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.
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. 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.
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
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
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
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 Gibran, The 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
“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