"In the United States, the individualist argument is the myth we can’t get out of."

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An Interview with Writer Lewis Hyde

Born in Boston to a physicist father and a mother with a Master’s in psychology, Lewis Hyde grew up in a house where “science was the thing you did.” By the time he left the University of Minnesota in 1967, though, he had decided to be a poet. Since he saw that a good year as a poet meant “about $25,” he worked building grain bins in the Midwest, at a factory that produced mobile homes, and—in the job that left the most influence on his writing—as a counselor at a facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that treated recovering alcoholics.

Struggling with the puzzle of how to make a living, and also wondering what compelled him to continue working at a trade that paid so little, Hyde traveled in the mid-1970s to CIDOC, a study center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, run by the priest and social thinker Ivan Illich. “Seeds sprout when they fall on fertile ground,” Hyde says—and when someone led him to an essay by Marcel Mauss on indigenous gift communities, he began to see how the metaphoric language of gift-exchange could be “evocative of any creative process.”

The resulting book, published in 1983, was The Gift. Using folktales, the practices of gift-based tribes like the Kwakiutl of the American Pacific coast, and the work of writers like Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, Hyde explores how “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.” Over the years, the book has steadily found an audience among artists, craftspeople, healers, research scientists, and others who find that their work cannot be easily packaged as commodity without damaging its spirit.

After The Gift, Hyde turned his attention to the more disruptive aspects of creative practice. Communities could be nurturing places, Hyde saw, but they also inevitably became set in their ways, with customs that had been drained of significance and no longer served to maintain societal well-being. Such cultures needed figures who would cross the boundaries and test their continued effectiveness. Hyde saw this function being served, in ancient societies, by tricksters: the mischief makers and transgressors present in most mythological traditionsTrickster Makes This World, published in 1998, presents these disruptive figures as revivifiers of cultural healthHyde’s most recent book, Common As Air, published in 2010, explores how increasingly restrictive ideas of ownership—particularly in terms of copyright law—can cut us off from our shared scientific and artistic wealth. Using the British legal tradition of common lands and the visions of the American founding fathers, Hyde describes a more capacious and communal vision of self, one he sees as being increasingly forgotten in our rush to own and patent everything from parts of the genetic code to the “sealed crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich” (U.S. Patent 6,004,596).

Hyde is the Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College and a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and divides his time between Ohio and Cambridge. His three works of non-fiction—mixtures of philosophy, folklore, anthropology, and social commentary—are shelved in a mysterious section in my local bookstore called Belles Lettres, which seems to be another way of saying “we don’t know.”

Hyde and I met twice to talk—once in his house, and once in his office, a room in a converted carriage house in Cambridge, given to Hyde rent-free by an architect who had heard him speak about gift communities. Throughout our conversations, he tended to look just off to the side when answering questions, as if he was gently working to find the signal of some distant radio station, part concentration and part reverie.

—Akshay Ahuja 

I. BILL CLINTON IS NOT A TRICKSTER

THE BELIEVER: Your first two books use mythology and folklore as entry points for analyzing American cultural health. But we’re a country whose dominant culture doesn’t really have much mythology that it acknowledges as such.

LEWIS HYDE: Well, I think of a myth as a story that helps you explain all the different pieces of your life. In that broad sense, there is no way to live without mythology. We have a myth of America. For example, one piece of it is the myth of individualism. And I don’t mean this as a “false story.” It’s a story that has actual presence. So we think that individual freedom, individual speech, individual action are the most valuable things, and we protect individualism wherever we find it.

But if you look at it historically, that has not always been the case. In revolutionary America, even in the early 19th century, individualism was a negative term. People thought that human beings ought to live their lives for the public good. To think only of your self-interest was a bad thing. So yes, there are many myths that we live by.

A friend of mine says that a myth is “a story you can’t get out of,” by which he means that really effective mythologies are all-encompassing. They really do explain the world to its citizens. They make so much sense that we’re willing to defend the story. We look at ancient myths and, from this distance, it’s clear that we’re seeing stories situated in history and culture. A thousand years from now, our stories will seem the same way.

BLVR: Can’t you always tell a new version of a folktale?

LH: Yes. So what’s of interest are moments when the mythology changes. My Trickster book is partly about that. To say a bit about tricksters: these are characters who are what I think of as the “sacred boundary crossers.” Every society has internal boundaries: all the divisions we use to make sense of our situation, such as night and day, light and dark, summer and winter, male and female, living and dead. And we also have boundaries at the edge of the community, so that we always have some sense of “we are these people” and then there are other people outside.

