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The Massive Character of Kahlil Gibran

Kahlil Gibran liked to keep his personal life…personal.  It was not until his cousin and others wrote a biography about him that more intimate details about his life became known to the public.  He is mainly recognized for his 1923 book “The Prophet” (26 essay-style prose poems, delivered as sermons by a fictional wise man in a faraway time and place.  This work has been translated in 40 languages).  Some may not realize that Kahlil Gibran’s book had a cool reception by the critics; yet, sold surprisingly well, becoming extremely popular in the 1960s counterculture. Gibran is the 3rd best-selling poet of all time, behind Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu.

Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you…“–Gibran, Sand and Foam” (1926)

Gibran in 1902 (18 or 19-years-old). Told by priests that he was a mystic—even “a young prophet”—he began to see himself that way. Photograph by Fred Holland Day.

Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother. ~K. Gibran

How does a person write a feature on Kahlil Gibran? The minute I promised a reader I would do this, I felt an immediate twinge of regret.  But, I have a feeling that after meeting the mind of this great poet and artist, there will be no regrets.

It’s too bad that I completely missed the love-fest mentality of the 1960s when the resurgence of universal love became suddenly cool and lent Gibran’s work to the likes of song lyrics borrowed by John Lennon in his song “Julia” (1968), and even quotes used in an inauguration speech by JFK.

But, even so, right now seems like a good time to tap into a timeless fascination with Gibran, and drop by to visit this madly successful poet and artist…and I am beginning to wonder what has taken me so long to do it?

As I began to get knee-to-knee with Gibran, I started to imagine what type of child Kahlil must have been…

Born in 1883 in the village of Bsharri in  modern-day Lebanon, Gibran lived in a time when Lebanon was part of Syria, which was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Photograph by Fred Holland c. 1896 (Kahlil at 13 years old).

Thanks to Gibran’s cousin who wrote a biography “Kahlil Gibran: His Life and World.” (and who was named after Gibran) we know a little bit about Gibran’s childhood.

Apparently, Gibran often brooded as a child, and was described as soulful.  He had an extreme penchant for drawing.  Painting was his first interest and most of the time trumped his interest in writing.

Near Kahlil’s hometown, Qadisha valley, courtesy of literary locales sjsu.edu. During stormy days, Gibran liked to go outside.

He adored nature, and whenever a storm would come, he would rip off his clothes and run out into the unsettling weather in a fit of ecstasy. His mother, Kamileh, let her boy relish in his strange ways and persuaded others to leave him alone.  “Sometimes,” Gibran’s cousin said, his mother “would smile at someone who came in…lay her finger on her lips and whisper, ‘Hush. He’s not here.’ ”

A portrait by Kahlil of his mother. Kamila, daughter of a priest, was 30 when Gibran was born and Khalil’s father was her third husband.[wiki] As a result of his family’s poverty, Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth. However, priests visited him regularly and taught him about the Bible, as well as the Arabic and Syriac languages.

In the depth of my soul there is a wordless song. ~K. Gibran

A FATHER THAT DISAPPOINTED

Gibran’s father owned a walnut grove, but too often neglected to show up for work. Instead he drank and gambled too much and eventually landed a job as a tax collector, but a short time later, he was arrested for embezzlement. At this point, the family became destitute.

When Kahlil was eight, his father, was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison as the Ottomon authorities confiscated the Gibrans’ property.  In 1895, Gibran’s mother Kamileh, had enough.  Unbelievably, her third marriage had just fallen apart.  She packed up her four children—Bhutros, Kahlil (12), Marianna, and Sultana—and sailed to America.   The events that led to the family exiting their country could have been the first great source of pain that Kahlil experienced in his life.

The family settled in the South end of Boston (known today as Boston’s Chinatown) in ghetto-like conditions but with a relatively heavy Lebanese population nearby. Kamileh, true to her Syrian roots, became a pack peddler and she went door to door, selling lace and linens out of a basket she carried on her back. It took her a year to save enough money to set Bhutros up in a drygoods store. The two girls worked as seamstresses. Kahlil’s only responsibility was to go to school.


–Kahlil as a young man.  

GIBRAN’S EDUCATION, MENTORS AND INFLUENCES

In Boston, Gibran enrolled in an art school at a nearby settlement house. His teachers introduced him to the avant-garde Boston artist, photographer, and publisher Fred Holland Day who supported Gibran in his creative endeavors. At that time, a publisher also used some of Gibran’s drawings for book covers in 1898.

