George N. El-Hage, Ph.D. Arabic and Comparative Literature
Poetry and art are twins. Both are the offspring of suffering and joy. Gibran translated Blake’s “Innocence and Experience” into a “Tear and a Smile.” Nevertheless, the unending drama of human existence unfolds itself in the pages of both men. Only the elected and gifted soul is capable of creativity, of reading the world differently, and of rebelling against evil clothed in a lamb’s garment. Art knows no boundaries. It transcends all national limits and is only satisfied with the universal. There, time and place lose their ability to imprison the artist in a closed cell. The inspired poet becomes a winged soul floating over life, embracing the infinite. It is in the midst of this vast expanse where the responsibility of the artist becomes eternal and his mission turns holy that we can speak of Kahlil Gibran and William Blake together.*
There is evidence that Gibran was familiar with some of Blake’s poetry and drawings during his early years in Boston. However, this knowledge of Blake was neither deep nor complete. Kahlil Gibran was reintroduced to William Blake’s poetry and art in Paris, perhaps in Auguste Rodin’s studio and by Rodin himself. It was then that Gibran read Blake’s works more completely and studied his biography and also viewed many more reproductions of his drawings. In Paris, Gibran was called “the twentieth-century Blake,” and from that time on, Blake played a special role in Gibran’s life. Their reading of the Bible, their rebellion against church corruption, and their sociopolitical visions were very similar. This is not to say that Gibran was a mere copy of Blake but to affirm that in Blake he found the support and confirmation for his early doctrines which he developed before or while reading Blake. It is my belief that Gibran’s basic concepts and doctrines were already formed and developed by 1910, the year of his return from Paris at the age of twenty-seven. Furthermore, I agree with Professor Bushrui that Gibran’s early works, which were all in Arabic, contained the basic themes of his later writings.
Both Gibran and Blake were poets and artists. Both rebelled against the decayed and rigid laws of church and society. Both rejected Reason in the name of Imagination and read the Bible in its “Diabolical form.” Above all, the two poets shared a basic prophetic vision and apocalyptic view of the universe. Throughout their works, the messianic mission of the poet and the function of the artist is clear. Poetry is to lead the people back to Eden, and painting must be a step from nature toward the infinite.
Gibran regarded himself as a teacher and a guide for his friends. He also considered himself a peacemaker, a spiritual healer, and a man destined to carry the burden and the suffering of his own people. He was willing to offer his life for the redemption of mankind. Like Blake, who considered himself to be in “constant communication with visions,” Gibran “believed himself alone to be in communication with the truth—a gift given only rarely to unique individuals.” Gibran viewed himself as a poet who had a message to deliver, and he took his mission very seriously. He believed that the poet was a prophet. It was his responsibility to lead the people back to a world of higher innocence and Divine truth through imagination. Both Gibran and Blake’s message was that of love, friendship, and above all else, peace. Love was the road to salvation because it not only had a healing power but also a redemptive one. Gibran ultimately believed that love was preordained, a theory which paralleled Blake’s concept of Emanation. He also presented his own “religion of the heart” which he considered to be the “door to paradise.”
The struggle between “body and soul” was a major concern to Gibran. This conflict, which tormented him immensely and prevailed during his early writings, was reconciled once he had matured with Blake and learned that man did not have a body distinct from his soul. This was also in accordance with the teachings of Jesus who said that “the body [was] the temple of the soul.”
To both Blake and Gibran, the basic purpose of our existence is to discover and record new truths about the human soul. This explains why the two poets never wrote a poem or painted a picture without intellectual meaning. So profound was their research in the terra incognita that each of them might be “hailed as the Columbus of the Psyche” as Damon suggested. Their great task was to turn our immortal eyes inward, to make us see eternity in an hour because we are potentially divine but caught in “Old Jerusalem.” We need to open the channels of our perception, to embrace our visions, and everything will then seem infinite. Blake promised us that he who sees the infinite in everything sees God because essentially every honest man is a prophet.
