I am a false alarm

Robert Irwin

  • Kahlil Gibran: Man and Poet by Suheil Bushrui and Joe Jenkins
    One World, 372 pp, £18.99, August 1998, ISBN 1 85168 177 9
  • Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran by Robin Waterfield
    Allen Lane, 366 pp, £20.00, August 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9209 3

Kahlil Gibran was born in Lebanon. His father was a wealthy and aristocratic Arab, and his grandfather owned a palatial mansion guarded by lions. The child rode out hunting with his attendants and met the Kaiser on the latter’s Middle Eastern tour. Only after his imperious and incorruptible father had been brought low by the intrigues of his enemies did the family emigrate to Boston. There, Gibran grew up to become a major artistic and political figure. In Paris he knew Debussy, while Rodin went so far as to acclaim him as ‘the Blake of the 20th century’. As it happened, Gibran could remember not only his previous reincarnation as William Blake, but also a subsequent incarnation as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. During the First World War he was offered a high-ranking political post and agents of the Ottoman Empire tried to assassinate him. He was impervious to pain and he communicated with a higher reality in trance states. His thought and his life were all of a piece. ‘Thousands of times I’ve been drawn up from the earth by the sun as dew, and risen into cloud, then fallen as rain, and gone down into the earth, and sought the sea.’

If only any of this were true. Every single proposition above is, however, either a definite lie or a probable lie, part of the mythology Gibran felt impelled to construct about himself. He loved to lie even about such trivial matters as whether he could or could not eat lobster. The lies, indeed, are the best thing about Gibran; it is the truth which is boring and objectionable.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) was in fact of humble Maronite parentage. After his father, a hard-drinking and aggressive tax collector, was disgraced for financial irregularities in 1891, he was abandoned by the rest of his family, who emigrated to Boston. His mother then supported the family as a tinker and, after her death, the daughter Marianna’s work as a seamstress paid for her brother’s education. Gibran found a patron in Fred Holland Day, a wealthy Bostonian aesthete and photographer, who not only took photographs of Gibran (a big-eyed, soulful-looking boy), but also introduced him to the writings of Maeterlinck and Whitman.

Eventually, Day became an eccentric recluse, but by then Gibran had found other patrons. He was to spend a large part of his life sponging on women, like Josephine Peabody and Mary Haskell. Josephine was inspired by her meeting with Gibran to write: ‘What ever-lasting symbols women are! I know so well now, when these beautiful moments happen, that it is none of it for me. I know so well that I am a symbol for somebody; I am a prism that catches the light for a moment. It is the light that gladdens, not the prism.’ Handmaidens of genius passed him on from one to the other, paid his bills and took it in turns to correct his spelling and syntax (both quite dreadful). Gibran produced a small body of writings in Arabic and in English, and managed to be soupily soulful and vaguely prophetic in both languages. He also painted – Robin Waterfield’s biography is good on the recurring features of his art, including its ‘vague ectoplasmic figures, often female’ and the ‘veil of mist as a symbol for the dim access the normal human mind has to higher worlds’. Most of Gibran’s life, as it emerges from these biographies, seems to have been spent in tête-à-têtes in stifling Boston drawing-rooms, or at not very successful New York private views, where the talk was usually of the Higher Life of the Mind and the special responsibilities of the Poet. In time, books like The Prophet made Gibran a wealthy man (Waterfield notes that his early contempt for money softened somewhat in later life). In his last years he took to drinking heavily and he died of cirrhosis of the liver.

By the time I had finished reading these two biographies I was very bored indeed. Almost everyone I know has had a more interesting life than Gibran; even I am having a more interesting life than he had. The biographers have done their best but I should guess that they, too, have had more interesting lives than the man they have chosen to write about. Waterfield’s book is sharper, better-written and less repetitive, even if Bushrui and Jenkins give fuller weight to Gibran’s importance for the history of modern Arab literature. They place less stress than Waterfield on Gibran’s drinking and womanising, but then his weaknesses were made public long ago. The broad facts are deducible from Mikhail Naimy’s 1934 biography, if one can stomach Naimy’s twopence-coloured, melodramatic prose. (It was to Naimy that Gibran allegedly turned and said: ‘I am a false alarm.’)

