Gratitude in The Gift by Lewis Hyde

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

Between the time a gift comes to us 
and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude.

In his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (public library), Lewis Hyde explains his philosophy of art, which is founded on an understanding of art as a gift rather than a commodity:

Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies,” a market economy and a gift economy.  Only one of these is essential, however; a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art (xvi).
I have hoped to write an economy of the creative spirit: to speak of the inner gift that we accept as the object of our labor, and the outer gift that has become a vehicle of culture.  I am not concerned with gifts given in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation; my concern is the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us (xxiii).



Central to Hyde's theory of gifts is "the labor of gratitude."  He explains that those who create art, as well as those who are affected, changed by the work of an artist, are transformed by the gift of another:

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master.  That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself.  The future artist finds himself or herself moved by a work of art, and, through that experience, comes to labor in the service of art until he can profess his own gifts.  Those of us who do not become artists nonetheless attend to art in a similar spirit.  We come to painting, to poetry, to the stage, hoping to revive the soul.  And any artist whose work touches us earns our gratitude . . . for it is when art acts as an agent of transformation that we may correctly speak of it as a gift. A lively culture will have transformative gifts as a general feature – it will have groups like AA which address specific problems, it will have methods of passing knowledge from old to young, it will have spiritual teachings available at all levels of maturation and for the birth of the spiritual self.  And it will have artists whose creations are gifts for the transformation of the race (60).

Once we have received a gift that converts us in some way, we cannot rest until we have offered that gift to someone else for the sake of their conversion as well:

In each example I have offered of a transformative gift, if the teaching begins to “take,” the recipient feels gratitude.  I would like to speak of gratitude as a labor undertaken by the soul to effect the transformation after a gift has been received.  Between the time a gift comes to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude.  Moreover, with gifts that are agents of change, it is only when we have come up to its level, as it were, that we can give it away again.  Passing the gift along is the act of gratitude that finished the labor.  The transformation is not accomplished until we have the power to give the gift on our own terms. Therefore, the end of the labor of gratitude is similarity with the gift or with its donor.  Once this similarity has been achieved we may feel a lingering and generalized gratitude, but we won’t feel it with the urgency of true indebtedness (60).