I have finished reading The Gift by Lewis Hyde. It was a very satisfying read. It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know or suspect on some level, but it deepened my understanding of the spirit of human creativity and how one needs to treat the gift of inspiration. It also firmed up in my mind the idea that there is human endeavor and expression and need fulfillment which does not fit easily into a market economy and is consequently undervalued or not valued at all in our society. The market has us so trained to the idea that only commodity has value, we have a hard time valuing and treating as important anything we can’t put a price tag on. It leaves an awful lot of what it means to be human desiccating in the deserts of capitalism.
Women have known for a long time what it is to have your production undervalued or not valued at all. More men are learning this too. Relational partnerships are coming in all sorts of configurations these days and increasingly men are having to deal with the power dynamics of not being the main bread winner.
According to Hyde, indigenous peoples have known for centuries how to value that which has no value in a civilized market. And this excerpt from The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck, is a remarkable description of the clash between an indigenous way of looking at things and a market-civilized way of looking at things:
And in our contacts with Mexican people we had been faced with a change in expediencies. Perhaps—even surely—these people are expedient, but on some other plane than our ordinary one. What they did for us was without hope or plan for profit. We suppose there must have been some kind of profit involved, but not the kind we are used to, not of material things changing hands. And yet some trade took place at every contact—something was exchanged, some unnamable of great value. Perhaps these people are expedient in the unnameables. Maybe they bargain in feelings, in pleasures, even simple contacts. When the Indians came to the Western Flyer and sat timelessly on the rail, perhaps they were taking something. We gave them presents, but it was sure they had not come for presents. When they helped us, it was with no idea of material payment. There were material prices for material things, but one couldn’t buy kindness with money, as one can in our country. It was so in every contact, and they were so used to the spiritual transaction that they had difficulty translating material things into money.
For the bulk of my life I have struggled to find a place in this market oriented world where money is power and any thing or any effort that can’t be commoditized is useless. I have always been more interested in the “useless” bits, the spiritual bits.
This past Christmas, inspired by The Gift, I decided I wanted to gift something I made with my own hands to family and friends instead of buying something and sending it. I am a photographic artist and my art is pretty good. I created what I call a photographic chapbook which is a short publication. I used high quality archival paper to print them and sowed them together myself. There were eight photographs in the chapbook, and a micro poem to accompany them. When I had shared the images with my photography salon the feed back was very positive. When I shared the chapbook with my Salon one attendee bargained me ur from $25 to $50 for it on the spot. I had reason to believe that most people would like my chapbook. I chose the book format because I didn’t want to impose my aesthetics on anybody’s walls. They could always ask me for a larger print if they wanted to have one on their walls. I gave a number of these chapbooks to a variety of people in my life. The only ones that were acknowledged in any way were the ones for which I was in the room when they were opened.
Spirit-of-gift means that when you send your product out into the world as gift, you are setting it free and shouldn’t expect a return, or that the return will come immediately or even be obvious. That’s the hard part of flowing with the spirit-of-gift. We are so deeply enmeshed in a society that expects an immediate return in every exchange it is hard to sit still when it doesn’t happen. I wonder though, if instead of gifting my chapbooks I had spent $50 on a market commodity and gifted it, what the response might have been?
Perhaps I am like the indigenous Mexicans, speaking a language hard to comprehend in my society.
I won’t give up on making and gifting. My new mantra is: “Make and gift, something will come of it.”