The Kahlil Gibran Collective
The Artist The Poet The Man
Man & Poet
Professor Suheil Badi Bushrui 1929-2015
Professor Bushrui was a distinguished author, poet, critic, translator, who is well known in the United States, the Middle East, India, Africa, and the Arab world. He was the founder of the University of Maryland, Kahlil Gibran Research and Studies Project and now known as The George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace. Well known for his seminal studies in English of the works of W.B. Yeats and for his translations of Yeats poetry into Arabic, Bushrui was also the foremost authority on the works of Kahlil Gibran.
An Introduction to Kahlil Gibran by Professor Suhiel Bushrui
When historians look back at the twentieth century they will see human consciousness being stretched upwards toward the heavens and outwards across the earth; an age when East and West finally touched and the peoples of the world awoke to the voices of a larger humanity. They will see the great poets of the West embracing the East – Yeats’s translation of the Upanishads and Eliot’s epiphany as he first read the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám – the world itself appearing transformed, renewed, painted with “bright, delicious” lines.
They will find too the great writers of the East embracing this new global consciousness and embarking upon a voyage of discovery. At the forefront of this new adventure they will find the “burning genius” of Kahlil Gibran. In his work, as in his thought, Gibran achieved lasting eminence and fame as a writer in two completely disparate cultures and represents the meeting of two worlds. A liberating force in Arabic literature, he became one of the most widely read authors in his adopted tongue – his work possessing a rare and distinctive flavor of ancient wisdom and mysticism, often leaving readers amazed to discover that its creator lived in New York from 1912 to 1931.
As an oriental who wrote his most celebrated work in the major language of the Western world, Gibran’s style and philosophy is characteristic of the East, and of the Arab in particular. His constant inspiration was his own heritage, which colored his English and exercised an inescapable hold over his mind, its insistence being upon the wholeness of visionary experience and the perpetual availability of another realm of being. In all his work he expressed the deep-felt desire of men and women for a kind of spiritual life that renders the material world meaningful and imbues it with dignity.
He was one of those rare writers who actually transcend the barrier between East and West, and could justifiably call himself – though a Lebanese and a patriot – a citizen of the world.
It was, however, as a man from Lebanon that he spoke, and it was a Lebanese mode of thought and belief he ardently expressed. His words went beyond the mere evocation of the mysterious East but endeavored to communicate the necessity of reconciliation between Christianity and Islam, spirituality and materialism, East and West; Gibran in his work and his life refuted Kipling’s often-quoted line, written in 1889, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
Gibran was born in “a year of transition.” While the Ottomans were still in control of his homeland, the British had invaded Egypt and the Sudan, and in 1883 were struggling against the Mahdi. In the same year Sir John Seeley published The Expansion of England, arguing that the growth of empire was an inevitable process and the British had an imperial mission. Incited by similar ambitions the French gained control over Tunisia in 1883, adding this to their neighboring colony, Algeria. That same year from India, Kipling proclaimed his concept “the white man’s burden”; and in October the Orient Express made its first run: West and East were coming closer together – if not colliding – in the most dangerous of ways.
In the sphere of technology the machine-gun and the first skyscraper were built, while in the realm of ideas Wagner, Marx, and Turgenev passed on and Kafka, Keynes, and Kahlil Gibran were born.
During Gibran’s comparatively short life from 1883 to 1931 the Arabic- speaking world came to consider him the genius of his age, while in the West his work has been compared to Blake, Dante, Tagore, Nietzsche, Michelangelo, and Rodin. His popularity too as an oriental writer is unprecedented, and, after the works of T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats, The Prophet is today the most highly regarded poem of the twentieth century, as well as being the most widely read book of the century.
The more that has been written about Gibran the more elusive the man himself has tended to become as critics, friends, and biographers have built up a variety of unconnected pictures. Gibran himself is partly to blame. He wrote very little about his own life and in recurrent moments of insecurity and “vagueness,” particularly during his first years of recognition, often fabricated or embellished his humble origins and troubled background. This self-perpetuation of his myth – a tendency followed by other literary figures such as Yeats and Swift – was not intellectual dishonesty, but a manifestation of the poetic mind’s desire to create its own mythology.
At crucial moments in his early life – when external conditions changed – Gibran was able to rely on his innate qualities of fortitude and resilience. Born as he was into a troubled household often beset by tension between father and mother, the boy sought solitude in the magnificent landscape around his small village in northern Lebanon where he first sketched and scribbled among the mysterious ruins of bygone ages.
When he was ten a severe fracture left him paralyzed for weeks, awakening him to the reservoir of his own inner world. As a twelve-year-old he experienced a fracture of an entirely different kind when he sailed to the New World and encountered a new set of stimuli which he began to interpret through the lens of his unique artistic sensibilities – what he would later call his “madness” – his insatiable urge to create. Throughout these difficult years, and indeed throughout his life, it was always to his pen and brushes that he would turn when tragedy, exile, and rejection hounded him.
