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The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran

Robin Waterfield

ARJ2 Chapter: Spiritual Science
Published by St. Martin's Press/NY in 1998
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2012


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What constitutes a literary heavyweight? The thought was raised in my mind by Robin Waterfield who deigns in this biography to call Kahlil Gibran a "literary lightweight" by presupposition in his Preface.

[page xiii] Gibran's life also presents peculiar problems of interpretation, which turn the biographer, beyond being a writer, into a detective. On the one hand, since he was generally considered a literary lightweight . . .

Since he provides no scholarly references to support this statement, one wonders if Waterfield might also fit the condescending epithet he hurls at Gibran. For myself, I have never read Gibran for literary content and have never been disappointed by anything he wrote, so I cannot fathom why Waterfield would even broach the subject of literary merit. One clue I found was this: there was scant evidence of the use of clichés by Gibran in his writing, while there are ample examples of clichés utilized by Waterfield, as in this next passage:

[page xv] This book is not meant to be an exposé of certain more or less titillating aspects of Gibran's life. There is a deplorable side to many modern biographies: they revel in their subject's feet of clay. There may be skeletons in his cupboard — but whose cupboard is bare?

Clichés aside, note carefully what Waterfield says he is decrying: "exposés of titillating aspects". Whatever one protests is usually what one is doing out of one's own awareness. Most of this biography is filled with soap-opera fodder: what he said, what she said, and what someone else said about what they said. A little more titillation would have at least broken the tedium between the commercial breaks of his soap opera drama.

Waterfield shows early on that he is uncomfortable with Gibran's multifaceted personality and life, striving ever in his biography to produce a coherent portrait of Gibran and faulting him ever and again for his lack of consistency. The author tries to construct a coherent body of thought about a man who had no such coherency to his thought and faulted the man for that lack, something which could be justified, except that the fault-finding fills so much of the book which could else be devoted to the spiritual underpinnings of Gibran's work, if the author had glimpsed their importance directly. Instead he gives sketchy reports of others' praise for Gibran's mystical side, usually with some qualification to dilute the praise, as we shall see.

While reading on page xvi of the Preface of this book, I encountered a sentence which resonated with me: ". . . he was a poet rather than a philosopher, which is to say that he had little or no desire to construct a coherent body of thought." It prompted me to write:

Ah, to be a poet rather than a philosopher! To enjoy the incoherencies of life, instead of pretending, via words, to be able to explain them all away.

Gibran, like Emerson, understood that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by philosophers and divines." And by divines, Emerson meant churched people, not spiritual people. Gibran clearly showed he respected Christ Jesus, while having little respect for churched people.

Any reader of the first paragraph of this book may be forgiven if they are blasted by the land mine which Waterfield has planted at the end of the paragraph. Without setting the stage of where the event is taking place, he writes, " . . . the whole trip had started on a few hired mules, which had carried him and his family from his home village of Bsharri down to the town of Beirut, 5,000 miles to the east." It is clearly impossible that Bsharri could be 5,000 miles west of Beirut and still be in Lebanon, much less that such a journey could have taken place on mules! But one has to wait till deep in the next paragraph to figure out for oneself that the 5,000 miles referred to the distance between Bsharri and New York City. Quite a speed bump for an opening paragraph.

Turns out Bsharri is high in the mountains, forty air miles from Beirut (as author informs us finally on page 56 writing "as the crow flies"), in the white mountains which gave Lebanon its name, from the Semitic word lubnan for white (Page 13).

Here's an example of the author's blatant and consistent fault-finding, typical of what he does most every time someone praises Gibran's work. Josephine Peabody shares her admiration of Gibran's sketches.

[page 57] Josephine's comment was: 'You have eyes to see and ears to hear. After you have pointed out the beautiful inwardness of things, other people less fortunate may be able to see too, and to be cheered on by that vision.'

