Translators are the unsung heroes of literature. Or, to be fair, largely unsung – they have a share in the International Booker Prize which recognises author and translator, who divide the £50,000 prize money and there is International Translation Day on September 30. It’s a chance to celebrate the small presses which publish translated novels and poems, as well as the amazing advances in online translation and, above all, the human translators whose skills matter now more than ever.
But let’s also remember that translation has always been an engine of culture. Literary classics – as well as modern bestsellers – reach more readers through translation than the language they were written in. Take Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: it has been translated into at least 57 languages, at least 593 times.
This changes how we think about Jane Eyre. What was a thoroughly English book – anchored to Yorkshire and published in 1847 – becomes a multilingual, ever-changing global text, continually putting down roots in different cultures. In Iran there have been 29 translations of Jane Eyre since 1980. When Korean is taught in a school in Vietnam, a translation of Jane Eyre is on the syllabus, as an example of Korean literature.
It also changes how we have to study the novel. I couldn’t hope to grasp Jane Eyre as a global phenomenon by myself, so everything I have found out has been thanks to a group of 43 co-researchers in many different countries, as part of the Prismatic Translation project
Translation is creative
People often think that translations are meant to reproduce their source texts, like a photocopier. But this is a long way wide of the mark, because of course every language is different. In fact, the process is much more complicated – and interesting. Because you can never say exactly the same thing in another language, translators use their imaginations to write the book again, only with different materials, for readers with different expectations. It is more like making a sculpture than taking a photo.
You can see this right away from how the title gets re-moulded into different shapes. In Japanese in 1896 it became Riso Kaijin (An Ideal Lady – translated by Futo Mizutani), in Portuguese in 1941 it was A Paixão de Jane Eyre (The Passion of Jane Eyre – translated by “Mécia”). In Italian in 1958 it became La porta chiusa (The Shut Door – translator unknown) and in Turkish in 2010 it was rendered as Yıllar Sonra Gelen Mutluluk (Happiness Comes After Many Years – translated by Ceren Taştan).
My favourite of these metamorphic titles is the Chinese one invented by Fang Li in 1954 and copied by almost every Chinese translator since: two of the characters that can make a sound like “Jane Eyre” can also mean “simple love” – so the title says both those things together: Jianai.
Even small linguistic details can go through fascinating transformations. Take pronouns. In English, we only have one way of saying “you” in the singular. But even languages that are very close to English, such as French, German or Italian, do something different. They have a distinction between a formal “you” (vous in French) and a more intimate kind of “you” (tu). So in those languages there is the potential for a really important moment in the novel which simply can’t happen in English. Do Jane and Rochester ever call each other “tu”?
As it turns out, in French they don’t (or at least not in any of the translations we have studied). But in German they do. One of my co-researchers, Mary Frank, has looked at translations from 1887 by Marie von Borch and 1979 by Helmut Kossodo. She has found that, in both, Rochester only switches into the intimate form of you, “du”, when he first proposes. But Jane does not reciprocate. It is only in the amazing telepathic moment near the end of the book, when she hears Rochester’s voice calling to her across the moors, that she uses the “du” form of the verb to cry out the equivalent of “Wait for me!” Rochester’s tenderness is answered at last.
Should we think of this as a nuance added by the translators? Or as something that was all along somehow present in the English text, though invisible? What would Charlotte Brontë have done if she had been using German – or French (in which she did write essays and letters) with its different resources? These questions are probably impossible to answer – and if you turn to Korean, for example, which has many pronouns for different levels of formalityas I have learned from Sowon Park, the picture gets even more complicated.
Jane is “passionate” in all sorts of ways. When she is a child she resists bullying by her cousins and stands up for her rights at school; as an adult she feels passionate love for Rochester. “Passion” in the novel can suggest anger, stubbornness, suffering, generosity, desire and love.
By using the word in all these ways, Charlotte Brontë was making a feminist argument. She was saying that, for a woman in the early Victorian period, love did not have to be something passive, a matter of being admired. Instead, it was connected to anger and justice. It could be a means of self-assertion.
This feminist charge in the novel is part of what has made it so popular across the globe. Throughout Europe in the mid-to-late 19th century, and throughout East Asia in the mid-to-late 20th, some translators and readers have been thrilled – others shocked. And of course, because the cultures and languages are different, the novel’s energies have had to be channelled in different ways.
Most languages have no single word that can cover the same range as Brontë’s “passion”, so they slice up its meanings differently. Interestingly, this often divides the angry (passionate) young Jane from her mature self, and connects her to Bertha Mason, Rochester’s brutalised first wife who is locked up in the attic of his mansion.
In Persian – as Kayvan Tahmasebian has found out – “passion” is translated by a wide range of words that separate the elements of love, desire, anger and excitement. You might view this as loss (the range of “passion” has disappeared!) but it is also a kind of gain (look at all these different nuances!)
The most famous sentence in the novel: “Reader, I married him”, is also one of the most provocative, as translations can help us see. In Slovenian – as researcher Jernej Habjan tells me – it becomes the equivalent of “Reader, we got married”. Meanwhile, all the Persian translations we have seen so far have squashed Jane’s self-assertion – they give the equivalent of: “Reader, he married me”. Even today, Jane Eyre has a radical power. It will generate ever more translations.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece of the Jazz Age, ushers readers into a corrupt but glittering world of cocktails, fast cars, stolen kisses and broken dreams. Status anxiety and conspicuous consumption generate a dazzling, often surreal poetry as the novel unfolds over a single summer in Long Island, New York. Beneath them trembles an ominous sense of malaise.
The novel is narrated in the first-person by Nick Carraway, a well-to-do Yale graduate from the Midwest, whose limited acquaintance with the millionaire Jay Gatsby is the reader’s only window onto the mysterious title character.
Fitzgerald’s editor Max Perkins complained to the author that Gatsby’s characterisation was too vague — that readers “can never quite focus upon him” — but this criticism missed the point. Jay Gatsby is not a man but “an unbroken series of successful gestures”, the product of an age — not unlike today’s culture of Instagrammable celebrity — in which identity is less a matter of innate qualities than of projecting an image.
Fittingly, the only God invoked in Gatsby appears on a billboard, in the famous image of oculist Dr J.T. Eckleberg’s gigantic blue eyes looking down on events in admonition.
The Great American novel
Although short in length, The Great Gatsby is widely recognised as an exemplar of that most elusive of literary phenomena: the Great American Novel. It achieves aesthetic greatness as a self-conscious tour de force, the product of Fitzgerald’s desire “to write something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple [and] intricately patterned” as he wrote in a 1922 letter to Perkins.
