Lewis Hyde’s book “The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World” (originally subtitled “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property”), from 1983, has become a modern classic. Margaret Atwood called it “a masterpiece”. And it is easy to see why. Not because it is so thorough or dense, because it’s neither, but because it puts something you already thought you knew all about into a whole new perspective. It is thought of as a defense of the value of creativity, which helps to explain why many artists have found it so intriguing, and it is also an insightful critisism of our current economic system. Yet to me, it also has a deeply spiritual side, perhaps because what he writes about really is quite universal. I will keep to what this book has meant to me and not go too much into what he says of artists and art.
Lewis Hyde makes the art of giving, the Gift itself, become alive. Even if it is a physical object that is being given away, there is something about giving that breathes life into it. A gift has to move. A gift must be used or consumed. It ties bonds. It is exhanged. It fills gaps. It serves the good of the collective. Gifts add something to the world. It is strikingly similar to life itself. The problem with our current economic system, which is not based on gifts, but rather on commodity exchange, is that wealth stops moving freely, it is accumulated which makes it scarce, and it divides instead of bringing together. There seems to be something hard and lifeless about it.
Although Hyde starts off his analysis seeming very critical to the whole idea of commodity exchange, it becomes apparent that it also has its advantages. While the gift can limit freedom because there are expectations tied to it and it creates bonds, commodity exchange ensures a sort of detachment which enables you to step aside, keep away. It doesn’t live on, when a deal is done, it is over, its purpose has come to an end. They are two very different sort of energies. While gifts bring people together, creates community, commodity exchange alienates, keeps apart. In the end, Hyde defends this play of opposites and instead urges us to look at how they can work together and draw from each other. If you picture a community, the community might survive within with the use of gifts, this is what might tie them together, while they might trade with strangers, this is what sets them apart from the rest of the world. After all, what has been brought into the community from outside might be turned into a gift, and the gift might be sold to an outsider. You cannot really draw a sharp line between the two because one might change into the other. Perhaps they are two sides of the same coin, perhaps they both need each other? I won’t argue for either views as I personally have an affinity towards gifts economics which I have slightly touched upon in the article “Sacred Economics: What is Wrong with Money and How can We Make It Right?“. Rather I’d like to go a little into the spiritual side of the story because to me the whole fluidity of the gift tells a lot about spiritual growth.
In order for us to come closer to our source what needs to happen is an exchange, a giving and receiving, we need to open up to receive the gift, and in order to do so, there needs to be an empty space, we need to give away. The gift naturally moves towards the empty space to fill the gap, that is the true nature of the gift. If we keep hoarding, not only materially things, but also ideas, concepts and opinions, there is little space left for something else to flow into us, something that might prove to be more valuable than what we strive to hold on to. As soon as we open up for it, something new will flow in. This is life itself. This is what life is. Life is change and movement and aliveness, and in order to keep staying alive, we need to keep allowing, keep letting go. The more we hold on to things, the more we separate ourselves from our source, and the less we are able to grow and expand.
To me “The Gift” isn’t really about art or economy, rather it is about a general way of being. It is about allowing and trusting and connecting with our surroundings, being it our neighbor or our god. It is a book I highly recommend, and despite its age, it is just as relevant today, if not more. Yes, you might be left a little bewildered at the end, because what is really his conclusion and where was he really going with it all? Yet it is probably because of its elusive nature that it is so great, it doesn’t just describe one thing, it describes everything.
by Agathe Molvik.