Emily's Reviews > The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

The Gift by Lewis Hyde
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I picked this up at a bookstore where I was killing some time before an appointment. I read the preface and the introduction and wept through them both. I left for my appointment, thinking I'd have to find a used copy of this book sometime and read it. A couple of hours later, I had to go back and buy it because I was still thinking about it. So it lit a fire under me, for sure. Whether or not it fulfilled the promise of that fire is still up for debate. The preface and the intro are really easy reading and point at some really salient issues. The actual text kind of does a dance around the issue at hand. We're supposed to read the author's analysis of gift-giving as a metaphor for the artistic experience and make the connections ourselves, I suspect. And sometimes I could. Other times, it was such a stretch and the academic style of writing so alienating, I could barely manage to pay attention, let alone make expansive inferences.
He's on to something about value and the arts and an alternate currency/markets but I longed for solutions, not just more examples of the schism in culture that creates market-driven art. The literary analysis of Whitman and Pound were fascinating, sure - but for me didn't really help me understand all that much more about art and the modern world. Mostly, I walked away from that section feeling pretty depressed that two of our great authors lived in poverty for most of their lives. Also, I left with a fear that my sense of moral outrage about the treatment of artists in this culture could lead me to a life like Ezra Pound's and a fascination with fascism. I mean, no, I'm not going to become a fascist like Pound, but somehow Hyde's arguments make me feel how easily a person could slide down that slippery slope. All of which leaves the question hanging about how to balance the gifts of art, artists, et al.

But paragraphs like these show up, too and this is what stokes the fire:

"Every culture offers its citizens an image of what it is to be a man or woman of substance. There have been times and places in which a person came into his or her social being through the dispersal of his gifts, the "big man" or "big woman" being that one through whom the most gifts flowed. The mythology of a market society reverses the picture: getting rather giving is the mark of a substantial person, and the hero is "self-possessed," "self-made." So long as these assumptions rule, a disquieting sense of triviality, or worthlessness even, will nag the man or woman who labors in the service of a gift and whose products are not adequately described as commodities. When we reckon our substance by our acquisitions, the gifts of the gifted man are powerless to make him substantial."

And this quote from May Sarton:

"There is only one real deprivation, I decided this morning, and that is not to be able to give one's gift to those that one loves most. . . The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up."

True true and true. But how do we fix it?

There are gems in the straw of this book. It's absolutely worth reading. Just put your University hat on before you do and don't expect any clear answers, either.

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Reading Progress

May 15, 2009 – Shelved
Started Reading
May 20, 2009 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jim I agree with what you've written -- a very thoughtful assessment -- but, well, I think the main thing is that this book brings the vital questions to life. Maybe the only answers are those that come from engaging the questions with your own life. This may be why so many writers and artists fall in love with Hyde's book. I never read most of it, but a few chapters "changed my life" by getting me thinking about a project that has become my life's work (www.jimmott.com).

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