The market now laps onto so many shores that it can be odd to remember the horror provoked by the first wave of Reaganomics. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, published for the first time in 1983, was one of many efforts of that time that looked for non-market alternatives. The book became a word-of-mouth success, and was finally published in the UK this year in paperback. This made it eligible for the Prospect Reading Group’s November meeting.
Hyde, a professor of creative writing in the US, argues that in western society the balance between the gift and market economies has become too skewed in one direction. He does this by hopping from an anthropological theory of gift-giving to a detailed exegesis of Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as examples of giftedness, with a look at the Protestant reformation along the way.
There is a charm in the eccentric path of the argument, and one understands the book’s appeal as a robust declaration of the right of things to be pursued for their own sake rather than for some ulterior purpose. One of the most depressing elements of modern life is the feeling that there is now no escape from a narrowly managerial view, in which everything is instrumental and nothing counts unless it can be measured.
The book has its disappointments, however. The parts do not work together as a whole, and it becomes obvious that Hyde is not going out of his comfort zone, sticking only to the literary arts and even then, only to examples that match his transcendent ideal. Hyde has a very particular Romantic view of creativity: for him, the artist is an untutored and inarticulate genius, and emotions are separated from critical thought by a very high wall. One can make room for creativity without relying on this old trope.
At least one of his case studies may not have stood the test of time. We’ve learned a lot more since about Walt Whitman who