Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Gift (Part 2)

I'm continuing to read Lewis Hyde's The Gift.

As I previously described, Hyde's goal in this book is to articulate a theory of gift societies and then use the language of that theory to examine the life of the artist. In my last post I described what Hyde thinks is the essential component of a gift: that it stay in motion. The receiver must pass along the gift (or its equivalent) or else risk destroying the gift and turning it into capital that increases, directly or indirectly, the receiver's own wealth. Likewise, bartering with the original giver or the next intended recipient about the value of the gift and what would constitute an equivalent gift also destroys the gift and makes it a commodity. Hyde also believes that an attribute of a true gift is that society believes that the gift "increases" as it moves from person to person. This can be seen three ways: as an increase of nature (fertility), as a spiritual increase (the symbolism of broken gifts where the spirit of the gift survives) and as a societal increase (the mere act of giving brings communities closer). And Hyde says that the "increase" must also be passed along and not hoarded as "profit."

As I said, Part I of this book is dense in concepts and what I just described are only the base concepts. There are many more concepts that Hyde describes after setting the table with the base concepts. One of the most interesting concepts he discusses, and one I think that pertains directly to the arts, is that "increase" is often achieved only through labor.


To explain this concept Hyde uses examples of transformational gifts. Many gifts mark transformational periods in a person's life: births, marriage, death. These are events that literally transform a person; the old must end in order for the new to begin. The gift is not compensation for what is lost but is symbolic of what is beginning. But Hyde points out that often a gift can be the catalyst for a transformation. The gift begins the transformation but the recipient must labor to bring the gift to full fruition.

Hyde uses real life modern examples and also a folk tale to explain his concept. His first example is Alcoholics Anonymous. It is a twelve step program and in the first step someone in need shows up for free help. The help is a gift to the person; a gift of time given by a recovered alcoholic (and some donations for coffee, etc.) At the end of the 12 steps the newly recovered alcoholic is expected to become a giver and pass along what he has learned to someone else in need. BUT the person cannot jump from step 1 to step 12 - he isn't ready. He must work his way through the 12 steps because he cannot pass along something that he has not already learned. It is a labor.

The same, Hyde says, can be said for mentoring programs. Someone who has been mentored often feels the need to "give back" by mentoring someone else - but first the initial mentoree must labor to be skilled enough to hold what is necessary to give back. These gifts of transformation are not necessarily appreciated at the beginning when the gift is offered but, as the gift begins to "take" with the recipient, the recipient begins to feel gratitude and then wants to pass along this opportunity to someone else who might need it.

Hyde says:
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 pass it along 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. Therefore, the end of the labor of gratitude is similarity with the gift or with its donor.
Hyde also uses a folk story, The Shoemaker and the Elves, to illustrate his point. In the story, a poor shoemaker is down on his luck and has only enough leather for one pair of shoes. The shoemaker goes to bed that night and while he sleeps these little naked elves come and make a wonderful pair of shoes. The shoemaker wakes up and, astounded, puts the shoes in the window where they sell for enough to buy leather for two shoes. Again overnight the little naked elves make the leather into shoes and the next day the Shoemaker sells them enough for 4 pairs. This continues until the shoemaker and his wife (finally!) stay up to figure out who is doing this nice thing for them. When they see the elves the shoemaker and his wife decide to do something for them. The wife makes little clothes and the shoemaker makes little shoes (note this is the first pair of shoes he has made since his despondency). The elves are thrilled with their gifts and immediately put them on and and leave - but the shoemaker continues to prosper. He can now make his own shoes that customers will buy.

The elves, say Hyde, have given the shoemaker a transformational gift. The gift of regaining his confidence that he can make shoes. The initial stirrings of the gift occur when the elves show up but it isn't until finally the shoemaker makes the little shoes for the elves that the gift is released. And Hyde says that a transformative gift cannot be fully received when first offered because the recipient is not yet ready - he doesn't have the power to receive it or to pass it along. BUT the recipient does apprehends that a gift is being given. And that feeling of gratitude might be what actually releases the gift. It stirs the recipient to develop the gift and this is what Hyde calls the "gratitude of labor".

Note that Hyde doesn't mean "work" when he says labor. Work is an act of will, accomplished on somebody else's schedule, labor is done on our own schedule and can't be accomplished by will alone. And when a labor is accomplished, says Hyde, we sometimes have the odd feeling that the results aren't our own product. He gives the example of a poet who said he had recently written a few good poems but he 'had no feeling that I wrote them.'
When I speak of labor, then, I intend to refer to something dictated by the course of life rather than by society, something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work. The labor of gratitude is the middle term in the passage of a gift ... A gift that has the power to change us awakens a part of the soul. But we cannot receive the gift until we can meet it as an equal. We therefore submit ourselves to the labor of becoming like the gift. Giving the return gift is the final act in the labor of gratitude, and it is also, therefore, the true acceptance of the original gift. The shoemaker finally gives away some shoes. The twelfth step AA gives away what was received; the man who wanted to teach so as to "pass it on to the younger men" gives away what he received. In each case there is an interim period during which the person labors to become sufficiently empowered to hold and to give the gift.
And here, at last, Hyde begins to speak of gifts in terms of the artist. He points out that we can't predict the fruits of our labor and we can't even really know if we'll go through with the labor. He compares the shoemaker with an artist at the beginning, knowing that he has been given a gift but not knowing how to go about bringing that gift to fruition or having a true idea of what the fruit of the gift will look like.

