Via Basel: The Gift (Part 2)
A continuing conversation about The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, between Basel Al-Aswad, EIL Columnist, and Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor.
EIL: Basel, the last time we spoke about The Gift I know you were struck by the spirit of generosity as it is explored in this book.
Basel Al-Aswad: Yes, the spirit of generosity is the source of gifting, where it’s born, and it’s a quality in everybody. But there is a tension between the generosity of giving and the practicality of sustainability. This mirrors what happens in ourselves, in every person. You must walk a fine line so you don’t go from one extreme to the other.
EIL: You wanted to explore Hyde’s ideas by responding to specific parts of the text that stood out for you. Let’s look at a couple of those passages.
From The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, on the concept of ego:
I find it useful to think of the ego complex as a thing that keeps expanding, not as something to be overcome or done away with. An ego has formed and hardened by the time most of us reach adolescence, but it is small, an ego-of-one. Then, if we fall in love, for example, the constellation of identity expands and the ego-of-one becomes an ego-of-two. The young lover, often to his own amazement, finds himself saying “we” instead of “me.” Each of us identifies with a wider and wider community as we mature, coming eventually to think and act with a group-ego…Of course the larger it becomes, the less it feels like what we usually mean by ego.
Basel Al-Aswad: This connects to psychology, to the personal development of each individual. It’s part of one’s age, maturity, and wisdom. This ever-expanding circle is probably the hallmark, or essence, of identity. But even in this ever-expanding circle, there is an element of self-gratification, because it feels good. Which is OK! It’s a win-win. We must enjoy that sense of giving and letting go. It must have been part of our evolutionary development, built into our DNA. Sometimes we nurture it, sometimes we put a lid on it.
In recent times, there has been a dampening of the spirit of generosity. Lewis Hyde has noticed this, and I agree with him. This takes many forms—even in patent law, saying your invention is only yours. It’s OK to take credit; it’s OK to benefit. The question is how far do you go? What’s the limit? Where do you stop?
EIL: Hyde’s guideline is that “one man’s gift must not be another man’s capital,” and he notes that the gift society is not a capitalist society. Hyde even points out that Stalin acted as a capitalist in favoring “production mode” inside an ostensibly communist society, so removing wealth from circulation is a danger to the health of the human spirit in any economy. Hyde says that “the increase that comes from gift exchange must remain a gift and not be kept as if were the return on private capital.” He warns that this is a kind of “negative reciprocity,” endangering the good of the whole for the benefit of the few.
From The Gift, by Lewis Hyde, on the concept of “negative reciprocity”:
To restate this choice in slightly different terms, a circulation of gifts nourishes those parts of our spirit that are not entirely personal, parts that derive from nature, the group, the race, or the gods. Furthermore, although these wider spirits are a part of us, they are not “ours”; they are endowments bestowed upon us. To feed them by giving away the increase they have brought us is to accept that our participation in them brings with it an obligation to preserve their vitality. When, on the other hand, we reverse the direction of the increase—when we profit on exchange or convert “one man’s gift to another man’s capital”—we nourish that part of our being (or our group) which is distinct and separate from others. Negative reciprocity strengthens the spirits—constructive or destructive—of individualism and clannishness.
Basel Al-Aswad: Yes, we want to merge, but we risk losing something very vital, our identity. And we are attached to our identity. You need a certain perspective from maturity and growth to feel comfortable in the loss of distinctive identity and the gain of communal identity.
EIL: The trick is to understand that feeding the “wider spirits” is also a way of feeding the whole community. Individually profiting robs the community of its own wealth and ignores the obligation to feed the spirit of generosity! So we’ve walked in a circle here, back to our opening point and to your “fine line.” Let’s keep talking in a future Via Basel column.
Basel Al-Aswad: But before we go, let’s not forget that this week and next week, in Western and Eastern traditions, Christians celebrate Easter. They believe that Christ’s death on Good Friday represents the ultimate gift, the giving of His life to save humanity. Nothing is asked in return. Easter Sunday, to Christians, represents the ultimate hope, that even death is not final but a stage to another dimension or paradigm where we let go of it all and are left with nothing else than mystery.
Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Chris Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family.