As a thinker, Gibran is easy to liken to Madeleine Basset, characterised by Bertie Wooster as ‘one of those soppy girls riddled from head to foot with whimsy. She holds that the stars are God’s daisy chain, that rabbits are gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen, and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born, which, as we know, is not the case. She’s a drooper.’ I cannot imagine Wooster falling for Gibran either, for he, too, was a drooper. Nowhere in his essays, short stories or dramatised dialogues is there any humour, sex or surprise. His writing conjures up fields of grey ectoplasm inhabited by plaintive souls. If Gibran is right about the universe, then we are all living in a banal and sentimental nightmare.

He seems to be a favourite poet of those who don’t like poetry. Similarly, I suspect that Gibranian spirituality suits those who cannot face the more specific demands that a real religion might make. The only thing you have to do as a follower is read more Gibran, plus, of course, ‘see’ more deeply, ‘listen to the language of the heart’ and so on. Bushrui and Jenkins stress Sufi influence on Gibran and there may have been some. Nevertheless, every element in his thought can alternatively be traced to Western sources, including Blake, Nietzsche, Emerson, Maeterlinck, Whitman and Ouspensky.

Ouspensky was perhaps the most interesting of these influences. He was born in Moscow in 1878, but fled Russia at the time of the Revolution, having studied with a number of esoteric masters in Russia and Asia, most notably with Gurdjieff. One of the earliest results was the treatise Tertium Organum, which Ouspensky first wrote in Russian. A revised version, translated by Claude Bragdon and published in 1921, became a New York bestseller. Tertium Organum revealed the truth about the Universe, which is that time moves in a spiral and is a dimension (there are six dimensions altogether). Extra dimensions continue to be popular among spiritualists and occultists, as they provide more space for the spirits to live in. The Fourth Dimension, by the British essayist and science-fiction writer, C.H. Hinton (1853-1907), had earlier been an important source for Ouspensky’s ideas, and specially painted Hinton’s cubes, designed to make one more aware of the ‘hidden’ dimension, were once popular in theosoph ical circles.

Ouspensky taught that on death one is set free to wander along one’s time-line at will. He also, and this was most congenial to Gibran, maintained that art was the language of the future, for it ‘anticipates a psychic evolution and divines its future forms’. Moreover, ‘each thought of a poet contains enormous potential force, like the power confined in a piece of coal or in a living cell, but infinitely more subtle, imponder able and potent’. Emotion is an organ of knowledge, and humanity, as it is being purified in the fire of love, is evolving into something higher than itself. All of which may well be bunk, but Ouspensky was not a ‘drooper’ and the Tertium Organum (a successor to the Organums of Aristotle and Bacon) sets out its case with a hectoring kind of pseudo-scientific rigour that is fun to read.

Ouspensky’s exciting ideas get watered down in Gibran’s wool-gathering meditations. The main thing which Gibran got from Tertium Organum was the idea of the poet as Prophet – one who has drunk more deeply than ordinary folk from the Well of Truth. Gibran believed himself to be one such deep drinker and in Jesus, the Son of Man (1928), he divested Jesus of his divine nature and miraculous attributes, presenting him instead as a sententious sage – as a forerunner of Gibran. Gibranian spirituality seems to be designed to get one out of going to church on Sundays. Browsing through Stephen Potter’s Some Notes on Lifemanship, I wondered if it was not possible that Potter had learnt something from Gibran. When asked by your country-weekend host whether you will be accompanying her to church on Sunday, Potter counselled against shifty mumbling. Instead, he urged one to deepen one’s voice and place one’s hand on the interlocutor’s shoulder: ‘Elsa, when the painted glass is scattered from the windows, and the roof is opened to the sky, and the ordinary simple flowers grow in the crevices of the pew and transept – then and not till then will your church, as I believe, be fit for worship.’ (Experienced Lifemen used to refer to this ploy as ‘Religious Basic’.) Gibran, no mean Lifeman himself, returned again and again in his writings to the purity, beauty and life-enhancing qualities of the countryside. By contrast, he stressed in his writings how corrupt and degraded city life was. He hated cities. It is sad, then, that he spent almost all his life in Boston, Paris and New York.