The charismatic personality, the burning ambition, and the “rapt spiritual quality” of Gibran needs acknowledging in any account of the poet’s life if one is to understand his growth within the West.
As early as 1898, when the boy from the Boston ghettoes was just fifteen, Americans were beginning to recognize in him a unique quality: “The boy was made to be one of the prophets;” similar descriptions corroborating this aura occurred throughout Gibran’s life: “His face is full of stars. Look at him and you’d know there’s not a dead spot in him . . . a peculiar power in him and a peculiar beauty”; a colleague wrote of “the delicate boy with chestnut hair, high forehead and large wandering eyes – and here one must stop in describing Gibran – for those large eyes . . . arrested the attention of the beholder so that observation seldom went beyond.”
While the young man with the beautiful manners attracted a host of admirers, he was reticent about his humble origins, sometimes alluding to a fortuitous birth in India, a “charmed” childhood, aristocratic relatives “who kept lions as pets,” and ancestor “princes” who were crucified in Antioch in the thirteenth century. He avoided references to the humiliating circumstances when his father became embroiled in a tax- collecting scandal which drove his wife and his children from Lebanon to the United States.
Gibran found himself in America at a propitious time. The benevolent social scientists of Boston – where Kahlil settled with his mother, half- brother, and sisters – were struggling to bring order to the chaos of the seething tenements. Boston was a city where the new showpiece of culture, the Boston Public Library, had recently opened; a city still throbbing from the transcendentalist chords struck by their own Ralph Waldo Emerson – where avant-garde enclaves rebelled against the sentimentality of the “sick little end of the century,” and dabbled with spiritualism and orientalism against an “exotic” backdrop of Turkish carpets, jade bowls, water pipes, fezzes, pointed slippers, and Maeterlinck’s Neoplatonic broodings on death and preordained love.
However, to the tens of thousands of immigrants like Gibran and his family living “over the railroad” in an environment compared unfavorably with the notorious slums of East London, life was hard and uncompromising. By the 1890’s the city’s charitable organizations, realizing that something had to be done to “lighten the burdens” of the poor immigrants, had begun to establish settlement houses run by social workers. It was at one of these centers in 1896 that Gibran’s drawings first caught the eye of an art teacher, Florence Pierce. Word moved quickly and two weeks later the young artist found himself entering the world of the colourful avant-garde photographer, publisher, and philanthropist Fred Holland Day.
Over the next few years as he crossed the railroad into the colorful world of “Brahmin Boston,” Gibran sensed among Americans a vague spirituality – an inchoate civilization, increasingly looking to the East for the substance and authority lacking at home.
He also sensed that exoticism is ultimately superficial, frivolous, and merely decorative, caring most about its own desires. When its fickle disciples have grown bored of their objects of devotion – and “objects” they have become – they are dropped back into the ghetto and the inherent spiral therein.
However, Gibran’s unswerving belief in his own destiny – “I came to this world to write my name upon the face of life with big letters” – his innate abhorrence of superficiality, and his weariness with the tendencies of “self-admiration” ensured that this particular “street fakir” escaped from the high priests of pretension.
By 1912, tired of Boston, and her “children of yesterday,” Gibran sought change. This need for a fresher, more invigorating environment had been fuelled by the two years he spent studying in Paris between 1908 and 1910. It was here that he first came under the spell of Thus Spake Zarathustra which was revolutionizing the literary sensibility of the age, and, more importantly for Gibran, was written by an author who convincingly and audaciously adopted the towering figure of a prophet from the East as his mouthpiece. Gibran found in Friedrich Nietzsche, this “sober Dionysus,” a lightning erudition capable of demolishing – with one searing flash – the ancient habits of thought, and moral prejudices; a writer whose breathless blasphemy and ecstatic prose – “Write with blood: and you will discover that blood is spirit” – matched his own deepest needs for artistic authenticity.
In Paris Gibran also met Rodin who introduced him to the art and poetry of William Blake. Gibran immediately felt a “kinship” with the visionary Englishman, and the benign shadow of Blake was to fall on virtually all of his English writings as well as many of his Arabic works.
Gibran was one of a long line of writers who were indelibly affected by their origins. For William Butler Yeats it was the sands of Sligo Bay, the emerald loughs and rivers of Western Ireland and the legendary mountains of Ben Bulben and Knocknarea that provided an inexhaustible store of symbol and image with which to fire his poetic imagination.
