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Authors: Lewis Hyde

The Gift

BOOK: The Gift
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Praise for Lewis Hyde’s

The Gift

“Brilliant…. If you care about art buy this book and let it give itself to you.”

The Boston Globe

“Fascinating and compelling…. Seems to light up everything it touches, including the reader’s mind.”

The New Republic

“Exhilarating…. Explores its subject in a thoroughly original manner.”

Los Angeles Times

“Intriguing…. An original and provocative critique of capitalist culture.”

The Nation

“Wise [and] charming…. A glimpse from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom, it is, like the best gifts, good beyond expectation.”

The Village Voice

“A source of inspiration and affirmation in my artistic practice for over twenty years. It is the best book I have read on what it means to be an artist in today’s economic world. It has shown me why we still use the word
to describe artistic talent, and that selflessness, not self-expression, lies at the root of all creative acts.”

—Bill Viola


The Gift

Lewis Hyde was born in Boston and studied at the universities of Minnesota and Iowa. In addition to
The Gift
, he is the author of
Trickster Makes This World
, a portrait of the kind of disruptive intelligence all cultures need if they are to remain lively, flexible, and open to change. The editor of
On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg
The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau
, Hyde is currently at work on a book about our “cultural commons,” that vast store of ideas, inventions, and works of art that we have inherited from the past and continue to produce.

A MacArthur Fellow and former director of creative writing at Harvard University, Hyde teaches during the fall semesters at Kenyon College, where he is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. During the rest of the year he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Also by Lewis Hyde

Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art


“What is good is given back.”


Book salesmen find it handy to have a ten-second description of each title when they go into a bookstore to pitch the product. Any current list of bestsellers will provide a sample of the genre: “Extraordinary conclusions about the lineage of Christ.” “Newspaper columnist learns life lessons from his neurotic dog.” “How the dead communicate with us.” “Reporter exposes a ring of vampires out to take over Seattle.” “Memoir by the bad-boy golf champion.”

The Gift
has always been hard to summarize in such pithy prose. In a way, that is its point: I began writing the book because it seemed to me that my own experience with “the commerce of the creative spirit” was nowhere very well articulated. Some explaining was in order and while perhaps it could have been done in less than three hundred pages, it surely couldn’t be done in a sentence or even a chapter. This meant, however, that when it first came out the book was in fact an embodiment of the problem it addresses. Books that are hard to explain may, one hopes, be more useful in the long run, but they are also the harder to commodify for a ten-second sell.

The original editor for
The Gift
was Jonathan Galassi and I
remember when we first sat and talked about the project he asked me the question all editors must ask, Who is your audience? I didn’t know how to respond. I felt like saying “All thinking humans” but, made shy by my own grandiosity, I settled for “poets.” That’s not what most editors want to hear (many prefer “dog owners seeking news of the dead”). But it was poetry that had brought me to writing in the first place and it was in the poetry world that I could see most clearly the disconnect between art and the common forms of earning a living.

I was very lucky to have happened upon an editor willing to see if the audience might start with poets and move outward, and I’ve been luckier still that in fact it has. That may have had as much to do with our historical situation as with the book itself. The commercial ethic that
The Gift
engages has not diminished in recent decades; quite the opposite. As the afterword to this edition explains more fully, I believe that since the 1989 fall of the Soviet Union, the West has undergone a period of remarkable market triumphalism. We’ve witnessed the steady conversion into private property of the art and ideas that earlier generations thought belonged to their cultural commons, and we’ve seen the commodification of things that a few years ago would have seemed beyond the reach of any market. The loyalty of school children, indigenous knowledge, drinking water, the human genome—it’s all for sale.

Whatever the link to recent history, the happy fact is that
The Gift
has managed to find an audience beyond the community of poets. Not too long after it came out, for example, I was asked to give a keynote address at the national convention of the Glass Arts Society; later I did the same for the Society of North American Goldsmiths. This was a nice surprise; it has turned out that artists in the craft community—not just those working with glass and gold but cabinet-makers, potters,
weavers, and other artisans—have found the book useful, perhaps because artists who deal with actual physical objects feel most strongly the tensions
The Gift
describes. There has turned out to be a receptive ear in spiritual communities as well. I have spoken about the book’s themes at an Anglican church in New York, an Episcopal cathedral in San Francisco, and a Zen Buddhist monastery in the California mountains. More broadly, I’ve had encouraging responses from historians, museum curators, landscape architects, Jungian analysts, agronomists, environmentalists, and more. A translation into Japanese appeared in 1998, an Italian version in 2005. In 2006, Canongate Books in Scotland brought out a new edition for the United Kingdom. Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Turkish versions are now in the works. I am very grateful that the early support I had at Random House and Vintage Books has yielded the fruit we all hoped it might.

