Gift, The

by Lewis Hyde


The title of this book is the most egregious misnomer I’ve ever encountered. Combined with the misleading jacket description I don’t think I’ve ever had a more disappointing or frustrating experience from a book that I thought was going to be pretty straightforward.

It would have been more accurately subtitled not “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World,” but “An Ethnographic Study Through the Works of Whitman and Pound.” If that subtitle still appeals to you, by all means read the book, but at least now you have a more accurate perception of what you’re in for. I see now that earlier versions were subtitled “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property,” which is both more accurate (though still annoyingly vague) and less interesting. As it is, the current subtitle is only directly addressed in the concluding section, for a total of 20 or so pages out of more than 300.

As I was reading, this reminded me of both Robert Bly’s Iron John and Radin’s The Trickster. When I stopped to examine this feeling, I realized that all three books are written by poets/folklorists, and they all use the same loose, ephemeral arguments to support their theses. They also all ostensibly treat a very fascinating subject matter but get bogged down in esoteric mumbo-jumbo and poetic fluffiness, leaving a more rational reader disappointed. Some examples from this one:

The tribe and its gift are separate, but they are also the same — there is a little gap between them so they may breathe into each other, and yet there is no gap at all, for they share one breath, one meal for the two of them. 46

If we pause now to contrast the esemplastic cognition of imagination to the analytic cognition of logos-thought, we will be in a position to see one of the connections between the creative spirit and the bond that gift establishes. 196

The first passage above says pretty much nothing, and the second one says something that I’m not going to take the time to figure out.

Essentially, those passages are a microcosm of the book. The central thesis, as finally addressed head-on in the conclusion(!), is that it’s difficult for artists to make a living because their “gifts” aren’t appropriately valued on the commercial market. The fact that this is one of those “no duh” statements perhaps explains why Hyde had to fill up the book with so much irrelevant fluff. In fact, the entire 1st half of the book is dedicated to a tedious tracing of the anthropological history of gift-exchange, which only appears to relate in a very background way to what the cover of the book told me it was going to be about. As I said, frustrating.

In addition, the rational, non-literary arguments that Hyde does propose demonstrate either a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of facts that arouses suspicion toward the rest of his argumentation. For example, on p.150 Hyde attempts to equate the simultaneous group-reinforcement and other-repulsion of Mosaic usury laws with the biological cell membrane but does not accurately portray the membrane, making the argument useless for anyone with an intermediate understanding of biology, and misleading for anyone else. Later, less forgivably (he’s not a science teacher after all), he pens the following footnote talking about Pound’s anti-semitism and the Hermes archetype:

This figure who is good with money but a little tricky is always treated as a foreigner even if his family has been around for centuries. Often he actually is a foreigner, of course. He is invited in when the nation needs trade and he is driven out — or murdered — when nationalism begins to flourish: the Chinese out of Vietnam in 1978, the Japanese out of China in 1949, the Yankees out of South America and Iran, the East Indians out of Uganda under Idi Amin, and the Armenians out of Turkey in 1915-16. The “outsider” is always used as a catalyst to arouse nationalism, and when times are hard he will always be its victim as well.

The problems with this passage are many and outrageous, not least of which is that he counts Americans in South America/Iran and the Japanese in China as “victims.” Let’s keep in mind that the Chinese kicked out the Japanese after the latter had invaded the former in WWII and committed uncountable atrocities. And somehow the idea of South America and Iran inviting Americans in to help out with their economy before they turned on the innocent helpers doesn’t quite ring true. So with only a basic understanding of history I have destroyed 2/5 of his supporting examples. This suggests I could probably do the same if I knew anything about the other examples, or perhaps with a short wikipedia search.

My point is that Hyde is either profoundly ignorant about what he’s arguing or he’s making lazy arguments without supposing that people will realize. Deliberately attempting to obfuscate is another possibility, however improbable. Either way, it’s shockingly inept and calls into question the validity of a lot of his book. It also further corroborates my opinion that the book doesn’t say much at all rationally-speaking. Sure it may make some nifty artistic and intuitive points, but the non-“erotic” parts of the argument are uniformly suspect, lacking any kind of academic or scientific rigor.

On the plus side, I learned to avoid books written by poets, or by poetry enthusiasts. I am way too rational and analytical to appreciate literature-based arguments, so readers of this review can perhaps take it with a grain of salt. Also, I enjoyed learning about the lives of Whitman and Pound even if I don’t think Hyde did a good job of incorporating them into the overall book. The chapters on usury and woman-giving were also somewhat interesting. For anyone familiar with Robert Pirsig’s Lila (I just re-read it), Pound’s “Eluesinian fecundity” v. “Confucian order” exactly mirrors Pirsig’s “Dynamic v. Static Quality.” Or I suppose it’s vice versa. . .

Unfortunately, the majority of the book is boring and its value doubtful. It strikes me as one of those that artist-types like because it reinforces their flouting of conventional/rational standards and values. Perhaps its popularity is due to coming at a time when there were less people saying these things, I don’t know. But it doesn’t appear to say anything ground-breaking nor offer any original solutions to ease the tension between the artist and a monetary civilization. Disappointing.

I’ve seen that some people find this book inspirational. I’m an aspiring writer and was looking for that but was left in the cold. The most creatively inspiring book I’ve read continues to be, strangely enough, Stephen King’s On Writing. I highly recommend it to any writer looking for a kick in the pants. Tied for second are John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and (coincidentally) Leaves of Grass.

Original Review

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