Its American-ness is likewise self-conscious: one of Fitzgerald’s working titles was Under the Red, White, and Blue, and Nick’s account of Gatsby’s rise and fall exposes deep flaws and fissures underlying the American Dream of unlimited social mobility.
Affirming the presence of class prejudice in the land where all men were supposedly created equal, Gatsby constructs a fragile romance across the gulf between old and new money — a gulf that separates Gatsby from his love interest Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. Whereas Daisy and Tom come from established families, Gatsby lacks pedigree. The sources of his vast wealth are the subject of much speculation as his colossal mansion dwarfs those of other millionaires with freshly-minted fortunes.
Erosion of orthodoxies
Like many of his modernist contemporaries, Fitzgerald was fascinated by the erosion of old orthodoxies and traditional constraints in the aftermath of the first world war. For women, many taboos on dress and deportment were lifting, and Gatsby’s female characters play sports, dance wildly, and drink and smoke to excess — even in the midst of Prohibition. Yet for all its “spectroscopic gaiety”, such license brings little fulfilment.
In Chapter 1, the jaded Daisy expresses a sense of crippling ennui: “I think everything’s terrible anyhow […] And I KNOW. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything […] God, I’m sophisticated!”
Those with the right connections can afford to be amoral. When Daisy accidentally runs down Myrtle and flees the scene in Gatsby’s “monstrous” car, Tom manages a cover-up, shifting the blame onto Gatsby. As Nick reflects:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness […] and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Social mobility and the question of race
In the year of Gatsby’s publication, US President Calvin Coolidge announced “the chief business of the American people is business”, and in Fitzgerald’s novel it seems that “the pursuit of happiness” — that vague third term in the Declaration of Independence — has been reduced to the pursuit of material success.
Even romance and tragedy obey the logic of boom and bust. Nick reports in stockbroking language that Gatsby’s failure “temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men”, and Gatsby’s love for Daisy — a golden girl whose voice is “full of money” — is as deeply rooted in class and material aspirations as in sexual or personal attachment.
He desires not only Daisy but what winning her would symbolise. Indeed when the penniless Gatsby first met her, Daisy’s social elevation as a Kentucky debutante is said to have “increased her value in his eyes”.
Gatsby’s publication coincided with a high water mark of racism and xenophobia in the United States. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 introduced strict immigration quotas, while the revitalised Klu Klux Klan peaked at four million members in the same year. The novel has drawn criticism for its marginalisation of African Americans: one would hardly know from Fitzgerald’s novel that the Harlem Renaissance was underway. Fitzgerald is credited with naming the Jazz Age, but largely erases its origins.
Nick calls Tom a “prig”, but he too associates race with class difference when the spectacle of “three modish negroes” driven by a “white chauffeur” prompts his reflection that this is a world where “anything can happen … even Gatsby”.
Fitzgerald’s prose is never more richly sensuous than when dealing with the strange alchemy of affluence, and the film adaptations by Jack Clayton (1974) and Baz Luhrmann (2013) struggle to do justice to Fitzgerald’s verbal pyrotechnics.
How can one portray “a scarcely human orchid of a woman” sitting in “ghostly celebrity” under a white plum tree, as a Hollywood actress is described? Like the cover of the novel’s first edition, Gatsby’s halls are “gaudy with primary colors”. His parties swell to “yellow cocktail music”, while a “green light” shines from Daisy’s dock across the bay.
In the novel’s closing paragraphs, Gatsby’s faith in this green light symbolises the vagueness of an American commitment to an endlessly receding future glory: “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther”, Americans assure themselves, only to find themselves “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
Indeed, Gatsby’s plan for the future is precisely to “repeat the past” by recovering “some idea of himself that had gone into loving Daisy … I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before”.
Neither Gatsby’s ambitions or the nation’s can stand much scrutiny. Even before his fall, Gatsby’s “dream […] was already behind him” in “the dark fields of the republic”, leaving a “foul dust” in its wake.
Still, what Nick most admires in Gatsby is his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” and Fitzgerald implies that this “extraordinary gift for hope” might be the essence of the American Dream.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Walt Whitman, America’s most admired poet. Celebrations will be especially joyful around his birthday on May 31 and in New York City, whose citizens were often depicted in his poems. But the poetry many people now love won him notoriety before it won him fame.
Whitman’s life was interesting and varied. He was born in 1819 and grew up in and around Brooklyn, moving often as his family tried to make money from farming and real estate. His formal education ended when he was 11. He worked by turns in Manhattan and Brooklyn as a printer’s apprentice, a schoolteacher and a newspaper publisher, before resolving to become a writer.
Having had some success – a novel and newspaper pieces – he became chief editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, but lost this position when his opposition to the spread of slavery clashed with the views of the newspaper’s owner. Luckily, an opportunity arose to work on a newspaper in New Orleans. Whitman enjoyed this different culture, but never lost his horror of slave auctions.
On learning his brother George might have been injured during the Civil War, Whitman travelled to Washington DC and Fredericksburg, Virginia, to look for him. Fortunately, George’s wound was only superficial, but Whitman stayed on in Washington as a nurse, where he attended to sick, maimed and dying soldiers.
Working in field hospitals, Whitman’s health deteriorated, and at the age of 53 he suffered a stroke. Although he made a partial recovery, he was cared for by friends until he died almost 20 years later in March 1892. By then, he was admired for his writing in England, but the thousands who lined the streets in New Jersey for his funeral procession were probably more curious about his enormous tomb, which he had designed himself, than his writing.
We don’t know how or why Whitman began to invent his extraordinary poetry. In 1842 he listened to “The Poet”, a lecture in which philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called for a national bard who could write about the US in all its diversity. But Whitman’s daring originality seems more than a mere response to Emerson’s demands.
It is clear he thought of his book of poems, Leaves of Grass, as an experimental project. He took the opportunity of having the best compositors, the Rome brothers, typeset his poems, and he supervised the work closely, revising his poetry to fit the page. He even set about ten pages of the type himself.
The book’s long non-rhyming lines are reminiscent of bible verses. Each seems to correspond with a single breath or a single gesture. Words or phrases are often repeated at the beginning of a series of lines, building up a rhythmical pattern. However, Whitman is careful to break the pattern before it can become mere rhetoric. The reader is constantly being called to attention:
Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset – earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid grey of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Smile, for your lover comes. (“Song of Myself”, canto 21)
Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s sole book of poetry. Rather than publish several collections containing new poems, he revised and expanded this single volume, so that the first edition of 12 poems eventually became a thick book of close to 400 poems.
