I got Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (Note – this is the original title from 1983; the new subtitle is “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World”) about a year ago and have been chipping away at it ever since . . .
It’s about the way that artists giving their gifts away – their gifts being their talent and the art itself – brings life and energy and sustenance to a community. The idea is that if a person does not use her/his talent for something beyond self then the gift dies, because property – be it a talent, an idea, an object – only lives when it is shared and shared without the expectation of return.
Here’s Hyde himself on the idea:
A commodity is truly “used up” when. it is sold because nothing about the exchange assures its return. . . . Gifts that remain gifts can support an affluence of satisfaction, even without numerical abundance. The mythology of the rich in the overproducing nations that the poor are in on some secret about satisfaction – black “soul,” gypsy duende the noble savage, the simple farmer, the virile game keeper – obscures the harshness of modern capitalist poverty, but it does have a basis, for people who live in voluntary poverty or who are not capital-intensive do have more ready access to erotic forms of exchange that are neither exhausting nor exhaustible and whose use assures their plenty.
If a commodity moves to turn a profit, where does the gift move? The gift moves toward the empty place. At is turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is greater it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us. Social nature abhors a vacuum. Counsels Meister Eckhart, the mystic: “Let us borrow empty vessels.” The gift finds that man attractive who stands with an empty bowl he does not own.
Throughout the book, Hyde uses folks tales and religious teachings from a variety of traditions to illustrate the natural reciprocity of gifts. His complex approach to seeing a fairly simple idea is just the kind of reading I enjoy. (For more about the book itself, see this review by Paper Cuts.)
I’ve been thinking about this idea of gifting, of emptying oneself, a lot lately, particularly in light of The Compact that Toujours Jacques introduced me to. Is there a way to live in this world where you give as much as you take?
I’m also intrigued by the idea of the way that the artist makes change in the world. Sometimes, with so much hunger, so much pain, so much war, it seems futile to write books when I could be carrying bags of rice to hungry people, when I could be protesting the genocide in the Congo, when I could be spending time teaching a kid to read in Elkton. . . but reading Hyde’s work has reminded me, as so many have in the past, that to do what we are made to do is to do the right thing . . . for me, doing the right thing often involves bearing witness to what I see. I gift my words out into the world and know that they will be drawn to the emptiness in someone else . . . maybe that person will carry the rice; maybe she will tell someone who will carry the rice; maybe that other person’s daughter will grow rice or be the next UN Secretary . . . I must trust that putting these words out there as my gift to the universe will be enough. It is enough.