No book has influenced my thinking on art as a gift more profoundly than The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, by Lewis Hyde, which I first read many years ago and reread recently. It's a book about gift economies, market economies, usury, and the implications of these for the questions of what we owe each other as artists, and what we owe the world. Most of the ideas in this letter are drawn from the book.
As a way into thinking about gifts, I want to think about what a gift does. What is it that distinguishes a gift exchange from a buying/selling kind of transaction? Superficially, the use of money perhaps (except in the case of barter)—but I think there's something deeper.
In a transaction, the goal is for both parties to be "even" as soon as possible, in other words to make an exchange of exactly equal value and thus owe each other nothing. (Even in cases involving debt, interest accumulates on the debt—and this debt-with-interest can even be commoditized and transferred—so that even the extra time the exchange takes is exactly compensated for.)
In a gift exchange, the goal is often the opposite: to never be even. I'm thinking here of neighbors or friends exchanging practical things, labor, homemade food, lending books and recommendations, sending cards. If either party wants to keep the relationship going, they try to give a little bit more than they owe each time (not necessarily in monetary value, but in thoughtfulness or effort), or to lend something, or borrow something—in other words, to maintain indebtedness, ideally indebtedness that switches direction with each exchange. It's understood that if you bring me something and I say "How much do I owe you?" and immediately pay you what I owe, then I'm probably not interested in an ongoing relationship; that if you compensate someone for the exact value of everything they have given you, then the tie between you has been cut, because there's no need to meet again.
A transaction prevents indebtedness and allows both parties to walk away without the need to connect again. A gift exchange fosters indebtedness, and indebtedness is what ties us to each other.
When we consider exchanges involving more than two parties, another related element comes into play: movement.
Lewis Hyde gives the example of a white colonist who is given a tobacco pipe by the local tribe as a gesture of hospitality. The colonist assumes the pipe is for him to keep or to do with as he wishes—just like any other object he might buy or be given. For the tribespeople, on the other hand, gifts are always meant to be circulated. When you are given a gift, you're expected to either give it away again after a while, or to give away something of similar value. This failure of understanding is what gave rise to the term "Indian giving."
The capitalist's instinct is "to remove property from circulation" (to keep it, to accrue it), while the gift giver's instinct is to keep property in circulation. In Papua New Guinea there is a ceremonial exchange system called the Kula ring, involving 18 different island communities and thousands of people, in which two kinds of gifts move continually through the ring of islands—armshells always counterclockwise, and necklaces always clockwise.
A person who participates in the Kula has gift partners in neighboring tribes. If we imagine him facing the center of the circle with partners on his left and right, he will always be receiving armshells from his partner to the left and giving them to the man on his right. The necklaces flow the other way. Of course, these objects are not actually passed hand to hand; they are carried by canoe from island to island in journeys that require great preparation and cover hundreds of miles.*
The one essential principle in gift culture: the gift must always move. It is so necessary for the gift to move, that it can warrant journeys by canoe over hundreds of miles, at great personal risk. And to risk one's life to ferry some shell necklaces or armbands to the next island is to risk one's life for something bigger than that: for a story, a story that says, "This is the kind of people we are. We're gift givers." The capitalist ends the movement of a gift. The gift giver perpetuates its movement.
When I write you a letter, it looks at first like a two-party exchange—the kind that may involve movement back and forth, but not movement through, as in a chain. The gift (the letter) originates from me and is given to you.
The crucial piece for me, what completely changed my understanding of this exchange forever, was when I realized that it is a chain: for I have been given a gift as well. This letter does not originate from me. Nor does anything important that I write. It originates from something else, goes through me, and I pass it on to you.
I think there's a long-running precedent, in the corpus of artists writing about making art, of the artist describing the work or the ideas as something that originates from outside of them—from some spirit or entity which has taken many names over thousands of years, including daemon, genius, muse, duende—in a process where the artist serves as a mere conduit or vessel. I can't say that every artist shares that perception, but I share it.
I know exactly when I started to see it that way because there's a distinct time when my journals start to mention another entity as if it is another person who speaks to me. I know it came about of its own accord and that I didn't get it from any book, because I remember my happy disbelief at reading books like The Gift and realizing that I wasn't the only one in the world who lived and worked in the presence of a spirit.