There are six editions of the book (nine, if you count different type-settings). As soon as one was published Whitman would revise, regroup and add to the poems, treating the published book as a manuscript to be edited and republished.
The overall result of this practice is that Whitman’s poetry is seen always to flow from a single being; it is as unified and as singular as the man who made it.
The first edition of Leaves of Grass did not even contain the author’s name on the title page, but he was instantly recognisable from his picture on the frontispiece – a working man in his prime, open-shirted, hat on the back of his head, hand on hip, looking straight out at the reader.
The poet of democracy
Emerson’s influence – or Whitman’s agreement with Emerson – can be seen in Whitman’s insistence on democracy as a central value of American society. People are equal, according to Whitman, because we are all mortal; moreover, we all have immortal souls.
In “Song of Myself”, we can see the connection between democracy, equality and immortality in the symbolic use of grass, which grows everywhere:
[…] I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same. […]
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps. […]
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death […]
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
In this passage the grass signifies equality, by making no distinction where it grows. A “hieroglyphic” symbol might need an expert – such as Whitman – to translate it, but it grows “uniform[ly]”, giving everyone the same rights and the same chances to mean something in the great poem that is America, as Whitman saw it.
Poet of the soul
As a result of Whitman’s habit of revision, we can witness the growth of many poems. The Sleepers, generally agreed to be among his finest, was worked on over the course of his career.
It is one of his most ambitious poems, with a triumphant ending that seems genuinely earned. It poses questions about the limitations of a single human life. How can one life, or one death, or one gender, be enough for a man, a poet, consumed by curiosity?
Whitman wants to dream every sleeper’s dream, be every sleeper’s lover, know every person’s meaning in the larger scheme, live everyone’s life and die everyone’s death.
In the third section of the poem, he envisages a beautiful swimmer, who comes to grief on rocks and dies. His body is then retrieved and laid out in a barn, with others, to be mourned just as the slain soldiers in the Revolutionary War (1775-83) were mourned by General Washington.
A Native American woman comes to visit the man’s mother, and then goes on her mysterious way, before everyone else returns to their rightful place: immigrants return home, colonial masters return to their countries of origin, the dead (including the beautiful swimmer), those waiting to be born, the sick, the disabled, the criminal are all likened to one another and restored in sleep.
At the end of the poem, all of the restored sleepers begin to awaken, an event described in terms of reconciliation and resurrection:
The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed,
They flow hand in hand over the whole earth from east to west as they lie unclothed,
The Asiatic and African are hand in hand, the European and American are hand in hand […]
The felon steps forth from the prison, the insane becomes sane, the suffering of sick persons is reliev’d,
The sweatings and fevers stop, the throat that was unsound is sound the lungs of the consumptive are resumed, the poor distress’d head is free […]
Stiflings and passages open, the paralyzed become supple,
The swell’d and convuls’d and congested awake to themselves in condition,
They pass the invigoration of the night and the chemistry of the night, and awake. (Canto 8)
Only at the end of the poem does Whitman state that he has been previously afraid to trust himself to the night, but that now he is at peace with the rhythm of night and day, sleeping and waking, which governs the world.
Poet of the body
Whitman’s poetry was initially unpopular. Not only was his new verse form considered outlandish, but his insistence on the worthiness of the body put him beyond respectability. Emerson originally endorsed him, “greet[ing him] at the beginning of a great career”, but when Whitman published Emerson’s approving letter without permission in the next edition of the book, he put Emerson in an awkward position.
Emerson tried to dissuade Whitman from publishing explicit poems about sex and sexuality, but Whitman did so anyway. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass introduced a Children of Adam section, depicting robust heterosexual love, and a Calamus section, which celebrated love between men:
Not heat flames up and consumes,
Not sea-waves hurry in and out,
Not the air delicious and dry, the air of ripe summer, bears lightly along white down-balls of myriads of seeds,
Wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may,
Not these, O none of these more than the flames of me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love […]
There were a few enthusiastic anonymous reviews for Leaves of Grass, but they were written by Whitman. His friends William Douglas O’Connor and John Burroughs allowed Whitman to make bold claims for his poetic achievements under their names. One pamphlet, ostensibly by O’Connor, was called The Good Grey Poet, an image of wholesomeness that went some way toward transforming and boosting Whitman’s image. Eventually, in 1881, Whitman had the opportunity to publish an edition of his book with a major publisher, Osgood.
However, no sooner had 1,500 copies of this definitive edition been printed than the publisher had to withdraw it, under threat of litigation for promoting obscenity. Then, in 1882, Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston. Fortunately, he was taken up by another publisher, and made more than $1000 in royalties on this edition.
Whitman’s overtly homoerotic poems won him friends as well as enemies. The English socialist writer and reformer Edward Carpenter visited him twice, and Oscar Wilde was also pleased to meet him. John Addington Symonds, an English poet and critic, wrote to Whitman over many years, urging him to state explicitly what he meant by the love of comrades.
At last Whitman emphatically disavowed any claim made by Symonds about the possibly sexual nature of the Calamus poems and stated that he had fathered six children. No evidence has been found to substantiate this claim.
Only after his death were Whitman’s romantic letters to streetcar conductor Peter Doyle published. Today Whitman is claimed as a champion of same-sex love, although whether or not it was consummated is still a matter of debate and probably unknowable.
In one of the appraisals that Whitman ghost-wrote, he claimed to be better appreciated across the Atlantic than he was in America. There is truth in this: a censored English edition had found its way to a band of fervent supporters in industrial Bolton, near Manchester. They sent him a birthday message and ten pounds, and eventually two of them, J. W. Wallace and Dr John Johnson, went to visit the poet, by then gravely ill.
A lively transatlantic correspondence ensued that lasted long beyond the death of the poet and the two leaders of the Bolton Whitman reading group. Whitman’s birthday is still celebrated with a walk led by Bolton Socialist Club members.
The transformation of Whitman from shunned outsider to national poet-hero happened in fits and starts. Whitman’s own critical efforts and those of his transatlantic disciples began it. Then Whitman’s “spiritual son”, Horace Traubel, wrote a nine-volume work called With Walt Whitman in Camden, published between 1906 and 1996, designed to make Whitman’s thought more generally known.