And if the salesmen want to pitch the book as “Bad-boy critic takes on vampire economy,” that’s all right with me.

Lewis Hyde
Cambridge, Massachusetts
April 2007


The artist appeals to that part
of our being … which is a gift and not
an acquisition—and, therefore, more permanently enduring.

At the corner drugstore my neighbors and I can now buy a line of romantic novels written according to a formula developed through market research. An advertising agency polled a group of women readers. What age should the heroine be? (She should be between nineteen and twenty-seven.) Should the man she meets be married or single? (Recently widowed is best.) The hero and heroine are not allowed in bed together until they are married. Each novel is 192 pages long. Even the name of the series and the design of the cover have been tailored to the demands of the market. (The name Silhouette was preferred over Belladonna, Surrender, Tiffany, and Magnolia; gold curlicues were chosen to frame the cover.) Six new titles appear each month and two hundred thousand copies of each title are printed.

Why do we suspect that Silhouette Romances will not be enduring works of art? What is it about a work of art, even when it is bought and sold in the market, that makes us distinguish it from such pure commodities as these?

It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies,” a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.

There are several distinct senses of “gift” that lie behind these ideas, but common to each of them is the notion that a gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us. Thus we rightly speak of “talent” as a “gift,” for although a talent can be perfected through an effort of the will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance. Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift.

We also rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” says D. H. Lawrence. Not all artists emphasize the “gift” phase of their creations to the degree that Lawrence does, but all artists feel it.

These two senses of gift refer only to the creation of the work—what we might call the inner life of art; but it is my assumption that we should extend this way of speaking to its
outer life as well, to the work after it has left its maker’s hands. That art that matters to us—which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience—that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price. I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and colors I had not seen the day before. The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition. Our sense of harmony can hear the harmonies that Mozart heard. We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does, and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation. We feel fortunate, even redeemed. The daily commerce of our lives—“sugar for sugar and salt for salt,” as the blues singers say—proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift revives the soul. When we are moved by art we are grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gifts.

If a work of art is the emanation of its maker’s gift and if it is received by its audience as a gift, then is it, too, a gift? I have framed the question to imply an affirmative answer, but I doubt we can be so categorical. Any object, any item of commerce, becomes one kind of property or another depending on how we use it. Even if a work of art contains the spirit of the artist’s gift, it does not follow that the work itself is a gift. It is what we make of it.

And yet, that said, it must be added that the way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature. For example, religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being
that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold. A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is no gift there is no art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. Such, at any rate, is my position. I do not maintain that art cannot be bought and sold; I do maintain that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.

The particular form that my elaboration of these ideas has taken may best be introduced through a description of how I came to my topic in the first place. For some years now I myself have tried to make my way as a poet, a translator, and a sort of “scholar without institution.” Inevitably the money question comes up; labors such as mine are notoriously non-remunerative, and the landlord is not interested in your book of translations the day the rent falls due. A necessary corollary seems to follow the proposition that a work of art is a gift: there is nothing in the labor of art itself that will automatically make it pay. Quite the opposite, in fact. I develop this point at some length in the chapters that follow, so I shall not elaborate upon it here except to say that every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?

Every culture offers its citizens an image of what it is to be a man or woman of substance. There have been times and
places in which a person came into his or her social being through the dispersal of his gifts, the “big man” or “big woman” being that one through whom the most gifts flowed. The mythology of a market society reverses the picture: getting rather than giving is the mark of a substantial person, and the hero is “self-possessed,” “self-made.” So long as these assumptions rule, a disquieting sense of triviality, of worthlessness even, will nag the man or woman who labors in the service of a gift and whose products are not adequately described as commodities. Where we reckon our substance by our acquisitions, the gifts of the gifted man are powerless to make him substantial.

Moreover, as I shall argue in my opening chapters, a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation. If this is the case, then the gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality. Where gifts have no public currency, therefore, where the gift as a form of property is neither recognized nor honored, our inner gifts will find themselves excluded from the very commerce which is their nourishment. Or, to say the same thing from a different angle, where commerce is exclusively a traffic in merchandise, the gifted cannot enter into the give-and-take that ensures the livelihood of their spirit.

