those ahead of him who...removed not the stumbling stone.’
Almustafa ends by reminding the judge (who asked him the question) that ‘the corner-stone of the temple is not higher than the lowest stone in its foundation’, an idea that ties everyone in society together—the victim, the bystander, the culprit, the supposedly unconnected civilian—in a metaphor more elegantly put by Thomas Reid over a century before: ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’. I find this notion beautiful and, if man is indeed as social an animal as they say he is, this should imbibe in everyone of us the essence of civility, society and justice.
This turned out to be a much longer essay than usual which is why I decided to break it up into two parts. I thought The Prophet was a good enough work that I should take time to go over it and pen my thoughts exhaustively. In the next part of this essay I will focus on the remainder of the book and, if possible, condense the ideas in it into a nifty, quick read.