Wealthy collectors of Americana began to exhibit the various editions of Whitman’s books. Readers began to appreciate Whitman’s insistence on the body and the value he placed on manly love. Whitman’s poetry began to be studied wherever American literature was taught, and he was taken up by popular culture.
Whitman’s birthplace in Huntington, New York, is now a museum, close to the Walt Whitman Shops on Walt Whitman Road. You can take a tour through his last residence – the only house he ever owned – in Camden, New Jersey.
He is now considered the father of free verse (although he was not the first poet to use it), the father of modern poetry, and, according to one critic, the “imaginative father and mother” of every American, whether a poet or not.
Whitman is also recognised with parks in Washington DC and New York. Among the most moving tributes is the Dupont Circle train station in Washington DC, which contains an inscription from his poem “The Wound Dresser”.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
As novel-openers go, they don’t come much better than this one in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. See how the unexpected “striking thirteen” runs powerfully into the beginnings of characterisation and world-building in just two arresting sentences.
Orwell knew that words could both grip the attention and change the mind. He wrote the book as the Cold War was becoming entrenched, and it was meant as an explicit warning on the nature of state power at that time.
The book still sells by the thousands, and is read by students who are compelled to do so. But it can be read voluntarily and profitably, and it can tell us a lot about contemporary politics and power, from Donald Trump to Facebook.
A world of ‘doublespeak’
Nineteen Eighty-Four became an instant classic when published in 1949. People could see in it a world that could easily become a reality. The memory of Nazi dictatorship was still fresh, the Soviet Union had erected the Iron Curtain, and the USA had the atomic bomb.
The novel’s setting is a dystopian Britain, which has become a part of Oceania, a region in perpetual war with the other super-regions of Eurasia and Eastasia. Oppression, surveillance and control are facts of life in a society ruled by the Party and its four Ministries of Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love.
It is a world of “doublespeak” where things are the opposite of what they appear; there is no truth, only lies – only war and only privation.
One of Orwell’s innovations is to introduce us to a new political lexicon, a “Newspeak” where he shows how words can be used and abused as a form of power. Words like “Thoughtcrime”, where it is illegal to have thoughts that are in opposition to the Party; or “unperson”, meaning someone who has been executed by the Party (e.g. for Thoughtcrime) will have all record of his or her existence erased.
Not only do we use many of these words today, but the manipulative function that Orwell described is still intact. For example, when Kellyanne Conway, advisor to US president Donald Trump, stated in 2017 that the Administration has its own “alternative facts”, she was indulging in “doublethink”: an attempted psychological control of reality through words.
Within the corridors of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, though, there’s a tiny flickering of real love that develops between protagonist Winston and co-worker Julia. They share unlawful thoughts about other possible ways of living and thinking, based upon vague and unreliable memories of a time before world wars and Big Brother and the Party.
But through its immense powers of surveillance and the efforts of the Thought Police, Big Brother knows everything, and soon the lovers are suspects. Winston is arrested and brought before O’Brien, the novel’s antagonist and a Party heavyweight who is openly cynical about the power structure of society. For him power is a zero-sum equation: if you don’t use it to keep others down, they will use it similarly against you.
There is much drama, suspense and even horror in Orwell’s book. He wrote about what he saw around him, but filtered it with an acute sensitivity to the innate fragility of civilisation. In 1943, when the plot-lines of Nineteen Eighty-Four were probably gestating in his head, Orwell wrote:
Either power politics must yield to common decency, or the world must go spiralling down into a nightmare into which we can already catch some dim glimpses.
1984 goes digital
These days, a lot of power politics circulates online. Orwell, who worked for the BBC during the war, was sensitive to the power of communications. What he calls the “telescreen” is essentially a surveillance device that “received and transmitted simultaneously”.
He writes of the device that “any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover […] he could be seen as well as heard”. Remind you of anything? Alexa or Siri and their ilk may be fads, but the technology now exists; and so then does a new kind of power.
Such power is contingent and shifting and does not always reside with governments.
Donald Trump wields a new digital power through Twitter and Facebook and can “speak to his base” whenever he’s angry, bored or overcome by impulse. But through ownership of new digital technologies, new actors – data corporations – have acquired old powers. These are the powers to manipulate, surveil, and influence millions of people through access to their data.
And their power in turn can be leeched by hackers, state-sponsored or independent. The complexity of political power today means we need to be more attuned to its changing forms, to more effectively strategise and resist.
Orwell’s “common decency” reference may now sound rather quaint. But its very absence in social media is a problem.
The algorithms that Twitter, Facebook and Google insert into our communications act essentially as “manipulation engines” that can cause division, favour extreme views, and set groups of people against each other.
Divide-and-rule is not their intention – getting you online in order to sell your data to advertisers is – but that is the effect, and democratic politics is the worse for it.
Understanding the nature of political power is even more important today than when Orwell wrote. Oppression and manipulation were “simpler” and more brutal then; today, social control and its sources are more opaque.
Orwell’s imperishable value as a writer is that he provides a template on the character of political power that tells us that we cannot be complacent, cannot leave it to government to fix, and cannot leave it to fate and hope for the best.
Things did not turn out so well for Winston Smith. Pushed to the limit by torture and brainwashing, he betrays Julia. And in his abject state he convinces himself, finally, of the rightness of the Party: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
The story ends there. But for Orwell the writer and activist, the struggle for Truth, Peace, Plenty and Love was only beginning.
Today, Nineteen Eighty-Four comes across not as a warning that the actual world of Winston and Julia and O’Brien is in danger of becoming reality. Rather, its true value is that it teaches us that power and tyranny are made possible through the use of words and how they are mediated.
If we understand power in this way, especially in our digital world, then unlike Winston, we will have a better chance to fight it.
Sometime in the 9th century AD, a monk in the Benedictine monastery of Fulda in modern Germany copied out an extensive Latin history into Carolingian minuscule, a script promoted by the emperor Charlemagne to aid in the reading and comprehension of great works of literature. It is to this monk that we owe the preservation of the first part of what is arguably the greatest history of imperial Rome, the Annals of P. Cornelius Tacitus.
The Annals tells the story of the Roman empire under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which ruled Rome from 27 BC to AD 68. It begins with the death of the first emperor Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), and then covers in detail the reigns of his successors, Tiberius (AD 14-37), Caligula (AD 37-41), Claudius (AD 41-54), and Nero (AD 54-68).
