From the Boston Phoenix, Sept. 6, 1983
by Scott Rosenberg
Figuring out the destination of The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (Vintage, 327 pages, $7.95 paper) is more difficult than itemizing the contents of author Lewis Hyde’s luggage. Within his first few pages Hyde unpacks a collection of intellectual curios: the formula of romance novels; the etymology of “Indian giver”; anthropological studies of African tribes; Scottish folk tales; excerpts from E.M. Forster and Walt Whitman; and more. That’s just for starters; later he brings in organ transplants, Dawn of the Dead, the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, superhero underwear, a New Jersey couple who tried to trade in their baby for a Corvette, and a tribe of Pacific Northwest Indians who greet the first salmon of each new season as if it were a visiting potentate (with a formal speech of welcome). All of this in an attempt to measure the value of generosity in both imaginative and public life — to locate those areas in society where the giving of gifts serves as a shadow economy.
Hyde, you might say, is a generalist, but he’s a shrewd one. Every few pages you want to apply a different label to him — leftist, mystic, moralist, social scientist, literary critic, anarchist. If in the end he eludes all definition, it’s a sign of his eccentric and ambitious vision. Most of us, when considering utopian schemes of economic reform, eventually wind up saying, “People won’t just give things away”; Hyde assumes we all do, already, one way or another.
He adopts the debater’s device of redefining the basic terms in the discussion. Yes, he says, within the marketplace people don’t give something for nothing; but the market isn’t the only place that people shop. Over the hills, far beyond the realm of international finance, Chicago-school economists, and curbside capitalists, there’s a happier kingdom where people don’t count their change. In the peaceful land of gift exchange, laws different from those of college economics prevail. There, property perishes if hoarded but multiplies if consumed or passed along (or, as Hyde puts it, “In the world of gift .. . you not only can have your cake and eat it too, you can’t have your cake unless you eat it.”). There, gifts converted into capital lose their virtues, but gifts kept in circulation return, indirectly but increased; and they create a bond between donor and recipient. Gift-giving (Hyde uses the term very loosely) may leave you materially poorer, but it’s sure to enrich your spirit — and you may even make friends and influence people.
Hyde tosses a pinch of everything into The Gift‘s first half, “A Theory of Gifts.” He lists instances of non-Western societies in which people achieve status by giving things away instead of piling them up. (One thinks of the scene in Lawrence of Arabia when Anthony Quinn’s Auda lifts the flap of his tent and bellows to his cheering horde, “I am a river to my people!”) He draws on his work with alcoholics, noting that Alcoholics Anonymous acts as a “gift community,” that many participants in the free program who’ve licked their problem go on to help other alcoholics. He discusses property attitudes among scientists, who respect the work that’s published in academic journals far more than the work they do for profit. He even identifies scientists with the Jews of the Old Testament and an African tribe called the Uduk: all are groups with double economies — gift exchange within the tribe and market exchange with strangers. Each example strengthens Hyde’s chief point, that “there are two primary shades of property, gift and commodity.” A property is one or the other depending on how it comes into being and how it passes from hand to hand; the same widget (to use the economist’s favorite product) might be one or the other according to the spirit of its makers and distributors.
But halfway through The Gift Hyde abandons this theoretical inquiry and gives us “Two Experiments in Gift Aesthetics,” a pair of long essays on Walt Whitman and Exra Pound. Don’t worry about the economic theory, he seems to be saying; it’s all a metaphor. The shift from social science (however quirky) to literary inquiry is at first distressing: this retreat toward the imaginary is just what champions of market economics expect from their opponents. Hyde’s change of direction is less a retreat, though, than an imaginative flight. Instead of following the gift theory down one straight path, he hops from one discipline to another.
