Book Review

The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property - by Lewis Hyde

(Vintage Books, 1983)

Reviewed by JoAnn Schwartz


In The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, Lewis Hyde uses anthropology, economics, psychology, art and fairy tales to examine the role gifts have played and continue to play in our emotional and spiritual life. By gifts, Hyde means both material objects and immaterial talents and inspirations, such as 'a gift for music' or 'a gift for mathematics.' Or, as Hyde himself so lyrically observes, "I have hoped . . . to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture. I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us."

Above all, Hyde is interested in examining the effect our current immersion in the market economy and the myth of the free market has both on our view of gifts and on our ability to give and receive them. The market economy is deliberately impersonal, but the whole purpose of the 'gift economy' is to establish and strengthen the relationships between us, to connect us one to the other. "It is this element of relationship which leads [Hyde] to speak of gift exchange as 'erotic' commerce, opposing eros (the principle of attraction, union, involvement which binds together) to logos (reason and logic in general, the principle of differentiation in particular). A market economy is an emanation of logos."

In a market economy, one can hoard one's goods without losing wealth. Indeed, wealth is increased by hoarding--- although we generally call it 'saving'. In contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gift(s) within the community that leads to increase--- increase in connections, increase in relationship strength. Through this book, Hyde helps us focus on the importance of gifts, their flow and movement and the impact that the modern market place has had on the circulation of gifts.

In the first half of the book, Hyde examines the structure of traditional gift economies. For non-Western cultures he relies on anthropological studies; for Western culture he looks at our fairy tales and myths. In the second half of the book, Hyde looks at the lives and art of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, two American poets whose reaction to their gifts and the effects of the market economy on those gifts were very different. Whitman focused his poetic gift on giving expression to the inarticulate, the erotic, the fecundity of nature. Whitman did not hold to material ambitions; he easily distinguished between earning a living and the labor of art --- "The work of my life is making poems," he declared when Leaves of Grass first appeared. Whitman's riches were founded in this refusal to take seriously things outside his art.

In contrast, Pound focused his poetic gift on bringing order to the forces of fertility and the erotic through sheer strength of will. He was incensed by the barrenness of his age, by its lack of generosity towards art and artists. (Pound himself was well known for his sponsorship of other artists, most notably T.S. Eliot and James Joyce.) Pound came to obsess on economics and the unjust distribution of wealth. His obsession was the death of his art.

Hyde is deeply interested in the transformative gift: the gift that changes us profoundly, often received in the form of psychological healing or spiritual teachings. An important aspect of a transformative gift is that the transformation is not instantaneous; it requires the recipient to undertake some extensive and often difficult inner work in order to effect the transformation completely. What motivates us to undertake this labor? In general, it is a feeling of love and gratitude toward our teacher or therapist.

This can lead to problems in today's market economy, where healing and teaching are frequently sold rather than freely given. After all, even a gifted teacher, therapist, or spiritual guide must eat! It is nonetheless possible for an element of the gift economy to circulate above the cash. I recall some young parents at our Waldorf school who, although barely scraping by themselves, managed to come up each year with the full tuition for their child. When asked why they did not apply for financial aid, for which they certainly qualified, they looked surprised and said, "The tuition is our gift to the teachers for what they are giving our child. If we could afford more, we would certainly give it."

As an extreme example of the opposite approach, the author mentions the Church of Scientology, which in 1979 (when Hyde's book was published) had a minimum initial 'donation' of $2,700 for a twelve-and-a-half intensive course. This kind of exaggerated cost tends to cut off the forces of love and gratitude necessary for true transformation.

The point is that a conversion, in the general sense, cannot be settled on ahead of time. We can't predict the fruits of our labor; we can't even know if we'll really go through with it. Gratitude requires an unpaid debt, and we will be motivated to proceed only so long as the debt is felt. If we stop feeling indebted, we quit, and rightly so. To sell a transformative gift therefore falsifies the relationship; it implies that the return gift has been made when in fact it can't be made until the transformation is finished. A prepaid fee suspends the weight of the gift and de-potentiates it as an agent of change. Therapies and spiritual systems delivered through the market will therefore tend to draw the energy required for conversion from an aversion to pain rather than from an attraction to a higher state.

There is another area of Western culture where a remnant of the old gift economy is still active: the scientific community. In examining the community of science, Hyde begins by noting that within this community it is the scientist who shares ideas with others--- who gives away rather than acquires--- who receives the most recognition and status. What, then, is the effect on science of treating ideas as gifts, as contributions to the community? Hyde presents an interesting case:

The task of science is to describe and explain the physical world, or more generally, to develop an integrated body of theory that can account for the facts, and predict them. Even such a brief prospectus points toward several reasons why ideas might be treated as gifts, the first being that the task of assembling a mass of disparate facts into a coherent whole clearly lies beyond the powers of a single mind or even a single generation. All such broad intellectual undertakings call for a community of scholars, one in which each individual thinker can be awash in the ideas of his comrades so that a sort of 'group mind' develops, one that is capable of cognitive tasks beyond the powers of any single person. The commerce of ideas--- donated, accepted (or rejected), integrated---constitutes the thinking of such a mind. . . .. '[I]deas in physics are discussed, presented at meetings, tried out and known to the inner circle of physicists working in the great centers long before they are published in papers and books. . . .' A scientist may conduct his research in solitude, but he cannot do it in isolation. The ends of science require coordination. Each individual's work must 'fit,' and the synthetic nature of gift exchange makes it an appropriate medium for this integration; it is not just people that must be brought together but the ideas themselves.

In science, as elsewhere, the circulation of gifts produces and maintains community, whilst the conversion of gifts to commodities fragments or destroys that same community. However, we are now witnessing the commodification of ideas within the scientific community. Universities and industrial laboratories, which used to produce basic research that was released into 'the public domain' now patent and otherwise protect their research. Discoveries emerge not as contributions but as proprietary ideas for which users must pay a fee, a usury.

This trend began in the late 1970's and early 1980's with biotechnology, but here and now, at the end of the millennium, it seems to have spread to most fields of scientific inquiry. How does the "group mind" necessary to produce theoretical physics/chemistry/biology survive the free-market? Traditionally, academic freedom refers to the freedom of ideas; it is the perception that individuals in the research community must be allowed 'fair use' of other researcher's ideas, must be allowed to explore these ideas without the payment of a usury. But in a free-market economy the concepts of academic freedom and fair use are indentured to the notion of intellectual property. People may be free, but ideas are most definitely not.

Lewis Hyde does not prescribe answers to the many questions his book brings up. Instead, he encourages us to challenge our current assumptions about the proper role of the market place in our relationships with each other and our institutions.

JoAnn Schwartz is a librarian living in Detroit who cannot possibly read as much as she would like.



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