The Power of Positive Prophecy (1960)
This article appeared in the Winter 1960 issue of GSE (The Graduate Student of English). GSE came out quarterly for three years at the University of Minnesota, was subsidized by its editors, and normally ran to at least 15,000 words an issue, which is to say, a good solid length. It was typed professionally on multilith plates and run off from those by a Minneapolis printer.
This was her first article and for a long time her only one.
There are few books that have had sixty-five printings within thirty-five years and fewer yet that have actually been read and taken as serious literature by a significant proportion of American college students (mostly young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five). However, for what it is worth, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, without public fame or notoriety, has obtained both these distinctions. It is one of those books that passes quietly from room to room in the girls dormitory (although many young men read it too) with unconditional approval and even devotion. And one can be certain that many an anthology of English poetry has been lightly put aside (as my own has) while the reader delved into the apparent “wisdom” and “beauty” of these ninety-six pages.
I assume it is of interest and use to teachers of English literature to know more about this kind of reading that their students assimilate in a serious fashion, through their own choosing, and that it is also helpful to know more about the psychology of these students who are likely to show up unprepared to their literature classes because on the night before they have preferred reading Gibran to the “O.K.” writers foisted upon them by their instructors.
It is my purpose here then to describe, if possible, the attractions that this superficial little book has for its particular group of consumers and to make some suggestions about how an English instructor might give it some serious attention in his class, for it does seem to fill a need that just doesn’t get reached in the writing which is always chosen for class discussion.
Actually, it is a hopeful sign when such a book is taken seriously by the students, because it indicates at least a natural curiosity about life and poetry which is often underestimated and squelched by the “high-brow” faculty who would, I am almost certain, regard The Prophet as untouchable.
The Prophet is, in my opinion, almost perfectly geared to the dramatically changing personalities of young women who (as is the case more in America than in Europe) have become aware of life and relationships through already formed ideas and popular concepts, but are almost completely without experience and consequently also without the inner self-awareness which is the maturing effect of experiential knowledge. In other words they know things in over-simplified theory only.
The psychology of this kind of quasi-cerebral coed is certainly not very easy to understand, and I am in no position of authority to describe it. However, I think that part of the inner confusion and near-violence which young women feel is due to the fact that suddenly they are called upon to respond to situations as women rather than girls. Their habitual “girl-responses” are no longer adequate, and they haven’t gradually built up an inner knowledge of womanly behavior. At this point almost any suggestion about “How to Live” sounds good to them because they have no alternative which comes as a product of personal necessity. Also they have grown up in this “land of unlimited possibilities,” and the one thing which they have been taught with any real conviction is that if they only work hard enough at it they can be anything they set their mind to.
In this actual state of unripe nothingness, they fancy themselves to be potentially everything. Everything, that is, that is “good”—sober, industrious, long-suffering, well-meaning, spiritual—those great puritan virtues. And The Prophet is just the book to guide these young people into a willed, though completely unrealistic, effort to attain these ends.
In my own case, at the time that The Prophet excited me as great writing, I was also reading Point Counter Point, a much too long story about disagreeable people, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, an interesting but horrifying tale about someone who was very different from me, and Fear and Trembling, which I didn’t understand. The Prophet, however, was short, gentle, poetic, and immediately usable in a personal way, and I remember distinctly feeling, “I would like to live in the manner prescribed in this book.”
And because life itself was so vague a force and unknown to me, I had no suspicions that it couldn’t be summed up in a few pages of large and readable print. (Which is exactly what Gibran attempts to do.) This book seemed to touch on everything about as explicitly as I had experienced it, but it did so with a peculiar moral authority which I didn’t possess. And needless to say this authority made me feel secure. What did Gibran do that Huxley and Joyce didn’t?
In the first place Gibran is a master of subliminal persuasion. For example, a few of his favorite loaded words are “truth,” “soul,” “temple,” “sanctuary,” “pain,” “dreams,” “crucify,” “nakedness,” “prayer,” “heart,” “baptism,” “tarry,” “spirit,” and what seems like a million “thees” and “thous.” His figures of speech (which are piled one on top of the other from the beginning to the end) are equally as, to use one of Auerbach’s phrases, “fraught with background.” He personifies the sea as mother, love as a mysterious “he,” and prayer as a fulfilling “she.” Conversely he compares people to trees, seeds, bows and arrows, temples, vineyards, sheaves of corn, lutes, harps, and “a breath in God’s sphere, and a leaf in God’s forest.” His phrasing and organization is greatly reminiscent of The Beatitudes, I Corinthians 13, Proverbs, The Song of Solomon, and The Psalms.
Is it any wonder that young women who no more than a generation or two ago would have been reading The Imitation of Christ find themselves unable to criticize and evaluate such writing? This Biblical language makes The Prophet appear not only very respectable but somehow sacred to them. And this in turn makes the ideas expressed in the book appear not only respectable, and sacred, but also very familiar... as the Bible is familiar.
All of these qualities recommend the book to a girl who is eager to satisfy her two strongest desires: one, to learn all about life; and two, to do so without having to take the responsibility (and also some social estrangement) of acting against Judaeo-Christian society. For she is no better equipped to go against social mores, or, to make it even worse, popular taste, than she is to criticize this book. And certainly, she feels, along with most of us, it would be very tragic indeed to make a mistake that could change one’s life. (That is why we have the Consumers’ Guide.)