The chapter on Whitman is the closest to literary criticism. Here Hyde describes how in 1855 “this previously run-of-the-mill writer came to publish Leaves of Grass, a book remarkable both in content and in style.” Hyde suggests that Whitman’s sudden emergence was due to a kind of epiphany, to his entering “a way of being, a state, in which an ongoing commerce of gifts is constantly available to him.” This sensibility is evident as early as 1847, when in one of his notebooks Whitman recorded what Hyde calls a hunger fantasy: “I am hungry and with my last dime get me some meat and bread. . . . But then like a phantom at my side suddenly appears a starved face either human or brute, uttering not a word. Now do I talk of mine and his?” Whitman’s permeability to the world (“Mine is no callous shell”) and his sense of his body as a gift he’ll someday return to nature give his poetry its abundance. “The greatest art offers us images by which to imagine our lives,” Hyde writes. “And once the imagination has been awakened, it is procreative: through it we can give more than we were given, say more than we had to say.”
In his essay on Pound, instead of trying to scale the walls of the Cantos Hyde confines himself to the poet’s economic ideas. Pound’s espousal of fascism, in Hyde’s view, followed from his longing for a system that would support and nurture its artists; that he was taken in by Mussolini’s “nation of artists and warriors” testifies to how desperately he wanted to find such a society. “Pound,” Hyde writes, “sought a ‘money system’ that might replicate, or at least support, the form of value that emanates from creative life.” Although Pound’s political ideas were repugnant, he was right, Hyde suggests, to link the Reformation, the rise of capitalism, and the beginnings of modern science with the decline of art: “Just as logic is the money of mind, so is the imagination its gift, and Pound was correct … to mark this as the moment in which the imagination was wounded by abstraction.”
The chapter on Pound also spotlights the most serious weakness in Hyde’s thinking: like many idealistic sermonizers, he has trouble coming to terms with greed. Whether Western acquisitiveness is the product of our culture or vice-versa, it seems to overwhelm the more communal societies it touches: bad money drives out good intentions. At the end of Pound’s life, after decades of ranting against usury, Jews, and everything that happened after the year 1527, he made this note: “Re USURY. I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is AVARICE.” Hyde, nevertheless, seems at times to think we need only alert the world to the great non-material benefits of gift giving for the practice to flourish.
These chapters — a poetry reading and an essay in intellectual history — only begin to sbow off what Hyde’s theory could do. The Gift never actually delivers on its promise to elaborate an “economy of the creative spirit.” And for all its originality, it will probably be most read and appreciated by those who already grasp its lessons, the visionary writers and artists from whom Hyde draws so many examples. Among realists and cynics, I’m afraid it will make little headway. They will snort at his occasional overgeneralizations, make fun of his fairy tales and cry “I told you so” at his admission that gift exchange works well only within small groups, the smaller the better. “Totally unsuited to modern society therefore,” you can hear the theory’s dismissal.
But Hyde never proposes the wholesale abandonment of market trade for a birthday-present economy. (After all, he is charging for The Gift.) He concludes that there’s a line stretching from pure gift to pure commodity, a continuum along which any property can be located; he exhorts us not to forget to factor in gifts when we balance our books.
Despite its unorthodox approach, The Gift could become a sturdy weapon in this age’s effort to smite the serpent’s head of free market theory as the creature keeps slithering back to life. The classical economists and their present-day epigones assume everyone acts to maximize his own economic interest; Hyde shows, with detail and clarity, that people just as often decide to do something because they like it, or someone else likes it, or it makes them or someone else feel good. For the smart-aleck libertarian who’d insist that the market can adapt to such impulses, Hyde has an answer: the entrepreneur who tries to capitalize on gift exchange will find its appeal evaporates on his shelves the moment he gives it a price tag.
Hyde’s book works as a sort of intellectual map-making expedition, too. He’s attempting to sketch in that empty gray area economics texts allude to when they note in small type underneath supply-and-demand curves, “Some types of value are unquantifiable, but we will ignore them for the moment.” They’re usually ignored forever. The Gift demonstrates that such heedlessness not only can distort your graphs — it can cramp your mind.