These two lines of thought—the idea of art as a gift and the problem of the market—did not converge for me until I began to read through the work that has been done in anthropology on gifts as a kind of property and gift exchange as a kind of commerce. Many tribal groups circulate a large portion of their material wealth as gifts. Tribesmen are typically enjoined from buying and selling food, for example; even though there may be a strong sense of “mine and thine,” food is always given as a gift and the transaction is governed by the ethics of gift exchange, not those of barter or cash purchase.
Not surprisingly, people live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. To begin with, unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved.
Furthermore, when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges. There are, as we shall see, five or six related observations of this kind that can be made about a commerce of gifts, and in reading through the anthropological literature I began to realize that a description of gift exchange might offer me the language, the way of speaking, through which I could address the situation of creative artists. And since anthropology tends not to concern itself so much with inner gifts, I soon widened my reading to include all the folk tales I could find involving gifts. Folk wisdom does not differ markedly from tribal wisdom in its sense of what a gift is and does, but folk tales are told in a more interior language: the gifts in fairy tales may, at one level, refer to real property, but at another they are images in the psyche and their story describes for us a spiritual or psychological commerce. In fact, although I offer many accounts of gift exchange in the real world, my hope is that these accounts, too, can be read at several levels, that the real commerce they tell about stands witness to the invisible commerce through which the gifted come to profess their gifts, and we to receive them.

The classic work on gift exchange is Marcel Mauss’s “Essai sur le don,” published in France in 1924. The nephew of Émile Durkheim, a Sanskrit scholar, a gifted linguist, and a historian of religions, Mauss belongs to that group of early
sociologists whose work is firmly rooted in philosophy and history. His essay begins with the field reports of turn-of-the-century ethnographers (Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Elsdon Best, in particular), but goes on to cover the Roman laws of real estate, a Hindu epic, Germanic dowry customs, and much more. The essay has proved to hold several enduring insights. Mauss noticed, for one thing, that gift economies tend to be marked by three related obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate. He also pointed out that we should understand gift exchange to be a “total social phenomenon”—one whose transactions are at once economic, juridical, moral, aesthetic, religious, and mythological, and whose meaning cannot, therefore, be adequately described from the point of view of any single discipline.

Almost every anthropologist who has addressed himself to questions of exchange in the last half century has taken Mauss’s essay as his point of departure. Many names come to mind, including Raymond Firth and Claude Lévi-Strauss, but in my estimation the most interesting recent work has been done by Marshall Sahlins, an economic anthropologist at the University of Chicago. Sahlins’s 1972
Stone Age Economics
, in particular, contains an excellent chapter on “The Spirit of the Gift,” which applies a rigorous
explication de texte
to part of the source material upon which Mauss based his essay, and goes on to place Mauss’s ideas in the history of political philosophy. It was through Sahlins’s writings that I first began to see the possibility of my own work, and I am much indebted to him.

The primary work on gift exchange has been done in anthropology not, it seems to me, because gifts are a primitive or aboriginal form of property—they aren’t—but because gift exchange tends to be an economy of small groups, of extended families, small villages, close-knit communities, brotherhoods
and, of course, of tribes. During the last decade a second discipline has turned to the study of gifts, and for a second reason. Medical sociologists have been drawn to questions of gift exchange because they have come to understand that the ethics of gift giving make it a form of commerce appropriate to the transfer of what we might call “sacred properties,” in this case parts of the human body. The earliest work in this field was done by Richard Titmuss, a British professor of social administration, who, in 1971, published
The Gift Relationship
, a study of how we handle the human blood that is to be used for transfusions. Titmuss compares the British system, which classifies all blood as a gift, with the American, a mixed economy in which some blood is donated and some is bought and sold. Since Titmuss’s work appeared, our increasing ability to transplant actual body organs, kidneys in particular, has led to several books on the ethics and complexities of “the gift of life.”

Even such a brief précis of the work that has been done on gift exchange should make it clear that we still lack a comprehensive theory of gifts. Mauss’s work remains our only general statement, and even that, as its title tells us, is an essay, a collection of initial observations with proposals for further study. Most of the work since Mauss has concerned itself with specific topics—in anthropology, law, ethics, medicine, public policy, and so forth. My own work is no exception. The first half of this book is a theory of gift exchange and the second is an attempt to apply the language of that theory to the life of the artist. Clearly, the concerns of the second half were the guide to my reading and theorizing in the first. I touch on many issues, but I pass over many others in silence. With two or three brief exceptions I do not, for example, take up the negative side of gift exchange—gifts that leave an oppressive sense of obligation, gifts that manipulate or humiliate, gifts that establish and maintain hierarchies, and so forth
and so on.
This is partly a matter of priority (it has seemed to me that a description of the value and power of gifts must precede an explication of their misuse), but it is mostly a matter of my subject. I have hoped to write an economy of the creative spirit: to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.

BOOK: The Gift
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