THE GIFT: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde

THE GIFT: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property

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The conflict, as seen in both art and everyday life, between giving gifts and selling commodities: a multi-dimensional, insightful, and (appropriately) generous essay. Hyde is or has been a jack-of-all-trades (alcoholism counselor, carpenter, electrician, teacher, poet), and he builds his argument out of eclectic references to history, literature, and anthropology. He begins with the basic notion that gift exchange (and every gift is pregnant with a counter-gift) differs from commodity exchange in that it creates an emotional bond, whereas buying or trading things need not and generally doesn't. This suggests the familiar Marxian charge that capitalism degrades all human relations to the cash nexus; but Hyde shows that while primitive and premodern cultures may stress giving over getting, ""erotic"" over acquisitive commerce, they too distinguish between ""brothers and others."" A totally erotic community would burn itself out, while the acquisitive society freezes to death. Hyde's key metaphor in this context is usury: the Torah forbids it (except when lending to strangers), the medieval Church proscribed it (save for Jews, who were by definition outsiders), the Reformers gave it their very reluctant blessing, and now it's a linchpin, economically and otherwise, of our world. This puts the artist into a quandary since he must perform in the marketplace a function that is essentially ""self-squandering, self-abnegating, self-forgetful."" Hyde examines the theme of the writer as a (well or ill) paid public benefactor by reviewing the life and work of Walt Whitman and the not-nearly-so-ideal instance of Ezra Pound, two writers who ignored or resisted the constraints of capitalism on literature. While approving such resistance Hyde concludes with the balanced judgment that ""within certain limits, gift wealth may be rationalized and market wealth may be eroticized."" Not strikingly original (Hyde draws heavily upon Marcel Mauss, among others), but a rich, humane interdisciplinary study.

Pub Date: March 28th, 1983
Publisher: Random House