The Prophet
Kahlil Gibran

The cover pic­tured here is from Pen­guin and the review edi­tion from Fin­ger­print.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

21 July 2018

The Prophet
Kahlil Gibran

The cover pic­tured here is from Pen­guin and the review edi­tion from Fin­ger­print.

A self-help book we can all read.

Make no mis­take, Kahlil 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.

For even as love crowns you so shall he cru­cify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your prun­ing.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

In my fiancée’s copy of The Prophet’, which is what I read from, there are illus­tra­tions by the author him­self pep­pered through­out the book. This made a par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant impres­sion on me while read­ing.

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.

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

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.

More of Gibran’s art from The Prophet.

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.

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.

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.