Both Blake and Gibran believed that poetry was the “word” that “was with God” and that this “Word was God.” They defined poetry as the highest expression of human experience in the most efficient language. In their poems, no word could be changed because their poems were “dictated” to them. “Words are timeless,” Gibran said, and “poetry is the inevitable word in the inevitable place.” Blake and Gibran believed themselves to be in constant communication with the world of spirits, and they believed that great poetry is prophecy. According to Blake, the language of prophecy was originally the “universal language” of man before the Fall. He identified the myth of the Golden Age with the Biblical Eden, marrying pagan and sacred legend. Blake further believed that the vision of the ancient poets had been exploited by the “vulgar” and later seized in the “interests of the priests.” Fortunately, the poetic heritage was not lost nor was it confused with the theology of the priests because the vision of the Bard for Blake and the inspiration of the Prophet for Gibran saved the body literature from the corruption of the priests.
Both Gibran and Blake were convinced that they were discovering a new truth about the human soul and that they were building a “Golgonooza” and an “Orphalese” respectively. These two cities were the spiritual forerunners of the City of New Jerusalem. They believed that as poets, they were creators of new worlds and possessed a key denied to other men. Both poets devoted themselves to their mission and paid dearly for it through long years of poverty, neglect, and suffering. Since they believed that the poet was a creator and that his creations were new even to him at times, the two poets refused to accept the systems of other men or the symbols of old tradition. Gibran said, “I lay down no rules… I am a maker of symbols,” and Blake hailed himself as a creator of a new mythology and a new literary genre, “the poetic apocalypse.” Gibran, like Blake, felt that the pillars of the temple were falling down and that the old systems needed to be changed.
Both poets believed that when the mythology of the fallen world could no longer be accepted, the poet had to construct and create a world of his own and after his own image. From this viewpoint, Gibran emerges as a Romantic poet. Like Blake, he realized the necessity of creating his own system of symbols so as not to be enslaved by those who preceded him. The literary careers of both Gibran and Blake were primarily devoted to creating a “new audience” that could see the world in the poet’s terms. Yet perhaps because their demands were revolutionary, their contemporaries spoke of them as destroyers of traditional conventions and accused them of rebellion. Gibran shared all of the distinguishing characteristics of the Romantic Movement with Blake and with other major figures of that Movement, appearing beyond any doubt to be “a late Romantic.” Like his predecessors, Gibran was typically interested in the “uniqueness” of his response to the world, to historical events, and to external nature. In other words, his own reading and response to the universe “occupied him ultimately.”
Gibran, too, was a master of the “inward journey.” He journeyed inward and examined the peculiarity of his own private emotional history. This does not mean, of course, that the Romantic could not at times be objective, but specifically speaking, the Romantic point of view was subjective. Gibran’s writings take us on a spiritual journey through the labyrinth of our own anguish from “The Holy Forest of the Cedars” to “Orphalese,” the city of his beloved Prophet, from “Genesis” to “Revelation.” Ultimately he leads us from a world caught between “Jehovah’s wrath” and Urizen’s “Net of Religion” to “New Jerusalem.” Gibran’s life was a Romantic quest, a progressive evolution from innocent childhood to disillusioned experience and finally to a happy “Higher Innocence” that dwelled only with knowledge. This nostalgic reminiscence resulted in a triumph “but not without its tragic conflict.” Both Blake and Gibran’s poetry was related to a central myth and the primary basis for that myth was the Bible. For them, the Holy Book was an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Both Blake and Gibran further connected poetry and art with Christianity because to them, Christ was the supreme poet, visionary and artist.
Poetry and art are the two pillars on which the imaginative structure of human civilization rests. When Apocalypse comes and every man experiences the vision of eternity, as Frye explains, poetry and art will no longer be regarded as unnecessary ornaments but instead as indispensable ones. Everything worth doing and done well is art, but in his fallen state, man cannot comprehend this reality. Blake differentiated between three major states in a poet’s life: the first was the moment of creativity when the poet was directly under the flame of inspiration, the second state was the “rest of the time” when he was just a man and not a poet, and the third state which impressed Blake the most was when the poet’s whole life became a permanent incarnation of his writing. This last state was reached when the distance between the first state and the second state had been eliminated and the poet’s personal existence was transformed into one great work of art.
