Scholar, poet, cultural critic, teacher and author
“I used to steal money from my mother’s purse. But I was an inept thief.”
He is the author of The Gift (1983) which “illuminates and defends the non-commercial portion of artistic practice.” Trickster Makes This World (1998) argues for the kind of disruptive intelligence all cultures need if they are to remain lively, flexible, and open to change.” His most recent book, Common as Air (2010), is a “defense of our ‘cultural commons,’ that vast store of ideas, inventions, and works of art that we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich in the present.
He is MacArthur Fellow and former director of undergraduate creative writing at Harvard University. He teaches during the fall semesters at Kenyon College, where he is the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing. During the rest of the year he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is an Associate of Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center. Source.
Lewis and I talked in a writer’s room he had built behind his Cambridge home. It had a desk, an easy chair, a small kitchen and a bathroom. Stona Fitch, novelist and founder of Concord Free Press, had told me about an exhibit, The Moving Garden, by the artist Mingwei Lee. A forty-five-foot-long granite table holds one hundred freshly cut flowers. Visitors are invited to take one as they leave the Museum, on the condition that they make a detour on the way to their next destination and give the flower to a stranger as a gift.
Lee’s piece was inspired, in part, by his reading of Hyde’s The Gift. So I began the conversation by asking about that exhibit.
What do you see as the connection between your work and what Mingwei Lee has done?
The assumption of my book, The Gift, is that works of art are better described as gifts than as commodities. It’s not that you cannot buy and sell art; you can, and happily so for those who find a market. Either way, Mingwei’s projects always have in them a sort of overt gift exchange element. One always asks, does this exchange create intimacy, does it create community? And so those elements are always present in Mingwei’s work.
There is one strand of The Gift material in which you imagine that gifts pass through you. They come and go, so you don’t horde them, you don’t keep them. There’s a kind of transience that’s inherent in The Gift. There are old fairy tales in which, if you get bread, say, from the fairies, you have to eat it that same day or it turns into toadstools. In a similar vein, Mingwei’s work always has a kind of ephemerality to it. There’s a project right now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—“Sonic Blossom””—where opera singers sing to individual patrons. Of course it’s a performance. It’s not a work of art that has any durability.
So all of these have in them the sense that there are certain kinds of property which circulate differently than through purchase and sale. The Concord Free Press, too, is in fact a kind of ritualized surfacing of that piece of the economy of literature, a part that’s there anyway and for many authors is the only economy they will ever have. That is to say, if you’re not really making money on your books you might as well recognize that and find non-market models.
What the Internet has done, partly, is to provide a place where people whose work somehow doesn’t fit into a commercial market are nonetheless able to have exposure. Authors would love to make money. I think that’s a good thing. I’m not at all opposed to any scheme to help an author support himself, but the fact of the matter is that, for many authors, if you’re in it for the money you’ve made a mistake. Particularly for poets. So taking that out of the equation and just saying, you know, what matters to me is to have readers and have my work circulate, that makes sense.
Have you ever found that somebody has misinterpreted your work and taken what you’re saying in a wrong-headed direction?
Well, sometimes I think that I’m a bit of a contrarian; the beginning of my work is a contrarian approach to the market economy—I’m saying, okay, there’s something else. Once that book was done and published, my contrarian thought was: And yet, the market economy has its benefits! The one thing that sometimes happens is that people take the language and model of gift exchange almost too literally or too emphatically. I mean, we have to live in multiple worlds. The point of my book is about awareness, not a programmatic sense of what one should do, but to be aware that there are these contending forces. I suppose the only time that people take my work wrongly is to emphasize something in a way that seems unfortunately too pure.
As you started to work on the book, weren’t you a kind of purist, at least in the beginning? I ask because you come to a realization toward the end.
Yeah, yeah, I think I was. The book is not about my own life at all, but the context in which I began it was as a young person trying to think about how to support himself in this world. I had been drawn to poetry as a practice or art as a practice, so in a sense, I was happy to learn about gift exchange as an alternative economy and excited to think that maybe this was a way to explain to myself a dilemma I felt.
I think in a way, to write any book, you have to throw yourself into your topic in an emphatic manner rather than always trying to strike a balance between contending forces. But it’s true, in a sense: working through that material also led me to think, Okay, I see that the tension here is between two different forces, the market and the gift economies. Each of which has its virtues. So there was a kind of softening of my revolutionary ire at the end.
I have a later book called Common as Air, which addresses some of the arguments that people have had around copyright. Copyright law is a good example of trying to get two contending good things at once. The contending good things are these: on the one hand, individual authors and creators should have possession of their work and make money from it and, on the other hand, there’s a public good to be served, there’s a need for things to circulate freely in the community.
