The Gift: Art, Imagination, and the Power of the Creative Spirit

Twenty-five years ago, the writer Lewis Hyde met with his editor, Jonathan Galassi, who asked him to define the audience for his groundbreaking work on creativity and society, The Gift. After discarding his reflexive response –“all thinking humans” — as too grandiose, Hyde replied “poets.” Then, as now, poets had a difficult enough time creating an audience for their own work, much less serving as the primary audience for someone else’s work of nonfiction. It seems, therefore, a minor miracle of publishing that the work not only made it into print but has quietly found its way to classic status, as evidenced by the recently released 25th anniversary edition.

Poets, no doubt, found much to comfort them in a work that argues for the inherent worth of works of art. But what is more surprising, in retrospect, is how timely Hyde’s ideas on the free flow of art and ideas in a capitalistic culture would become for an entirely new form of information exchange: the Internet.

Hyde, who now divides his time between teaching creative writing and his work at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, turned out to be a dual prophet for both the literati and the technorati. The latest edition of his book comes virtually gift-wrapped in ecstatic blurbs from a new generation of writers — Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Lethem among them — all of whom seem to regard Hyde as a nearly spiritual patron saint for the writing life. (Last spring, Lethem, citing Hyde’s ideas, gave away the film rights to his most recent novel You Don’t Love Me Yet, to the person who, in his opinion, submitted the most exciting proposal, with the caveat that the person “pay it forward,” so to speak, by agreeing to let the rights go back into the public domain five years after the film is completed.)

The original subtitle of the book, “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property,” clued readers in to Hyde’s ambitious reach into the questions of life in a capitalist society. Later editions changed it to the slightly less heady “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.” But it takes him the entire first half of the book — nearly 200 pages — to engage in much direct speculation about “creativity,” “artists,” or anything resembling “the modern world.” Instead, Hyde draws from ethnography, myth, fable, and economic history to spell out a theory of gift economies in action. His emphasis is on categories of things — children, spouses, organs, and scientific ideas among them — that many cultures have treated as gifts, governed (in his myth-inflected language) by the rules of Eros to enrich the ties between people and the larger community. These are contrasted with mere commodities, governed by the rule of Logos. In a community centered around Eros, says Hyde, gifts “survive their use” just as “libido is not lost when it is given away.”

One of the key functions of a gift economy is that those things that are designated as gifts keep moving. For his first example, Hyde cites the early European settlers who discovered that the Indians (his term) would be perfectly gracious in offering a peace pipe to a visitor but would expect this gift to be returned in kind when they visited him. The European — who had already stashed the pipe on the mantle or sent it off to a museum — coined the term “Indian giver” to describe a person who demanded the return of the gift. “The opposite of ‘Indian giver,’ ” writes Hyde, “would be something like ‘white man keeper’ (or maybe ‘capitalist’), that is, the person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation, to put it in a warehouse or museum (or more to the point of capitalism, to lay it aside to be used for production.”

The spirit of the gift exchange demands that the gift — whether goats, peace pipes, blues riffs, or folktales — circulates throughout the wider community. (In most cases, says Hyde, a binary exchange between two people is not an example of gift economy but closer to barter.) The point here is not to abolish all notions of personal property but to insist that “one man’s gift should not be another man’s capital.” One particularly egregious modern example, cited by both Hyde and Lethem (in an essay written for Harper’s last year), is the case of the Walt Disney company, which built an empire based in part on folktales (Snow White, Pinocchio, etc.) only to lock up those characters behind their own copyright protection.

In the second half of his book, Hyde applies the ethnography and folk tales in the first half as “parables or Just So stories of the creative spirit.” To him, the artist is literally a gifted person who receives something from a higher power outside the self. “A crucial portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation,” he writes. “Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received and we can not have this gift, except, perhaps, by courting, by creating within ourselves the ‘begging bowl’ to which the gift is drawn.” The second gift given to the artist is the ability to do the labor to complete the work. The third gift, then, is the giving back of the gift to others in the community. Using the analogy of unpaid contributions to scientific journals, which enhance the knowledge base of the community without directly paying the authors (who presumably have day jobs in research labs and the like), Hyde writes, “In communities drawn together by gift exchange, ‘status,’ ‘prestige’ or ‘esteem’ take the place of cash remuneration.”

It is here that Hyde finally turns to his purported audience — poets — to illustrate the ways in which “status,” “prestige,” and “esteem” can take the place of that lowly old commodity, cash. And it is here, to me, that the argument breaks down. Hyde devotes a chapter each to the lives and artistic labor of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. In Whitman, we get a poet given to visionary ecstasies and communion with his muse that reach erotic heights and somehow provide solace to a man who lived most of his adult life in near poverty and was frustrated in his romantic loves for both men and women. Pound, on the other hand, was a lifelong misanthrope, often obsessed with the “stupidity and idiocy” of humankind, whose antipathy to the commodification of art led him to flirt with both anti-Semitism and fascism. Hyde proves to be a sensitive biographer of each and does an especially beautiful job of explaining — without excusing them — the possible source of Pound’s most difficult behaviors.

But in a book that presumes to provide a blueprint for the artist’s life, these two poets are notably lackluster exemplars. Both were lifelong bachelors, who, in Hyde’s telling, never encountered direct responsibility for family members, whether spouses, children, or elderly parents. Both, it is true, engaged in altruism: Whitman spent the latter half of his life caring for wounded soldiers, and Pound devised numerous ways to support his fellow artists — including securing patrons, sending care packages, and investing the $2,000 Dial prize he received in order to distribute the interest to other artists. These acts amply illustrate the two-way communion between the artist and his or her artistic community. But it leaves out a third exchange: Many people take an interest in commerce when they have other people that they must support.

Hyde is strangely silent on the artist who must balance loyalty to his or her gift and the larger artistic community with loyalty to those he or she loves most. His prescriptions for earning a living are limited to those we already know: get a second job, get a patron, put the work of art on the market. The artist who is rich in spirit, he writes, can tolerate a certain amount of “plainness” in daily life. He writes: “I do not mean cold or hunger, but certainly the size of the room and the quality of the wine seem less important to a man who can convey imaginary color to a canvas.” And: “A young poet can stand the same supper of barley soup and bread, night after night, if he is on a walking tour of Italy and much in love with beauty.”

True enough. But in the pursuit of a working theory of the economics of art throughout human history, it seems a mistake to overlook artists who are less concerned with the quality of their wine than the source of their daily bread, or who are not on a walking tour of Italy but in a rented apartment with a couple of kids and the repo man and bankruptcy clerks on the way (for this last example, Raymond Carver, Hyde’s contemporary, would have made a nice case study).

The past two decades have proven Hyde to be a remarkably prescient thinker on the ways that information and ideas can flow through the economy. One can see his influence, however indirectly, on the open source movement, the medical community (especially in the case of organ donation), and new generation of copyright scholars. Wikipedia, perhaps the finest example of the democratic sharing of ideas, explicitly operates as a gift economy. Perhaps now a new generation of scholars can take up these ideas and fill in the missing parts — for all thinking humans.