You thought it was matters of high government finance that had the Congress in such an unbecoming snarl last week, didn't you? Well, in years to come just remember that you heard it here first: You were wrong. It wasn't mere money that had the solons fit to be tied, but an issue touching on the most elevated precincts of art, literature and even -- gasp! -- philosophy.
Yes, on Capitol Hill last week, in the dying hours of the second session of the 98th Congress, push came to shove. From the most unimpeachable sources in the corridors of power, word has leaked forth that in smoke-filled rooms far from the Senate floor there was debate, fierce but hitherto unreported, on a question such as we are more accustomed to hearing argued at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, or the Poetry Society of America, or the Cooper Union, or McSorley's Old Ale House
The question -- are you ready for this? -- was: Are the people of the United States, speaking through their elected representatives in all their wisdom, ready at last to pay due honor and obeisance to the patron saint of calendar and greeting-card copywriters? Are the people of the United States ready at last, that is, to authorize a suitable monument to the enduring memory of the immortal Kahlil Gibran?
The answer -- are you ready for this? -- is: You bet we are! Last Thursday, while pretending to wrestle with budgetary matters, the Senate found time to pass and thus send along for presidential consideration House Joint Resolution 580, which provides that "the Kahlil Gibran Centennial Foundation is authorized to establish a memorial on Federal land in the District of Columbia or its environs to honor the Lebanese-American poet and artist, Kahlil Gibran."
That's not all it provides. The resolution says that "the Foundation shall be responsible for preparation of the design and plans for the memorial, which shall be subject to the approval of the secretary of the Interior, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission." With the approval of these two commissions, the secretary "shall select a site for the memorial" but "shall not permit construction of the memorial to begin unless the secretary determines that sufficient amounts are available for completion of the memorial in accordance with the approved design and plans." The government "shall not pay any expense of the establishment of the memorial," but the secretary of the interior "shall be responsible for maintenance of the memorial after completion of construction."
So who says the prophet is without honor in his own country? And so what if it's not even his own country? He may have been born in Lebanon, but Kahlil Gibran is as American as Mom, apple pie and hummus, as Yankee Doodle as baseball, Chevrolet and falafel. If it weren't for Kahlil Gibran, half the ladies' Wednesday afternoon tea-and-devotional clubs in America would go out of business. Without Kahlil Gibran, pious collegians would have to apply themselves to the more nettlesome metaphysics of Norman Vincent Peale and Marjorie Holmes. Without Kahlil Gibran, deep thoughts would be sucked right out of our calendars and our greeting cards would no longer joyfully greet.
When the prophet speaks America listens, even when what the prophet says is pure gibberish. "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughter's of Life's longing for itself." Such profundity! "Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding." Such wisdom! "No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge." Such depth! "For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly." Such sensitivity! "Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror." Such reverence!
By comparison with the oeuvre of Kahlil Gibran, the work of even the greatest American-born sages pales to mere frivolity. Edgar A. Guest ("It takes a heap o' livin' in a house t' make it home"), James Whitcomb Riley ("O, it sets my heart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,/ When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock"), Josh Billings ("It is better to know nothing than to know what ain't so"), Will Rogers ("I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn't like") -- these and all other native philosophers fade into oblivion before the luminous glow of the Lebanese swami who, to the eternal gratitude of each and every one of us, moved to these shores in the last years of his life.
There's something for everybody in the philosophy of the master, from hard-core Reaganites to soft-core hedonists. The former can take comfort in these words from "The Prophet," words that certainly should be carved across the pedestal of the forthcoming Gibran monument: "You are good when you strive to give of yourself./ Yet you are not evil when you seek gain for yourself." The hot-tub set can bask -- and bask is the word for it -- in these words: "Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,/ For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind."
As for the greeting-card manufacturers, they stand eternally in the master's debt. "Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God./ But let there be spaces in your togetherness,/ And let the winds of the heavens dance between you." That's for the wedding-present card. "Your friend is your needs answered." That's happy birthday. "It was but yesterday we met in a dream." And a happy Valentine's Day to you, too, hon.
When you get right down to it, it is amazing -- nay, outrageous -- that it has taken Congress more than a half century since Gibran's death to authorize a memorial in his honor. How have we lasted so long without one, when his poetic words and profound thoughts echo so soulfully in American life? But later certainly is better than never -- did Kahlil Gibran say that? -- so let the planning and the building begin. What a thrill it is to know that soon, thanks to the farsightedness of those who speak for America in Congress, visitors to this capital city will be able to pause in reverence before monuments to the greatest of all Americans: Washington. Jefferson. Lincoln. Gibran.
Just think: If we behave ourselves and get lucky, maybe next year they'll make Rod McKuen poet laureate.