Clearly, these two can conflict with one another. What the copyright law originally and smartly did was to divide them up in time and say, let’s give short-term exclusive control to authors and then have a longer-term public good category. That seems to me a smart balance. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s that they are both good. That said, once you’ve set up this dual system—short term private gain and long term public good—the puzzle is how to find the inflection point where one should turn into the other.
Near the end of Common as Air, you mention the writing of Martin Luther King, Jr.. I recently read that the film, Selma, did not use direct King quotes for fear of being sued by his family.
(Laughs) I’m not surprised. I hadn’t heard that, but that’s the trouble that everybody has had. Martin Luther King’s work is under copyright. He himself copyrighted his “I Have a Dream” speech, though the fact is that King gave his income to the movement always, so the copyright was a way of making sure that uses of his work were in accordance of his own beliefs. They were not really about making money.
His estate has commercialized his work. In a way, it’s shifted the category from being work that has to do with a political and spiritual movement into work that has to do with commerce, and the commerce piece also then inhibits access. People who want to work on King’s legacy or use his work directly have been barred from it or have trouble getting it. These are complicated cases. It’s not that there isn’t a need sometimes to protect a copyright and to claim infringement, but a lot of the cases are examples of the balance between the public and the private having gone awry.
Where does the story of your own relationship with money begin?
I suppose there are phases. When you’re a child, you’re dependent upon your parents. To the degree you have money, it’s either something they’ve given you or something you’ve earned or something you’ve stolen. I think my brother and I used to earn money weeding the garden. And I also used to steal money out of my mother’s purse. But I was an inept thief. I would sort of keep it displayed in my little desk drawer. I remember my mother once saying, “So where did this money come from?” (Laughs) “I have no idea!”
Why would you take it? Were you off to buy something or saving it?
I think it was just clearly something you’re supposed to have. We lived in a somewhat isolated part of town, so there was nothing I could do with my money. My line has been, if they don’t want people to steal money, why would they make it so attractive? I mean, why make it these shiny metals and these colorful bills?
You have pricked my conscience. I have not thought in decades, but I sometimes took money from my mom’s purse.
Of course! I have this book on the trickster figure, [Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art] and one of the stories is about the baby Krishna who steals butter from the family larder. And the interesting detail of this theft is that his mother is a cowgirl and butter is the family economy. She always leaves the house and says “Don’t steal the butter,” but he does. And then she chastises him. Why does he need to steal the butter? Krishna is not even hungry. That is, the mother feeds him very well.
And so one way to read the story is that the trickster figures (who are thieves), are embodiments of ambivalence, of those places where there are two things that conflict and the problem arises of how to adjudicate their conflict. One of the things that famously conflicts in human beings is our dependence and independence. You want to be separated from your parents, and yet you really need their support.
If you were truly separated, you would steal from strangers. And if you were really dependent, you would just take the food your mother gives you. But if you are ambivalent, you steal from your mother. (Laughs) See? I’m going to eat what the family eats, but I’m not going to be fed. I’m going to feed myself, and so I have to be a thief. So I actually think that that is mythologically part of what’s going on with children stealing. You know, you want your independence, but sadly you’re in this little confined world where all the resources belong already to your group.
So it does belong to you, in a way.
Well, right. At the end of the story when the mother says, “You’re a bad boy, why do you steal this?” Krishna says, “How can I steal the butter? Doesn’t everything in the house belong to us?” The mother has set up this artificial line between this is not yours and this is yours, and Krishna, being a divinity anyway, reads that line as something that could be moved or is just a human fantasy.
There’s your justification then.
Yes, yes. I should have been able to say that to my mother. How could I steal this? (Laughs)
Did you ever aspire to be wealthy?
Just didn’t occur to you?
It just didn’t; it was not part of my thinking. It was clear to me that the life of poetry or whatever I was going to do was not necessarily going to make me a lot of money. I had the freedom to follow my interests, and my interests were not particularly about how to run a business.
Can you tell me a little bit about your years as a poet?
I published a book of poems around 1988 or so. I had been writing poetry since college, publishing it in little magazines and so forth. I feel that any artist has what the psychologist Eric Erickson describes as a period of “moratorium” between your youth and your professional life in which you’re in a kind of no man’s land of trying to figure out what you can and can’t do. For some people it can be short, but I think that for artists, it takes five or ten years to work on your art and to find out if it matters to the world.
During that period, you need a kind of blind pigheadedness to keep doing it, because in fact it might not work, and if you think about that too much, you won’t do it. I also used to play the guitar and sing; I still play the guitar. There was a period when I thought maybe I would be a songwriter. There was another moment in which I realized I just didn’t have that talent, that this was not going to work.
