Rebellion And Madmen: Gibran's Early Works
REBELLION AND MADMEN
THE EARLY WORKS
“The people of the Orient demand that the writer be like a bee
always making honey. They are gluttonous for honey and
prefer it to all other food.”
* * *
“In brief, the people of the Orient seek to make their past
a justification and a bed of ease. They shun positive
thinking and positive teachings and any knowledge of
reality that might sting them and awake them from their slumber.”
Thoughts and Meditations
Khalil Gibran strives consistently in his writings to wake the people of the Orient, which includes the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. His role is political in his first publications, Nymphs Of The Valley (1903) and Spirits Rebellious (1908), as he urges his countrymen to free themselves from the Ottoman tyranny and other fossilized cultural norms. At that initial stage of his development, the writer restricts himself to his personal Eastern concerns. His message of slavery and self-liberation becomes a universal metaphor later in his writings.
Nymphs Of The Valley was Gibran’s first literary reprimand of his societal structure. The volume contains three stories: “Martha,” “Dust Of The Ages And The Eternal Fire,” and “Yuhanna The Madman.” Martha and Yuhanna are sympathetic characters, but they lack status as explicit role models. Since they live and die as slaves, they are fleeting rebels at best. Gibran’s later protagonists in Spirits Rebellious—the propaganda text that caused his expulsion by the Ottoman Empire—have a firmer impact on the political and social order that he sought to end. Spirits Rebellious also reflects the author’s maturation since the passionate tone of the hero and heroine’s pleas is now balanced with a rationality. For instance, Madame Rose El-Hanie and Khalil the Heretic uphold their missions because they offer solutions to laws against which they crusade, whereas Martha and Yuhanna remain helpless in their bondage.
Martha must have appeased the Oriental desire for rainbow imagery and honeyed words. The tale illustrates Gibran’s delight for coloring language to convey beauty, which is evident in his description of the innocent Nymph of nature: “Her soul was a polished mirror reflecting all the loveliness of the fields, and her heart was like the wide valleys which threw back voices in echo.” Not all is honey, however. Through Martha, Gibran introduces his readers to the “ugly,” “black,” and “deaf” forms of slavery, three of the seven terms of bondage he uses in his works. That this is a true story allows Gibran the Social Crusader to emphasize his themes all the more poignantly to the public.
The child Martha is both an orphan and an outcast. She remains spiritually and materially so even as an adult. As a child, she is a victim of the ugly slavery since she is kept by a farmer’s family in return for shelter. She receives no love from this economic arrangement. Her solace is nature and, thereby, she reflects the Gibranian ideal of perceiving love and self-knowledge from the outdoors. Yet she is again victimized by society before she can achieve this ideal. Raped by a rich man, she cannot expect her guardians to support her shame, or her “sin” as it is later known. She thus escapes to the city and bears a son. There she prostitutes herself to raise the child, who like his mother becomes not only a member of the “ugly” slavery but also receives the further stigma of the “black” slavery, “which brands with shame disgrace the innocent sons of criminals forever.” However, in this story, nineteen year old Gibran’s meeting with the ragged five year old proves instrumental to the emerging writer’s social conscience. Gibran encounters Martha on her deathbed and classifies her as a prisoner of still another enslavement, the “deaf” slavery. Martha’s bitterness has eroded her former communion with her soul. She despises herself, and she warns Gibran to avoid similar social ostracism:
“Do not approach me lest people hold you unclean and
draw away from you. Return, but mention not my name
in those sacred valleys, for the shepherd will deny
the diseased lamb in fear for his flock.”
Gibran comforts her by affirming that it is better to be the persecuted and oppressed prey than to be the impure predator. As long as she is not guilty of the latter crime, her soul is still clear before God. In referring to his impassioned speech, Gibran, now in the narrator mode, relates to the reader that it is his heart that inspires him to speak so. This concept of impulsiveness prompted by the heart is typical of Gibran’s adolescent writings and is in contrast with the emphasis on mixed passion and reason that was to appear in later literature. Nonetheless, even this early in development as a writer, there is sound sense in what Gibran calls the Voice of the Heart, which maintains that true knowledge comes from within ourselves. This notion of intelligence deriving from the soul (intuition) reflects the Avicennean influence on Gibranian philosophy. In Gibran’s own quest for selfhood an association with the Divine Spirit is a critical but early step. Later in his progression, Gibran stresses that knowledge is the sum of the intuition of the soul (the spiritual) with the knowledge of the mind (practical).
