Gifts pass from hand to hand: they endure through such transmission, as every time a gift is given it is enlivened and regenerated through the new spiritual life it engenders both in the giver and in the receiver.
And so it is with Lewis Hyde’s classic study of gift giving and its relationship to art. The Gift has never been out of print; it moves like an underground current among artists of all kinds, through word of mouth and bestowal. It is the one book I recommend without fail to aspiring writers and painters and musicians, for it is not a how-to book—there are many of these—but 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. If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, read The Gift. It will help to keep you sane.
I doubt that Lewis Hyde knew while he was writing it that he was composing such an essential work. Perhaps he felt he was merely exploring a subject of interest to him—in its short form, why poets in our society are seldom rich—and enjoying the many tributaries he was uncovering through his exploration without realizing that he had hit on a wellspring. When asked by his original editor who his presumed audience was, he couldn’t really pinpoint it but settled for “poets.” “That’s not what most editors want to hear,” as he says in his preface to the 2007 edition. “Many prefer ‘dog owners seeking news of the dead.’ ” As he then tells us, “The happy fact is that The Gift has managed to find an audience beyond the community of poets.” This is an understatement of some vastness.
I first encountered both Lewis Hyde and The Gift in the summer of 1984. I was in the midst of writing The Handmaid’s Tale, begun in the spring in that combination of besieged city and consumer showcase that was West Berlin at the time and where the twentieth-century clash between communitarianism gone wrong and Mammon worship gone wild was most starkly in evidence. But now it was July, and I was in Port Townsend, Washington, at a summer school for writers of the kind that were then multiplying. In that secluded area, all was bucolic.
Lewis Hyde was also teaching at the summer school. He was a genial young poet whose hobby was lepidoptery, and he shyly presented me with a copy of The Gift. In it he wrote: “For Margaret. Who has given all of us many things.” I like the slipperiness and ambiguity of this—“many things” could include anything from the poems and novels I hope he had in mind to “a case of herpes” and “the heebie-jeebies”—for the word gift is itself slippery and ambiguous. Think of “Greeks bearing gifts,” a reference to the fatal Trojan horse, and the poisoned apple given to Snow White, not to mention that other apple given to Adam and the wedding gifts that burn Medea’s rival to the bone. The double-handedness of gifts is in part what Lewis Hyde’s book is about.
The Gift was first published in 1983, when it was originally subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. On the cover of my 1983 Vintage paperback (and again with the new edition) is a Shaker painting of a basket of apples—a choice explained in a note by Hyde:
The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world. Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be “laboring for a gift,” and the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community. Shaker artists were known as “instruments”; we know only a few of their names, for in general it was forbidden that they be known to any but the church elders.
This note is followed by a copyright line that, in view of the origins of Basket of Apples, reads ironically: “Basket of Apples is reprinted through the courtesy of The Shaker Community Inc.” So the community of gift givers has now become incorporated, and its gifts have been transformed to property by the commodity market that now surrounds us on all sides. One of the questions Hyde asks is whether a work of art is changed by the way it is treated—as gift or as commodity for sale. In the case of Basket of Apples, I would say not: the word courtesy implies that no money changed hands. But it could have, whereas under the Shaker rules such a thing would have been impossible. Hyde’s point is taken.
The painting itself is instructive. The basket of apples is not depicted realistically. The basket is transparent, as if made of glass, and the apples float within it as if levitating. They are not red apples but golden ones, and if you look at them closely, they morph from flat design to three-dimensional, with something like molten gold leaf flowing within them. Thus the picture shows a gift—the glowing energy—within a gift—the apples—within another gift, the entire basket. Each apple most likely represented a single Shaker, warmed and glimmering with an inner gift, but not thereby standing out from the community, for all the apples are the same size. My guess is that the container that holds them all together—the transparent basket—would have meant, to its original viewers, divine grace. Hyde chose his cover with care.
Together, Basket of Apples and its commentary encapsulate the large questions Hyde is posing. What is the nature of art? Is a work of art a commodity with a money value, to be bought and sold like a potato, or is it a gift on which no real price can be placed, to be freely exchanged?
And if works of art are gifts and nothing but, how are their creators to live in the physical world, in which food will sooner or later be needed by them? Should they be sustained by reciprocal gifts made by the public—the equivalent of the gifts placed in the Zen monk’s begging bowl? Should they exist in quasi-Shaker communities of the like-minded, of which creative-writing departments may be a secular version? Present copyright law takes a stab at this problem.
If a creation or a version of it is traded in the marketplace, a creator is entitled to control who may reproduce the work and is entitled to a portion of the sale price. And this right may be inherited. But that entitlement ends a certain number of years after the creator’s death, after which the work passes into the creative commons and is freely available to all, to do with as they will. Hence Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Mona Lisa postcards with mustaches on them. Gifts are not always treated in a way that respects their original spirit.