As latter-day Prophet, Gibran favoured a mock-Biblical delivery, larded with archaisms, and inversions of word-order for rhetorical effect. A girl is a ‘damsel’, a breeze is ‘frolicsome’ and so on. In his poetry and prose, he stuck to a level of studious generality and was fond of the big capitalised things in Life, like Love, Beauty, Woman, Freedom. But, if you want to know what Bisharri, Gibran’s birthplace, is like don’t read him. (Try William Dalrymple’s vividly written From the Holy Mountain instead and, if you want to know what Gibran’s Boston looked like, try Edith Wharton.)

Waterfield writes defensively: ‘The Prophet has often been criticised as platitudinous, over-saturated and trite. These are the arrogant criticisms of élitist and hard-hearted intellectuals.’ Hard-hearted and arrogant then, I find Gibran’s preaching platitudinous, though pretty harmless. What are much more off-putting are the anti-Western, anti-scientific and anti-academic positions adopted and exaggerated by his latter-day partisans. Both these books are peppered with sneers at ‘arid’ intellectuals. Bushrui and Jenkins, in particular, champion a version of science that is no science at all, in which modern physicists are allegedly only just catching up with the precepts of Ancient Wisdom. Equally silly claims are made about Oriental spirituality, as contrasted with Western materialism. ‘Driven by a mechanistic Weltanschauung, the Western mind has often been arrogantly unresponsive to mysticism, blatantly rejecting any vision of the unity of culture.’ I do not think that the Europe of Hildegard of Bingen, Ramon Llull, Meister Eckhart, Thomas à Kempis, Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, Henry Vaughan, Blaise Pascal, George Fox, Jacob Boehme, Angelus Silesius, William Law, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Bernardette, among tens of thousands of others, needs lessons in spirituality or mysticism from Asia.

Gibran’s fans seem to think that it is incumbent on the unenchanted to explain why he remains so popular and why his books sell so many copies in so many languages. But neither I nor anyone else needs to waste their time by seeking to analyse why The Prophet, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist and The Little Book of Calm have all sold so well. The popularity of these and similar works is hard to bear, but as Nabokov put it, in his wonderful monograph on Gogol, ‘one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader’s attention ‘on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day is far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.’ Nabokov returned to the theme in an essay on philistinism:

All such great words as ‘Beauty’, ‘Love’, ‘Nature’, ‘Truth’, and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. In Dead Souls you have heard Chichikov. In Bleak House you have heard Skimpole. You have heard Homais in Madame Bovary. The philistine likes to impress, and he likes to be impressed, in consequence of which a world of deception, of mutual cheating, is formed by him and around him.

Gibran’s impact on the subsequent development of Western literature and art has been negligible. However, it has to be conceded that his influence on the development of modern Arabic poetry was considerable. Gibran, and other Arab poets living in exile in America (the Mahjar movement), but mostly Gibran, were largely responsible for the introduction of romantic themes into Arabic poetry and for the breakdown of the constraints recognised by poets of the neoclassical school. Everybody I have read on Gibran the writer in Arabic takes it for granted that these developments were good things, but I am not so sure. Gibran, Naimy and Amin al-Rihani imported European themes and they did so at the expense of indigenous traditions. The mostly pre-Islamic poets of the Arabian Peninsula, whom the neoclassical poets of the 19th and early 20th centuries chose to imitate and, inimitating, surpass, have more of value to teach Arab writers than the alien corn so eagerly devoured by Gibran’s generation of intellectuals. I would rather read Shanfara or Imru’l-Qays any day.