If the reader is to think along these lines, then s/he can say that “Yuhanna The Madman” personifies a stilted Gibran. Yuhanna can hear his soul murmur to him, but he cannot employ his brain to communicate his soul’s whisperings to his fellow man. He is condemned by society when he attempts such a liberation and remains spiritually shackled. In his lifetime, he is teased by the “deaf,” “subtle,” and “perpetual” slaveries.
Yuhanna is an innocent shepherd who is victimized by the corrupt local monastery. He is imprisoned when his calves trespass on church property. His mother exchanges her only asset, a silver locket, for his pardon. Later, when Yuhanna tries to challenge the decadent monks, he is labelled insane. As a result, Yuhanna is shunned by kith and kin.
In characterizing Yuhanna, Gibran is careful to appeal directly to the common man. The shepherd is an ordinary fellow except for his extraordinary sensitivity and conscientious integrity. Had Gibran presented a worldly and self-assured intellectual, he would have alienated his reader. Instead Yuhanna is a humble person who is prompted to question the clergy’s injustices against him. Nor does he shout or curse when he speaks. He simply ponders his predicament in an attempt to understand why things are as they are (i.e. why society is organized in such an unfair and hypocritical fashion). Thus, by keeping in the common man’s mindframe Yuhanna does not frighten the reader since he does not suggest revolutionary discord or blasphemy. Nonetheless, his audience in the story—the clergy and villagers—do not listen to him. The church is threatened by his insubordination, and the townspeople are threatened by their fear of the church.
So Yuhanna is deemed a madman.
It is through Martha and Yuhanna that Gibran mocks narrow-minded societal perceptions that transform symbols of purity, such as that of the young girl and the young preacher, into Prostitute and Madman. Bound to their slaveries, Martha and Yuhanna grasp their only releases—death and madness. Neither, however, gains any consolation from these ends which, as images for further chains, stagnate inner liberation.
Despite this drawback, Nymphs Of The Valley is significant literature because it is the first of two stages by Gibran to gain his reader’s compassion for misfits such as Martha and Yuhanna. Gibran makes these first rebels experience only short lived revolts, but he still has created successful characters since his aim is for his readers to examine their social environments. Only then will the public be prepared to appreciate the victors of Spirits Rebellious, the latter phase of Gibran’s campaign. In this second book, Yuhanna and Martha’s shortcomings are compensated for by the hero and heroines, Khalil The Herectic, Madame Rose El-Hanie, and young Laila (martyr of “The Bridal Couch”).
Through these characters Gibran exposes man’s perversion of religion and natural rights. These are hypocrisies that prevail in society under the guise of tradition and justice. While Khalil, Rose, and Laila experience social persecution, they abscond from their bondages to embrace self respect. This is the most important individual accomplishment in Gibran’s estimation. A second win of these characters is that they convince others of the righteousness of their acts. The support may be mass acclaim, as for Khalil, or it may be a single sympathisers, as with Rose and Laila. The most obvious role of the outside supporter is to give validity to the rebellious actions, but more than that, his/her purpose is to represent the reader whom Gibran hopes similarly will uphold the themes of Spirits Rebellious.
Gibran uses this technique skilfully in “Madame Rose El-Hanie.” The tale depicts an unhappily married woman who leaves her husband for her lover. Gibran introduces the narrator to the events after they have occurred. Therefore, the narrator, or the “I” in every reader, must form his own verdict based on what he hears. The story structures itself around three points of view: that of the plaintiff husband, that of the defendant wife, and the conclusion of the narrator. This format creates realism for the reader by tracing the process, or in this case the awakening of a character querying the pros and cons of an accepted belief. The earlier reader of Nymphs Of The Valley indeed will not be unfamiliar with the themes of bondage and falsehood analysed in “Madam Rose El-Hanie.” However, the benefit of these analyses (from the commentaries of Rose and her husband, Rashed bey Nu’man) makes the story structurally stronger than “Martha” and “Yuhanna The Madman” whose plights are described but not discussed. Gibran also reaches a wider readership by exploring the husband and wife’s opposing views to the words “slavery,” “hypocrisy,” and “prostitution.” It is through these multi-definitions that the narrator starts to realize that certain laws and customs of traditional society can be detrimental and not beneficial to the individual.