Finally, the fact remains that terse criticism of anything so flattering as these metaphors and comparisons appears to be, is an activity alien to the unformed and therefore insecure personality which is desperately looking for an image of maturity and sensibility, an “understanding” father, and an undemanding ideal.
It is this unjudging and undemanding quality which is particularly attractive about The Prophet. Practically, it can be read with one eye and half one’s concentration (the other half can be lightly turned to knitting, bathing, or listening to one’s room-mate complaining about her instructors). But what is more serious is the way in which Gibran skims the cream off the top of several incompatible sources.
For The Prophet has neither a conventional nor a consistently unique line. It is not Christian, Humanist, Hedonist, Pantheist or what have you, but a sentimental confusion of the many. And the destructive result of all this confusion is a detached and undemanding brand of flying-carpet philosophy which treats people as mute and passive instruments through and around which some mysterious life forces flow—but from which they never originate. It requires so much effort from the reader to continually keep resisting the language and the tone of the book that soon one is actually worn down to this passive state which, while one is in it, feels like a great warm logos of being rather than the escape from action that it actually is.
This, it seems to me, is one aspect of the book on which some serious class study could focus.
However, as I said in the first part of this paper, The Prophet is private reading for most people, and introducing a coed’s private reading into an atmosphere so public as a literature class demands a good deal of tact on the part of the instructor. It is a bit like snooping into her diary. And a faithful disciple of Gibran may react to it in a number of ways.
In the first place, any young persons who becomes really attached to The Prophet probably has done so because she has experienced a great sense of discovery in it. This is partly due to the fact that she has become acquainted with it completely outside the portals of any academy. This sense of discovery we should all be familiar with by now and know to be a very personal feeling of elation which makes the personality feel at once both more individual and stronger. And, feeling a stronger person, our hypothetical disciple has that much more conviction to support her first judgment that the book is “good” and “right.”
So the instructor who might handle The Prophet will have to deal with emotional commitments already made to the book, and not merely acquired taste or enforced deference to poesy. By condemning the book ruthlessly (and the temptation is certainly there) an instructor could easily break down his timid students’ shaky confidence in themselves and their ability to judge and his more stubborn and more self-assured students’ confidence in him and his ability to judge.
Also, because The Prophet deals, among its many topics, with marriage, sex (although the word is never used), death, and children, in a very flamboyantly mystical and metaphorical manner, some embarrassment for the students and the instructor could arise when trying to elaborate and pin down just what a particular passage is supposed to mean. (One appealing aspect of the book is that it deals with basic human concepts without using basic human language. It all takes place completely above the clouds.)
It strikes me that the best starting point in approaching The Prophet in the classroom is the most obvious one. This is, that except for the author’s name and the printing dates no information whatever is given with the book as to its provenance, and the instructor might point out that a cover-up job, carried out with more than a little malice aforethought, has made the book appear much more classic and time-tested than it actually is.
It would also be good for the students to learn that Kahlil Gibran was a wealthy Lebanese exile who never married, never had any children, and who came to New York early in the 20th Century and there wrote The Prophet—in English. Under these circumstances isn’t the language a bit phony? He was a contemporary of Pound, Joyce and Eliot. Isn’t his disguise as a Middle Eastern essene a little too presumptuous—particularly when he has gone to such obvious lengths to keep us from finding out who and what he really was, and how his book relates to other books historically?
The next thing the instructor might do is to try to unravel the snarl of incompatible concepts of God in the book, or he might illustrate Gibran’s confused thinking by pointing out contradictory passages about esthetic and ethical living. And of course there is always the language, tone, and (as I mentioned earlier) a never-ending supply of mixed figures of speech.
Lastly, however, unless something in the same prophetic or messianic genre which is better literature is substituted for this book, the instructor has no business debunking it at all because, as I have already implied, it evokes a spontaneous and genuine respect to poetry and life from young adults. And denying them this is a good start in spoiling their chances to refine these naïve and crude responses.
The Bible will not suffice as a substitute for Gibran. But it is only a short distance from The Prophet to D.H. Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious and yet the distance is as far as it is from bad writing to brilliant writing, from cheap psychology to inspired philosophy, from propaganda to committed expression. What Gibran doesn’t do with language and ideas Lawrence does: namely, develop them organically so that they can satisfy both esthetic and moralistic ends. But again, it would take a tactful and mature instructor to teach the Fantasia informally . . . which is, of course, the way it should be taught.
I don’t intend to build a case here for Lawrencian philosophy or for a seminar in the birds and the bees, but rather for introducing serious and personally interesting subject-matter in the literature class. That is, subject-matter which pertains directly to the formative period of the students’ awareness.
Gibran was an innocuous mystic from Lebanon who had a lot of ephemeral and pretty-sounding ideas about going “in quest of the uttermost,” and yet, I’ll wager that his book plays a more prominent role in student lives than all the romantic poetry ever written. I assume this is because, in its own peculiar way, it appears to be privately instructive, and young students in spite of the odds against them, want very much to grow inward and downward as well as outward and upward.
Teaching “maturity” seems to be a kind of futile business and not at all the proper activity for the college professor. And yet if a few solid, common-sense values which can penetrate the personal sphere of a student’s life should happen to be the outcropping of the study of what some might consider “questionable” class material, who is to say it wouldn’t be worthwhile?
Carol L. Hoorn
 This information can be found in Barbara Young’s biography This Man from Lebanon (1945). Incidentally this book is an excellent illustration of the kind of uncritical feminine worship that Gibran evokes.