Some books sit just above you, speaking to you but calling you up to their level. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (Canongate: 2012) is one of these. I feel it’s significance but I don’t quite have the perspective from which to appreciate all it’s implications. So in some ways, I’m certainly not qualified to write a review. But then again, even from my position, I can see that it holds enough treasures for me to be impelled to share, write and reflect in response.
The Gift has been in print continuously for the thirty-three years since it was written, a fact which shows it’s continued relevance to readers interested in creativity, whether as practitioners or consumers. But as the foreword by Margaret Atwood highlights, the book “has always been hard to summarise in pithy prose.” As far as it can be reduced to a sentence, I would say it is a study of the nature of gifts and how the gift of art interacts with the market-driven world.
Hyde, former Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, begins by outlining the characteristics of gift culture through the lens of anthropology and folk literature. His intention is to make clear what human cultures seem to know innately about gifts through the stories we tell and the rituals we perpetuate. He then counterpoises this realm of gifts with that of the marketplace. Part one thus leads to an examination of the tensions created in the modern world by the confusion of these two spheres. Then, part two explores Hyde’s analysis taking poets Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as case studies. In the end, as the conclusion admits, the book serves to raise the question of how artists, who essentially operate within the culture of gifts, should interact with the market-oriented culture that now predominates in modern life.
Part of what the book expertly reveals is that the relationship between art and commerce is only getting more complicated. Previously, folk cultures all over the world consistently operated on a double standard, a gift culture within the community and a market culture outside the community. For example, in the Torah, God prohibits the charging of interest between Hebrews because it is inimical to gift-giving. For outsiders, however, a market culture was allowed, maintaining a healthy boundary and allowing the internal community to flourish. Since the Reformation, however, the ancient prohibition on usury has been reinterpreted to allow for the charging of interest to all, whether inside or outside. Indeed, this is essentially the system on which the entire world monetary system is now based. Thus, Hyde argues, there has been a growing loss of the distinction between objects which can be commercialised and those that can’t.
As the first part of the study shows, artists almost invariably recognise their creativity and inspiration, as well as the fruit these produce, to be gifts. Gifts are received freely and must be given freely, as turning them to capital of any sort violates their nature and nullifies their benefits. There is always a reciprocal flow which is marked by generosity and gratitude. Gifts transform us and point us to something bigger than ourselves, creating a community through the bonds of love which they invariably forge. Artists are thus in a difficult position because their labour produces something which loses its value if commercialised–hence the artist’s age-old dilemma between staying true to the gift and making a decent living. Whitman responded to this dichotomy by giving of his self to the point of near ruin. Pound responded by embracing Fascism, which he saw as fostering a theory of money that made a place for the artist.
As the case studies show, the value of the book doesn’t lie in the answers it provides, but rather in helping to clarify the questions. Hyde admits that he is unable to offer a solution to the artist’s problem, except in hinting that society should provide a return of gratitude to artists for their gifts. This would allow the gift to remain a gift and the artist to continue in her work. But the practicalities of this are not explored in any detail. In all honesty, I found the sections on Whitman and Pound to be quite taxing. Perhaps this is due to being unfamiliar with their work. But where the book really succeeds is in showing the distinct nature and benefits of gifts, how art is itself a gift, and how artists and art are compromised by market commodification. These insights, I feel, have profoundly affected my thinking and I have an inkling they will continue to do so for years to come.
In all, the book has given me a deeper appreciation of the value of gifts, how they affect and change us, and how we ought to respond to them naturally in gratitude. As a result, Hyde has helped me to better understand the way I feel about my own art. I have always felt that it was a gift given to me, and that in gratitude to this gift, I must in turn share it with others. I now understand and can articulate why it is that I feel the dis-ease and turbulence of disobedience when I allow my gift to remain unused. I now understand why it is that I feel a tension whenever it is that I come to talking about money in relation to this gift. But perhaps with this new understanding I will be better equipped to negotiate the tension, accept it for what it is, and navigate with a clearer vision. I may not know the answer, but I feel now I at least know why there is a question.