- Lewis Hyde’s Double Economy
Since its original publication in 1983, lewis hyde’s The Gift has accumulated some impressive blurbs.1 On the cover of the 2007 edition, david foster wallace avers, “No one who is invested in any kind of art … can read The Gift and remain unchanged.” jonathan lethem agrees: “Few books are such life-changers as The Gift: epiphany, in sculpted prose.” zadie smith regards Hyde’s life-changing, epiphany-dealing book as “[a] manifesto of sorts for anyone who makes art [and] cares for it.” And margaret atwood regards The Gift as “[t]he best book I know of for talented but unacknowledged creators.” It is nothing less than “[a] masterpiece.” It’s easy to discount these endorsements. Book jackets are so frequently little more than heaps of breathless exaltation that one might regard such praise with understandable skepticism. Yet Hyde’s blurbs invite closer consideration for two reasons. First, the caliber of the writers who endorse the book is surprising. The cover of The Gift is almost heavy with symbolic capital, featuring fulsome recommendations from many major Anglophone authors. At the very least, studying these endorsements might teach us something about contemporary literature as a social field, illuminating networks of artistic affinity, helping us deduce [End Page 123] how Hyde’s argument that art is a gift affects the self-understanding of fiction writers and poets.
Moreover, our suspicion that every blurb conceals a hidden motive or serves some transactional purpose might itself be taken as a manifestation of the condition that Hyde’s book opposes, since the book addresses itself to the problem of whether it is possible to freely give gifts under unrestrained capitalism. The Gift argues for the ongoing possibility of gift-giving, which supposedly also shows that art is still possible (since what distinguishes art from non-art is that art is a gift). To dismiss The Gift’s cover endorsements would be, in some sense, to preemptively reject the book’s argument. It is not hard to imagine that for a writer such as Wallace, who argued that clichés might be true (but in being clichés might be impossible to accept) and who sought to overcome the aporias he thought hobbled postmodern writers, a blurb promising that The Gift would change the reader’s life could serve as a moral litmus test of readers themselves.
In other words, the problem of the sincerity of the blurb (the question of whether giving a sincere blurb is possible) can be taken to be a manifestation of the more general problem of the gift. As Jacques Derrida famously argues in Given Time, the gift is impossible, or rather the gift is a figure for “the impossible.” Appealing to “our common language and logic,” Derrida begins with the “simplest” definition of the gift: “For there to be a gift, there must be no reciprocity, return, exchange, countergift, or debt.”2 Given this definition, Derrida tries to demonstrate that “the gift as gift ought not appear as gift: either to the donee or to the donor. It cannot be gift as gift except by not being present as gift.”3 This impossibility is not a consequence of protocol, decorum, or psychology. Every specific gift, every idea of the gift, withdraws into an exchange relationship as soon as it is conceived of or recognized or treated as a gift. The gift can only ever appear—if it can appear—as an impossibility. This is why a gift would have to be “that which does not obey the principle of reason” or even “practical reason.”4 It is a “stranger to morality, to the will, perhaps to freedom” and “should surpass duty itself.”5 As Martin Hägglund clarifies, “a pure gift is not impossible because it is contaminated by our selfish intentions or by the constraints of economic exchange; it is impossible because a gift must be contaminated in order to be a gift.”6 Indeed, “the very desire for a gift is a desire for contamination.”7 Derrida isn’t saying that the gift is located only outside exchange relations but that the [End Page 124] concept of the...