Madness and Solitude in Kahlil Gibran
Lebanese-born poet and artist Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) is familiar to readers for his evocative book The Prophet and successive works of poetry and art in his lyrical and reflective style. But Gibran's earliest influences demonstrate an overlooked depth to his creative powers: Nietzsche, Tagore, Jung, William Blake. Gibran's most original work delineates the sense of the "madman," the quality of personality and character that separates the individual from society. Indeed, Gibran's first book in English is titled The Madman. In subsequent works, Gibran portrays key figures -- from the sage Al-Mustafa of The Prophet to the rebellious protagonists "Yuhanna the Madman" and "Khalil the Heretic," within the context of this social definition of "madness."
The topic of madness, its etiology and nuances, is beyond the scope of this essay. While mental illness certainly exists, the history of medicine, in collusion with structures of power, reveals a complex web of unscientific uses for the paradox of illness versus conformity in defining madness.
The first example of madness in Western thought may be the character of Bellerophon in Homer's Iliad. The war hero had incurred the wrath of the gods, and ended his days as a solitary and a wanderer, "eating his heart out, shunning the beaten track of men."
The archaic figure represents melancholy and misfortune, "madness" as characterized by social separation but not a formal mental illness, especially not one which, according to Near Eastern narratives, is caused by a more systematic application of divine punishment or, further, demonic possession. Bellerophon is the object of intrigue, jealousy, hatred, and crime, himself culpable of murder but tormented and manipulated by authorities around him.
This is the seed for a rehabilitated sense of "madness." This original sense would contrast the individual in society, conforming to class, role, law, and behavior -- the normal -- with one who sees through hypocrisy, semblance, power, and judges others as ignorant, deceived, or treacherous -- the madman. The madman may come to his view having suffered a cruel fate or be simply too aware of the nature of things and too honest to ignore the truth and mask or dissemble his perception. The world classifies him as mad, but in fact he is the wise one.
Gibran grasps this very point of expression in his first published work in English, The Madman (1918). But, in fact, Gibran's earlier works, written in Arabic, clearly hint at the themes of The Madman, especially Kahlil the Heretic, a story in Spirits Rebellious (1908) published posthumously in The Wanderer (1932). Works of Gibran that mention madmen and hermits will be explored here.
The Madman: His Parable and Poems
The Madman consists of 34 short multi-paragraph sketches, vignettes, parables, and tales, many composed in a Nietzschean prophetic voice, others in the poetic insight of Blake and Tagore and the Eastern story-teller.
The opening passage of The Madman announces Gibran's grand theme. It is worthy of complete quotation:
You ask me how I became a madman. It happened thus: One day, long before many gods were born, I woke from a deep sleep and found all my masks were stolen -- the seven masks I have fashioned and worn in seven lives. I ran maskless through the crowded streets shouting, "Thieves, thieves, the cursed thieves."
Men and women laughed at me and some ran to their houses in fear of me.
And when I reached the market place, a youth standing on a house-top cried, "He is a madman." I looked up to behold him; the sun kissed my own naked face for the first time. For the first time the sun kissed my own naked face and my soul was inflamed with love for the sun, and I wanted my masks no more. And as if in a trance I cried, "Blessed, blessed are the thieves who stole my masks."
Thus I became a madman.
And I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us.
But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a Thief in a jail is safe from another thief.
The normal person wears masks in order to function in society, to maintain self-identity in a world that corrodes the self and redefines it for its collective purpose. To act without a mask, to think and speak and behave without this veil of illusion, without Maya interposed before one's eyes, is to be mad. To lose these masks, to be true to self and therefore true to nature and reality, is to be free. This freedom, taken against society, has its risk of loneliness and misunderstanding, but it safeguards intuition and self from the intolerant masses and their expectation of conformity, of mask-wearing.
Gibran then begins to explore the ramifications of masklessness, of madness. Before God, one can be neither slave, creature, nor child. One can only be equal to God, not in a frivolous egoistic sense but in terms of identify of being and substance, for to lose the contrived masks of society is to reveal the divine power in the universe and the self.
Among others, therefore, we inevitably become estranged and incompatible.
The "I" in me, my friend, dwells in the house of silence, and therein it shall remain for ever more, unperceived, unapproachable.
I would not have you believe in what I say nor trust in what I do -- for my words are naught but your own thoughts in sound and my deeds your own hopes in action.
When you say, "The wind blows eastward," I say, "Yes, it does blow eastward"; for I would not have you know that my mind does not dwell upon the wind but upon the sea.