For instance, Rashed bey Nu’man believes that he has bought his wife contentment. He claims that by marrying her he had released her from the slavery of poverty and handed her the freedom to flaunt material superiority. In his eyes, jewels and silks ensured her grandness over all women, ladies and prostitutes alike. Yet Rose, ironically, identified herself with a hypocrite and prostitute for depending on a man with whom she had no spiritual connection. She was forced in the Oriental style to marry a man of her parents’ choice. The traditional laws continued to enslave Rose since they prevented her from ending the transaction (Gibran specifies this bondage of marriage as the “mute Slavery”). Rose is disgusted that society would rather that she remain unhappy as a married servant than become a free and spiritually happy woman. She determines to leave her husband for a man she actually loves. Thus, the adulteress is viewed as a prostitute by her husband and society; but in paradox, she proclaims herself as a free woman. Though her love is not consecrated by human law, she believes herself to be blessed by “God’s law of pure love.” Thus while Rashed bey Nu’man construes Rose’s rebellion as sacrilege, Roses views her conduct as inner liberation and from it she finds the self-knowledge to reveal her soul.
The narrator applauds Madame El-Hanie’s rebellion at the end of the story. He has changed his understanding for he was not always her sympathiser. He had listened to the devastated husband’s account before meeting Rose and had joined the public condemnation against her as a wayward wife. His sympathy for Rashed is influenced by the latter’s grieving appearance. The narrator metaphorically, but unerringly, compares his friend’s “sadness of heart and weakness of body” to a “wrinkled spirit.” It is interesting that the rebellion which has united Rose with her soul has so conversely alienated bey Nu’man from his own. Rashed’s soul is too spiritually distant to comfort him.
Therefore, bey Nu’man, who feels that he is right and that his estranged wife is wrong, is crushed of spirit and mind compares his friend’s “sadness of heart and weakness of body” to a “wrinkled spirit.” It is interesting that the rebellion which has united Rose with her soul has so conversely alienated bey Nu’man from his own. Rashed’s soul is too spiritually distant to comfort him.
Therefore, bey Nu’man, who feels that he is right and that his estranged wife is wrong, is crushed of spirit and mind. His inner anguish warps his outward appearance. Rose, on the other hand, who believes that she is right and that her husband is wrong, reflects the innocence and radiance of an infant soul. The narrator is startled by her antithetic image. He wonders if it is possible for such a beautiful countenance to curtain such an impure soul, and it is at this point, that he begins to doubt if bey Nu’man may have been wrong. The doubt is momentary. The narrator repledges his loyalty to this friend by rationalizing that perhaps the woman’s looks had stirred the trouble in the first place.
By allowing the narrator to return to his familiar mind frame after that split second of doubt, Gibran maintains a credibility with his reader. He does this in two ways. Firstly, the narrator’s automatic blaming of the woman represents the norm in his society. In keeping with this trend, the narrator preserves the story’s psychological rhythm. Secondly, if he had sided with Rose merely because of her virtuous appearance, the storyteller would have lost validity with the Oriental reader, who until then has no reason to ridicule him. Moreover, such a superficial opinion by the reader would have encouraged Rose’s false image as a siren. Gibran waits for his character to form his judgment only after he has heard Rose’s explanation. This device lets the reader outline, comprehend, and perhaps even accept the narrator’s reasoning and, finally, to end the story with his/her respect intact for him.
Rose’s account attains strength from the firmness with which she defends herself, criticises the intimidation of womens’ rights, and defines her spiritual awakening. She explains that the last factor was ignited during her marriage, a falsification of her existence. She was married at eighteen and at first had enjoyed the luxuries that women of her social status had access to. As Rose grew older, she found that her frivolous life did not feed her mental hunger. She grew discontent as the spirit buried within her began to mature. Rose’s description of her spiritual growth is the gist of all Gibran’s themes and communications to his reader. The passage illustrates Gibran’s knack for poetry (that desire to create endless beauty) that so characterizes his writings even when in prose.