The history was originally composed of 18 books, of which 1-6 are preserved in the manuscript from Fulda, and 11-16 in a second manuscript copied in Italy at the monastery of Monte Cassino in the 11th century.
The rest of the work, including the entire reign of Caligula, is entirely lost. What remains, however, is a powerful and at times darkly humorous examination of the workings of the Roman imperial monarchy.
Without anger and partiality
Tacitus was a Roman senator, who wrote the Annals in the early second century AD, during the reigns of Trajan (AD 98-117) and Hadrian (AD 117-138). He had previously written a series of minor works, including a biography of his father-in-law Agricola, and a major account of the Flavian dynasty (AD 69-96) called the Histories.
The Annals is a modern title, which only became established in the 16th century. The 9th century manuscript from Fulda instead began with Ab excessu divi Aug(usti), “From the death of the deified Augustus”. The choice of Annals as the conventional title reflects the fact that Tacitus’ history was structured on an annalistic basis, covering events year by year.
The most famous statement of Tacitus’ Annals is his proclamation that he would write sine ira et studio (“without anger and partiality”). Such pronouncements of impartiality were a formulaic part of ancient historiography. In this case, Tacitus’ claim is based on the fact that he did not live under the emperors he was writing about, and thus did not benefit from their patronage. The statement did not mean that he would refrain from advancing any strong opinions – far from it.
Liberty and slavery
The City of Rome from its inception was held by kings; freedom and the consulship were established by L. Brutus.
From this, the first line of the Annals, Tacitus lays his cards on the table with an account of Rome’s changing systems of government. Rome had been a monarchy before, in the age of the kings which lasted for nearly 250 years (753 BC-509 BC). In 509 BC, a senator called L. Brutus expelled the tyrannical last king, Tarquinius Superbus. This ushered in an era of libertas (“freedom”).
Tacitus describes how freedom was guaranteed by a new form of government, the res publica – the Republic – in which sovereign authority lay with the Roman people. In the first century BC, a series of civil wars waged by powerful men such as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian effectively brought about the end of the Republican system of government.
In 27 BC, Octavian assumed the name of Augustus (“the revered one”) and became the first emperor. Monarchical rule had returned to Rome. Although the senate still existed, real power now lay with Augustus. Tacitus writes that the people and the senators, grateful for the end to civil wars, offered themselves up in servitium (“servitude”) to Rome’s new leader:
he (sc. Augustus) drew to himself the responsibilities of senate, magistrates, and laws – without a single adversary, since the most defiant had fallen in the battle line or by proscription and the rest of the nobles […] preferred the protection of the present to the perils of old.
The themes of liberty and slavery permeate the Annals. After the death of Augustus, Tacitus writes that senators turned to acknowledge his stepson Tiberius as emperor, a move which he characterises as “a rush into servitude”. This language was particularly resonant to a Roman audience, as Myles Lavan has shown. Servitude was the condition of slaves who answered to a dominus (“master”) – it was not the condition of free men, and especially not of Roman citizens.
Tacitus’ history alternates between civil affairs (concentrating on the emperor, the senate, and the court) and foreign affairs (campaigns and rebellions in the provinces). But each section of his narrative comments on and reflects the themes of the other.
A classic example comes in Book 14. Here Tacitus describes the revolt of Boudicca, queen of the British tribe of the Iceni, against the forces of the emperor Nero in Britain. Before joining battle with the Romans, Boudicca tells her followers that:
[…] she was not, as one sprung from great ancestors, avenging her kingdom and wealth, but as one of the people, her lost freedom, her body battered by beatings, and the abused chastity of her daughters.
To fight and die under the leadership of a woman would enable Britons to avoid slavery under Rome. Boudicca’s speech encourages Tacitus’ readers to reflect on the decadence and depravity of Nero, and the curtailment of freedom under his regime.
The Annals is not an anti-monarchical work – when Tacitus was writing in the second century AD, there was no chance of the Roman Republic being restored. In his view, monarchical government should be conducted in an open and transparent manner, with the emperor and senate working together. But the reigns of the Julio-Claudians which he describes in the Annals did not live up to this ideal.
Tacitus paints the members of the senate as sycophants, willingly surrendering their authority to their imperial masters. His account of the emperor Tiberius – portrayed as the master of dissimulation who says one thing but does another – features senators turning on one another to curry favour with the emperor, and with his notorious creature, the praetorian prefect Sejanus.
In Tacitus’ picture of the monarchy, the real power lies behind closed doors, where senators jockey for favour with men such as Sejanus, not to mention the emperor’s freedmen, slaves, and female relatives. In Book 11, which covers the reign of Claudius, we see a senator’s trial held in the imperial bedroom in the presence of the emperor and his wife Messalina – rather than in the senate itself.
Claudius’ second wife, his niece Agrippina, ushered in a new form of female tyranny. Tacitus memorably remarks:
[…] there was universal obedience to a female who did not, like Messalina, sport with Roman affairs through recklessness: it was a tightly controlled and (so to speak) manlike servitude.
In producing his account of political intrigues, Tacitus often conducted archival research. In Books two and three he describes the mysterious death of Tiberius’ adopted son Germanicus in Syria after he clashed with the governor of the province, Calpurnius Piso. Tacitus recounts the outpouring of grief for Germanicus in Rome, and the subsequent trial of Piso.
Bronze fragments of a senatorial decree recording the outcome of the trial were discovered in Spain in the 1980s. A comparison of the text of the inscription with the Annals shows that Tacitus used these senatorial records in writing about the death of Germanicus.
But Tacitus does not accept the authorised version of events wholesale. He shapes his narrative of the incident to focus on the dissimulation of the emperor Tiberius and his mother Livia, whom he alleges were secretly happy at the death of the popular prince Germanicus:
Tiberius and Livia refrained from public appearance, deeming it would belittle their sovereignty to lament openly – or lest, with everyone’s eyes examining their demeanour, their falsity be understood.
We cannot know what Tiberius and Livia were really thinking, but Tacitus uses the power of rumour and suggestion to imagine the motives of the parties involved. The historian Werner Eck has drawn parallels between this incident and the aftermath of death of Princess Diana, when popular grief was famously greeted by a prolonged silence from the Queen.
A powerful legacy
Given Tacitus’ gift for laying bare the realities of power, it is somewhat surprising that he was never a popular author in the Roman world. Indeed, Tacitus was little read before the publication of the first editions of the Annals in the 16th century. His history struck a chord with Italian humanists, who found in the Annals a work which helped them to comprehend and critique the monarchical regimes of Europe.
