Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Gift (Part 1)

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I had read a NY Times article about the poet Lewis Hyde. Part of the article described Hyde's non-fiction book The Gift. Although The Gift was published more than twenty years ago, I have never read it and, after reading the Times article, I thought that perhaps I should. So I went out and bought the 25th Anniversary Edition (in paperback) and set to work.


The publisher's comments say: By now a modern classic, The Gift is a brilliantly orchestrated defense of the value of creativity and of its importance in a culture increasingly governed by money and overrun with commodities.

At first I thought I would try an experiment and try "live blogging" while I read. But very quickly I realized that wouldn't work for me with this book. The first part of the book is dense with information and I found myself having a lot to think about but not much to say. It was helpful to write about what I read but I felt as if I was only summarizing the book. So, rather than publish immediately, I waited a few days to see how all the information was later used and then added thoughts.

I'm not finished with the book yet but I am at the point where it all seems to be coming together so I'm ready to start talking about it.


The book is divided into two parts, In Part I (which I have finished) Hyde is describing a general theory of "gift exchange". In Part II (which I am still reading) he attempts "to apply the language of that theory to the life of the artist".

In Part I Hyde describes the basics of "gift exchange societies" not only by using anthropological studies but also folk tales. I was a little skeptical about the use of folk tales at first (partly because I find folk tales and fairy tales boring) but by the end of the first chapter I had decided he was right to use them. Later, at the beginning of Part II, he tells us that his intent is to use the anecdotes and stories from Part I as parables of the creative spirit.

Through much of the book he refers back to an old Scottish Tale that he tells in the first chapter. Since it is used so often, I'll repeat it quickly.
A woman has three daughters. As each gets old enough to go into the world the woman says she will bake her a loaf of bread and gives the daughter a choice: a small piece and the mother's blessing or a large piece and the mother's curse. The two older daughters choose the large piece, the youngest daughter chooses the small piece (bet you can guess who turns out fine in this story). Each of the daughters, on the first day after she sets out, is accosted by a bird family and the mother bird begs the sister to share the bread. The older sisters do not share, the youngest does. Each sister comes to the same mysterious house where she is hired to stay up at night and watch a recently dead man "whose corpse was restless" and in return the sister would receive a peck of gold and a peck of silver. The two older daughters fall asleep and end up dead. The youngest daughter stays up, fixes the corpse's problem and for her troubles is given not only the gold and silver but also a "vessel of cordial" which is magic and which brings her sisters back to life.
Pretty typical folk tale. A little preachy (as usual). Hyde says there are four gifts in the tale. Can you spot them?

Hyde uses this tale (and some stories of real tribes) to explain an essential element of gift exchange societies. The gift must to stay "in motion" - the receiver cannot just keep the gift. She must give it or its equivalent away. In the tale the first gift is the gift of bread from the mother. The two older sisters break the rules of gift giving by not sharing their gift with the bird family. The youngest sister (who has chosen the smaller piece of bread in the first place) does share and in the expanded story the younger sister feels full after sharing her meal with the birds, while the older sisters are still hungry after eating all of their bigger pieces of bread. The younger sister has made the second gift by giving part of her bread to the bird family.

Hyde compares this to societies in which a goat, for instance, is given as a gift. The person who receives the gift is not expected to keep the goat "as capital" (for milk or to make new little goats). He is not supposed to be enriched by the gift. Instead he is expected to either give the goat away or, more likely, consume it. And since one goat is a lot to eat, he is really expected to throw a feast. A gift is not meant to enrich the beneficiary. It is meant to fulfill a need - at its most basic a consumption need. A true gift must be consumed in some way - either literally or figuratively (by being given away), in either case the gift is soon gone. If consumed it should be shared or if not shared an equivalent gift should be given to someone else who has a need.

The third gift in the tale is the vessel of cordial. It is not mentioned in the payment that the sisters are to receive for staying up all night, as the gold and silver are. The vessel of cordial is thrown in as a gift by the householder. And again, Hyde points out that the youngest sister who receives it is 'no dummy' because she immediately gives it away by using it to revive her sisters (the fourth gift - the gift of life).

Hyde also describes how, in gift societies, gifts move "in a circle" always coming back to the original giver. The giver gives a gift to a receiver, the receiver becomes a second giver by giving away to a second receiver, the second receiver becomes a third giver by giving away to the third receiver and eventually the first giver becomes a receiver. It doesn't have to be the same gift that is moved, it can be equivalent gifts. The equivalence however is not determined by the person who gave the gift to the receiver but by the receiver who is now passing on the gift.