This explains why Homer and Shakespeare, for example, “rarely had a personal existence. ” Both Blake and Gibran lacked a “personal existence” in this sense. They felt strange in this world, different from others, and alienated from their society. This is the fate of every prophet, and like all prophets, both Blake and Gibran were unwilling to compromise their ideals. It was due to their determination and conviction that the two poets did not leave us until they had said what they had come to say. They both served as “mediators” between God and man. Their purpose was to create, not to reason. They were not foretellers of future events, a notion which they had both rejected as a distorted interpretation of the role of the prophet. They revealed the “eternal truth” which is why they strongly believed that the Biblical prophets were also poets.
Neither Blake nor Gibran wanted to be known as a mystic and neither claimed to be a savior. They led the way and served as examples, but it was up to the individual to save himself through his faith and personal choices. Both believed in the forgiveness of sins and in the immortality of the soul, that all religions are one, and that man is without end. It was their staunch conviction that the “supernatural” is implanted in each of us, that we have eternity, and that “all is well.” Although they were each fond of his native land, neither one was a blind patriot. Blake would have agreed with Gibran that “we are children of one universal holy spirit” and would have said with him “all the earth is my homeland, and the human family is my tribe.”
Gibran’s view on imagination and its role remained intrinsically closer to Blake’s and Coleridge’s. For Blake, Gibran, and all the Romantics, imagination was fundamental because they believed that without it, poetry was impossible. Imagination was the essential faculty by which not only nature, but also the self could be redeemed. Gibran and Blake were the masters of the inward journey into the “unconscious realm of the psyche” where imagination resides. This “twilight realm” into which we descend when we dream was the zone which the two poets reached even while they were awake. Many poets (such as Nietzsche and Holderlin) remained trapped in the jungle of the unconscious while Gibran and Blake returned to report what they had seen mainly because they had “two lifelines”: their poetry and their art. For both, imagination was nothing less than God as He operated in the human soul.
Man was originally an imaginative being, but after the Fall he was caught in the “Net of Religion” and was corrupted by the Urizenic teachings which put “measurements and limitations” on his creative abilities so man forgot his divinity, became vulnerable, and needed to redeem himself. That was why, as Professor Garber explained, “the romantic imagination was constantly under an obligation to redeem nature, which could not help itself in that way” and “imagination wanted to ultimately redeem man who certainly could do it on his own but needed the impetus of an example.”
Blake argued that everything that could be created could be destroyed and that the five senses were hindrances that limit imagination. The natural world of mortality was but a faint shadow of the spiritual world that existed permanently in the human imagination. Gibran emphatically stated that “God may be reached through the mind or the imagination,” that “art was the practice of imagination,” and that “imagination was the only creator.” Like Blake, he cultivated this supreme faculty until it became for him a permanent source of creativity. Gibran’s drawings of the heads and faces of pre-Islamic and Islamic poets resembled Blake’s drawings of some historical characters from antiquity. Both artists used only their imagination to create these drawings.
One of the few differences between Gibran and Blake was in their respective concepts of nature. Though not totally different from Blake, Gibran came closer to other European Romantics and American Transcendentalists whom he read during his long stay in Boston and New York. Gibran shared with Blake the vision of an innocent, rustic world of “pleasant glee” where “everything that lives is holy,” but while Blake argued that “where man is not nature is barren,” nowhere in Gibran’s writings do we find nature “barren” without man. Blake never attempted to escape into a “manless universe” like Wordsworth because man remained his “proper study all his life.” On the other hand, Gibran, like Wordsworth, treated nature as a living being using the “imagery of erotic and maternal love,” insisting on personifying nature rather than humanizing her as Blake did.
Like Coleridge and Emerson whom he also read, Gibran projected his feelings and moods onto nature and made nature echo them again. He agreed with Blake as well as with Coleridge that the world of imagination was richer, permanent, and more dazzling than the outside world of nature because Gibran insisted that “The outside is but a replica of the inside.” Gibran’s dream of another “dawn” and another “spring” accompanied him all through his life. This only showed his dissatisfaction with the spring of our nature. Gibran did not deny nature her beauty and charm, but he complained of her inability to communicate with him and her insufficiency to understand him and bring him joy. From his books and letters, Gibran emerges in a Thoreauvian manner as both a mediator between man and nature and a prophetic figure.
