Good Advice from Unexpected Sources

Well, in completely unexpected fashion, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift has me going through all sorts of weepiness and what might be called in Southern Baptist circles “being convicted.” Only about eighty pages into it, I’m continually scrawling notes and making emphatic underlines about the need to let something go before it can live– and before it rots or dies by simple virtue of being grasped. Admittedly, when you’re going through non-optimal emotional times, pretty much anything could set you off and make you feel as if even the most maudlin and grotesquely general pop lyric were a direct imperative handed down to you by the divine– but during such bouts of heartache, an unsentimental, well-argued contention about the spirit of art– something you know has no interest in your present, personal case whatsoever– can sometimes be more convincing than the ministrations of your therapist, most reliable friends, and sibling combined. (OK, in reality, the appearance of such a thing is usually, as it was in this case, the final and decisive piece of emotional evidence that tipped my cowardly heart into decisive understanding and action. But that’s all another story.)

I saw Hyde give a lecture this past fall on his current project, the artistic commons. But the person who introduced him, and all the literature I read on the man, made such an effusive big deal about this particular book that I set out on a search for it, and I’m finally getting around to checking it out.

Up to this point, most of what I’ve read is not unfamiliar to me: how “primitive” gift economies function/ed, how gifts cannot be equated with commodities or price-value, etc.,etc. But the no-nonsense and simultaneously unabashed way in which Hyde brings out the spiritual nature of these things makes the entire conversation feel as if it’s essential to the reader’s life, regardless of how many times s/he’s had to read 19th-century accounts of bead exchanges and ceremonies involving scratchy government-produced blankets. What I can only, and without much grounding at this point, describe as common emotional sense feels like that rarest of always-strong and supportive friends who’ll hold you tight until you stop sobbing, but who also won’t allow you to avoid the hard work of doing whatever will keep you from returning to old behaviors that diminish your being. In urging us– artists, yes, but the average among us as well– to loose our covetous grasp of what we think is most dear, to open ourselves up to the vulnerability of life without a security blanket, Hyde also has us notice just what that sort of openness leads to: human connection that can’t in any way be bought our sold, and that, hence, will stick with you, even when the cost-benefit analysis of doing so would state in clear black and white that it’d be nuts.

Admittedly, the author’s going to take this into the tangible world of art– but at this point, he’s repeatedly hitting home, forcing me to slowly pry one obstinate finger after another from the grip it’s got on far less material substances.


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