My new (at the time) understanding of my task as that of a channeler or interpreter rather than a "genius" (a fount or source of ideas) made it possible for me to write and keep writing. ("I'm not a genius, I have a genius," as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it.) Because I'm not someone who can stay motivated by the thought of sharing myself—that is, what's unique about me and distinguishes me from all other people. It just has never felt worthwhile to me. I'm someone who can only stay motivated to work in the service of something bigger than myself, and to write about those things which aren't unique to me, those things I suspect many of us have in common but may have never talked about. And those things are given to me by the muse.
It isn't (it doesn't have to be) supernatural. Some phenomenon exists by which many artists, across time and space, have independently come to view this process in oddly similar ways. That's all. And then there's the phenomenon by which, when each of us is doing our best work, our most resonant work, we all seem to be getting at the same thing, in our own ways. Why and how that happens: that's the great mystery.
When trying to be a fount, your energy and your material feel finite, whereas when channeling, they feel infinite, as Hyde puts it beautifully:
The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible. Anything contained within a boundary must contain as well its own exhaustion. The most perfectly balanced gyroscope slowly winds down. But when the gift passes out of sight and then returns, we are enlivened.*
I experience my work of channeling not as a direct relaying of a message—I can't just be a typist, because what comes to me doesn't come as a stream of words ready to be written down, but as wordless intuition, abstract structures, a form of perception. It's my practical training as a reader and writer that enables me to convert that into some form that may make some sense to another person. That's the labor. But, as any thoughtful translator knows, you can't make a good translation without a deep understanding of what your material is trying to communicate. And the work of gaining that understanding—of internalizing the gift that comes to me so that I can faithfully pass it on in my own words—that is the true labor.
I would like to speak of gratitude as a labor undertaken by the soul to effect the transformation after a gift has been received. Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when the gift has worked in us, only when we have come up to its level, as it were, that we can give it away again. Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finishes the labor.*
I'm struck by Hyde's notion that we suffer gratitude. Not only that gratitude can be suffered, but that this suffering is, more than a feeling, an act or process that takes up time, that has duration.
So the process, for me, goes something like this. The gift comes to me, when it comes, if I am prepared. (Much of what I do, day to day, is about staying prepared.) And if I'm prepared then I receive it. The gift does some work in me, over time. It's simmering or steeping, I'm growing to understand it, I'm "coming up to its level," it's taking shape in the dark. When the time comes, I put it into words, and I try to shape the words to express it faithfully. Then I send it on to you.
A gift isn't fully realized until it is given away, then. Those who will not acknowledge gratitude or who refuse to labor in its service neither free their gifts nor really come to possess them.*
Sending on the gift is an essential step in the cycle. Sending it on is what keeps the movement going, is what frees me up to prepare to receive the next gift and start over again. The gift must always move.
Satisfaction derives not merely from being filled but from being filled with a current that will not cease. With the gift, as in love, our satisfaction sets us at ease because we know that somehow its use at once assures its plenty.*
"Its use at once assures its plenty." This seems to be the counterpart to May Sarton's idea that "The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up." (See letter #5.) Failing to give the gift would not only be painful, but would stop the flow of gifts, their continual circulation and movement through me, which is what keeps me feeling alive. Whitman: Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me, If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.*
Therefore I prefer to think of myself not as a source of gifts, nor as a final recipient of gifts, nor as (myself) a gift, nor as a benevolent distributor of gifts, but as one node in the chain or mesh of the continual movement of gifts over the earth.
The self is not the reception, not the dispersal, not the objects. It is the process (the breathing) or the container (the lung) in which the process occurs.*
Yes, that's it. I am a breathing. Or: I'm part of a breathing. That is inspiration in its original sense: "a breathing into." This is a good enough reason for me to listen for the muse and to write my letters and to send them. And it's—what I think I'm always searching for, always forgetting and rediscovering—a good enough reason to exist.
We hear voices. We feel a spirit move in the poems that is neither "me" nor "the poet" but a third thing between. In a live tradition we fall in love with the spirits of the dead. We stay up all night with them. We keep their gifts alive by taking them into the quick of our being and feeding them to our hearts.*
Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.
"Dazzling and tremendous..." Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, as quoted in Lewis Hyde, The Gift.