If the receiver is giving a gift's equivalent back to the original giver there can be no dispute or bargaining about what would be an equivalent gift or it ceases to be a gift and becomes a commodity. Hyde describes this quite beautifully, as a poet would: "When we barter we make deals, and if someone defaults we go after him, but the gift must be a gift. It is as if you give a part of your substance to your gift partner and then wait in silence until he gives you a part of his. You put your self in his hands."

Most stories of gift exchange told by tribes have at least three participants because that solves the problem of two people trying to determine equivalence and risking entering into a bargain and destroying the gift. But the third participant does not always have to be human - it may be nature or "a god". The Maori have a ritual in which the hunters who go into the forest bring the first killed bird to the priest. The priest consumes part of the bird but then throws the remainder into the forest. There are three gifts in this story. The Forest gives the gift of game to the hunters, the hunters make the obligatory equivalence gift by giving to the priest (passing the gift along) and the priest makes a gift to the Forest and then the whole 'circle of life' starts again as the hunters go back to the Forest and receive the gift of birds to shoot. By having a third person there is no chance of converting the gift-giving into a commercial transaction between the hunters and the recipient of their gift - the priest. By including Nature as the third person the gift exchange is expanded to three "persons" and a circle is created.

Sometimes the third "person" is "the lord" as when Aaron is told by the Lord that the people must bring the first fruits (a lamb) to the alter and the priest may consume the flesh after burning it so that the smoke rises to the Lord as a gift. Hyde says that this raising of gift giving to the level of a mystery means that the gift passes out of sight into a realm that we cannot see. And we do not know how and in what form it will eventually make its way back to us. When we speak of someone having a gift (a gift that lets them make music or a gift that allows them to write) we are speaking of something within someone whose origin is a mystery. Some societies consider these gift from the gods. So, in these societies, the circle is complete after the smoke from the sacrifice rises to The Lord and at some point The Lord bestows gifts back on the someone who started the circle. The participants just don't know when The Lord will bestow the return gift.

Going back to the Scottish tale Hyde points out the other essential lesson of gift stories - "when the gift is used up it is not used up". A gift that is passed along remains abundant. The younger sister had the smaller piece but she shared it and yet she felt full and good things happened to her. And in the same light a gift giver cannot demand a gift in return, but can expect that one will eventually come. At a time of need someone will give you what you need or your "gift" (for music or writing or for happiness) will appear. The gift moves toward "the empty place", toward the person whose need for it is greatest. As each person gives objects away they will eventually have need for an object and that gift will be given to them.

Hydes points out another essential rule - not only the gift must continue in motion, but any "increase" in the gift must also stay in motion. He spends an entire chapter talking about the concept of "increase". I'd like to say that a gift can increase in value as it continues to be circulated but Hyde never uses the word value in describing "increase" and later he uses the term value to describe commodities. He uses the term "worth" to describe what gifts have. So I shall continue to use his word "increase". He gives examples of the "increase". Some gifts are made so that there will be a return gift of fertility - an actual increase in something living. More grain is grown or more babies of whatever species are born.

The tribes of the Pacific Southwest who relied on salmon would use the first salmon catch this way. They believed that the "Salmon People" who lived in the ocean would take the shape of salmon and offer themselves as a gift of food. When the first salmon of the season was caught the tribe would offer it as a gift to the priest or perhaps to the whole community through the priest. The priest would carefully prepare the salmon, offering everyone the gift of a bite of it, and then return the intact salmon skeleton to the ocean. By gifting it back to the ocean it was hoped that the following year the Salmon People would return with new and hopefully more gifts of salmon to eat. So, the fishermen offer the gift to the priest but if the gift continues in motion there will be an increase - better salmon fishing next year.

But the "increase" doesn't have to be of living things such as grain or salmon. The Indians also used ritual gifts that stood in for living things. The Indians had ritual copper plaques which Hyde just calls "Coppers". Coppers are associated with ceremonies in which ritual gift giving would occur on a large basis - births, ascension to adulthood, ascension to a high office, death. One tribe would show up for the feast and honor whoever was holding it (the person who was becoming chief for example) with a gift of a Copper and in return the new chief would shower the guests with other presents of blankets etc. Your status in society was measured by how many gifts you gave away. So the visitors brought the one Copper plaque and the new chief would give many gifts. Of course the shower of gifts should be of equivalent value of the Copper so the question was to determine (without bargaining) value of this particular Copper - where it came from and what kinds of gifts had been given in relation to it in the past. Lots of stories would be told about the Copper to show how valuable it was but at some point the gifts would be deemed to reach the equivalence factor and at that point the chief would throw in a few more gifts. So the gift of the Copper "increased" for the giver, not just turning into the piles of useful or decorative items that one would expect to receive at such a ceremony but a few more things that were the "increase" or the true gift.