Tacitus’ style influenced Francesco Guicciardini’s History of Italy, which recounted events in the peninsula between 1494-1534, and the relevance of the theme of liberty to contemporary monarchy was brought out in Virgilio Malvezzi’s Discourses on Tacitus (1635). The impact of the Annals was also felt in England, where Tacitus’ words encouraged statesmen to challenge the restrictions placed on them by the Stuart kings, lest they too fall under the thumb of a Tiberius or Nero.
The subsequent influence of Tacitus’ Annals on great thinkers such as Hobbes and Montesquieu has ensured that it has become a paradigmatic text for understanding one-man rule, both in ancient Rome and in the modern world. It encourages us to consider the dangers of accepting and acquiescing to an autocracy which has no checks and balances.
The translations used in this article come from A. J. Woodman, Tacitus: The Annals, Hackett Publishing Company (2004).
The Water Margin, also known in English as Outlaws of the Marsh or All Men Are Brothers, is one of the most powerful narratives to emerge from China. The book, conventionally attributed to an otherwise obscure Yuan dynasty figure called Shi Nai’an, takes the form of a skein of connected tales surrounding various heroic figures who — persecuted, exploited, wronged, or trapped by venal officials — eventually band together in the fortress of Liangshan (Mount Liang), in the present-day province of Shandong.
Its influence has gone far beyond the usual genres of fiction, film, art, and theatre. The stories provide, even today, a point of reference for codes of honour, social and economic networks, secret societies and political movements.
Generations of China’s governments have sought to represent themselves as guardians of an often explicitly neo-Confucian order characterised by a fixed and morally-grounded political and social order constructed of hierarchical relationships. But The Water Margin represents another, equally real and representative, Chinese worldview. In this world, local injustice is the rule, and defence against cruel local authority is a matter of vengeance, stratagem, and violence.
From this universe, itself a highly mediated depiction of the rapidly decaying Northern Song dynasty in the 12th century, derive fictional worlds of errantry, struggle and righteousness that have gone through endless narrative and cinematic iterations.
Of these descendants, the most familiar today are the fictional worlds of Hong Kong writer Jin Yong, which remain the closest thing to a reading list for adolescents in the Chinese world, and the kung fu genre that has been the global calling card of Sinophone film since at least Bruce Lee.
Rebels with a cause
With printed versions dating back to the 14th century, The Water Margin largely follows the adventures of strongmen, innkeepers, footpads, peasants, vagabonds, fishermen, hunters, petty officials and local gentry. Surrounding these protagonists are the thousands of nameless followers and victims who are knocked off or maimed (just as they might be casually dispatched in Homer) in the novel’s thousand-odd pages.
Women, when they (not so very often) appear, are hard-nosed mistresses, pugnacious sisters, hapless wives, strategising helpmeets, or murderous innkeepers (one of whom has hit on Mrs. Lovett’s idea of baking humans into pies a full 800 hundred years before her). This also sets it apart from the mainstream of imperial fiction, which is substantially preoccupied with the passions and travails of high-born, talented women and their ambitious scholar swains, not to mention emperors and generals.
It is only a novel after a fashion: The Water Margin’s text is substantially the record of stories that had already been circulating at the time it was committed to the page. Shi Nai’an’s authorship is little more than a conventional attribution, and the text is far from stable, existing in various versions beginning from the 14th century, two hundred years after the events it depicts. It reached its usual present form in the 17th century.
In the Ming (14th-17th century) and Qing (17th-20th century) dynasties, the bandits of The Water Margin continued to influence all manner of groups operating far from the seat of power, despite periodic attempts to ban the book.
The fact that the villains of the novel are local officials, while the bandits remain at least notionally loyal to the imperial court, has proven an enduring inspiration. Many are the brands of rebellion that have found it practical to be on the other side of the law while retaining a claim to the values of brotherhood, honour, loyalty and patriotism.
The plot’s political relevance has never gone away. Having been adopted in the 1930s by reformers as a healthily anti-feudal narrative, it was later deployed in a major 1975 government campaign, in which the leader of the Liangshan bandits in the book, Song Jiang, was criticised for accepting the emperor’s offer of amnesty. Had he not given the game away? And was he therefore not guilty of coexistence with forces inimical to the masses, just as party members, late in the Maoist era, would be guilty of capitulationism if their fervour flagged?
This move, widely interpreted as an effort to head off the fall of the Gang of Four shows how centrally the characters have been retained even in modern and contemporary Chinese consciousness.
It’s commonplace to lament human transience and contrast it with the immutability of nature. But those going in search of the dense marshlands of Shandong —- where in the novel crafty fishermen might cause unwary inconvenient minor officials to disappear —- will be disappointed. The entire geography of the novel has been altered beyond recognition by river engineering and irrigation.
This of course does not prevent local governments continuing to put up buildings tagged to certain events in the novel, hoping at the same time that the message of righteous rebellion against local authority is never taken too literally. The formidable, impregnable, fortified mountain, Liangshan, rises just short of 200 metres in reality.
The place of The Water Margin has moved almost entirely into the imaginary, and it is the situations, the events, the stratagems and above all the characters – furious and righteous, looking to set the world right – that have left their mark on posterity.
An angry man stands at the crossroads and rails against the moral cesspit around him, teeming with sexual deviants and jumped-up immigrants. This is the image which the Roman poet Juvenal paints of the satirist castigating the vices of contemporary Rome.
Juvenal’s Satires provide a fascinating window onto the social melting-pot that was early second century CE Rome. But they also hold up a mirror to those whose feelings of alienation and disempowerment produce a bitter distortion of that society.
Juvenal wrote 16 satires, divided into five books. Most are between 150 and 300 lines in length, except for the monstrous sixth satire attacking women and marriage, which rants on for over 650 lines and takes up a whole book on its own. Each satire has its own theme or target, ranging from decadent aristocrats and hypocritical moralists to giant turbots (a fish) and Egyptian cannibals, but this theme only loosely constrains a free-flowing structure which follows the satirist’s fulminating stream of consciousness.
Contradiction is the essence of these poems. The satirist indignantly condemns Rome’s vices as he pruriently lingers on their salacious details. The sheer force of his outrage and the vigour of his rhetoric sweep the reader along at the same time as she recoils from his bigotry. In Juvenal’s own words, it’s difficult not to write satire, and once you are sucked into its twisted world, it is difficult not to read it. But working out what to make of it is really difficult.
