An anthropological and philosophical account of how and why we give thanks—or, at times, resist doing so.
Former classics professor Visser (The Geometry of Love, 2000, etc.), a deliberate writer whose lovely books are few and far between, ponders why it is that we are moved to say “please” and “thank you.” Are we hard-wired to do so? Perhaps, for, as Visser writers, “in states of aphasia, or in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, these little phrases often survive the shipwreck of all other memories.” The author’s investigations take readers around the world, perhaps most fascinatingly to Japan, where the need to thank prolifically and to extremes of self-effacing near-groveling is a deeply ingrained thing, an expression of a view that we’re all in this together, the living and the dead alike, and that we all owe everyone else on the planet thanks for allowing us to survive. The Japanese way of giving thanks involves phrases whose literal meanings acknowledge one’s inferiority: “This is poison to my soul,” “This doesn’t really taste very good, but please eat it,” “I feel shame.” The network of obligation a Japanese thanks implicates is profoundly different from the way an American might feel, and indeed Americans are widely perceived as a people who apologize without really meaning it. “Bilingual Hindi-English speakers in India thank more often in English than they do in Hindi,” Visser writes, continuing her planetary researches before settling down to examine our own culture more completely. She looks at the expressions of thanks in Dickens’s Great Expectations, the custom of tipping (which is abound up with hidden traps of social rank and equality), the perils of gift-giving, the even greater perils of stinginess and other such diverse matters of nature and nurture, all delivered in elegant, clear prose.
A book to be thankful for—sympathetic to human foible, deeply learned and a pleasure to read.