You cannot understand my seafaring thoughts, nor would I have you understand. I would be at sea alone.
When it is day with you, my friend, it is night with me; yet even then I speak of the noontide that dances upon the hills and of the purple shadow that steals its way across the valley; for you cannot hear the songs of my darkness nor see my wings beating against the stars -- and I fain would not have you hear or see. I would be with night alone.
When you ascend to your Heaven I descend to my Hell -- even then you call to me across the unbridgeable gulf, "My companion, my comrade," and I call back to you, "My comrade, my companion" -- for I would not have you see my Hell. The flame would burn your eyesight and the smoke would crowd your nostrils. And I love my Hell too well to have you visit it. I would be in Hell alone.
You love Truth and Beauty and Righteousness; and I for your sake say it is well and seemly to love these things. But in my heart I laugh at your love. Yet I would not have you see my laughter. I would laugh alone.
My friend, you are good and cautious and wise; no, you are perfect -- and I, too, speak with you wisely and cautiously. And yet I am mad. But I mask my madness. I would be mad alone.
My friend, you are not my friend, but how shall I make you understand? My path is not your path, yet together we walk, hand in hand.
This is how the madman and the hermit must live, not in antagonism or controversy but alone and separate, in silence. Not donning a new mask, the poet instead demurs and disengages and lets other go their way, safeguarding his own path.
Gibran shows this process in "The Seven Selves," wherein the selves complain together about their assigned functions: the self that causes pain, the joyous self, the love-ridden self, the passion-filled tempestuous self, the fanciful self, etc. The seventh one, the do-nothing self, can only complain that the others are busy while he sits in "empty nowhere and nowhen." The other selves realize that they have a purpose. The seventh self is quietly reconciled, however, and stays up after the others sleep, "watching and gazing at nothingness, which is behind all things."
A similar device of multiple complainers appears in "The Pomegranate," again representing the multiple thoughts and chatter of society as well as the mind. Gibran shows that achieving an equilibrium and silence in the mind is a necessary prelude to wisdom. In "The Grave-digger," selves die and are buried.
Burying these burdensome selves or masks does not mean that we are free of social consequences, as the introduction of The Madman has shown. Gibran expresses this Nietzschean triumph of self-discovery, even in pain and sorrow, in the magnificent selection titled "Defeat":
Defeat, my Defeat, my solitude and my aloofness;
You are dearer to me than a thousand triumphs,
And sweeter to my heart than all world-glory.
Defeat, my Defeat, my self-knowledge and my defiance,
Through you I know that I am yet young and swift of foot
And not to be trapped by withering laurels.
And in you I have found aloneness
And the joy of being shunned and scorned.
Defeat, my Defeat, my shining sword and shield,
In your eyes I have read
That to be enthroned is to be enslaved,
And to be understood is to be leveled down,
And to be grasped is but to reach one's fullness
And like a ripe fruit to fall and be consumed.
Defeat, my Defeat, my bold companion,
You shall hear my songs and my cries and my silences,
And none but you shall speak to me of the beating of wings,
And urging of seas,
And of mountains that burn in the night,
And you alone shall climb my steep and rocky soul.
Defeat, my Defeat, my deathless courage,
You and I shall laugh together with the storm,
And together we shall dig graves for all that die in us,
And we shall stand in the sun with a will,
And we shall be dangerous.
Important in this selection is the notion that sorrow and pain will be encountered on the path, but that these defeats should instruct one on the nature of the world. Defeat informs the soul better than any teacher or instruction. Defeat brings the individual to confront the fullness of life and transmutes it for the self, making for a self that is stronger, more defiant, "dangerous."
"When My Sorrow Was Born" continues this theme. Sorrow is world-wisdom, insight, and experience, the converse of Love. The poet walks with Sorrow and dreams with Sorrow, his songs "deep as the sea and our melodies ... full of strange memories." Sorrow is kind, strong, elegant, sweet, and noble. But Sorrow died, like all living things, and left the poet alone. Now he goes unnoticed, not listened to, and pitied by others. But "When My Joy Was Born" loudly proclaims the poet's exultation in the marketplace. No one wanted to hear of the joy of another, and so Joy died of isolation.
And now I only remember my dead Joy in remembering my dead Sorrow. But memory is an autumn leaf that murmurs a while in the wind and then is heard no more.
"Madness" and Society
Gibran turns to how the individual functions in society. In "The Perfect World," the poet describes himself as a lost soul, "a human chaos, a nebula of confused elements." In contrast, he sees the world around him as complete and ordered, everything precisely measured, assigned, and accurate. Everything from eating, sleeping, working, playing, thinking, feeling, going about one's daily routines -- all is perfectly measured and prescribed.
