Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Kahlil Gibran's legacy



After the Bible, 'The Prophet', it is said, is the bestselling book of the twentieth century. It has never been out of print since its publication in 1923 and has been translated into more than forty languages. It may be the most read book of the century, I suspect, given that the Bible is so often possessed without being consumed! Meanwhile, the two texts have often found themselves nestled together: how often has one been to a wedding or a funeral, for example, and had readings from both?

As Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins point out in their biographical study of Kahlil Gibran, 'Kahlil Gibran, Man and Poet', this popularity has rather harmed (or obscured) Gibran's literary (and artistic) legacy. 'The Prophet' appears to defy the classificatory mechanisms that scholars love and popularity can be a kiss of death to serious consideration either as a poet or as a thinker. Needless to say none of this is helped either by familiarity or the high Romantic rhetorical form in which the text is shaped. The latter is, however, I expect a key component to its popularity - it sounds as poetry is supposed to! 

Nonetheless Bushrui and Jenkins make an admirable case for why he ought to be thought of as both a great poet and a seminal one.

First is the undoubted impact of his work in Arabic on the development of modern Arabic literature. He broke the heavy burden of formalism (and with others, many of them his friends) injecting new possibilities of expression both in terms of form and content. He was a radical in both senses - new ways to write and new things to say, many of both controversial -  for example - on the suffocating nature of Church hierarchy and priestly prerogative in his own Maronite communities in Lebanon and on the necessity of equality for women. He was subversive too of Ottoman claims, helping birth Arab nationalism, some of whose later history would have horrified him, a birthing that earned him a Turkish assassination attempt.

Second for his prescience for here was a writer alert to and sorrowing for the degradation of nature whether driven by greed or poverty. There is no social justice without environmental justice, no home for human being without human being making a home in a nurturing mother Nature.

Third for his transformation of Sufi teaching, and most especially taking the style and form of that teaching, in story, parable and aphorism, in a universalising direction, making a treasure known to a wider audience (if, obviously, filtered through his lights). If Rumi is the United States best selling poet, it was Gibran who blazed the trail of its possibility (and, in passing, it is ironic that the United States best selling poet is a Muslim - perhaps Donald will move to ban him)!

Fourth because he does write and paint beautifully and saw both arts as mutually indwelling, each illuminating the other. In the past, when people have alluded to Blake in this regard, I have tended to assume that this was simply a default description for any 'mystical' poet/painter combo irrespective of any deeper affinity; however, the biography makes clear this was, in truth, a very real pathway of influence. Gibran was an avid student of Blake - both in form and content - and both shared a common sense of mission. Blake wore the mantle of a prophet consciously, Gibran, more modestly perhaps, felt himself allowing the prophetic to speak through him. Both waged an unceasing fight for the priority of the imaginative over the merely rational, of a world that was a sacred cosmos rather than simply a material order. Both loved the figure of Christ and interpreted him unorthodoxly, seeing him as a rebel with a cause, a passionate man riding his hallowed desiring, about which there was nothing meek or mild. Arguably Gibran's 'Jesus, Son of Man' is his best book, a remarkable, subjective, haunting multiple view of perspectives of Jesus, in its very form reminding us that any view, however penetrating, is one view among many possibilities.

Finally, and here too he shares a world with Blake, both shared a profound love of a particular place, London and Lebanon, that became the site of a cosmic struggle between love and forgiveness and anything and everything that in anyway denied it. They fought the politics of eternity as their mutually insightful critic AE, the Irish poet and visionary, George Russell, described it.

Both, in doing so, ended up as Christian radicals believing in a unity of truth that transcended any sectarian difference.





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