This and many other questions are tackled by Hyde through a mixture of economic theory, anthropological works about tribal gift-giving customs, folktales about the use and misuse of gifts, snippets from etiquette guides, accounts of archaic funeral rites, marketing stratagems for such things as children’s underwear, organ donation practices, religious observances, the history of usury, the cost-benefit analyses made by Ford when deciding whether to recall a model with a potentially lethal flaw, and much more.
Then Hyde follows up with two case studies of writers, both of whom gave much thought to the knot between art and money: Whitman, so generous that he risked obliterating the boundary between self and universe—how much of yourself can you give away without evaporating?—and Ezra Pound, so obsessed with the unfair and distorting effects money can have on artists that he became a supporter of the Fascists in Italy, as they seemed to give credence to some of his wackier theories about what money should be and how it could be made to grow, if not exactly on trees, then like trees. This chapter is called “Ezra Pound and the Fate of Vegetable Money,” and it is one of the few things I’ve ever read that explains how Pound might have come by his corrosive anti-Semitism. The account of Allen Ginsberg’s generous and redemptive visit to Pound at the end of his life is intensely moving and is—again—an illustration of Hyde’s theories in practice.
The Gift was first published almost four decades ago, when personal computers were in their infancy, when there were no e-readers or e-books, and no social media on the internet. Now all these things have come to pass, and Hyde’s examination of the relationship between gift giving and the creation and reinforcement of the communities that form around it is more pertinent than ever.
Many have scratched their heads over the monetization of social sites—how are these things to be paid for, and how shall they make money?—and over the tendency of the internet to demand that everything on it be somehow “free,” despite the salaries that must be paid to those pulling the e-strings and making the very physical devices on which intangible e-objects appear and disappear. But as Hyde expounds, gift exchange demands reciprocity and is fed by it: thus one retweet deserves another, shared enthusiasms are exchanged with the enthusiasms of others, and those who offer advice for nothing may expect to receive it for nothing when in need. But gifts create bonds and obligations, and not everyone wants these or understands them. There is, in fact, no totally free lunch.
If you’ve lifted a song or a film off the net without paying—if you’ve got something out of it, as we say—if you’ve treated it as a gift, which by its nature has spiritual worth but no monetary value, being priceless—what do you owe its creator, who has been the instrument through which it has arrived in your hands? Your gratitude, via a word of thanks? Your serious attention? The price of a latte deposited in a beggar’s bowl e-tip jar?
The answer is never “nothing.” Much digital ink has been spilled over these issues, with copyright wars taking center stage. Surely part of the solution is the education of the new e-audience in the ways of gifts. A gift is a gift when the giver exercises their choice; if something is taken against an owner’s will or without their knowledge, that’s called “theft.” But that line can get blurry. As Hyde points out, it’s not for nothing that in the ancient Greek world the messenger god, Hermes, was in charge of movement of all kinds: buying and selling, travel, communications, tricks, lies and jokes, the opening of doors and the revealing of secrets—something the web is particularly good at—and thieves. But Hermes sets no moral value on how a thing changes location: he just facilitates that change. Whether those using the information highways and byways know it or not, the presiding god of the internet is Hermes.
Every reader of The Gift I’ve ever spoken to has come away from it with new insights, not only into their artistic practices but also into questions that are so much a part of daily life that we don’t look at them too closely. If someone opens the door for you, do you owe that person a thank-you? Should you spend Christmas with your family if you’re trying to solidify an identity of your own? If your sibling asks you to donate your kidney to her, do you immediately say you’ll give it to her or do you charge her a couple thousand dollars? Why shouldn’t you accept a gift from the Mafia if you don’t want to find yourself on the receiving end of a request that you perform a criminal act? What about that case of wine from a lobbyist, if you’re a politician? Are diamonds a girl’s best friend, or should you prefer a sentimental kiss on the hand that you will never be able to turn into cash?
One guarantee: you won’t come out of The Gift unaltered. This is a mark of its own status as a gift: for gifts transform the soul in ways that simple commodities cannot.
Margaret Atwood, whose work has been published in more than forty-five countries, is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry, critical essays, and graphic novels. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, now an award-winning TV series, her novels include Cat’s Eye, short-listed for the 1989 Booker Prize; Alias Grace, which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Blind Assassin, winner of the 2000 Booker Prize; The MaddAddam Trilogy; The Heart Goes Last; and Hag-Seed. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize, the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Los Angeles Times Innovator’s Award. In 2019 she was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to literature. She lives in Toronto with the writer Graeme Gibson.
From the book The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, to be published on September 24, 2019, by Vintage, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Introduction copyright © 2012 by Margaret Atwood. Gift, a documentary inspired by the book, will open in select theaters on October 10.