One of his main purposes was to tell us that there is a dawn coming and we had better be ready for it. There was ultimately something beyond nature, call it Eden or New Jerusalem. This was the great promise of resurrection, the road to paradise. We would reach it when we were ready for it. Blake insisted that the redemption of man was inseparable from the total transformation of the natural world and that external nature was “the body of a fallen man.” That is why he denied nature its independent existence. Gibran, on the other hand, accepted the existence of an autonomous nature, but he argued that it lacked a certain consciousness. According to him, the imagination could and must redeem nature by bestowing upon her this redemptive consciousness.
As for human redemption, Gibran believed that it could happen without the total transformation of nature. In Walden, Thoreau wrote, “Nature is hard to overcome, but she must be overcome.” The Romantics were always looking for a nature that expanded beyond the exploration of science and literature. They always found an insufficiency in real nature compared to the one that they could imagine in their visions. Gibran’s imagination remained more important than nature because it had to “lift the veil of matter” first so that his vision could penetrate into the heart of nature and reveal her secrets.
He always realized that imagination was his guide through the agency of nature. From Blake, Gibran learned that imagination was the only creator, and from Emerson he learned that the “visible revealed the invisible.” It is true that Gibran found both nature and the self to be sources of true life and happiness. However, in this particular aspect, one of them had to dominate the other. The poet was sometimes successful in establishing harmony between man and nature, but on many occasions, the self emerged as the superior power outlasting nature and transforming her into a mirror that reflected the self’s own inner images.
That nature is the body of God was a basic Blakean concept which Gibran accepted at an early date, but nowhere in his writings did Gibran mention that nature was fallen or that it was the body of a fallen God. Throughout his career, it is evident that Gibran was seeking God and not nature, but it is also true that he was doing that through nature. The idea of God occupied Gibran’s mind until the end of his life, and at various times, he seemed to have developed different yet related beliefs. It remains difficult to determine Gibran’s firm position concerning the relationship between God-Man-Nature. The only way to comprehend Gibran’s fluctuating position towards this relationship is to understand that although he wanted to believe in a perfect God, he could not accept the idea of perfection in its conventional terms.
If perfection meant a continuous process of a growing consciousness, then God is constantly growing and this was what Gibran wanted to see, but if it meant stillness and repose, then he rejected it and considered it a dead-end. That is one reason why he even disagreed with Tagore, the great Indian mystic who, like “all Sophists dwell on the perfection of God.” Gibran argued that “perfection is a limitation” and that “God is ever-growing.” After the publication of The Prophet, Gibran passed through a stage in which perhaps for the first time in his career the duality between himself and the world was no more. There appeared to be a complete harmony, a perfect oneness, a unity which he always longed for but was never able to enjoy.
Another concept that Gibran did not share with Blake but which he embraced very early in his career was that of reincarnation. According to Gibran, the evolution of the self through reincarnation was the only way to the realization of the Greater Self, a concept which he read in Whitman and in Emerson’s “The Over-Soul.” Neither the Moslem Mystics nor Blake believed in reincarnation. Therefore, I agree with Professor Hawi that Gibran must have learned this either “directly from Hinduism or Buddhism or indirectly from Emerson.” It is my belief that Gibran also interpreted certain verses of the Qur’an and of the Bible to have spoken about reincarnation. Furthermore, he could have also been introduced to this belief through the Druze in Lebanon. Mary Haskell was under the impression that Gibran thought of himself as another Blake, and she herself offered a simple theory of reincarnation by stating that, “Blake died in 1827 and Rosetti was born in 1828; Rosetti died in 1882 and Gibran was born in 1883.”
Gibran owed more to the Bible and to Blake than to any other poet or philosopher, and Blake’s influence on him was the most enduring. In his book, Prophet: The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran, Waterfield totally ignored this fundamental premise, consequently making his study on Gibran incomplete and his list of influences certainly lacking.