Her "comment" was the type of comment I had wished to see written often by Waterfield, but which seldom came. What he wrote instead were some gratuitous derogatory remarks. In the sentence following the above comment, the author minimizes Josephine's comment and emphasizes Gibran's ego, neither of which is justified, in my opinion, as a criticism of her comment; instead it seems to be another blatant projection of the author's own foibles. Josephine was not entitled, he seems to be saying, to a valid opinion, only to her sincere belief. Opinions can be valid, but beliefs can be mistaken is one of the many presuppositions the author uses to skewer Josephine's praise while simultaneously blasting Gibran as an overweening ego-maniac(1). Of course, I may be mistaken about Waterfield's intent, having only his written words as my guide. Read what he wrote for yourself.

[page 57 continued from above passage] This undoubtedly represented her sincere belief, but it can only have fed Gibran's ego.

The author of this book reveals a curiously negative attitude again and again, and not for a gain. Josephine continues in her letter of December 12, 1898:

[page 57 continued from above passage] 'You know what Maeterlinck says of silence in The Treasure of the Humble. Well, I think you listen to silences: and I hope that you will come back some day and tell us what you have heard.' She ends by inviting him to write back to her.

Josephine is acting as Gibran's muse, encouraging his precocious talents and ignoring his tender age, something which the author criticizes instead of praising her for. One may be spiritually insightful, even though unschooled as a literary heavyweight, isn't that so? Josephine was already a published poet and instead of crediting her good sense in furthering Gibran's career and ambitions, the author attacks her, calling her cruel, and launches another by-the-way attack on Gibran's ego. What does a young artist of fourteen like Gibran in 1898 need more than a boost to his ego and ambitions from a seasoned artist who treats him as an equal? This one letter may have tipped the balance in Gibran's choice of a career, and nowhere does the author of this so-called biography acknowledge that as a possibility.

[page 57, 58 continued from above passage] Throughout their relationship, Josephine is incredibly naïve. She surely can have had no idea that the teenager she was writing to was already half-infatuated with her; otherwise it would have been cruel teasing to tell him how she kept his picture of her close by her side and expected great things of him. What is more, she was a published poet, and she treated Gibran as a fellow artist. . . . What a boost to his ego and to his ambitions, this letter must have been!

The author seems to attack Gibran for his daring to suggest that all man-made laws are tyrannical, saying, "So in these early works of Gibran the oppression of peasants in Lebanon is generalized until all man-made laws are seen as tyrannical." (Page 67) If Gibran arrived at this insight by generalization, perhaps with the help of Nietzsche, he is to be commended not derided. Rightly understood, man-made laws necessarily lead to coercion which is a necessary step to tyranny. This is a scientific fact, not a mere generalization, as proven by Andrew Joseph Galambos, Ph. D., in his Volitional Science(2).

Given his slant on Gibran's life and work, I was not surprised to see the author quote Gibran's saying "he was fed up with being Boston high society's performing monkey". (Page 92) The author, whichever London high society he may be from, seems to devote this biography to portraying Gibran as a pretentious performing monkey rather than an honest seeker of spiritual realities.

After Gibran acknowledged Josephine for her inspirational role in his life, the author can only call his sincere thanks unusual and immediately take a potshot at his relationship with Mary Haskell. As we uncouth Americans might say, "Go figure."

[page 94] . . . Gibran's acknowledgement (sic) of her influence is a touching and unusual piece of modesty, very different in tone from the prophetic arrogance that would characterize a great deal of his relationship with Mary Haskell.

Here's a bit of the soap-opera fluff, this time about Gertrude Barrie, which the author insists on peppering this biography with, striving to shoot down Gibran's "high-flown pieces" because he had an affair with Gertrude. "Big deal."

[page 102, italics added] The affair was not without its cost, however: while writing high-flown pieces on the value of spiritual love, he was engaged in an earthly affair. It increased the tension between the myth and the man. The persona Gibran was beginning to present to the world at large was that of a delicate, otherworldly figure, not the type to conduct such an affair. And indeed the public was taken in: his secret affair with Gertrude was not disclosed for some seventy years.

So, the author thinks Gibran was not "the type to conduct such an affair" — how quaint a concept. What type does it take to conduct such an affair while creating wonderful spiritual texts and drawings as Gibran did, his book The Prophet selling over ten million copies as of 2012, about ninety years later(3). Certainly his affair did not make a dent in the popularity and acceptance of his spiritual writing, any more than did Picasso's affairs reduce the price of his paintings(4). Clearly Gibran did not have a lot of affairs and the two women closest to him, Josephine and Mary, were not sexual objects at all.

