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The Gift

In her forward to The Gift (Lewis Hyde, 1983 Vintage books trade paperback Third vintage books edition, September 2019), Margaret Atwood says: “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, read The Gift. It will help keep you sane.” This is because it is a book “about the core nature of what it is that artists do and also about the relation of these activities to our overwhelmingly commercial society”.

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Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach, June 2022; Margaret Atwood, Author, during the opening night of Collision 2022 at Enercare Centre in Toronto, Canada.

As an artist, I had high expectations for this book, and that it would, if not keep me sane, at least help me understand and work within the commercial context of our lives.

Hyde goes some way toward helping with the understanding part by looking at late capitalism from a unique perspective. And he describes the relation of these activities to our overwhelmingly commercial society in (for the most part) an interesting way. But he makes no attempt to help artists work within this system, because, as he puts it, “this is not a “how to” book. So overall, I was disappointed because it is very easy to come up with a critique of capitalism, no matter how unique, but it is another thing to suggest alternatives, either at the individual or the governance level. I was also disappointed that the book did not translate all that well across disciplines.

In general, many of his assumptions hold for writers, painters, singers, composers, actors, and film-makers, but he is writing from a writers perspective. For instance he talks about the suspension of disbelief, “by which we become receptive to work of the imagination”. But in painting, there is no real requirement to suspend disbelief as belief is more of a verbal/intellectual process that does not hamper or enhance a viewer’s perception of visual art. The writerly focus is emphasized in the middle section of the book which is an exhaustive analysis of the work of two poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, that was of limited interest to this reader, a painter.

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George Collins Cox, photograph of Walt Whitman in 1887 – United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division

The book was started in 1979 and first published in 1983, a time when it was still considered appropriate to use the masculine pronouns, “man”, “his” and “he” instead of non-gendered plural forms like “humans”, “people” or “they”, and Lewis uses masculine forms throughout. He does, however, include Chapter 6, A Female Property that has to do with women being given in the marriage ceremony as a gift. He points out how clearly this underscores that women are still considered as property to be used in bartering. His very practical suggestion is that, in addition to a father giving away his daughter to the groom, the groom’s mother should give away her son to the bride.

These may be niggling criticisms because the real point of Hyde’s book is to understand the market economy – how it evolved, its most salient characteristics and what it means to be an artist in such an economy. He develops his argument in the first part of the book where he differentiates between a gift economy where items are given without expectation of rent and a market economy where anything given to another is expected to come back with interest. In the last part of the book he explores how art fits into this.

He has some keen insights and, like most good writers, can put into words ideas that the rest of us have trouble expressing. For instance, he describes how a gift economy differs from a market economy: in a market economy, all gifts are destroyed. “If the increase of gifts is in the erotic bond, then the increase is lost when exchange is treated as a commodity transaction (when, in this case, it is drawn into the part of the mind that reckons value and quantity).p196

Though in some ways “the gift” does not translate well among artistic disciplines, Hyde includes great quotations that are universal, such as this one from Flannery O’Connor:“No art is sunk in the self, but rather, in art the self becomes self forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.” (p.195)

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Flannery O’Connor, Courtesy of Ina Dillard Russell Library, Georgia College and State University

While this is an eloquent, uplifting statement, it illustrates that an artist can be gifted with imagination and skill but step outside the zone of self-forgetting and become as blind and bigoted as the most brutally ignorant. Recently found correspondence indicates that O’Connor had a “habit of racial bigotry…She was disturbed by the presence of an African-American student in her cousin’s class; in Manhattan, she sat between her two cousins on the subway lest she have to sit next to people of color. The sight of white students and black students at Columbia sitting side by side and using the same rest rooms repulsed her.”(New Yorker Magazine June 15, 2020, by Paul Elie).

This is the shadow side of many successful artists that is not adequately addressed in Hyde’s book. For instance in the chapter dedicated to analyzing the life and work of Ezra Pound, he does not address the question of how Pound can be a self-forgetting artist capable of making poetry that “meets the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made” and a rabid anti-semitic. Instead he goes into a somewhat annoying digression about Hermes and the shadow side that doesn’t ring true.

It is not only writers like O’Connor or Pound with a shadow side, such artists abound in every discipline and their presence is not clearly explained in The Gift. For instance, Pablo Picasso has been called the most influential artist of the 20th century but today, Picasso is more often talked about as a misogynist, sociopath and narcissist. Yes it is difficult to be an sensitive, creative person in a culture of getting and spending, but Hyde does not explore how an artist can be gifted in one area but spiritually disabled in others. He believes artistic creativity “has the power to assemble the elements of our experience into coherent, lively wholes”, but this is clearly not the case for some artists who have stunted relationships with fellow human beings.

So we have to go along with Hyde’s compartmentalizing of the creative imagination so that the person making art is in a different zone than the person out in a culture distorted by the marketplace.

He relates artistic creativity to the concept of the gift in that “the imagination has the power to assemble the elements of our experience into coherent, lively wholes: it has the gift.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes the imagination as “essentially vital” and takes as it’s hallmark it’s ability “to shape into one,” an ability he named “the esemplastic power.” An artist who wishes to exercise the esemplastic power of the imagination must submit himself to what Lewis calls a “”gifted state,” one in which he is able to discern the connections inherent in his materials and give the increase, bring the work to life….the artist who succeeds in this endeavour has realized his gift. He has made it real, made it a thing: it’s spirit is embodied in the work.”(p.195)

Hyde goes on to describe how “…the spirit of the artist’s gift may enter and act upon our being. Sometimes, then, if we are awake, if the artist really was gifted, the work will induce a moment of grace, a communion, a period during which we too know the hidden coherence of our being and feel the fullness of our lives…any such art is itself a gift, cordial to the soul.”(p.196)

And “we participate in the esemplastic power of a gift by way of a particular kind of unconsciousness, then: unanalytic, undialectical consciousness.” “The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person. Works of art are drawn from, and their bestowal nourishes, those parts of our being that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, from the group and the race, from history and tradition, and from the spiritual world.”

He quotes Joseph Conrad, “the artist appeals… to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mysteries surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation – to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of enumerable hearts, to the solidarity… which binds together all humanity – the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

As I have said in earlier blogs, the greatest gift writers can give to other artists is to put into words truths about art that practitioners of other disciplines do not have the skills to do (this sentence is a case in point). So I forgive the gender-specific pronouns, the long diversion into analyzing poetry and the lack of a “how-to” because The Gift is one person’s offering to nature, the group, the race, history, tradition and the spiritual world.

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