Thursday, January 28, 2010 1/28/10 - kahlil gibran

In today's encore 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

"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

"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, pp. 72-76.


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