At some point, while there has to be pigheadedness there also has to be some kind of cold scrutiny of whether this is working or not so as not to just end up being a disappointed older person. In a way I think saying to myself, well I’m a writer and that’s the center of gravity of what I’m doing, allowed me to actually endure a period of relative poverty.
After I quit graduate school, I was very poor. There are two or three years when literally spending a dollar was a problem. I had a little cashbook – still have it — where I was literally writing down a 15-cent phone call and a $10 loan from a friend. Sort of a post-student-year- voluntary-poverty period, I think, that should be a respectable part of any…(Laughs) It’s bound to happen. The first five years of being a poet, you’re not going to make any money doing that work. And if you really want to focus your time and energies on the work, you can’t also be spending all your time trying to earn a living.
During those years, I lived in western Minnesota. They had abandoned farms all over the place, because they were consolidating. My friends and I used to find the owner of an abandoned farmhouse and ask if we could live in it. We did that for a couple years. Then I got tired of being poor. (Laughs)
When The Gift was finally published, that’s when I thought, I have to have a second job. And I began to teach. The way the art communities are set up in the United States, today, teaching your art is one of the traditional second jobs on top of the art itself. But you almost always need to have some kind of track record to begin, so having published a book, that helped me make that transition.
My first jobs were teaching freshman writing at the college level, and those are labor-intensive, low paid jobs, but nonetheless, they were jobs. And more connected to a life of writing. In a sense it paid enough for me to begin to think, Oh, I can buy something I don’t even need. (Laughs)
What are your thoughts about today’s economy?
The main thing that has been going on since Ronald Reagan is a decline in the sense of the economy as being there to serve the public good, as opposed to the economy being there so that individuals can maximize their wealth. A simple example is what’s happened to the union movement. Unions are a way for people whose power is dispersed because they’re wage laborers who individually don’t have bargaining power to collectively speak and get a share of the wealth.
From 1981, when Reagan engineered the destruction of the Air Traffic Controllers union, up to the present when, just this month, the State of Wisconsin made itself a right-to-work state, union membership has fallen and wages of working class people have fallen, and these are connected. That’s, to my mind, about a sense of false individualism. The individualist creed is broadcast far and wide, and poor folk who really need to think more collectively are happily thinking, oh, maybe someday I will be rich. Then ten generations go by.
And then secondly, there’s the attack on the taxes. Self-taxation is how communities empower themselves to do things that need to be done collectively. If you need to build a bridge, you need to tax yourselves, pool the money and build the bridge. What the right wing has done is to skillfully separate taxes from their purposes, so that rather than talk about the ends you’re trying to meet, such as education or guarding the environment or paving the roads, building bridges, having libraries, instead of arguing about those things, you’re simply arguing about taxes. It’s nuts, but it’s worked very well.
Right now, in the State of Massachusetts, our transportation system is collapsing. When we had a hard winter , they actually had to close down the subways, the buses, and the trains for days at a time. People who have to take the bus to work were not able to work. That’s because we refuse to tax ourselves sufficiently to support public transportation.
There are arguments on both sides of this. Others say, no, no, we need to privatize the buses, and we need to get waste out of the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority] management. There may be a grain of truth in that, but I think it’s more that the great shift in the economy has been to undercut the kind of self-taxation that allows there to be public services, and then suddenly we’re without them.
To what end for them, do you think?
Yeah, I don’t get it, either. Except to say that it’s almost as if we’re beginning to have two different nations. The people who benefit from these changes don’t need to take a bus, and they don’t even need to take an airplane, they have their own airplane, and they don’t need a police force because they have their own police force, and they don’t need clean water to come from the reservoir because they have their own water. You begin to set up a second nation in which there’s a layer of rich people who actually don’t have the problems that public services would begin to address, so why should they lend a hand for the public good?
It looks like they’ve pretty much purchased their own government that will carry this out.
Yes, so there’s that as well.
Is there a way out of this that you see?
I really don’t know. I have been interested in the work that Lawrence Lessig has been doing. Lessig is at the Harvard Law School and he felt that even when all the congressmen agreed that something is a good idea, you couldn’t get things done because of the money in politics. The congressmen and senators on both sides of the aisle spend so much time now raising money. It’s not even that they’re directly beholden to the donors who give them this money, but that the money refracts their attention and ability to act.
You enter Congress with four things that you really care about and only one of them has donors, so you’ll stop doing the other three and you’ll do this one. It’s not that you’re a bad guy, it’s just that that’s the way the money works. Lessig has been working on trying to figure out how to change the way our elections are financed. I think it’s a great idea, he’s a good theorist of that, but it’s hard to tell if that’s the route. I’m not a political savant.
The Gift was originally published in 1983. The world has changed a lot. Part of it is what you’re describing now. Is there anything you’d take back, today in 2015?
(Laughs) I don’t think so.
You were 38 years old.