For Kahlil Gibran the land that provided the lasting inspiration for his work was Lebanon, unique in so many ways, particularly in its geographical position and its admixture of ethnic groups. Lebanon of the sacred grove, of the dreaming ruins of the temple of Astarte, of the lofty snow-capped mountains soaring into heaven; Lebanon where the Phoenicians built their great ocean-going vessels which carried the hardy cedar to the pharaohs, and the weaves, purple dyes, glass, sculptures, and alphabets to the Greeks; a land of poets, seers, and prophets who brought their moral revelations to a barbaric world.
The breathtakingly beautiful countryside around the village of Bisharri, where Gibran was born, was untouched by the polluting forces that were robbing the America of the early 1900s of her countryside. Reminiscences of the Lebanese countryside fill the emigrant’s letters and conversations and color all his work. Among the mountains, hills, streams, waterfalls, and copses the little boy played, rejoicing in the delights of freedom that stimulated his dreams and reveries.
Trees, and particularly the cedars of Lebanon, had a special place in Gibran’s heart – “. . . poems that the earth writes upon the sky. We fell them down and turn them into paper that we may record our emptiness.” In his long Arabic poem al-Mawakib (The Procession), published in 1919, he uses the image of the tree to suggest the peaceful continuity of nature contrasted with the clamor and confusion of urban living. In another of his Arabic pieces the poet pictures himself as having “fled from the multitude” and taken refuge in a quiet valley in Lebanon where he is able to enter the “temple invisible,” expressing his lifelong yearning for the sanctuary of the Cedar Mountain, a yearning that intensified as he became more embroiled in life in America.
Much of what Gibran gave to the world he owed to his homeland, particularly his acute awareness of the interchange of cultural and artistic influences by which Lebanon is so enriched, a land which provided the social and geographical context for so many of his works. Perhaps most of all he was indebted to Lebanon for his awareness of the inestimable blessings that flow from the harmonious coexistence of differing peoples and faiths, as well as his vivid apprehension of the catastrophes that must inevitably result from the breakdown of such religious and social harmony. During his lifetime he witnessed the consequences of such breakdowns – the terrors of reciprocal destruction and the horrors of famine in his native land – a period when he became, in one observer’s eyes, “shattered like a Belgian Cathedral.”
Although at the forefront of efforts to awaken the West to the plight of his people, Gibran believed that ultimately the root of all conflict was not political but a psychological “sleep” lying heavy on the human heart. Like his contemporaries Rilke, Yeats, and Eliot, and like Blake before him, Gibran challenged what René Guenon called “The Reign of Quantity,” and reaffirmed in the face of ascendant materialist ideologies the reality of the living Spirit as the true agent of liberation and peace – what the Irish mystic poet and painter George Russell (AE) called the “politics of eternity.”
From an early age Gibran, although brought up as a Maronite Christian, was conscious of the exalted place of the Qur’an in Arabic literature and its simultaneous potency as a spiritual, social, and literary source of inspiration. He once declared that he “kept Jesus in one half of his bosom and Muhammad in the other,” and constantly expressed his belief in the fundamental unity of religion and the many ways to truth. His desire to reconcile Christianity and Islam, as well as being instinctive, was practical in that he foresaw the dangers of sectarianism in Lebanon as well as the insidious Western interventionist policies that such division would provoke.
When Italy declared war on Turkey in 1911 and tensions mounted in
the Middle East, Gibran began to speak out against the divisive habits of his countrymen in the past, whereby the Druze adhered to England, the Orthodox to Russia, and the Maronites to France. He implored the Muslim community to understand that the war was not a conflict between Islam and Christianity.
During the same period that Mahatma Gandhi expounded his teaching of satyagraha in South Africa, Gibran, at a gathering of Arab immigrants in Boston in 1911, propounded his own program of non-violent reform. He implored his people not to rely on religious or political partisanship, or the constitution, or the “putrefied corpse” of state, but work toward a change of heart, whereby, shackled by worldly chains or not, true freedom could still prevail. He published too, in the Arab press, “The Voice of the Poet”, condemning violence as a means of conflict resolution; and in his writings he urged the people of the Middle East to exercise caution and discrimination in their dealings with Western powers: The Spirit of the West is our friend if we accept him, but our enemy if we are possessed by him; our friend if we open our hearts to him, our enemy if we yield him our hearts; our friend if we take from that which suits us, our enemy if we let ourselves be used to suit him.
There were times, especially during the war years, when Gibran found life in the West uncomfortable, even intolerable: “The normal, educated, polite, moral man . . . is so thin . . . hanging in the air between heaven and hell – but he is so comfortable there that he is always smiling at you!”; and often he felt “tortured” and estranged in a distant land where “life is as cold as ice and as grey as ashes.”
The hermit in Gibran became more “determined” around this time, and a quality of “aloneness” became a characteristic of his life and a feature of his writings. In some of his letters he portra