Monday 8 June 2009

Anniversary Narratives: Expanding the Gift Circle of Fiction

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the blog, I reread three of my favorite posts: Keith (November 17) delving into Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and his discussion of Babar, King of the Elephants, in “Babar in Words and Pictures” (March 16), and Raymond discussing the Literature for Life project (April 24) which promotes family literacy through engaging teen mothers in reading literature.

I first became aware of Hyde’s book reading Keith’s post. I then read Hyde’s rich volume and experienced a sense of intellectual watershed, with development and transformation of ideas, which is apparently not uncommon among its readers. Hyde argues that the way in which art is produced and circulates is most fruitfully viewed as a gift exchange, rather than as a commodity economy. Gifts generate feelings of good will between the giver and the recipient, which is not necessarily the case in market exchange. But more importantly, gifts create community in a way not possible for the market. By way of example of social gift exchange, relying on Bronislaw Malinowski’s reports, Hyde discusses the Kula people of the South Sea islands who exchanged arm shells and necklaces, items which have very little practical value, but great social value. In viewing a map of the islands inhabited by the Kula, the necklaces circulate clockwise among the islands over the course of between two and ten years, and the arm shells circulate counterclockwise. No item is retained in the possession of one person for any longer than a year and at the most two. Keeping the gifts in motion, by canoe and across hundreds of miles, continually revitalizes the sense of community.

Hyde most clearly delineates his comparison with the artist’s gift-giving in the chapter on Walt Whitman: the first gift is “what is bestowed upon the self – by perception, experience, intuition, imagination, a dream, a vision, or by another work of art” (p. 190); the second gift is the labor the artist invests in shaping the elements given in the first gift; and the work itself is the third gift, which is “offered to the world in general or directed back specifically to the ‘clan and homeland’ of an earlier gift” (p. 191). Finally, “Reading the work, we feel gifted for a while, and to the degree that we are able, we respond by creating new work (not art, perhaps, but with the artist’s work at hand we suddenly find we can make sense of our own experience)” (p. 193). When art is given and received as gift, we develop “a sense of solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods” (p. 159). Hyde develops these ideas brilliantly, and his chapters on Whitman’s and Ezra Pound’s poetic renderings of strongly resonant ideas are extraordinary reads.

And yet, there seems to be something missing in the comparison. On the islands, the gift goes from one island, to another island, to another island, to another island, etc. until some Xth-generation gift returns to the first. In Hyde’s gift-exchange of art, the concatenation of recipients seems to be: (1) a bestowal of some sort, on the artist, (2) from artist to the work, (3) from work to the recipient, (4) from recipient through some degree of personal transformation to a new work. But what of the non-artist who somehow conveys the whole or parts of the original gift to another non-artist? True, this mode of circulation of the work is likely in the form of direct or indirect quotation, but it is still gift-giving in Hyde’s usage: the kind that builds community through feelings of good will. One could say that the imaginative moment happens when the gift-giver thinks, “My friend will love this story!”, the moment of laboring in the reading aloud of the story, and the third gift is the recipient’s memory of having been read to by someone who considered the recipient’s individual needs and interests in picking out a story and even reading it aloud. The fourth gift would perhaps be the recipient’s quotation (with enthusiasm born not only of enjoying the passage itself but of the memory of having heard it from the lips of an intimate) of passages to other people who might be interested in hearing them. (Just telling someone about a great story or work of art would seem not to qualify, because one is then telling someone about the original gift, not really giving it.) In such a series of gift displacements, the gift does not stop with the first recipient, but moves more or less intact through many participants. Before stories were written, oral recitation allowed the transmission of stories, and after they were written down, adults have read to one another, not just at book launches, but in sitting rooms, in beds, on boats, on trains, in factories, in all sorts of places. The trouble with this extension of the model is that adults don’t read to each other much anymore.

But we do read to children and generally think it a very valuable endeavor. In his comprehensive review of empirical research on the psychological and educational effects on children of reading aloud, Jim Trelease (2006) cites a poem, by Strickland Gillilan, that succinctly presents such reading as a gift, and precisely not a commodity, passed from one generation to another: “You may have tangible wealth untold:/ Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold./ Richer than I you can never be--/ I had a mother who read to me.” In his post on Babar, Keith discusses how parent and child might experience sadness while reading of the death of Babar’s mother and looking at the illustration in which Babar’s sadness is depicted. The feelings elicited by the story and pictures would be greatly reduced in quantity and qualities if the child were reading the story alone, and the child who cannot yet read for himself and is not read to by a caregiver, might never enter the circle of emotional enrichment occasioned by literature. Of course, the person who cannot enter the circle of giving as a recipient cannot pass along the gift. In the post on Literature for Life, we learn that young women who may never have read a book before come to full participation in the circle of literature exchange through the program. With 1400 young mothers participating, at least as many children are benefitting from the model of their mothers’ reading, feeling reassured in her feelings of goodwill and love: a fine example of Hyde’s claim that we respond to the work of the imagination “by creating new work” (p. 193), but in this case, the new work is another enchanted reader.

Lewis Hyde (1979). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage Books.

Jim Trelease (2006). The read-aloud handbook (Fifth Edition). New York: Penguin Books.

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