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SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 25 (2005) 27-51

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Economies of the Gift:

Shaw, Ricoeur, and the Poetics of the Ethical Life

It is fair to say that one overarching question preoccupied Shaw throughout his long and productive career. We can frame this question as follows: From the perspective of eternity, what does life require of us in the way of living collectively with one another? To this tantalizing query, posed by reflective individuals in every age, Shaw provided an answer that continues to have profound implications for the welfare of the human species. At the same time, the answer Shaw gives aligns him squarely with the eminent French philosopher of hermeneutics and phenomenology, Paul Ricoeur.*

Like Shaw, Ricoeur devotes considerable time and energy to considering how we ought to live, and the conclusion he reaches is substantially the same as Shaw's: life enjoins us to build our lives on an enlightened ethics whose augmented core is captured metaphorically by the poetic notion of an "economy of the gift."1 This notion obliges us to think and act in accordance with a logic of superabundance rather than a logic of equivalence. The former is the logic of extravagant care associated with the Nazarene Jesus; the latter, the logic of self-interested exchange enshrined in everyday existence.2 If humankind is to endure and someday flourish, excepting an accident of cataclysmic proportions, both Shaw and Ricoeur believe that we each, superabundantly, must contribute more to the commonweal than we take. Briefly stated, their conviction is this: in order that life be increasingly bountiful, luxuriant, and expansive, in order that life not be nasty, brutish, and short, we are—in the manner of Jesus—to gift others with an exuberant solicitude, without expecting something of equivalent or greater worth in [End Page 27] return. That is, we are to give, and give generously, not in order to get, but simply because, in the fullness of time, we ourselves have been gifted in myriad ways. Moreover, for Shaw and Ricoeur, the dynamics of the gift apply with equal force beyond the domain of the interpersonal. They also inform the sociopolitical, broadly construed. In this arena, the spirit of generosity can nourish an ethos of excess that, for example, tempers justice with mercy, fosters consideration of those least favored by society's distribution of primary goods, and promotes healing forgiveness between perpetrators and victims alike of intolerable crimes against the person. Ultimately, for Shaw and Ricoeur, our present-day apostles of the gift, ecumenical cosmopolitans to the marrow of their being, a maximally realized logic of superabundance represents the best hope we have for achieving universal justice, global prosperity, and perpetual peace.

The pages to follow explore in five parts the striking congruence in thought between Shaw and Ricoeur on the significance of the gift. Part I provides an overview of Ricoeur's conception of an economy of the gift: its scriptural roots, its principal tenets, and its implications for ethical relations within and among societies. Here, the main focus falls on Ricoeur's foundational belief that all experience, including that of the sacred, comes to consciousness through language. Central to this belief is the notion that language in general, and poetic language in particular, has the power to shape the realities we encounter, the realities we inaugurate, and the possibilities we contemplate in the interim. Part II demonstrates that Shaw likewise believes in the creative world-making efficacy of the word, in both its biblical and secular settings, to present the imagination with alternative and potentially redemptive ways of living in the world. Part III argues that Shaw's considered judgments regarding religion, the arts, and the social constitute a Shavian economy of the gift that is remarkably similar to Ricoeur's. Part IV discusses the complementary politics engendered by the gift-giving economy Jesus embodies—a salvational politics crucial to human flourishing that, for Shaw and Ricoeur, ratifies values associated with communitarianism, democratic socialism, and liberalism. Part V...


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