The beginning of Roman satire
Roman satire bears only a distant family resemblance to the modern idea of satire. Instead of John Clarke parodically impersonating an incompetent politician, Juvenal and his predecessors take direct aim at the follies and vices of their day, lambasting any who deviate from social norms with moralizing fervour, scathing mockery, and stomach-turning obscenity.
The Romans admitted that they inherited all other genres of poetry — epic, tragedy, comedy, pastoral, and the rest — from the Greeks, but they proudly declared that satire was “totally ours”. It was written in hexameters, the lofty metre of epic poetry, but it always sets itself up as epic’s “evil twin”. Instead of heroes, noble deeds, and city-foundations recounted in elevated language, satire presents a hodgepodge of scumbags, orgies, and the breakdown of urban society, spat out in words as filthy as the vices they describe.
The first great Roman satirist was Lucilius, writing in the latter half of the second century BCE at the height of the free Republic. Only tantalising fragments of his work remain, but his reputation among later generations was unambiguous: a fearless exponent of extreme free speech who would lay into the powerful, stripping away the skin of respectability to reveal the foulness beneath.
Every later satirist lamented his inability to live up to Lucilius’ freedom and aggression. During the rise of the first emperor Augustus, as the free Republic gives way to the monarchical Empire, the poet Horace wrote satire whose buzzword was moderation, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Self-consciously playing it safe, his satirist chooses not to see — he even blames conjunctivitis — and not to talk about the death of political freedom.
Ninety years later, under Nero, the reclusive poet Persius turned satire inwards, boiling it down to dense, almost unreadable Latin which he doesn’t care if anyone reads. His image of the satirist is the barber whispering into a hole in the ground, “Midas has ass’s ears!” You can tell the truth, as long as you don’t need let anyone hear it.
Chariots of ire
With Juvenal, another half-century later, satire seemed to get its balls back. He dismisses epic and tragedy as tedious and irrelevant. Satire is the only possible response to the swamp that is Rome. Indignation is his Muse and the vices of Rome flow unmediated from the crossroads into his notebook. This is barely poetry at all. It is the unvarnished truth about Rome there on the page in front of you.
What folks have done ever since — their hopes and fears and anger,
their pleasures, joys, and toing and froing — is my volume’s hotch-potch.
Was there, at any time, a richer harvest of evil?
Except, of course, it isn’t. Juvenal goes through the same crisis as Horace and Persius. This isn’t the Republic and he isn’t Lucilius. It isn’t safe to tell it like it is when the rich and powerful can silence you. Juvenal’s solution is that he will only criticise the dead. The fearless satirist is compromised before he has even begun.
Yet it isn’t just his caginess about causing offence which problematises the satirist’s voice. His strident attacks on women, on homosexuals, on Greek and Egyptian immigrants are often put in the mouths of characters who sound remarkably like the satirist himself.
Satire 3’s panoramic view of a decadent Rome is presented through the skewed vision of Umbricius, “Mr Shady”, about to abandon the city because Greek immigrants take all the jobs.
I now proceed to speak of the nation specially favoured
by our wealthy compatriots, one that I shun above all others.
I shan’t mince words. My fellow Romans, I cannot put up with
a city of Greeks; yet how much of the dregs is truly Achaean?
The Syrian Orontes has long been discharging into the Tiber,
carrying with it its language and morals and slanting strings,
complete with piper, not to speak of its native timbrels.
But his main complaint is that they get away with the same things he tries.
We, of course, can pay identical compliments; yes, but
they are believed.
This isn’t moralising, or even simple bigotry, but sour grapes.
Readers take the first-person voice of the satires as reflecting Juvenal’s personal opinion in a sort of autobiographical confession. Indeed, we know nothing about him except what we can try to deduce from his poems. More recently, the satirist’s voice has been seen as a persona, a mask, a character just like Umbricius.
Is Juvenal satirising immigrants or the bigots who rail against them? The latter is certainly the more comfortable reading, but we need to be careful not to make the Romans too like us. Satire is meant to be uncomfortable.
Juvenal’s satirist doesn’t only “punch down” against easy targets. He also “punches up” and fights the corner of the little guy oppressed by the rich and powerful. Satire 5 condemns a rich patron for the humiliation he heaps on his poor client, though he acutely criticises the client for his complicity. Throughout, Juvenal’s main targets are hypocrites from all levels of society. The satirist stands outside and inveighs against what is wrong with Rome, but he has few suggestions on how to improve it.
In his later satires, Juvenal moves away from indignation altogether and adopts a new model. He will not be the philosopher Heraclitus, weeping at the state of the world, but another philosopher, Democritus, ironically laughing at it with a sense of detachment.
This is the spirit of satire 10, on the dangers of getting what we wish for. The satirist is not angry, but mockingly – and sometimes pityingly – amused by Sejanus, who got the power he wanted but was dragged through the streets on a meat-hook.
Now the flames are hissing; bellows and furnace are bringing
a glow to the head revered by the people. The mighty Sejanus
is crackling. Then, from the face regarded as number two
in the whole of the world, come pitchers, basins, saucepans, and piss-pots.
Frame your door with laurels; drag a magnificent bull,
whitened with chalk, to the Capitol. They’re dragging Sejanus along
by a hook for all to see.
Or the man whose prayer for long life is answered with impotent, incontinent senility.
The poor old fellow must mumble his bread with toothless gums.
He is so repellent to all (wife, children, and himself),
that he even turns the stomach of Cossus the legacy-hunter.
He loses his former zest for food and wine as his palate
grows numb. He has long forgotten what sex was like; if one tries
to remind him, his shrunken tool, with its vein enlarged, just lies there,
and, though caressed all night, it will continue to lie there.
The angry satirist hurls unconstructive abuse, but this new version has a suggestion for self-improvement:
Pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Juvenal is the greatest Roman satirist. He, far more than Horace or Persius, defined what satire meant for most of the early modern period and it is translations and imitations of him by Pope, Dryden, Jonson, and others – not to mention Hogarth’s paintings – which dominate the great era of English Augustan satire.
His satires give us a ground-level view of a Rome we could barely guess at from the heroism of the Aeneid, the drinking-parties of Horace’s Odes, or even the histories of Tacitus. We cannot trust satire, but we can allow ourselves to enjoy it.
Recommended translation: Juvenal, The Satires, Oxford World’s Classics translation by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by William Barr (1992).