But why should I be here, O God, I, a green seed of unfulfilled passion, a mad tempest that seeks neither east nor west, a bewildered fragment from a burnt planet? Why am I here, O god of lost souls, you who are lost among the gods?
Of course, the world is not perfect by any means once we look beneath the masks of daily life. Still, the perceptions of the outcast, the stranger, the madman, stand in stark contrast to that inner layer of people's motives: hypocrisy, greed, pride, sloth, ambition, vanity, conformity. These people do not really see anything wrong with the ways of the world. In "War," justice is literally so blind that it would punish all to make suffering equal. In "The Sleepwalkers," a mother and daughter speak their hatred of one another in their somnolence, but upon awakening greet one another in sweet tones. In "Two Hermits," the recalcitrant elder would destroy a shared earthen bowl rather than accept it as a gift. In "Ambition," a tavern-keeper's wife relishes a death that brings largesse from those who profit -- the shroud-weaver, the coffin-maker, the grave-digger. In "The Two Learned Men," a believer and an atheist argue in the market-place all day, at night finding themselves, absurdly, with reversed convictions.
The press for conformity absorbs society like nothing else. In "The Wise King," a witch poisons the city well with a draught that causes madness, and those who do not drink remain sane. The people rebel against the king and his chamberlain, who have not drunk the water, calling them mad. But when the latter do drink, the people rejoice because now their ruler and chamberlain have regained their reason.
And in the charming story "The Great Sea," Gibran artfully discloses the nature of each philosophy built upon by the personalities who salvage the world: the pessimist who throws salt into the sea, the optimist who throws sugar, the philanthropist who puts dead fish back into the sea, the mystic who traces his shadow on the sand even as the waves obliterate it, the idealist who scoops up sea-foam to carry away in a precious jar, the realist who listens by the shore to the sea-roar from a shell put to his ear, and the puritan whose head is buried in the sand. There is none who can be trusted, none to whom one can disclose any secret. The poet and his soul, witnessing these examples, "left that sea to seek the Greater Sea."
In "The Pomegranate," the narrator lives within this fruit but the many seeds begin jabbering their views of life and the universe until a cacophony is raised and the narrator happily goes to live in a quince, "where the seeds are few, and almost silent." The cacophony may be in our own heads from listening to others or from listening to ourselves. The society of others is as bad as the society of an undisciplined mind. There is no alternative but to seek silence.
The Madman does not exhaust Gibran's theme of madness as secret wisdom. In his next English work, The Forerunner (1920), the selection titled "God's Fool" presents the dreamer as a slumbering madman, one who does not understand the language and behavior of those in a city he visits, imagining them to be flattering him when they are deriding him. Such folly is not madness but stupidity, yet, again, how many in society go about unaware of what the world and others think of him?
"The King-Hermit" presents the contrast between power and simplicity revolving around awareness of what others think. It is not hyper-sensitivity but a revelation of values that tears away the mask of the king, who then becomes a hermit. The entire story is worth reading.
They told me that in a forest among the mountains lives a young man in solitude who once was a king of a vast country beyond the Two Rivers. And they also said that he, of his own will, had left his throne and the land of his glory and come to dwell in the wilderness.
And I said, "I would seek that man, and learn the secret of his heart; for he who renounces a kingdom must needs be greater than a kingdom."
On that very day I went to the forest where he dwells. And I found him sitting under a white cypress, and in his hand a reed as if it were a scepter. And I greeted him even as I would greet a king. And he turned to me and said gently, "What would you in this forest of serenity? Seek you a lost self in the green shadows, or is it a homecoming in your twilight?"
And I answered, "I sought but you -- for I fain would know that which made you leave a kingdom for a forest."
And he said, "Brief is my story, for sudden was the bursting of the bubble. It happened thus: one day as I sat at a window in my palace, my chamberlain and an envoy from a foreign land were walking in my garden. And as they approached my window, the lord chamberlain was speaking of himself and saying, 'I am like the king; I have a thirst for strong wine and a hunger for all games of chance. And like my lord the king I have storms of temper.' And the lord chamberlain and the envoy disappeared among the trees. But in a few minutes they returned, and this time the lord chamberlain was speaking of me, and he was saying, 'My lord the king is like myself—a good marksman; and like me he loves music and bathes thrice a day.'"
After a moment he added, "On the eve of that day I left my palace with but my garment, for I would no longer be ruler over those who assume my vices and attribute to me their virtues."
