The Gift by Lewis Hyde

Lone scribblers, treasure your gift

Tim Martin
Sunday 12 November 2006 01:00
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Asurvey of how the giving of gifts has shaped societies and human consciousness from primitive times to the present, linked to an analogy of the creative process and spliced with a pair of extended critical essays on Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound: rarely, you might think, would such a pitch get a book farther than the university library. Yet it is 23 years since the first publication of Lewis Hyde's The Gift, and here comes everybody: "No one who is invested in any kind of art... can read The Gift and remain unchanged" (David Foster Wallace). "A manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art" (Zadie Smith). "A cause for across-the-board celebration" (Geoff Dyer). "Few books are such life-changers" (Jonathan Lethem). What on earth has this book done to these people? What's the fuss about?

First things first. The Gift is a book about property and the exchange of property; it is as much about what humans take from the world and transform through work as it is about how the work transforms the world in turn. With a wide range of examples - traditional exchange ceremonies, the tacit morals in folktales, Burger King's marketing department, the blues - Hyde seeks to establish an analogy between the ways in which gift-giving and gratitude act to shore up societies, and the relationship in which an artist stands both to his own inspiration and to the marketplace.

The "Theory of Gifts" that makes up the first half of the book considers a wealth of anthropological research, fascinating in itself, that illustrates the function of gift-giving in primitive communities.

There are the circulating gifts of the Trobriand islanders, who rowed between each others' villages to pass on necklaces and armbands of shells, or the American Indians, whose pipes of peace took up nomadic residence in the houses of different chiefs. Wider circles incorporate nature or the gods into the circle of mutual generosity: the Maori believed that the spirit of the forest could be nourished by feeding their priests on the hunt's first kill; the priests would sacrifice to the gods, and the gods would produce more animals to be hunted. Such systems of gift exchange, Hyde contends, are perpetuated by the refusal to allow a gift to stay still; holding on to property gained in the transaction is seen to bring stagnation, and breaking the chain inhibits the increase of the whole.

The next step in the theory introduces the "transformative" gift, in which gratitude for inspiration, or for the change that a gift has caused, prompts the impulse to do work on it and pass the inspiration on to others. Hyde finds examples of this - he calls it "the labour of gratitude" - in the fable of the shoemaker and the elves, one of many folktales he adduces to support his argument, and in the 12-step curative process of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is also the impulse that he takes to lie behind most artistic creation worth having. But such an anarchic theory of artistic commerce is directly opposed to the tenets of the capitalist world.

The rest of the book is taken up with examining how an artist "who has chosen to labour with a gift ... is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange". Hyde examines the principles of intellectual property and the exchange of ideas in scientific communities; a chapter on usury explores how ideas of charity and grace collided with capitalist pragmatism during the Reformation, and how thereafter "commodity exchange began its alluring imitation of gift exchange". The divertingly radical essays on Pound and Whitman - Hyde is a literary critic and his theory is weighted towards writers - examine the functions and perversions of this theory in two wildly distinct creative lives. An afterword for this printing expands the theory to include open-source software and the funding of contemporary public bodies for the arts.

Persuasive and fascinatingly illustrated, The Gift profits immensely from the modesty and unpretentiousness of Hyde's writing and the fascinated good nature with which he expounds his propositions. It is notoriously difficult to write without bombast or bullshit about the creative process or the duty of the artist, and to pull it off at such length is admirable. Hyde offers a quietly explosive series of arguments for the necessity of our shadow economy of ideas. But perhaps most importantly, his book offers to the lone scribbler in his workshop those most valuable of gifts: inspiration, companionship, understanding and justification.

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