During a certain period of his career, Gibran fell under the “spell” of Nietzsche. This was a period of disillusionment and frustration that ended with The Prophet. At that time, the young Gibran was experiencing personal and social difficulties and his country was yielding under the heavy yoke of the Ottoman Empire. There was a conflict between his imagination and his will, as Naimy said, and there was a fierce battle between his ego and society. Gibran was fascinated with Nietzsche, but when that gloomy phase of his career ended, the influence of the German philosopher ended with it. Besides a temporary need for power, the author of Zarathustra had nothing to offer Gibran. They disagreed on almost every major and minor concept. The author of The Prophet went back to where he had started from, namely with William Blake.
Gibran’s criticism of society and state, his rebellion against the authority of both the Prince and the priest should be traced back to Blake’s writings. Also, his understanding of God and the Bible betray a strong Blakean influence. Gibran did not rebel against the Church because of Nietzsche, nor did his concept of Christianity or of Jesus parallel that of The Antichrist. His faith in and love of Jesus, like that of Blake, was firm and everlasting. Nietzsche, on the other hand, blamed Christianity and the social institutions for the “dehumanization” of the individual and the occurrence of “slave morality.” He preached strength, force, and self-assertion to the point of brutality. In Zarathustra, written in the middle of a period of profound despair and disillusionment, “Nietzsche’s hero-worship reaches its highest ecstasy and finds its final satisfaction in a self-created hero.” Also in Zarathustra, he delivered the first shock against Christianity’s Eternal God by declaring Him dead and proclaiming the Superman, and in The Antichrist, he condemned Christianity and waged an endless war against it. Nietzsche condemned the church as an institution, and he raged against the priests and against the Church’s promise of redemption through pity.
Nietzsche’s new Superman, a term derived from Goethe’s Faust was “a law unto himself.” He was strong, independent and imposed his will upon the masses. Nietzsche believed that Christianity did not have any contact with reality at any point, that it was a “holy lie,” and that its Christ died as a “political criminal” not as a redeemer. Nietzsche further believed that Christ’s morality was fit to be lived only by Christ himself. Jesus remained “the only Christian who ever lived,” but he was crucified by man, and Nietzsche believed that the Christians were making a weird comedy of their professed faith. Ultimately, Nietzsche regarded himself as an “atheist by instinct.”
Although Blake preceded Nietzsche by almost a century, he anticipated the revolt of the German philosopher without denouncing his faith in Jesus. Historically speaking, Blake’s account of the Bible remained the more accurate. He maintained that “good comes not through revolution but through revelation.
“Both Gibran and Blake insisted that to be outside the church does not involve being outside the sphere of redemption. Neither one of them was a church-goer. “I admit,” one of Blake’s contemporary acquaintances wrote in 1828, “he did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine Worship.” Similarly, there is no evidence that Gibran went to pray in a church in Boston or in New York City, where he lived most of his life. Although in Boston, Our Lady of the Cedars was a block away from his house, he “never attended its incense services.” Before his death, he neither confessed nor accepted communion. He “cared little for all rituals.” As for Zarathustra Gibran thought that Nietzsche was wordy and extravagant and that in its totality the book lacked a certain structural balance. Gibran argued that “the concept of Superman was not new with Nietzsche. Christ was Superman.
“Gibran also stressed that “Jesus was the most powerful personality in history.” He also disagreed with Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence. Gibran called Blake “the God-man” and “his vision… the most godly” while concerning Nietzsche he said, “Nietzsche’s form always was soothing to me. But I thought his philosophy was terrible and all wrong.” I agree with Hawi’s observation that the differences between “Gibran and Nietzsche were wide indeed” because “Nietzsche’s world is godless, and Gibran’s is God-filled.” Gibran’s philosophy, like that of Blake’s, gives all men the hope of resurrection, the tranquillity of infinite peace and the promise of ultimate redemption. Both men were indeed poets of faith and prophetic vision.
* George Nicolas El-Hage, “William Blake and Kahlil Gibran: Poets of Prophetic Vision” (Binghamton: State University of New York at Binghamton, 1980). This paper is a condensed summary of this dissertation. All quotes in this paper are originally from the dissertation. The dissertation was published in a book form by Notre Dame University Press, Louaize, Lebanon in 2002.
Pingback: The Prophet (book) – Acordo Coletivo – EN – Global Agreement