And I said, "This is indeed a wonder, and passing strange."
And he said, "Nay, my friend, you knocked at the gate of my silences and received but a trifle. For who would not leave a kingdom for a forest where the seasons sing and dance ceaselessly? Many are those who have given their kingdom for less than solitude and the sweet fellowship of aloneness. Countless are the eagles who descend from the upper air to live with moles that they may know the secrets of the earth. There are those who renounce the kingdom of dreams that they may not seem distant from the dreamless. And those who renounce the kingdom of nakedness and cover their souls that others may not be ashamed in beholding truth uncovered and beauty unveiled. And greater yet than all of these is he who renounces the kingdom of sorrow that he may not seem proud and vainglorious."
Then rising he leaned upon his reed and said, "Go now to the great city and sit at its gate and watch all those who enter into it and those who go out. And see that you find him who, though born a king, is without kingdom; and him who though ruled in flesh rules in spirit -- though neither he nor his subjects know this; and him also who but seems to rule yet is in truth slave of his own slaves."
After he had said these things he smiled on me, and there were a thousand dawns upon his lips. Then he turned and walked away into the heart of the forest.
And I returned to the city, and I sat at its gate to watch the passers-by even as he had told me. And from that day to this numberless are the kings whose shadows have passed over me and few are the subjects over whom my shadow passed.
Here is the pinnacle of power shown to be dependent on a cluster of opinions, vanities, and potential betrayals. Only the ideal sage-king of Lao-tzu or Plato's philosopher-king might hope, by self-knowledge and consequent inaction, to achieve what no worldly king could afford. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are a poignant testimony to the last step not taken. To aspire to power is itself a madness, but not as insight, rather as folly. And so the insight of the young king turned hermit would be viewed by the world as folly..
Gibran returns to the construction of the hermit's psychology in "Beyond My Solitude":
Beyond my solitude is another solitude, and to him who dwells therein my aloneness is a crowded market-place and my silence a confusion of sounds.
Too young am I and too restless to seek that above-solitude. The voices of yonder valley still hold my ears and its shadows bar my way and I cannot go.
Beyond these hills is a grove of enchantment and to him who dwells therein my peace is but a whirlwind and my enchantment an illusion.
Too young am I and too riotous to seek that sacred grove. The taste of blood is clinging in my mouth, and the bow and the arrows of my fathers yet linger in my hand and I cannot go.
Beyond this burdened self lives my freer self; and to him my dreams are a battle fought in twilight and my desires the rattling of bones.
Too young am I and too outraged to be my freer self.
And how shall I become my freer self unless I slay my burdened selves, or unless all men become free?
How shall the eagle in me soar against the sun until my fledglings leave the nest which I with my own beak have built for them?
A hierarch of solitudes? Unknown and unimagined by those clinging to the world, by those with the taste of blood clinging to their mouths. People experience loneliness and alienation and pull back from what it teaches about solitude, and therefore cannot progress from what seems to be without animation and adventure and the fullness of experience.
In Sand and Foam, A Book of Aphorisms (1926), are to be found the gist of Gibran's parables and tales distilled to brevity. Here is a selection:
It was but yesterday I thought myself a fragment quivering without rhythm in the sphere of life. Now I know that I am the sphere, and all life in rhythmic fragments moves within me.
Solitude is a silent storm that breaks down all our dead branches. Yet it sends our living roots deeper into the living heart of the living earth.
The nearest to my heart are a king without a kingdom and a poor man who does not know how to beg.
A traveler am I and a navigator and every day I discover a new region within my soul.
A hermit is one who renounces the world of fragments that he may enjoy the world wholly and without interruption.
Even the lyric works like The Prophet and Jesus, The Son of Man, contain allusions to the contrast between a wholesome vision of life and nature versus the artificial life motivated by selfish emotions. In Jesus, The Son of Man, an English-language work published in 1928, where Gibran recreates an authentic portrait of what Jesus was like to those who knew him, Gibran shows the image of madness in its consistent sense. This is expressed by a non-Jew in two instances. Thus, Sarkis, "an old Greek shepherd called a madman," recalls a dream wherein Pan and Jesus converse together, are reconciled in friendship, and play on reed and flute their mystic tunes. However, it is Jesus who fills the heart of the old shepherd and cures what others called his "madness":
The pulse of my heart, that had once beaten with the wind, was restored again to the wind, and all the waves of my yesterdays were upon my shore, and I was again Sarkis the shepherd, and the flute of Jesus became the pipes of countless shepherds calling to countless flocks.