Kahlil adopted much of the philosophy and attitude taught to him by his mentor Fred Holland Day. Day treated Gibran as a young prince and as you can imagine, this was really something for a young man to experience after coming from a destitute early life.  As a result of this strange confluence of struggle mingled with privilege that Kahlil experienced in his life–he adopted an emphasis on suffering, prophecy, and the religion of love, which became his modus operandi.

From wiki”:

At the age of fifteen, Gibran returned to his homeland to study at a Maronite-run preparatory school and higher-education institute in Beirut, called Al-Hikma (The Wisdom). He started a student literary magazine with a classmate and was elected “college poet”. He stayed there for several years before returning to Boston in 1902, coming through Ellis Island (a second time) on May 10.[11] Two weeks before he got back, his sister Sultana died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. The next year, his brother died of the same disease and his mother died of cancer. His sister Marianna supported Gibran and herself by working at a dressmaker’s shop.[3]

Two other key people who influenced Gibran include:

 

Abdu’l-Bahá, Kahlil was greatly impressed with the leader of the Bahá’í Faith during his travel to America in the time period 1911-12. Gibran admired his teachings on peace. His famous poem “Pity The Nation” was written during this period.

Mikhail Naimy, a distinguished master of Arabic literature, whose child became Kahlil’s godson–was a great friend and influence in Gibran’s life.
As the above quote reminds us, around 1902 and within a time period of about 1 1/2 years, Kahlil lost his mother, his sister, and his brother to illnesses.   Since wiki presents this information as so matter-of-fact and somewhat banal in style, I wonder if we fail to grasp the intense sense of loss and emotional pain that Kahlil must have felt during this time of seeing three of his closest family members die within such a short time?

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” ― Khalil Gibran

THE LOVE STORY OF KAHLIL AND MARY

It was 1904, when 21-year-old Gibran held his first Boston art exhibition of drawings in Boston at Fred Day’s studio. During the exhibition, he met Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a school headmistress. Mary was 10 years older than Gibran and the two began a friendship that lasted until his death.

Kahlil’s portrait of Mary Haskell

New Yorker writer Joan Acocella recapped a general account of the Kahlil and Mary Haskell love story based on a biography written by Robin Waterfield.

And, there is no way I can tell the story of the type of love Kahlil and Mary had, better than this…

On a More Personal Side…

From Author Joan Acocella on Kahlil Gibran and His Possible Muse, Mary Haskell:

 

Mary Haskell, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Boston, was a New Woman. She believed in long hikes, cold showers, and progressive politics…She was not rich, but by careful thrift—the school’s cook, who also had some wealthy employers, sneaked dinners to her from their kitchens—she managed to put aside enough money to support a number of deserving causes: a Greek immigrant boy who needed boarding-school tuition, and another Greek boy, at Harvard. Then she met Gibran, who would be her most expensive project.

In the beginning, her major benefaction to him was simply financial—she gave him money, she paid his rent. In 1908, she sent him to Paris for a year, to study painting. Before he went abroad, they were “just friends,” but once they were apart the talk of friendship turned to letters of love, and when Gibran returned to Boston they became engaged. It was apparently agreed, though, that they would not marry until he felt he had established himself, and somehow this moment never came. Finally, Haskell offered to be his mistress. He wasn’t interested. In a painful passage in her diary, Haskell records how, one night, he said that she was looking thin. On the pretext of showing him that she was actually well fleshed, she took off her clothes and stood before him naked. He kissed one of her breasts, and that was all. She got dressed again. She knew that he had had affairs with other women, but he claimed that he was not “sexually minded,” and furthermore that what she missed in their relationship was actually there. When they were apart, he said, they were together. They didn’t need to have “intercourse”; their whole friendship was “a continued intercourse.” More than sex or marriage, it seems, what Haskell wanted from Gibran was simply to be acknowledged as the woman in his life. As she told her diary, she wanted people to “know he loved me because it was the greatest honor I had and I wanted credit for it—wanted the fame of his loving me.” But he would not introduce her to his friends. “Poor Mary!” Waterfield says. Amen to that.

