Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BELOVED PROPHET: Review and Reflection

Kahlil Gibran, self-portrait with woman

Kahlil Gibran shows up at a lot of weddings and funerals.  He’s a Syrian-Lebanese and a hoax.  How do you like that?  Labels and categories tell a person little or nothing, esp. when they are sensational and have a publicity pay-off.  The weird thing about the hoax accusations in the most recent wave was that the accusation was not about the writers being more wicked than purported — they were not murderers or embezzlers — but about the great crime of them being middle-class, only pretending to suffer.  At that point, the worst stigma in the eyes of the hip, punk, and admirers of the Christian cult of martyred saints, was to be middle-class, or even a "suit."  But in his time it was a worse sin to be poor, so he invented a past of wealth and privilege.

Gibran really DID suffer: poverty, an alcoholic abusive father, and the early deaths via tuberculosis (the AIDS of the time) of his sibs and of cancer for his mother.  He pretended to have a loving father who owned a charmed estate with fountains.  He was Lebanese, but not Islamic.  Rather he belonged to a Catholic boundary group called Maronite Christians and remained devoted through his life.

Gibran's mother as painted by Gibran

Here are edited first paragraphs of his Wikipedia entry, author unknown:

Gibran was born into a Maronite Catholic family from the historical town of Bsharri in northern Mount Lebanon, then a semi-autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire.  His mother, Kamila, daughter of a priest, was thirty when he was born; his father, Khalil, was her third husband.  As a result of his family's poverty, Gibran received no formal schooling during his youth in Lebanon. However, priests visited him regularly and taught him about the Bible and the Arabic language.

Gibran's father initially worked in an apothecary, but with gambling debts he was unable to pay, he went to work for a local Ottoman-appointed administrator.  Around 1891, extensive complaints by angry subjects led to the administrator being removed and his staff being investigated.  Gibran's father was imprisoned for embezzlement, and his family's property was confiscated by the authorities. Kamila Gibran decided to follow her brother to the United States. Although Gibran's father was released in 1894, Kamila remained resolved and left for New York on June 25, 1895, taking Khalil, his younger sisters Mariana and Sultana, and his elder half-brother Peter.

Kahlil Gibran, photograph by Fred Holland Day, c. 1898.

The Gibrans settled in Boston's South End, at the time the second-largest Syrian-Lebanese-American community in the United States. . . .His mother began working as a seamstress peddler, selling lace and linens that she carried from door to door. Gibran started school on September 30, 1895. School officials placed him in a special class for immigrants to learn English. Gibran also enrolled in an art school at Denison House, a nearby settlement house. Through his teachers there, he was introduced to the avant-garde Boston artist, photographer, and publisher Fred Holland Day, who encouraged and supported Gibran in his creative endeavors. 

A photo by Fred Holland Day

Because of the beauty of Gibran’s language and the appeal of his sentiments, he is the third best-selling English language poet after Shakespeare and Laotze.  He is also revered in the Arab-speaking world.  Today Gibran is relevant for many reasons, owing to the change in the culture after a century.  For instance, notice that he is an immigrant and that his father was a violent alcoholic who beat him.

Our times are incessantly and obsessively interested in the sex lives of famous people.  Gibran is a puzzle because of his lifelong friendship with Mary Elizabeth Haskell, a respected headmistress ten years his senior. The two formed an important friendship that lasted the rest of Gibran's life. The nature of their romantic relationship remains obscure; while some biographers assert the two were lovers but never married because Haskell's family objected, other evidence suggests that their relationship never was physically consummated. Haskell later married another man, but then she continued to support Gibran financially and to use her influence to advance his career.  (Wiki)

Our present culture finds “older women” worthless, devalues relationships based on mutual respect and shared work, but celebrates perversion.  To the modern outlook, this relationship is that of narcissist/enabler and feminists would find it sick.  In short, Gibran is always outside our template for how things should be, and yet his writing is celebrated by the most conventional and sentimental people.

Gibran’s book of meditations is called “The Prophet” and purports to be speeches by a wise man to an attending crowd.  The book I’ve just acquired is called “Beloved Prophet”, the letters between Gibran and Haskell.  Usually this book sells for more than I can afford, but this is a library discard, rebound and with one page razored out, the last page of the introduction.  

I haven’t read all the letters yet, but they disclose that Gibran proposed marriage a number of times, always being turned down.  Haskell says it is because she is too old and he should marry someone his own age so that he could have family.  She feels he will regret a relationship with her.  Yet they do something together, which sounds physical, but not necessarily missionary coitus.

Given our nosy suspicions and the photos of Fred Holland Day (see Google Images), Gibran may have been gay.  He left for Paris where he was a close friend with another Maronite Lebanese boy he knew from home, Youssef Howayek, whose work in art and poetry was very similar.  The pair studied with Rodin for two years.  

Gibran died in NY City, aged 48, from tuberculosis and cirrhosis of the liver, which suggests that alcoholism and poverty may also have disqualified him as husband material.  Haskell did marry, a wealthy man who took care of her and evidently didn’t object to her relationship with Gibran, even as she continued to send him money.

There are memories of Gibran from Howayek and formal biographies by others.  He was much admired by Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, David Bowie.  Probably today the best biography might be fictionalized so as to reconcile his mysticism with the scorn of upper class intellectuals.  It's the "low-brows" who always demand "truth." 

It would also be intriguing to write a fictionalized bio of Mary Haskell.  Boston was (maybe is) a hotbed of innocent but sexual relationships, including those called “Boston marriages” between women.  At present, sculptures of naked young people and children make us uneasy but were common then.  We recognize the whole problem of how to move from one culture to another in a universal way, a necessity if only for one generation to understand its children, whether naked or clothed.

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