There seems to be some lesson about equivalence here. The receiver of a gift must keep the gift in motion and pass the gift along or at least pass along its equivalent. If he doesn't then the gift is destroyed as a gift and becomes something else. But when the receiver passes it along the receiver can throw in something more in the nature of an extra gift, the "increase" gift, and that in a sense becomes the true gift. And both the gift AND the increase must be kept in motion. You cannot keep the increase as "profit" or it destroys the gift as a gift and makes it something else.

Hyde also spends some time discussing how these Coppers increase in value when they are ritually broken. To receive a gift of a piece of the Copper that was ritually broken when the chief died was to receive a valuable gift. This was a symbolic way of saying that even though death occurs there is something valuable that continues on.

Finally Hyde points out that that the passing along of gifts is also symbolically valuable because it creates a sense of community and goodwill. The ACT of giving invests the gift with an "increase". The "increase" is the increased sense of community that the ritual gives. This is why the ACT of giving is valued and in gift exchange societies there is virtue in publicly disposing of wealth.

So gifts can nourish us literally (as in the fish ceremony) or spiritually (when the broken Coppers are given away)or from a communal sense (by creating the sense of community that occurs when people gather and exchange gifts).

I have to say that by the end of the first couple of chapters it was a stretch for me to try to see how gift economies and art tied directly together. I could see how art might be a gift, how the artist herself could feel that she has a gift that comes from somewhere unexplainable (nature, a spirit, a god), something beyond mere genetics. And I could see how the artist, in creating art, is moving the gift along by offering it to the world. But it was only a vague understanding, if it was understanding.

It is not until Part II that Hyde begins to pull it all together. I can't yet figure out if this is a flaw in the book or not - that he waits so long to tie it together. While I found all the information in Part I interesting, I often found myself wanting him to make some analogies so that I could keep what was supposed to be the main topic in my head. On the other hand, by laying out the basics in a purely factual way he does build a base of knowledge on which the reader can draw once he finally makes his argument.

In the end his argument is very spiritual. He questions the source of art. Not the artist, who creates it, but the source within the artist.
An essential portion of any artist's labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received ... there are few artists who have not had this sense that some element of their work comes to them from a source they do not control.
According to Hyde the artist mustn't evaluate what comes out of himself too soon, because premature evaluation cuts off the flow. He must just accept it as a gift and see what comes of it. Once he has accepted the talent or the idea that is given to him, the artist will then want to offer it to an audience - thereby keeping the gift in in motion.
So long as the gift is not withheld, the creative spirit will remain a stranger to the economics of scarcity. Salmon, forest birds, poetry, symphonies or Kula shells, the gift is not used up in use. To have painted a painting does not empty the vessel out of which the paintings come. On the contrary, it is the talent which is not in use that is lost or atrophies, and to bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next.
Hyde also posits that artists and writers often have a "creation myth" of their own and the works of art are often symbolically offered back to the "creator". Whitman took the initial stirrings of his work to come from his soul and once the work was complete Whitman would "speak it back to the soul." Ezra Pound's myth revolved around tradition. Wherever the stirrings came from, it is all stored in a storehouse of tradition that must be respected. Pound would dedicate a portion of his work to the memory of certain artists who came before him and inspired him. Pablo Neruda's creation myth, his inspiration, revolved around the brotherhood of man - the "people" -- for whom he was creating. Part of me thinks this is a bit of a stretch, to make it fit with Hyde's concept of gifts flowing in a circle back to the original giver. But I liked the idea of writers having creation myths. And, after all, Hyde was up front that he was specifically attempting to apply the "language" of his gift exchange theory to the life of the artist

If the imagination is a gift derived from the creator of the artist's creation myth, then, Hyde says, the works that are created out of the imagination are the "increase". This made sense to me. But then Hyde, mindful that gift societies often use "first fruits" rituals to offer back to the original creator in the hope (not an expectation, but a hope) of a future increase again stretches a bit by analogizing the "first fruits" ritual to an artist's willingness to dedicate the work back to its inspiration or even to labor over it knowing that there is no hope it will be exhibited, just doing it for art's sake.

All in all I'm enjoying reading this. Hyde has two long chapters at the end that I haven't read in which he applies all of this language to two specific poets: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. I'm looking forward to getting to those chapters.