Kahlil Gibran (original spelling at birth “Khalil”) is a strange phenomenon of 20th Century letters and publishing. After Shakespeare and the Chinese poet Laozi, Gibran’s work from 1923, The Prophet, has made him the third most-sold poet of all time.
This slim volume of 26 prose poems has been translated into over 50 languages; its US edition alone has sold over 9 million copies. Its first printing sold out in a month, and later, during the 1960s, it was selling up to 5,000 copies a week.
It has seemingly been able to speak to various generations: from those experiencing the Depression, to the 1960s counter culture, into the 21st century. It continues to sell well today.
What is fascinating about the Gibran/Prophet phenomenon is the bile of critics in the West in relation to the work. Outside of English-speaking countries, the Lebanese-born Gibran attracts far less disdain. Professor Juan Cole, from the University of Michigan, has noted that Gibran’s writings in Arabic are in a very sophisticated style.
The midwife of the New Age
The Prophet is interesting for a number of reasons, not only for its ability to sell. It is written in an archaic style, recalling certain translations of the Bible (Gibran was intimate with both the Arabic and King James versions) and has an aphoristic quality that lends itself to citation — for weddings, funerals, courtships — and accessibility. There are at least two high schools named after its author and it was quoted in a eulogy given at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
The Prophet declares no clear religious affiliation, while at the same time operating in a quasi-spiritual or inspirational register. Many might even class it in that category of writing known as “wisdom texts”.
Gibran has been referred to as the midwife of the New Age, due to the role The Prophet played in opening a space for spiritual or personal counsel outside organised religion and its official texts. The Prophet appears to embrace all or any spiritual tradition (or at least to exclude none explicitly), and this vagueness or openness (depending on one’s reading) may account for part of its widespread appeal.
The book, which presents advice on a number of core aspects of being human — such as love, parenting, friendship, Good and Evil, and so on — employs a simple narrative device.
An exiled man, Almustafa, who has been living abroad for 12 years, sees the ship that will carry him back “to the isle of his birth” approaching. Filled with grief at his imminent departure, the townspeople gather and beseech him to give them words of wisdom to ease their sorrow:
In your aloneness you have watched with our days, and in your wakefulness you have listened to the weeping and laughter of our sleep.
Now therefore disclose us to ourselves, and tell us all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.
Gibran himself had been in the US for 12 years at the time of writing and, it could be argued, was in a kind of exile from Lebanon, the country of his own birth.
Among many subjects, The Prophet offers contemplations on marriage:
… stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts
for they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart must stand in the sun, so we must know your pain.
The woman behind the poet
Biographers have emphasised Gibran’s tendency to pretension, to self-aggrandising, to fictionalising his own history, and his relations with women such as his sister, Marianna (who supported him with menial work), and especially his patron and confidante, Mary Haskell.
The latter remained devoted to him her entire life and also financed much of his lifestyle, enabling his artistic projects up until and beyond his success with The Prophet. Haskell had a penchant for enabling the less fortunate (although she herself was not wealthy), and Gibran was not her first project of this kind.
She continued to edit his work discreetly well into her own marriage, to which she had resigned herself after their engagement stalled. Gibran had a tendency to get involved, as Joan Acocella writes in her detailed New Yorker piece, with older women who could be useful to him.
He was a beautiful, “oriental” young man. Having grown up, from the age of 12, in the ghettos of Boston’s South End, he survived by hoisting himself, or finding himself flung, into more privileged circles thanks to his looks, his talent (he could paint and write) and his “mysterious” appeal of being the “other”.
Anglo-Americans could, in other words, accessorise with him. And they did. He was “discovered” by Fred Holland Day, a teacher, who dabbled in the worlds of Blavatsky and the occultism that was de jour, and who liked to photograph young men, both in exotic garments and out.
In Gibran’s case, since evidence suggests that he evaded a sexual relation with Haskell, he at least did not leave her with the financial burden of children (not uncommon in his time). He ended his life primarily close to his sole-remaining sibling, Marianna and his secretary, and later biographer, Barbara Young.
Due to the extensive number of edits that Haskell offered on most of Gibran’s works across his career (including his first publication, a short poem), it is almost certain that “his” output — like many artistic achievements — might be more accurately deemed a collaboration. The enduring convention of signing works with a singular name has tended to result in the eclipsing of efforts of crucial contributors, often women.
Death and dualism
Despite the indifference of Western critics to Gibran’s work, Gibran’s credentials were not shoddy; he was a trained artist (at the Académie Julian) had his first exhibition at 21, and produced over 700 works in his lifetime, including portraits of Yeats, Jung and Rodin.
Gibran died young, at age 48, from cirrhosis of the liver, due to a propensity for large quantities of arak, supplied to him by his sister, Marianna. One wonders whether Gibran was able to find any solace in his own words in his final days of frailty.
In The Prophet, he (and, we could speculate, Haskell) write(s):
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity … For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
Gibran has been criticised for his style of playing confoundingly but reassuringly on opposites, which, some argue, can mean anything. (One must note, however, that this unsettling of binary structures is a feature of enduring wisdom texts such as the Tao Te Ching, as well as recalling writings of Sufism and other traditions.)
Furthermore, for the son of destitute immigrants, who rose to fame via his beauty, talent and a blind conviction of his own specialness (which he nourished along with a small obsession with Jesus Christ, the subject of a later, and arguably better work), perhaps life had presented to him its own stark dualities: abjection/acclaim; poverty/wealth; indifference/desire; disdain/popularity; exoticism/racism.
For someone who undoubtedly “made it” (according to the grim criteria of the New World), Gibran may well have had more than a kernel of wisdom and know-how for those trying to survive its heartless, capricious climes. The fact is that millions of people have found momentary respite in his shifting, evocative words.
In a century where authority figures – whether political or representing various spiritual traditions – have seemed not only to fail their flocks, but to have actively betrayed them, Gibran’s perhaps fuzzy but lyrical advice has come to fill a vacuum of integrity and leadership. We need not badger readers of this work (who included, incidentally, the likes of John Lennon and David Bowie) who might use it to express their love, notate their grief, or ease their existential terrors.
The Prophet has worked as a widespread balm, as effectively as anything quick and concise can. Cheaper than an ongoing tithe to pharmaceutical companies, at $8.55, the going rate at Book Depository, it neither incites hatred, nor violence, nor religious divisiveness.
It says the kinds of things that we sometimes wish a trusted other might say to us, to calm us down. In these aggravated times, perhaps we can appreciate its sheer benignity and leave its boggling success be.