[page 108] Gibran idealized Josephine Peabody, and never slept with her. He never consummated his affair with Mary Haskell either. These are the two women who were most important to him — who inspired him in his work.

Whatever type Gibran was, he was not the lascivious type, sleeping with any available woman. Gibran idealized every woman, even the models who posed for him, which caused him a problem in the atelier of Jean-Paul Laurens, as Gibran complained to Mary Haskell.

[page 114] But already by early November a sour note has crept in: he complains that his teachers tell him off for making the model more beautiful than she really is, whereas he thinks he has never captured her essential beauty.

If Josephine Peabody was instrumental in inspiring Gibran to bring his art and writing to fruition, it was Mary Haskell who was instrumental in bringing Gibran's works to the attention of the public.

[page 131] This was an important moment: without New York, Gibran would never have come to the attention of the wider world, and his move to New York would have been impossible without Mary. Therefore, Gibran — and any of his readers who appreciate his work — are utterly indebted to Mary Haskell.

This seems to me a bit of big city hyperbole — the idea that real ideas and good writing will never get to the public if they are not written in New York City or London. Yes, it may take longer, but work as beautiful and insightful as Gibran's would have found its way to the hearts of the majority of the people who still buy his books, most of whom live outside of big cities. His very ideas are anathema to the hustle-bustle culture of metropolitan areas anyway.

This book offered me one laugh-out-loud moment when the author explained Don Marquis' Hermione episodes.

[page 135] Hermione and her group use a lot of muddled Freudian terminology; they are opposed to materialism, and non-artistic people are called 'Earth People'. They are pacifists, and in favour (sic) of Russia because it is so soulful; they read Nietzsche, the Bhagavad Gita and some appalling free verse written by Fothergil Finch. Hermione herself frequently gets confused between the Exotic, the Erotic, and the Esoteric, though she somehow feels they are all important. The Best People, she is sure, have astral bodies, and she attempts to read auras and discern the sensitivity of plants. They cover each of these and numerous other topics — sex education, Bergson, evolution and so on — in an evening, and yet decry superficiality.

Hmmm, isn't it interesting that the very people who display superficiality would decry it? Seems like people who do X out of their awareness, spend a lot of time deriding other people who do X. If a writer does a lot of X, and they are writing a biography, they will spend a lot of time writing about X, will they not? Why? Because they understand it so well. I call this process the Mirror Whammy, because when the truth of it first hit me, I was completely paralyzed with amazement. Let's see how this might work for the author vis-à-vis Gibran.

Recall what Waterfield wrote early on about Gibran: ". . . he was a poet rather than a philosopher, which is to say that he had little or no desire to construct a coherent body of thought." In the passage below he compares Gibran to the philosopher Kant and then calls Gibran a "moralizing preacher". Doing so displays the same kind of incoherence of thought Waterfield decries in Gibran, does it not?

[page 148] We don't expect most categories of writer to live the philosophy or implicit philosophy they promulgate in their books: a thriller writer with a string of macho heroes may be a wimp, for all we care. Things start to get more difficult, however, with philosophers: it is disappointing to find Immanuel Kant arguing for the sanctity and dignity of human life, and yet in his private life supporting the death penalty. The border has definitely been crossed in the case of moralizing preachers such as Gibran.

More examples of the Mirror Whammy at work:

[page 148] Gibran wrote as if he knew more than others, and certainly presented himself to others as just such a gifted person, even a messiah of some kind. There is indeed, in my opinion, considerable value in his work — and yet it cannot be said that he had risen above the very flaws he counsels others to avoid.

Below it shows in Waterfield's misunderstanding of the essence of spiritual work when he claims that "actual experience is essential in spiritual work".

[page 148, italics added] He even undervalues the importance of personal experience: 'I don't depend on experience for understanding, as you know. . . I can get the life of an experience without actually going through it.' This, to me, explains the hit-and-miss nature of his insights: sometimes he is spot on, sometimes he is too vague. Actual experience is essential in spiritual work of all kinds, because without it speculation is just guesswork.

