Every Monday the High Calling Blogs Book Club will be posting on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
The heart of this book—if I am grasping it correctly–seems to be our society’s struggle with placing value—tangible and intangible—on artists, or those who create in any fashion. There is also the flipside of this, as Sam Van Eman hints at in his invitation to the book discussion: how do we find art in the work we do for a living?
Not consciously considered but frequently felt in this household: the economy of the Gift.
By gift, we mean many things. It may be something material, that we can hold in our hands. It may be a “gift of the inner world” as Hyde so delicately terms it.
A gift, he says, “…is a thing we do not get by our own efforts.” And thus, rightly so can describe our talents or aptitudes.
So what happens to these types of “gifts” when we give them away?
In my mother-role, I constantly pass intangibles along to my children.
As a writer, I rarely get paid for these words I throw out there.
As a professional, does my paycheck make the gifts I give in this role more valuable than the others?
What is the impact of a gift that passes out of my sight—no return evident as it “drifts in lacy jags above the flame”?
Hyde lays the foundation for exploration of these concepts by taking us to the Massim peoples of the South Sea islands near the eastern tip of New Guinea. These tribal peoples have a tradition, known as the Kula ring, of passing armshells and necklaces from household to household, island to island as a great circle of gift exchange.
This gift culture is accompanied by many understood rules that govern the continual movement of the items. In these unspoken rules is the understanding that a true gift is something that is meant to be “used up, consumed, eaten”. To hoard a gift, or use it to further one’s wealth in some fashion, is a breach of social norms.
Therefore, when the armshells and necklaces are exchanged, it is customary for the one giving to ‘toss them on the ground and say, “Here, some food we could not eat.”’
In this fashion, the gift is meant for enjoyment of the recipient, who then later passes the gifts on to another for their enjoyment.
This type of giving economy differs substantially from that of the capitalism we reside in.
This discussion took me around and around…
Filled me with desire to create “art for art’s sake” and pass along gifts willy nilly.
Hyde makes many good points from this launchpad of the gift economy.
One that really struck a chord with me is this idea that the Kula gift exchange moves in a circle. The armshells and necklaces move continuously around the islands in a wide ring. Hyde points out that, in this course, “…as the gift passes out of sight it cannot be manipulated by one man or one pair of gift partners. When the gift moves in a circle its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.”
While I do not pass out armshells and shell necklaces, I frequently offer up gifts in faith. In my passing on of the gift, God completes the archipelago.
In faith, I trust the spirit of the gift to circle around and move back to me, blessing me in its return.
Curious to see where Hyde takes this discussion in chapter two, but already, my spirit is renewed by his thoughts. Too often, when I lose sight of the gifts I bestow—when they turn that corner and enter into the unseen—I lose my faith that they are received with joy…that I will see the fruit of the gift. Hyde reminds me of the Great Circle, and the purpose in the giving.