The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World Paperback – Dec 4 2007
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“The best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators. . . . A masterpiece.” —Margaret Atwood
“No one who is invested in any kind of art . . . can read The Gift and remain unchanged.” —David Foster Wallace
“Few books are such life-changers as The Gift: epiphany, in sculpted prose.” —Jonathan Lethem
“A manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art [and] cares for it.” —Zadie Smith
“This long-awaited new edition of Lewis Hyde's groundbreaking and influential study of creativity is a cause for across-the-board celebration.” —Geoff Dyer
About the Author
Lewis Hyde was born in Boston in 1945 and studied at both Minnesota and Iowa universities. His hugely acclaimed essay, "Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking," in part sprang out of his experiences as an alcoholism counselor, but he is also a highly regarded poet in his own right whose poetry and essays have been widely published. He is a MacArthur Fellow, a former director of creative writing at Harvard and, alongside The Gift, he is the author of the equally acclaimed Trickster Makes This World. He lives in Ohio, where he is completing a third book.See all Product Description
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What served me best in reading this book was the fact that it was one of only two I brought for a very long trip. This meant that I had plenty of time and less reason to be distracted. With this time I was able to pace myself through a somewhat slow beginning, tolerate the re-telling of some stories with which I was already familiar, and, by the end of Part 1, be willing to write a 4-star review of how amazing it was that Lewis Hyde could have so presciently defined the logic and sensibilities of the free software and free culture movements that would blossom within ten years of the book being published. His telling of the real establishment of capitalism--that begin with Martin Luther rather than Adam Smith, and the concomitant destruction of charitable customs in Western nations provide a far more cogent explanation of both the moral bankruptcy and the actual bankruptcy of globalism than I've heard in more than one hundred hours of NPR news stories. And his explanations are spot-on for what I am seeing as a person who is involved with, and invests in, community development and sustainability. Indeed, I think it would make especially good reading in faith communities that also have a social community mission.
Then Mr. Hyde lets the other shoe drop: "the gift" describes not only the cultural practices that made economies flourish under conditions beyond the abilities or cares of capitalism, but also the human practices that enable the "genius" of creativity to flourish. The depth of his insights are staggering, and in the end they recontextualized a good portion of my own liberal arts education.
I am delighted to have read it, and look forward to applying its lessons to everything I do going forward, starting with buying enough copies to begin giving them away...
Hyde's central theorem - that true art does, and must of its nature, stand outside the market economy, and this therefore presents a serious problem for the artist forced to live in a world increasingly subsumed by the market economy - could have achieved its full elaboration in the space of a single chapter. In the first half of the book we get that, but we also get quite a lot of wide-ranging argument about economics and the traditional tribal life of gift exchange. Not all of this is relevant, but it's all admittedly fascinating. Less fascinating are Hyde's attempts to locate contemporary examples. For example, he argues rather unconvincingly that the scientific community is "a gift community to the extent that its ideas move as gifts". Fair enough, but the extent to which they do in fact move as gifts is negligible. Scientists are among the most egotistical, petty and jealously self-serving academics ever born. Science isn't about sharing ideas, or not only that. It's about promoting "my ideas" and having "my name" forever associated with them. It's about personal prestige and glory. Ask any scientist how he or she would feel about all work being published in journals anonymously, and used thereafter without attribution.
The second half of the book is given over to two long essays on poets, and here Hyde - a poet himself - is clearly on stronger ground. One is a very engaging treatment of Walt Whitman which traces elements of "the gift" idea through his poetry and sad personal life, though for some inexplicable reason Hyde doesn't quite want to state clearly what he constantly implies: that Whitman's charitable works had a good deal more sublimated homosexuality in them than they did Christian love for his fellow man. The other is an interesting analysis of Ezra Pound which traces the arc of his genius and generosity, and yet doesn't hold back from depicting him as a frustrated bigot and fascist lunatic who only recanted his vile "suburban prejudice" (anti-Semitism) at the very end.
The conclusion and afterword link elements of the gift argument to the support for the arts in postwar America and its relationship to the Cold War.
Margaret Atwood overstated the case when she apparently called this book "a masterpiece". It's very good, but it isn't that. It's overlong, weirdly structured, and in places poorly argued. Hyde often makes huge leaps in order to connect the "evidence" with his argument, or asks us to assume an assertion is true and then builds a case on the assertion without ever coming back to prove it. Disappointingly, there is very little synthesis here, nothing that binds all of these ideas into a consistent argument - and very little in the way of recommendations about how art might flourish in a market economy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. I came away from this book uplifted and refreshed, with a whole new way of looking at Whitman and Pound, and a new way of looking at art's place in the world. There really is no place for art in the market economy, and that's probably why art will outlive it. There is something primal and fundamentally human in art and "the gift" economy on which it relies. Both are necessary functions of human life.
But by the time I finished, I was left wondering what the point was. All this anthropological evidence of ritual gift-giving, the economic history of Europe, the psychological analysis of Whitman & Pond, written by someone who is neither anthropologist, economist, historian or psychologist, and all for what?
Mr. Hyde devotes more than a hundred pages of his book to the subject of usury, as though that were at the root of the problem, and yet here's what's at the bottom of p. 355 (in a footnote! no less) of the final page of his long essay on Pound, just before his Conclusion: "One of Pound's last pieces of writing was a clarification: "Re USURY, I was out of focus, taking a symptom for a cause. The cause is AVARICE."
A "clarification" that Mr. Hyde appears to have ignored throughout his own book, which is indeed out of focus, full of eddies of cloudy, dense, abstruse passages that circle about and seem to be going somewhere, but don't.
On the copyright page it states: Originally published in hardcover as "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property" in a slightly different form in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and published in paperback in a slightly different form in the United states by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York in 1983.
Update #1: This edition has a three page preface from 2007. It also has a 16 page chapter from 2007 entitled "On Being Good Ancestors: Afterword to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition".
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