“But when I awoke and my eyes opened to the light and I felt tongues of sacred fire reaching out to me and burning, and hunger of the spirit overcoming me and hurting; when I awoke to see my wings moving now right, now left to bear me aloft into the regions of love and then quiver and droop powerless by the side of the shackled of custom binding my body ere I knew the meaning of those bonds or the portent of that custom; when I awoke and felt all these things, I knew that a woman’s happiness is not in the glory and lordship of a man. Neither is it in his generosity or clemency; it is in a love that binds her spirit to his spirit, pouring out her love into his heart and making them a single member in the body of Life and one work in the lips of God. When this wounding truth revealed itself to my sight, I saw myself a thief in Rashed bey Nu’man’s house who eats the owner’s bread and then hides the owner’s bread and then hides himself in the dark caves of nights.”
It should be noted here that Gibran borrowed his perception of the soul from Avecenna’s poem “A Compendium On The Soul.” Avecenna held that the soul was an immortal white dove that returned to heaven after the body dies. Hence in the above passage Rose personifies herself as a dove. She later claims that during her imprisonment to bey Nu’man she felt as if her heart “… had died each day of hunger and thirst.” In this context, “heart” is synonymous with “soul,” and it is thought to be organic since it requires metaphysical nourishment to thrive.
Consequently, Rose learns that she cannot continue posing as her husband’s wife once she finds her spiritual counterpart. “But I rose up and cast away from me cowardice of the daughters of my kind and set free my wings from the bonds of weakness and submission. I flew aloft in the spacious airs of love and freedom.” Here Rose extends her personal slavery of an oppressed wife to “the daughters of [her] kinds,” or the larger group of women who compromise her type of captivity. She does not sympathise with them however. She explains that these slaves choose two paths: they become bitter or they wait for death. They darken their souls in each case. Rose mocks these women for their passivity and, instead, tries to free her soul. She does this by rebelling.
Still, like all of Gibran’s rebels, Rose knows that she is in a minority. She is unperturbed because she is secure in the knowledge that she has behaved correctly. She informs the narrator that she will relay her story for all to hear though she knows society in its fear will avert its ears from her “… for they fear the revolt of their spirits, and they are afraid lest the foundations of their society be shaken and fall about their heads.” Through this observation Gibran delivers his most explicit vehemence against society as of yet. In “Madame Rose El-Hanie” he has outgrown the reservations of Yuhanna, who in the shame of his defeat had sacrificed his germinating rebellion to society’s intolerance. The writer creates a person in “Madame Rose El-Hanie” who acts decisively to change her reality, and he continues to build similar characters in the rest of his books.
Additionally in this tale, the second character who follows the initiative to critique society honestly is the narrator. Gibran demonstrates a credible impression of a character in awakening through the narrator’s viewpoint at the end. For example, while the listener had been swayed by Rose’s defense, he is fully convinced of her virtue only when he meets her lover. It is then that he recognizes the purity of their spiritual union. Yet the situation still does not make clearcut sense to him even when he leaves them. He sympathizes with Rose, but in trying to be fair he recalls Rashed bey Nu’man’s anguish too. Once again he blames Rose momentarily for her husband’s misery, but again he shifts to an ambiguous stream of thought by querying if Rashed was right to marry without true consent.
The narrator, now representing Gibran himself, finds his answer in nature as always. He speculates that the earth operates in accordance with natural law. This is a cosmos in which trees and seasons have the liberty to grow and pass in their own pace and time. Man, however, deprives himself this harmonious law by making his own laws. These laws are “binding to his mortal spirit.” In turn, man enslaves society.
The mutual bondage relationship between man and civilization resurfaces in “The Bridal Couch.” A footnote in the tale explains that “The Bridal Couch” is a drama in the Romeo and Juliet style. The events are true and occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. “Madame Rose El-Hanie” and “The Bridal Couch” form thematic sequels in Gibran’s strategy to reveal social veils and hypocrisies. “Madame Rose El-Hanie” justifies (1) the idea and (2) the act of rebellion to the spectator whereas “The Bridal Couch” shows that anyone can rebel (as Susan the village girl demonstrates) and not just specific personalities like Rose who is the sole rebel in her cause. Since Rose is a lone crusader, it is measurable to what extent she motivates her readers to act for themselves. That is, that although the reader may empathize with the justness of her actions, he or she may be a passive convert who is hesitant to uphold those actions to a disapproving society. Therefore “The Bridal Couch” progresses the protagonist’s revolt by converting an outside character to the ideology of rebellion.
