Five Great Yarns from Kahlil Gibran’s The Madman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Project Gutenberg Page
The Madman is a collection of poems and short fiction (often micro-fiction) of a philosophical nature. The protagonist claims he became a madman when a thief broke into his house and stole his masks, the masks that people wear to fit into society and appear “normal.” Beyond the thread created by this mad character, the entries meander along, each with its own moral and with little discernible overarching plot.
There are many clever stories in this collection, offering food-for-thought on religion, philosophy, and psychology. I’ll discuss five of my favorites:
“The Sleepwalkers” A mother and daughter are both sleepwalkers. When they are somnambulating, they speak to each other in horribly cruel terms, but when they wake up, they display (at least a veneer of) love and affection. Besides demonstrating the nature of the aforementioned masks, the loss of which gets one designated “crazy,” this story encourages the reader to discern the differences between conscious and subconscious mental activity.
“War” This one presents an analogy for war in which a thief breaks into the wrong building, walks into a machine, pokes his own eye out, and then takes the building owner to court seeking “justice” for his lost eye. The craftsman / shop-owner says he can’t lose an eye because he won’t be able to do his work, but he knows a neighboring craftsman who could have his eye removed without great loss of productivity. This story builds upon the well-known “An eye for an eye…” Bible verse with the added absurdity of violence being doled out randomly and without concern for whether the victim had anything to do with the events in question.
“The Wise King” A disgruntled witch poisons a city well with a substance that makes drinkers insane. The King avoids the well water and is spared insanity. However, the townspeople begin to plot against the king because, in their insanity, they believe him (as one who acts differently) to be insane. The king eventually drinks the well water in order to come back into synch with his subjects. This entry speaks to the arbitrary nature of classification of sane and insane, an idea that has been discussed in modern times by mental health experts such as R.D. Laing.
“The Two Cages” A bird is caged next to a lion. The bird’s confidence provides the central lesson, knowing they’re both imprisoned separately, the bird refers to the lion as “fellow prisoner.” The power dynamic has changed from that of the jungle. Perhaps, the bird has even happily exchanged its freedom — either for safety or to tear the lion down a little.
“The Eye” In this story, the other sense organs mock the eye after it comments upon how grand a mountain is. The ear can’t hear the mountain and the skin can’t feel the mountain. Therefore, the other senses assume that the eye is either lying or is delusional. This tale speaks to the risk of denying something based on one’s own limited perception.
This book was originally published in 1918 and is in the public domain (most places.) It’s definitely worth the short time investment required to read it.
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