First, I do not see the difference between actual experience and just experience; probably it's a London thing. Second, it seems to me that while Gibran was developing spiritual insights, he was undergoing an experience in spiritual work. Third, spiritual work is difficult to share with others, sometimes they get it, sometimes they don't. Fourth, to those who haven't had the same spiritual experience, any description of it will seem to be speculation and guesswork. As I see the above passage, Gibran was not undervaluing the importance of personal experience, rather he was describing his own process of personal experience.

Gibran did his best to please himself with his work, continuing his work often in the presence of rejection, and certainly he hurt Mary Haskell and others in his life, all of which argues against a narcissistic personality, in my opinion. But Waterfield focuses on Gibran's narcissism, calling it pathological. (Page 148)

[page 149] Such a person wants to please people, not to hurt them, and to be appreciated by them. Anyone who shows signs of not appreciating a narcissistic person is rejected, often harshly. Narcissistic people feel vulnerable, and are easily slighted. In consequence, then, they are invariably charming, since they do their best to please people. They are hungry for the acknowledgement (sic) from others which feeds their sense of being special.   . . .    A feeling of high personal value may result from an identification with the prestige inherent in a collective role.

Like the feeling a high personal value resulting from writing a biography of Kahlil Gibran might give Waterfield, perhaps? I will focus the remainder of my review on insights Waterfield gives us on Kahlil Gibran, which was my primary purpose for reading this book.

Here he discusses the close connection between Kahlil Gibran and Mary Haskell which continued after she married.

[page 159] Moreover, in the early years of their relationship she was a constant presence in his mind, advising him, helping him, inspiring his work, even when she was not actually there in person. Gibran claimed that they were in constant telepathic communication. When they were together, they drew thoughts and ideas out of each other's minds. She also performed the incredibly useful service of improving his English, and in later years this role developed until she was effectively his English-language editor. He would not submit books until they had been checked by her, and when they met he would often dictate to her, or they would copy pieces out together. She used to carry his work back home with her to check, and send him her comments by post if she was not due to make a visit in person. Even after her marriage to Florance Minis, she continued to edit his work — but behind Florance's back, because he disapproved of her relationship with Gibran.

What I didn't find in this book(5) were any quotes between Kahlil and Mary which came close to being as touching as those which my wife and I used in our marriage ceremony 35 years ago. These quotes were selected by Susan Politz and published in a small booklet called, "I Care About Your Happiness" (Blue Mountain Arts 1975) consisting solely of short quotations from the love letters of Kahlil and Mary. Somehow Waterfield seemed to lose sight of the love in the soap drama he spent so much writing space on. One would hardly know the depth of affection of these two by reading this biography, but the following passages will help define their love.

[Words of Kahlil Gibran from Mary Haskell's Journal May 12, 1922]
That deepest thing, that recognition, that knowledge, that sense of kinship began the first time I saw you, and it is the same now — only a thousand times deeper and tenderer. I shall love you to eternity. I loved you long before we met in this flesh. I knew that when I first saw you. It was destiny. We are together like this and nothing can shake us apart.

[Words of Kahlil Gibran from Mary Haskell's Journal, October 22, 1912]
The most wonderful thing is that we are always walking together, hand in hand, in a strangely beautiful world, unknown to other people. We both stretch one hand to receive from Life — and Life is generous indeed.

[Words of Mary Haskell from her journal September 10, 1920]
When two people meet, they ought to be like two water lilies opening side by side, each showing its golden heart, not closed up tight, and reflecting the pond, the trees, and the sky. And there is too much of the closed heart. When I come to you, we talk for four or six hours. If I'm going to take six hours of your time, I ought to unfold for you, and to be sure that it is myself I give.

[Words of Kahlil Gibran from Mary Haskell's journal May 27, 1923]
Marriage doesn't give one any rights in another person except such rights as that person gives — nor any freedom except the freedom which that person gives.

[Words of Kahlil Gibran from Mary Haskell's journal May 26, 1923]
Among intelligent people the surest basis for marriage is friendship — the sharing of real interests — the ability to fight out ideas together and understand each other's thoughts and dreams.

