Historical Notes: Caught in a trap of people's expectations

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The Independent Culture
KAHLIL GIBRAN, the Leban-ese writer, poet and artist who is best known for his slim volume of spiritual inspiration, The Prophet, died in 1931 in New York of cirrhosis of the liver, the effect of years of heavy drinking on a weak constitution. The Prophet, which has sold over 10 million copies in English alone since its publication in 1923, counsels us to live a life of integrity, moderation and honesty, filled with love and appreciation of beauty, totally present in the real world. Is there not, then, a clash between what Gibran was writing and the way he was living?

Yes, there is, and further facts confirm it. Born in poverty in northern Lebanon to a bad-tempered wastrel of a father, and a mother who pinned all her hopes on her talented son, Gibran was taken to America by his mother in 1895. The father was abandoned in Lebanon.

For years the family eked out a miserable existence in the slums of Boston, until tuberculosis and cancer carried away three of them, leaving only Gibran and one of his younger sisters, Marianna. But by now Gibran had begun to use his talents as an artist to endear himself to high- society Boston, until his future was guaranteed when he acquired a wealthy patroness, Mary Haskell, who sent him to study art in Paris and set him up in a studio in New York. In New York, as well as becoming a prominent figure in the important Lebanese emigre literary movement, which revolutionised Arabic literature, Gibran continued to find the favour of the movers and shakers of Western society.

To his Western friends Gibran consistently portrayed himself as the scion of a wealthy and privileged family, filled with nobility and artistic talents. His Lebanese friends and acquaintances, however, knew the truth. Because of the lies Gibran wove around his background, he had to juggle his life so that his Western friends never met his eastern friends.

And there were other lies: he pretended (it turned out to be a superb publicity stunt) that Rodin had lavished praise on his painting, calling him a new Blake; he pretended that the Turkish authorities wanted to have him assassinated; that he had been excommunicated from the Maronite Christian Church of his birth; and so on.

It is surely more than lay psychobabble to see the signs of a troubled and unhappy man. Then there were his relationships with women. While acquiring a reputation as a womaniser in New York the only woman to whom he ever gave his heart (except for a youthful romance) lived in distant Egypt, and they never met. It is hard to resist the impression that he loved her precisely because she was distant, and could not disappoint him with harsh reality.

The earlier suggestion that Gibran was failing to practise what he preached seems to be confirmed. But does it matter? If people read Gibran's work without, knowing anything of his life, and his work triggers in them a search for something greater, then it certainly does not matter. But I think we do have a right to require a wholeness and integrity to people who would preach at us. Hence all the legitimate fuss when yet another American televangelist is found to have feet - and more - of clay.

Moreover - and this makes it matter to me as Gibran's biographer - it mattered to Gibran himself. He knew that The Prophet was his greatest work and encapsulated what he wanted to tell the world, and while writing it he often told Mary Haskell that the whole thing was meaningless unless he himself lived the philosophy he was teaching. Gibran was caught in a trap of other people's expectations of him, and his attempts to fulfil those expectations. They wanted him to be a prophet, and so he made himself appear a prophet. But he wrote his own epitaph in Sand and Foam: "Even the most winged spirit cannot escape physical necessity."

Robin Waterfield is the author of Kahlil Gibran, Prophet: the life and times of Kahlil Gibran (Penguin Books, pounds 8.99)