Gibran points the way past the approbations of society, to the renewal of the old man's sense of self, and the putting of the world into rightful order.
In contrast, Annas the High Priest knowingly describes Jesus not as mentally deranged but fully aware of what he was capable of, and therefore anathema to the high priest. "He was not a madman," Annas states flatly.
John, Son of Zebedee, has the last word:
Many times the Christ has come to the world, and He has walked many lands. And always He has been deemed a stranger and a madman.
Finally, there is Gibran's last work, The Wanderer, published posthumously in 1932. In this work is included the story of "The Hermit and the Beasts," which tells of a hermit who assumes to instruct the beasts about their social life until the beasts notice that the hermit himself lives alone. The hermit is shown weeping. Is it for a lost opportunity to live in companionship and love that he now weeps, or is it because he has been tempted to instruct others about that which he should not? Gibran leaves us to reflect on what the hermit really is, and what he should do.
In "The Madman," a youth wants but to be himself, not what his parents and family demand that he be, and he has fled to a madhouse to be what he wants to be. The visiting narrator has only come out of curiosity, not fleeing the world. "Oh," says the youth, "you are one of those who live in the madhouse on the other side of the wall."
"The Hermit-Prophet" gives a fine twist to what the hermit should be and do.
Once there lived a hermit prophet, and thrice a moon he would go down to the great city and in the market places he would preach giving and sharing to the people. And he was eloquent, and his fame was upon the land.
Upon an evening three men came to his hermitage and he greeted them. And they said, "You have been preaching of giving and sharing, and you have sought to teach those who have much to give unto those who have little; and we doubt not that your fame has brought you riches. Now come and give us of your riches, for we are in need."
And the hermit answered and said, "My friends, I have naught but this bed and this mat and this jug of water. Take them if it is in your desire. I have neither gold nor silver."
Then they looked down with distain upon him, and turned their faces from him, and the last man stood at the door for a moment, and said, "Oh, you cheat! You fraud! You teach and preach that which you yourself do not perform."
With "Finding God," Gibran confronts the perennial objection to eremitism:
Two men were walking in the valley, and one man pointed with his finger toward the mountainside, and said, "See you that hermitage? There lives a man who has long divorced the world. He seeks but after God, and naught else upon this earth."
And the other man said, "He shall not find God until he leaves his hermitage, and the aloneness of his hermitage, and returns to our world, to share our joy and pain, to dance with our dancers at the wedding feast, and to weep with those who weep around the coffins of our dead."
And the other man was convinced in his heart, though in spite of his conviction he answered, "I agree with all that you say, yet I believe the hermit is a good man. And may it not well be that one good man by his absence does better than the seeming goodness of these many men?"
This summary hardly exhausts the writings of Gibran that are relevant to madness, solitude, and hermits. In the posthumous Nymphs of the Valley (1948; also in Visions of the Prophet (1977, although published originally in Arabic) is the story of Yuahnna [i.e., John] the Madman, closely paralleling the Arabic Kahlil the Heretic. This is a heart-felt critique of hypocrisy, wealth, arrogance, and power. Here madness is wisdom, with a religious angle that does not argue for the pursuit of solitude or even "madness," for institutions and structures house what is antithetical to good, and provoke rebellion and social "madness."
In the progression of English-language works from The Madman (1918) to The Prophet (1923) to Jesus, The Son of Man (1928), to The Wanderer (1932), Gibran constructed the madman and the solitary as a figure of sagacity and reflectiveness, one who ultimately no longer needs to rebel because he has learned how to disengage, to keep a right distance while nevertheless relating to others with compassion and kindness. Thus did the figure of the madman come to be universalized for those who had blossomed with the original fruit of Gibran's insight.
Kahlil Gibran's writings are a unique synthesis of creative figures hovering on the edge of society. At the same time, Gibran did not reject the influences of his own origins, as his Arabic and Eastern literary structure and reflective lyricism reveals. Gibran called his little apartment and studio in New York City "The Hermitage," where he hosted writers and artists like himself in ethnic origin and sharing a common set of values. But Gibran's unique world-view and his combination of creative forces, is a great cultural treasure. His writings, while standing on their own, are an important resource for reflecting on the themes of solitude, society, and self.
The works of Kahlil Gibran have been issued individually by Alfred Knopf and in various collections. The most definitive edition is The Collected Works. New York: Everyman's Library, 2007, which contains all the English language works issued by Alfred Knopf. Gibran's works are also scattered about on the Web; especially useful is http://leb.net/gibran/