An artist, Hyde says, must give himself over to what Hyde calls a "gifted state". The gift that has the power to transform "awakens the soul" but the artist cannot truly receive the gift until he is equal to it. And that takes time and sometimes means removing oneself from the distractions of society. He uses George Bernard Shaw as an example. In Shaw's early life he was in the working world but he felt his gift and quit his job and left everyone behind for 8 years while he wrote constantly - things that he did not think deserved to be published, and yet he continued to write as he labored over his gift. Hyde points out that during this period the artist does not know if he will ever be equal to the task of bringing the gift to fruition but if the artist manages it then he has set his gifts free.

But what exactly is the artist's gift? Throughout the book I was thinking in terms of the gift of being able to create and finally, in Part II, Hyde talks about the gift of imagination. And what is the imagination? It is the ability to take disparate parts and shape them into something new.

This ties in with another concept that Hyde outlines in Part I - the mere fact of giving creates a bond between the giver and the receiver and the passing on of the gift also creates bonds with the original giver and with the new receiver. In the Scottish tale the youngest daughter receives her mother's blessing along with the gift so the bond is two-fold. When the youngest daughter shares with the mother bird and her flock she is joined to the spirit of the mother with whom she parted by sharing her mother's gift with another and the bird is joined to the mother also. A circle of gifts, says Hyde, creates a cohesion or synthesis between the persons in the circle. It creates, he says, a bond. The imagination, too, creates bonds. An imagination "assembles the elements of our existence into coherent, lively wholes" Hyde says.

This bonding aspect is an important difference between a gift and a commodity. I think the most important concept Hyde describes is the idea that commodity exchanges are detached and create no bonds between the participants and therefore the participants are "free" of each other, while gifts create bonds and therefore create attachments. Some attachments are good (a family relationship, a community relationship) but sometimes we don't want an attachment and in those instances you will see people refuse gifts because they don't want the bond to be created or enhanced. However, Hyde says that a true gift constrains us only if we do not pass it along - if we do not respond by an equivalent exchange, by an act or an expression of gratitude. As long as we pass along the gift we are free from constraining bonds.

Remembering the story of the elves, the elves labored nightly for the shoemaker until the shoemaker showed gratitude with the gift of clothes and little shoes. At that point the elves were freed and left. Likewise, Hyde says, a gift of transformation indentures the giver to the gift and the recipient until the gift comes to fruition and maturity and the recipient can express the gratitude he feels. And then the giver is set free because the act of transformation is complete.

I found all of this fascinating and yet had a difficult time applying it directly to the artist, partly because the artist's gift, for instance of imagination, comes from an undefined place and so, I asked myself, how is that undefined giver indentured to the artist? It seems clear that the artist is indentured to the gift that he is creating - stuck with it until it is ready to share. But is the undefined spirit that gave the artist the gift of imagination indentured to the artist through the process too?

Hyde spends time talking about the the ancient concept of the idios daemon, which the Romans referred to as each man's genius, a completely different concept than what we refer to as genius today. This was a man's personal spirit and to labor in the service of your personal spirit was an accepted part of the ancient world. On his birthday a man would receive gifts but would also sacrifice to his own genius so that when he died he could become a familiar household spirit and not a restless ghost who preys on the living.
The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with it the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service. For, again, the genius has need of us. As with the elves, the spirit which brings us our gifts finds its eventual freedom only through our sacrifice, and those who do not reciprocate the gifts of their genius will leave it in bondage when they die.
According to Hyde it is the sense of gratitude that causes a man to labor to bring forth the gift provided by his genius.

I finally decided not to become too rational about the origin of the gift. As Hyde says, it does no good and it may do harm to think too much about the source of the gift. Hyde tells the folk tale of the man who had a magical never-depleted cask of wine. As the years went by it never ran dry. Finally a maid opened the cask to see what was inside causing this miraculous occurrence, but all she found were cobwebs. And the cask was dry from that day forward. To ask from whence the gift comes, says Hyde, is to step outside the circle of gifts and become an observer and at that point you destroy the circle. The artist must stay in the "gifted state" which is a state of only semi-consciousness of self. He must go with the flow of the gift. If the artist becomes too self-conscious the gift will be lost.