Here's what the readers of this biography get instead, just one example, but it's typical of the author's approach, a focus on a power struggle in which Gibran comes out looking like he's a selfish prick.

[page 160] One way or another, then, there was plenty for Gibran in his relationship with Mary Haskell. In keeping with the fact that the power dynamics were imbalanced in his favour (sic), there was rather more in it, in material and psychological terms, for Kahlil than for Mary. We know that he was selfish and manipulative; we can guess that he was insecure. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that he knew he was on to a good thing, and made sure that it remained in place.

In the passage below explaining Gibran’s understanding of how God evolves, the author seems to get lost, but gives it his best effort. Waterfield seems to get all his information from what he reads about the issue of evolution, and while Gibran may understand what he writes about, this biographer is unable to explain what only Gibran knows. There are spiritual hierarchies of which the tenth hierarchy is humankind; all of these hierarchies evolve, with humans eventually evolving to the spiritual level currently occupied by what we call angels. When one adopts the current fad to ignore spiritual hierarchies, one can become tongue-tied and mind-boggled when saying such things as "God evolves" and "God himself moves to further inconceivable levels" when it is only the spiritual hierarchies which evolve and the nominalization "God" is simply a shorthand for saying "all the spiritual hierarchies".

[page 192] The ultimate desirer, as in Sufism, is God. God wants the Earth to become like him, and so the Earth — and we creatures of the Earth — grow towards God by the power of that desire.
      This means that God too evolves. We will never achieve God-consciousness, because by the time we get to what is now God-consciousness, God himself will have moved onto further inconceivable levels.

As for Waterfield’s next passage, we have no terrifying responsibility for God, only for ourselves, each one of us, rightly understood. What we do in this lifetime, in each and every lifetime on Earth, can further our progress and speed us on our way to evolving to the next spiritual level. Lucky for the world that Gibran did not attempt to get into the geopolitical environmental concerns that Waterfield suggests below he should have had.

[page 192] The idea that God uses us humans as his means of development is extraordinary. It gives us a certain terrifying responsibility for God. Gibran could have used this to develop a whole ethics, in the sense that God's future development requires us to behave in certain ways (such as an environmental concern for the Earth), but there is no sign that he did so. However, he does grasp the nettle firmly in one respect: the implication of an evolving God is that God is not perfect, and Gibran is very firm about this. He describes perfection as a limitation, and therefore as something alien to God.

My supposition is that Kahlil Gibran understood the spiritual hierarchies — how they evolved — and used his knowledge to say that these hierarchies are always evolving, therefore the one word we use to refer to the sum of these hierarchies, God, cannot be perfect. Why not? Because the abstract-logical construct perfection is meaningless when talking about the spiritual hierarchies which are constantly evolving living realities, not abstract logical constructs. On page 194, Gibran is reported to have said, "The idea that God evolves is going to change human thinking. . ." which is a useful way of thinking if one understands God as comprising all the spiritual hierarchies. It is a great way to begin to understand how the evolution of the human being and the evolution of our cosmos goes together in complete synchrony, the microcosm and the macrocosm in locked step. This is the truth which is resonating with those people called New Agers who are getting the message at a deeper level than their ability to express it consciously, up until now.

Gibran clearly stated that he wished for the reader to read his words and to let them resonate within, unimpeded and unaided by another's interpretation, but that doesn't stop Waterfield from raining on Gibran's parade field of text as in this next passage. For myself, I prefer the un-interpreted version as they are more meaningful and fill me with unanswered questions which are the seeds of spiritual growth. Read for yourself and you decide which you prefer: Gibran's original metaphor or Waterfield's excavated phrase of Mary Haskell's which may not have been meant as an interpretation of Gibran's metaphor, so far as we are told, but only an attribution designed in Waterfield's mind(6).

[page 230] 'There lies a green field between the scholar and the poet; should the scholar cross it, he becomes a wise man; should the poet cross it, he becomes a prophet.' Like much of Sand and Foam, this is rather opaque, but a saying quoted in Mary's journals illuminates it: ' The difference between a prophet and a poet is that the prophet lives what he teaches, and the poet does not.'