Acocella links this way of interpersonal behavior to his writing:

Then, there is the pleasing ambiguity of what Almustafa (in “The Prophet”) is saying… 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, which Gibran had used for years to keep Haskell out of his bed, 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

Although this account is somewhat confusing as to Gibran’s true intentions toward Mary, some believe that Kahlil loved Mary in a profoundly immersive, fathomless, and truly spiritual way that few two people have experienced or will ever experience.  Still others think that Kahil mainly felt an eternal kinship with Mary, that was absent of sexuality.  The dynamics of this relationship are truly mysterious.

Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. ~K.Gibran


HIS MESSAGE

One thing we know is that Gibran played down the pursuit of material possessions and things with empty meaning, in favor of pursuing a mind-bending, extraordinary, hyper-evolved state of love itself.  He offered instruction from the heart on finding and receiving this give-and-take sort of nirvana love that seemed to always need a loose-hold on love’s wonder in order to survive and flourish.

His emphasis on mystic spirituality surfaced throughout his life and the way he examined spiritual matters has had a profound influence on a multitude of spiritual “truth-seekers”.

Today, in the Arab world, Gibran is regarded as a literary and political rebel. His Romantic style was at the heart of a renaissance in modern Arabic literature, breaking away from the classical school of thought. In “The Prophet”, Gibran is concerned with unifying mankind.  His themes of drawing close to one another, kindness, and forgiveness are communicated in a way that sparks the senses and causes a sudden understanding.

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. ~K. Gibran

HIS DEATH

Khalil Gibran died on April 10, 1931 in New York City of cirrhosis of the liver and tuberculosis. Gibran wished to be buried in Lebanon and this wish was fulfilled in 1932, when Mary Haskell and Kahlil’s sister, Mariana bought the Mar Sarkis Monastery in Lebanon, which is now the Gibran Museum.  Prior to his death, Kahlil left instructions on the specific epitaph that he wished to leave behind…

I am alive like you, and I am standing beside you. Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you. ~Kahlil Gibran’s self-authored epitaph

HIS LEGACY

Gibran’s contents of the studio went to Mary Elizabeth, where she found her previously written letters there. She gave the letters to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library and her personal art collection of art by Gibran (more than 100 pieces) to the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia. This is the largest public collection of Gibran’s visual art in the United States. It constitutes five oils and number of written works depicting the artist’s lyrical style. His hometown of Bsharri still receives the American royalties from his books

EXAMPLES OF HIS WORK

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. 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. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.― Khalil GibranThe Prophet

Kahlil Gibran, The Summit from Sand and Foam, c. 1925, Watercolor and pencil on paper, 11 x 8 1/2 inches, Telfair Museums, Gift of Mary Haskell Minis, 1950

Works Originally written in Arabic: Works originally written in English:
Spirits Rebellious (1908) The Madman (1918)
The Broken Wings (1912) The forerunner (1920)
A Tear and A Smile (1914) The Prophet (1923)
The Procession (1918) Sand and Foam (1926)
jesus, the son of man (1928)
posthumously: selected shorter works: 
The earth gods (1931) The new frontier
The wanderer (1932) i believe in you
The garden of the prophet (1933) my countrymen
lazarus and his beloved (1933) satan
you have your lebanon and i have my lebanon
your thought and mine

“All things in this creation exist within you, and all things in you exist in creation; there is no border between you and the closest things, and there is no distance between you and the farthest things, and all things, from the lowest to the loftiest, from the smallest to the greatest, are within you as equal things. In one atom are found all the elements of the earth; in one motion of the mind are found the motions of all the laws of existence; in one drop of water are found the secrets of all the endless oceans; in one aspect of you are found all the aspects of existence.” – Kahlil Gibran.


“A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world. Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.”  ~Kahlil Gibran

Kahlil Gibran had a monumental heart and was relentlessly moved by the unceasing and mystical power of love itself, and his mind was open to learn about spirituality and growth as a human being, both individually and as part of a community.

Most importantly, Gibran was not lazy.  He did not daydream his life away.  He told whomever would listen what he learned in life and what he believed to be true.  And this, in itself, could be the greatest message of all by Kahlil Gibran.  If we are all a mirror of eternity, then much of our potential lies dormant within, ready to awaken whenever we give the signal.

All that spirits desire, spirits attain. ~Kahlil Gibran

Courage Changes Every- thing

The Ernst Leitz Sr. Optics Company, founded in 1869 in Wetzler, Germany, was ahead of its time and had a tradition of enlightened behavior toward its workers.  Leitz hired people based on ability, without descrimination, and provided sick leave, and health insurance.

