on The Gift by Lewis Hyde (Vintage Books, 25th anniversary edition)

I received my copy of The Gift as a gift from a poet friend, David Clewell, in 1983. Poets have been passing the book around for 25 years for two main reasons. First, there is the book's advocacy for the creative economy, the notion that the gift of art (“no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance”) flows between us as an energizing, mysterious force. Second, Hyde relates his thesis to the poet’s common gripe: low compensation. In his new preface to the celebratory edition of The Gift, Hyde writes, “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.”

hyde.jpgIn my three-ring binder of notes from 1983, I find six pages of typed, single-spaced excerpts from the book, beginning with, “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.” Once launched into the outer world, the potential gift exists “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.”

The market economy (capitalism) “asks that we remove surplus wealth from circulation and lay it aside to produce more wealth.” In other words, the consumer’s getting and spending are based on using up resource and breaking the chain of gifting; the consumer takes but returns nothing. In contrast, Hyde tells stories about cultures that merge commercial and gift exchanges. He says, “Gifts that remain gifts can support an affluence of satisfaction, even without numerical abundance.”

HydeColorB.jpegAlthough his argument begins by charting opposing forces, Hyde’s mind seeks to integrate and restore. His vision of life consists of a modern society with a mythopoetic overlay. The conflicts are entrenched and archetypal, the sacred and profane insulting and enflaming each other. In a sense, Hyde provides poets and artists with two message routes. For the poet who more keenly feels the threat of the mercantile world, Hyde inspires by way of opening a vision to a gift economy in our time. For the poet who gropes for ways of crossing back and forth effectively between the public and the personal, the market and the temple, Hyde introduces us to the god Hermes.

Although Hyde pits the market economy against the gift economy, he is never quite clear regarding how the former erodes the latter except as a massive distraction from art, a pervasive narrowing of generosity. The behavioral mandates of the market are repudiated by the poet because they disrupt the nature of his mission. Hyde says, “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.” It’s inspirational lines like this that have endeared The Gift to poets for three decades. Some poets stop here with his solemn message of self-cultivation. But The Gift goes further. Hermes points to a transactional life. Hyde writes, “Homer tells us that Zeus gave Hermes ‘an office … to establish deeds of barter amongst men throughout the fruitful earth’ … [Hermes] is present wherever things move quickly without regard to specific moral content, in all electronic communication, for example, or in the mails, in computers and in the stock exchange (especially in international money markets).” Hermes is itinerant, afoot in a world of flux. “Hermes is not greedy, however. He likes the clink of coin but he has no hidden pile … He loves the fluidity of money, not the weight.” Money itself is constantly being converted from an object into a gift. Our symphony orchestras and museums, our university endowments and medical philanthropies, all exist by means of “hidden piles” made mobile. Hyde suggests that Imagism itself was essentially a way of converting objects from commodities back into gifts.

In 1998 Hyde published Trickster Makes the World (Farrar Straus), an amplification of his ideas on Hermes. He writes there, “Cultures take their shape from distinctions such as ‘gift and theft’ or, to recall others we have seen, ‘the clean and the dirty,’ ‘the modest and the shameful,’ ‘essence and accident.’ These exactly are the joints of the cultural web and therefore the potential sites of trickster’s play.” But poets aren’t gods and tricksters; they participate in this mythology, but they live in and with history. Time drives commerce. Time defines university tenure. In the end, The Gift is a sort of guidebook, with a highly selective sociological gloss, on how the artist may live with paradox.

HydeStudio.jpegHyde quotes Flannery O’Connor in his chapter “The Commerce of the Creative Spirit”: “The eye sees what it has been given to see by concrete circumstances, and the imagination reproduces what, by some related gift, it is able to make live.” The market economy, ruled by law to regulate mass behavior, may “shed the emotional and spiritual content of a total social phenomenon” and may require “adversaries and reckoning, both of which are excluded by the spirit of gift exchange.” But the inspiring concrete circumstances, the world we see and experience, share the same potential “hidden coherence” of an individual life. Without the tension of those circumstances, there are no revealed fullnesses.

The Gift has retained its fresh pertinence over these years, just as Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanial Reproduction” still resonates. Hyde’s concern is that we should not “convert all gift labors into market work lest we wake one day to see that universal market in which all our actions earn a wage and all our goods and services bear a price.” Poets have loved The Gift for its concern over their survival in a society dominated by market exchange. But there may be something in our collective psyche, manifested by the figure of Hermes, helping us persist in breaking down barriers, exploiting the very tensions of our culture that allegedly diminish art, broadening the perspective of the artist, and envisioning the challenging fullness of human life. Marketplaces included.

[Published 12/4/07, Vintage Books Trade Paperback, 435 pp., $14.95]