Lewis Hyde Brings “The Gift” to Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Poet, translator and essayist Lewis Hyde spoke to Swarthmore last Thursday about the mystical power of the artistic “gift.” In fact, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World is probably Hyde’s most well-known book. That’s on top of his other numerous collections of poetry, cultural criticism, and writings on artistic property rights. Hyde’s “gift economy” is a way of approaching art as a process of learning, collaborating and sharing. The giving of artistic gifts is more reciprocal and abstract than our day-to-day buying and selling behavior.

Hyde was invited by Swarthmore’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, which distributed free copies of The Gift. Betsy Bolton, a professor of English Literature and member of Phi Beta Kappa who introduced Hyde, laughed, “Just reading his CV is both exhausting and inspiring.” Indeed, Hyde splits his time between teaching at Kenyon College in Ohio and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Cambridge. He was a 1991 MacArthur Fellow and has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lannan Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Hyde spoke of coming of age in a very career-oriented family. “Why might it be that artists don’t earn a living the way lawyers and doctors do?” he begged of the audience. The first few chapters of The Gift, which some students, faculty and staff read as a part of a Phi Beta Kappa-hosted reading group last week, opens with the anthropology behind historical gift exchange.

Hyde’s interest in gift exchange and art lends him to folk tales, and he opened with a story he first heard in Mexico about two kings and their attitude toward sharing wealth, one purchasing his people’s favor in gold, and the other in pearls. The folk tale and the way the rulers pass along values, Hyde said, serves as a “thought experiment that gift-exchange might be thought of as a creative commons for the artist.”

Hyde emphasized the difference between “eros” and “logos” interactions in society. Logos functions as a clear, sharp and differentiated kind of exchange when we anonymously buy something in the marketplace. Hyde’s example for logos was his flight to Philadelphia on US Airways. He got from point A to B, but the airline didn’t exactly have his fundamental “human dignity” in mind. There’s a time and a place for the anonymous market economy. As Hyde put it,  “If every time you wanted to buy groceries the person wanted to bring you home to tea, you’d never get anywhere.”

The eros, the erotic kind of exchange, is what Hyde is most concerned with. Eros operates outside of the world of “scarcity” and beyond the “ego realm.” Instead, artists share their individual abundances with one another. Moreover, Hyde said, “In true gift exchange, you take a risk.” The artist makes him or herself vulnerable by sharing a creation with the world, but, once shared, the wealth of that creation can become abundant, passed along to more and more potential artists.

We refer to painters, poets and musicians as “gifted” because the source of artistic inspiration is always somewhat mysterious. Whether touched by God, the muse, or some other voice in the community, most artists are aware that the work they do is larger than themselves. This raises questions of how much of art is the artist’s to keep and how much necessitates sharing and teaching with others. We have a sort of “creation myth about what talent is,” said Hyde. Regardless of exactly where the gift originates, there’s a sense that artists have an obligation to pass on their talent.

Hyde’s trip to Swarthmore continued the interest in his scholarship that began in last week’s Phi Beta Kappa reading circles. “I really enjoyed [the talk]” said Stephanie Kestelman ’15, who attended both the reading group and the lecture. “I could get a better grasp of how much work went into the development of his book. The fact that [Hyde] allowed more time for questions reinforced what I thought was great about the reading group. We could take our perspective and hear his spin to it.” Hyde was sure to leave plenty of time for questions and comments, thereby advancing the campus community’s discussion of art and the cultural commons, as well as the reciprocity of gift-giving.

As Hyde reiterated, “[T]he definition of community is where gift exchange happens.”

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