Instead of understanding the deep meaning of Gibran when he has the Prophet say, "I only speak to you in words of that which you yourselves know in thought. And what is word knowledge but a shadow of wordless knowledge", Waterfield accuses Gibran of echoing Shelley's claim that "the poet can articulate the platonic realms which the rest of us perceive only dimly". For someone for whom word knowledge is his métier, as Waterfield portrays himself, a poet may indeed "articulate platonic realms" but to a poet steeped in spiritual realities like Gibran, the world we know in thought is not perceived only dimly, but instead in full living reality, whereas word knowledge gives us flattened abstract logical constructs which are but dead tenebrous shadows. (quotes from Page 230)

This is not easy to describe or understand, but the above paragraph speaks to a difference between what Gibran said and what Shelley said, which Waterfield had apparently not comprehended during the writing of this biography and this difference led, I suspect, to much of his faulting of Gibran's writing.

All of which leads us up to another great metaphor by Gibran which Waterfield relates to us, calling it unusual, perhaps indicating his own lack of understanding of its meaning.

[page 230] With an unusual choice of metaphor he once told Mary that the difference between an ordinary poet, a great poet, and a very great poet is that the first coming into a room full of ashes, would mould (sic) them into form, while the second would bring ashes from other rooms to contribute to the form he makes, but the third would dig beneath the ashes to find the fire which had caused the ashes in the first place, so that his images would be burning with the underlying fire.

When we read Gibran's Prophet, if our hearts are not warmed by it, if we are not singed by the fire burning there, we have misread and misused a great work. Truly one needs asbestos gloves to handle much of Gibran's writings. Only someone whose heart was not set ablaze by Emerson's words could write the following words using the adjective common, "Echoing Emerson's claim that the poet has access to something common and universal, Gibran has the Prophet say, 'I teach you your larger self, which contains all men'." (Page 230) Surely the poet has access to something extraordinary and universal, not common and universal, because common and universal have the same meaning, unless one is trying to tar both Emerson and Gibran with one presuppositious brush stroke. If Gibran wrote of something common, it's hard to explain the over ten million uncommon people who have bought a copy of The Prophet by now.

To my mind, readers of Gibran do indeed perceive the deep realities he points us to, realities which transcend word knowledge, and this is what has allowed his Prophet to speak to the hearts of millions of deep feelers and thinkers in the past nine decades. The words he uses, rightly understood, are only the vehicle which transports his meaning to our hearts(7). There is much more carried by words than can be found in their dictionary meanings, and, absent this understanding, exegetes of Gibran's work are digging in barren soil, up until now. Truly Gibran speaks to our hearts on the wings of love.


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. One of the tricks of using presuppositions I learned from Bandler & Grinder's Structure of Magic was that doubling-up on presuppositions makes them harder to ignore and refute. Waterfield is a master at this.

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Footnote 2. The tenets of Volitional Science are best laid out in Galambos' book, Sic Itur Ad Astra, which shows that the only way Man can reach the stars is to build freedom from the ground up so that coercion will become unnecessary and quickly quashed if any attempt at coercion dare arise.

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Footnote 3. My fiftieth anniversary slip-case copy of The Prophet was given to me on my thirtieth birthday with the inscription, "Our love will last until the stars grow cold" and makes me think now that The Prophet will last that long as well.

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Footnote 4. The Telegraph writes, "Of the seven most important women in Picasso's life, two killed themselves and two went mad." None of this soap-opera drama affected Picasso's legacy of art, and neither should it affect Gibran's legacy.

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Footnote 5. Waterfield also missed one book I have on my library shelf, Mirrors of the Soul (not in his book list on pages 294, 295 in Notes), which contains the original quote upon which President John F. Kennedy's famous imperative in his Inauguration Speech was based, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." See Here.

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Footnote 6. The September 30, 1992 entry of Mary Haskell's journal does not mention the metaphor at all, but rather she writes on about Michelangelo and Leonardo.

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Footnote 7. My poem, On the Wings of Words, sings of this theme, this process of transporting meaning, where words are only the vehicle, not the meaning carried by the words. The words we speak through our mouths are like a carrier wave of the feelings in our soul which are there independent of the meanings of the words we express (From Hazrat Inayat Khan review here.).

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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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