Laila is the prototype for Rose in “The Bridal Couch.” She is another reluctant eighteen year old bride. Laila kills herself and her lover during the wedding festivities. Her rationale is to seek freedom in Death through an afterlife or rebirth. Laila’s action dumfounds her society. All take heed when an outraged clergyman forbids her burial. The exception is Susan who typifies an eastern Antigone in defying his decree. Susan behaves as she does because she reads Laila’s gesture as a rebellion against tyrannical custom. The result is that she now applies this insight. There is a distinction though between her and Laila’s intent. Laila had acted primarily for her own interests while Susan continues the crusade on behalf of posterity.
In his next parable “Khalil The Heretic” Gibran does not wait for the effects of rebellion to seed in the far future. The tale is a progression of “Yuhanna The Madman” with a happy ending. Not only does the protagonist successfully censure the Church authorities in his lifetime, but he also oversees a mass public revolution that forever releases Yuhanna of his shameful title of “Madman.” Khalil preaches truth and its connection with man to his followers. He states: “True light is that which radiates from within a man. It reveals the secrets of the soul to the soul and lets it rejoice in life, singing in the name of the Spirit. Truth is like the stars, which cannon be seen except beyond the darkness of nights. Truth is not like all beautiful things in existence: it does not reveal its beauties save to those who have felt the weight of falsehood. Truth is a hidden feeling which teaches us to rejoice in our days and wish to all mankind that rejoicing.” Khalil concludes “For it is a duty that man has to be happy in the world and knows the roads to happiness and preach in its name wheresoever he be.” It is not surprising that the doctrine to be happy attracts Khalil’s supporters who are miserable villagers tyrannized by Sheikh Abbas. The villagers represent the Lebanese peasantry under the Ottoman rule.
“Khalil The Heretic” highlights two groups of slaves. These are the villagers who are slaves of poverty since they are bound to the wealthy Sheikh (the equivalent of a feudal lord). They do not try to end their subordination because they fear that their poverty will subject them to further social and economic stigma. The second type of slavery exists in the form of religious hypocrisy (Gibran specifically wrote “Khalil The Heretic” to rally nationalism against the united power of the foreign government and the local religious authorities). Khalil is one such victim of the union. He is a monastery cowherd who rebels against the decadence of the monastic code. When he asks the religious men to become ascetics instead of businessmen who profit from exploiting the poor, the monks accuse him of heresy and ban him from the monastery. Thus, they try to quiet the true holy man so that they can preserve their corrupt practice of religion. But this time Yuhanna will not be silenced. Gibran ensures that Yuhanna will complete his predecessor’s task by supplying him with guardian angels in the form of a mother and daughter. Rachel and Maryam discover Khalil buried in a snowstorm on the night of the exile. They observe that the stranger is in a monk’s garb but lacks the customary beard. Although Maryam is wary of sheltering a fugitive, her mother settles the dilemma:
“The mother gazed at him with eyes full of mercy and maternal love;
then she turned to her daughter and said, ‘It makes no difference
whether he is a monk or a criminal; dry his feet well, my daughter.’”
Here Gibran shows that even in the blindest flock, such as that symbolizing the villagers of Sheikh Abbas, there can be a rare individualist who retains a freedom of soul to behave ethically. The Widow Rachel disregards her risk of punishment to protect a criminal. She simply follows her inner religion of selflessness. This religion is based on the same principles that the monks gladly distort for economic or social power e.g. as when they benefit from the labor of the villagers or they order Abbas to arrest Khalil on a false charge of heresy. In a surprise twist to the story, however, the priests’ attempt at deception works in Khalil’s favour. Khalil uses the opportunity of his trial like Yuhanna to speak with the watching villagers. Yet while Yuhanna had alienated his audience, Khalil consolidates his group into hearers and later into listeners. He sympathizes with the peoples’ conditions before he shifts the theme of the sermon to denounce their captors, the sheikh and the clergy. Yuhanna’s downfall had been to revolt against the authorities before uniting himself with the majority. Thus, Khalil accomplishes two ends: he deposes the old, corrupt leadership and he liberates a population of wilting souls.
These dual themes are both social and political in symbolism; they compose the essence of Nymphs Of The Valley and Spirits Rebellious. In these volumes, Gibran connects the inner reality of man’s environment—government and social structure—with the inner knowledge of man’s soul. Gibran maintains that these polarities can regulate each other to blend natural and human law successfully. If the polarities are separated they regress each other and impede the functioning of the universe.