Following his dad’s example of altruism,  Ernst Leitz II risked his own–and his family’s safety by putting into place a wildly successful plan to help Jews escape Nazi Germany. He is known for designing the first Leitz camera lens

What can a wealthy business man (himself a Christian) do to save the lives of a large number of Jews living under the oppressive state of Hitler’s regime?  How about hire hundreds of Jews in his business and then send them on overseas assignments? This simple and brilliant plan was made a reality by Ernst Leitz II, and for his effort, countless Jews today have this courageous man to thank for life itself.  The Leica Freedom Train was a rescue effort in which hundreds of Jews were smuggled out of Nazi Germany before the Holocaust by Ernst Leitz II of the Leica Camera company, and his daughter Elsie Kuehn-Leitz.

Dr. Elsie Kühn-Leitz was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland. She eventually was freed, but endured rough treatment in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who were assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s.

Incredibly,  the Leitz family wanted no publicity for their heroic efforts. And, only after the last member of the Leitz family was dead did the “Leica Freedom Train” finally come to light.

A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort. –Sydney Smith

…and suddenly I want to buy a Leitz camera.

Is there any regret worse than not acting on our core convictions?  I believe that the first leap of courage in doing what seems impossible, may feel insurmountably difficult…but what follows soon after is pure liberation from fear and from living life as an imposter. …and speaking of courage (and inspired by Elsie)…a song I’ve added to my list.

Don’t Believe All That You See — Alison Jackson Makes Her Living With Fake Photography

It’s a fake! This is work done by photographer Alison Jackson, whose métier is to get look-alikes of famous politicians and entertainers to pose in intimate situations. Alison Jackson has “photographed” the Queen of England on the toilet, George Bush and Tony Blair chatting in the sauna, Osama Bin Laden playing backgammon, and Monica Lewinsky lighting Bill Clinton’s cigar.

.Alison-Jackson-Queen-Prince-George

Bush+and+Blairqueen

Iconically Rare — Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol, self-portrait. In an interview during this year (1979), he said “You can do anything you want, anytime”.

The Prince of Pop Art, an avant-garde filmmaker, record producer, author, and public figure known for his membership in wildly diverse social circles that included bohemian street people, distinguished intellectuals, Hollywood celebrities and wealthy aristocrats.

“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ― Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol by Jack Mitchell

It’s a little off the beaten path, but I felt like writing about Andy Warhol today.

Born in 1928, he was a sick child and was diagnosed with something called St. Vitus’ Dance disease in third grade which affects the nervous system causing involuntary movements (perhaps a complication of scarlet fever). He was painfully shy, but loved to practice drawing and to experiment with photography. Andy was the only member of his family to go college and in 1945 he went to the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, declaring a major in pictorial design.

Later, he moved to New York, where he coined a hyper-exaggerated style of drawing and painting, based on the belief that everything is beautiful.  He expanded his creative genius into the areas of printmaking, photography, silk screening, sculpture, film, and music.  Throughout the 1950s, he became a greatly successful illustrator, winning numerous awards for his work from the Art Directors Club and the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Andy’s clients included Tiffany & Co., The New York Times, I. Miller Shoes, Bonwit Teller, Columbia Records, Harper’s BazaarVogue, Fleming-Joffe, NBC, and others. A bulk of his commercial work was based on photographs and other source images, a process he would use for the rest of his life. He often employed the delightfully quirky handwriting of his mother Julia in many of his works in this period.

Andy as a child with his mother and brother. Pittsburgh photographer unknown.

Andy with his beloved mother, Julia. His mother has been said to be the single most influential person in his life.

Andy had an intellectual brilliance with the ability to communicate the workings of his mind distinctly.  An example:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the cokes are the same and all the cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” -Warhol

In 1962, Warhol was criticized for being a commercial “sell-out”,  But, the criticism barely fazed Warhol as he seemed to seize opportunities to interject his talent into mainstream media.  Later, he became respected for his rigorous commitment towards his own preferences and disregard for others who wanted to dictate his direction in life.  (This is inspiring to me).  But alas, Andy recognized what he considered the error of his ways as he grew tired of the whole commercial scene.  He was noted as saying:

I’ve decided something: Commercial things really do stink. As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market it really stinks.
-Andy Warhol 

Perhaps my recent interest in Andy stems from my slight fetish for The Velvet Underground.  Andy became The Velvet Underground’s manager in 1965 and suggested they feature the German-born singer, Nico, on several songs. Warhol’s reputation gave The Velvets a higher profile and Warhol helped the band secure a major record contract with MGM’s Verve Records. As manager, he gave The Velvets free rein over the sound they created.  With the band providing the music, Andy became part of a multimedia roadshow called Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

During 1965 and 1966, Andy became enamored with Edie Sedgwick, an American actress, socialite, fashion model and heiress. Sedgwick became known as “The Girl of the Year” in 1965 after starring in several of Warhol’s short films in the 1960s.

