Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lewis Hyde's The Gift

I've been reading Lewis Hyde's scholarly study of gift economies and their relation to the artist, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, and finding it utterly absorbing. Although this is not directly related to any of my research interests, it's been on my list for several years, and finally this summer I'm making my way through it -- this is one of the great benefits of my work, that we have these swathes of time when we are expected merely to read. My institution, being primarily a teaching one, demands a 4/4 teaching load so that there's not as much reading time as one might hope, but still, compared to those of you with only two or three weeks' annual leave, I won't complain (note, though, that I prep and mark into the late evening through the term and most of the weekends as well, just in case you think I've got it too cushy!).

Anyway, back to Hyde and the gift. With reference to ethnographic studies as well as to economic and political history, he traces the change from aboriginal gift economies to market economies, noting the gradual adaptation to a market economy that allows and, eventually encourages, what was once decried and, indeed, forbidden as usury. In his first chapters, he reads folk tales from many cultures, all of which advocate a circle of giving such that the gift increases by being given away but which also stipulate that this giving must be done without an expectation of reciprocity. He points to the potlatches of my own coast's First Nations and to social rituals associated with gift-giving among the Maoris, showing how a gift economy achieved not only social cohesion but also an ecology which held man sustainably within nature (Nature).

He also speaks convincingly of the gift economy within Alcoholics Anonymous as well as in other mentoring relationships in which knowledge received from the mentor is eventually passed along, and here, speaking of the "transformative gift," he says that "if the teaching begins to 'take,' the recipient feels gratitude." He continues, "I would like to speak of gratitude as a labor undertaken by the soul to effect the transformation after a gift has been received. Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when the gift has worked in us, only when we have come up to its level, as it were, that we can give it away again. Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor. The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms" (47).

Another point I find particularly interesting is the distinction he makes between "work" -- that for which we generally get paid, something we do "by the hour. It begins and ends at a specific time" whereas "Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace" (50)

This difference between work and labour gets carried through into the discussion of the difference between gift and commodity exchange wherein "the cardinal difference is . . . that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection" (56). Along with the labor of mentoring or in spiritual transformation, Hyde includes parenting, especially the childcare normally provided to society by women, alongside artistic and/or creative endeavour, as examples of undertakings that operate on the borders of these two different economies, the gift economy and the market economy. From my own experience, I think of those occasions when a friend has asked me to knit a sweater for her and offered to pay for it. I have to answer that the only way I will make the sweater, if I choose to, is as a gift. I guess, in Hyde's terms, I refuse to turn the labor of knitting into work. While my friend might prefer a commodity exchange, which would relieve her of any sense of obligation or beholdedness, I only offer my knitting as a gift. And while she might then want to reciprocate and give me something she has made, the greater gift, in many ways, is to offer simple gratitude. Perhaps, following Hyde (although I don't want to suggest elevating my knitted gift to the level of the transformative ones he speaks of), at some point this friend will give without expectation of reciprocation to someone else and strengthen social bonds (indeed, perhaps she already has), thereby increasing the gift's worth immeasurably.

Hyde follows up this theorizing about gift economies vs. market ones by a reading of the work of two poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. I'm not an Americanist so I've only got a superficial familiarity with either poet's oeuvre, but I found Hyde's readings convincing and entertaining. I was moved, actually, by his account of Whitman's service at the bedsides of so many wounded soldiers, and impressed by Pound's generosity in keeping an eye out for the financial needs of talents he believed needed nurturing. I did know something, of course, of his role in Eliot's and Joyce's work, but hadn't realized quite how extensive his support for other writers was. More importantly, Hyde moves back and forth between these biographical elements and close readings of the poets' work, considering the way the "gift" figures in it, gift being understood in three ways: the raw talent possessed by an artist; the gift of inspiration which leads to a specific work; and the finished piece of writing or art which is offered as a gift to the reader or general public.

Although this is a scholarly work, as I've already mentioned, it is a lively, accessible, and rewarding one. First published in book form in 1979, it's still quite readily available. Definitely worth a browse, at least, even if just for the first few chapters if you're not so interested in the literary criticism of the last half of the book. There's also a bibliography that promises to be very useful to anyone who wants to delve further into the history of the gift, or of usury, or of the move from the gift to the market economy.

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