Ciao! Manhattan is a 1972 American avant garde film which centers around Sedgwick’s character and deals with the pain of addiction and the lure of fame.  Warhol is featured in the film at times.  Here is a clip of the offbeat semi-biographical tale:

It appears that Edie may have inspired Warhol to step up his focus on style during the years of 1965 and 1966, as he suddenly had a new energy in his appearance and selection of clothing and spent many outings with Sedgwick, in the public eye.

Although during this phase of Andy’s life, Andy could have considered Edie to be his muse,  Warhol was known to be a homosexual.  In the Warhol Diaries, he writes about his relationships with several men, although he implied to the press he had girlfriend, including one possibly fictitious girl he called “Taxi” who allegedly went for long periods without bathing.

Warhol was gay in an era when America was much less informed about homosexual culture and gay themes in Warhol’s work were often overlooked by a public oblivious to the symbolism of drag queens, cowboys and the other icons and clichés of gay culture.  He claimed to have little libido, and those who knew him have said that being hugged or touched excessively made him uncomfortable.

Warhol’s original New York City studio, The Factory, was in operation from 1962 to 1968 (subsequent studios were also named The Factory).  The original Factory, which no longer exists, was located on the fifth floor at 231 East 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan and rent was only about $100 a year.

The Factory

In 1968, Valerie Solanas, a marginal Factory employee, attempted to murder Warhol with a gun.  She said she felt Andy had too much control over her life.  She fired a bullet that entered his right side and exited from behind.  Apparently, Solanas’ excuse for the shooting was that Warhol did not return a script  she authored because he had lost it.

Andy’s life was never the same after the shooting partly because of physical problems and also because his perception of daily life shifted to a place where he felt he was watching himself live as though he was viewing his life on television.

In the 1970s, Warhol rounded up new rich and famous patrons for portrait commissions — including the Shah of Iran Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, John Lennon, Diana Ross, Brigitte Bardot and of course, his famous portrait of Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong in 1973.

‘Silver Liz,’ 1963 using the mass-media technique of screen-printing, Warhol created 13 portraits of Liz during the height of her fame.

” Mao “

Marilyn

Throughout the ’80s, Warhol was again criticized for being a commercial sell-out, but in retrospective, as author Michal Lando put it, Warhol’s superficiality and commerciality could actually be “the most brilliant mirror of our times,” contending that “Warhol had captured something irresistible about the zeitgeist of American culture in the 1970s.”

Warhol’s Campbells Soup, 1968

Warhol adored American glamour and once said: “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re so beautiful. Everything’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”

Although not a lot is known about the friendship between John Lennon, Yoko and Andy, apparently the three maintained a closeness over the years, and Yoko spoke at Andy’s funeral in 1987.   These photos are some of the best known, with one mocking touching each other inappropriately with playful debauchery.

Perhaps surprising to many, especially later in his life, Warhol was a practicing Ruthenian Rite Catholic, and grew up attending a Byzantine style orthodox church. He attended mass at times almost daily in the 1980s. He regularly volunteered at homeless shelters in New York and described himself as religious, although he was secretive about his faith and said he was self-conscious about being seen in a Latin rite church, crossing himself in an orthodox way.

Perhaps Andy had a premonition of his untimely death, as he had a deep-seated fear of hospitals and did not like to see doctors.  Warhol died in New York City at 6:32 a.m. on February 22, 1987. According to news reports, he had been making good recovery from a routine gallbladder surgery at New York Hospital before dying in his sleep from a sudden post-operative cardiac arrhythmia.

Warhol dictated that practically his entire estate would go to create a foundation dedicated to the “advancement of the visual arts”.  The NY Times reported on July 21, 1993 that Warhol’s estate was valued at $220 million, much of which goes to the quite spectacular Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts.

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