The boundaries are important because they give structure to the cosmos. And we want and need structure. But it turns out that structure can always solidify and congeal, can get brittle, so you need some force that is constantly pestering the boundaries, just to see if they’re still as useful as they used to be, a force that will occasionally cross or destroy them. And this turns out to be a sacred function. That is, to keep the world alive, you need to be able to change. Tricksters are the change agents who keep cultures flexible and lively.

The examples would be—in the North American Native American stories, the Coyote is a famous trickster. In Greek mythology, Hermes is the character who can travel between heaven and earth, and is a thief who can always figure out how to get through a closed door. In China, there’s the Monkey figure. In West Africa, there are Eshu and Legba. Almost every ancient culture, I think, has a figure who performs this function.

To turn to the present moment: right now we’re having a big fight over gay marriage. Those who resist it imagine that there are clear boundaries around the meaning of marriage, and it takes a kind of trickster intelligence to challenge those boundaries and to say, well, we could change that world. You see that the rising generation doesn’t take the division between homo-and-heterosexuality as seriously as the last generation did. So I have to believe there were some trickster figures involved in this change. But that’s been thirty years in the making and has taken a lot of very dedicated, hard work.

BLVR: What are some mythological examples of the disruption of these kinds of boundaries?

LH: In Japan, there’s a character named Susano-O. He is consciously a disrupter, and for example moves the boundary markers between the rice paddies. He also defecates in the place where the first fruits of the harvest are tasted and, in some versions of the story, under the throne of his sister, the Goddess of the Sun. So that’s a conscious playing with the system.

BLVR: In the book, you talk about America being a land where everyone is their own trickster, which in a way negates the trickster’s function.

LH: In some of the very early stories, the trickster figure shows up in a world which is much more harmonious than what we think of as our world, particularly when the gods and human beings used to sit down at the table together and there was no division between heaven and earth. And then what happens is the trickster figure does something disruptive, such that the gods distance themselves from earth. Then suddenly you have a boundary between heaven and earth, and now the trickster has a role, and becomes a messenger who moves between these two spheres. You need a structured cosmos before the trickster comes into being.

In the United States in the present moment, to the degree that we live in a land without rules or borders, we won’t find any authentic tricksters.

When Europeans first showed up on this continent, Native Americans identified them as being like the Coyote figure. Because they seemed to wander around aimlessly, without having families and homes, and just cared about money and liquor—or something like this. And so that’s the early diagnosis: there was something in modern European culture when it got to this continent that felt more like the trickster figure than it did any of the more stable gods. Still, if everyone is a trickster, then nobody is!

BLVR: Do trickster figures in our culture function more as conservative figures or agents of change?

LH: This is an important critique of the way that tricksters are sometimes thought ofAt first it may seem that this mischievous character is going to change the world, but in fact he may turn out to be conservative, not radical. A lot of work has been done on the way that apparent disruption can actually be a way of preserving the status quo, and the famous example is the way people think about Carnival. Carnival is a two-week period before Lent in which you have ritual inversion, so you’re allowed to do things that you wouldn’t necessarily do: dress as the opposite sex, or insult the priest, or put some donkey turds in the church, whatever.

The way the ritual works is—it then comes to an end. And in a funny way, by having let off steam in this way, and by having seen the inversion, when structure comes back it comes back even more solidly.

This may be one of the functions of some ethnic humor. We joke about blacks and whites, or some minority group, and the jokes seem to be touching on a difficult issue—and maybe changing it—but in fact they may also just be letting off steam. The same can be said of the Brer Rabbit stories: maybe they were a way for African Americans under slavery to speak of their oppression and imagine escaping, but in fact, they could be like the safety valve on a steam engine—just dealing with the tension such that it ends up not going away.

At the same time, periods of Carnival might contain the seeds of revolutionary change. They lie dormant for a long time, and then along comes some historical moment when change is really needed.

BLVR: You talk about how a lot of people present politician figures to you as trickster figures, but they lack “the context of the sacred.”

LH: Politicians who lie and cheat and steal, and financial people who lie and cheat and steal— these are not the characters who interest me. I would go back to the idea that the trickster is the sacred boundary crosser. You really want to ask whether something is not only disruptive but is it, in the larger scheme of things, useful to the culture? So the examples I use in my book are mostly artists or people like Frederick Douglass. You could say that Frederick Douglass was a politician in the true trickster sense, because he gets into the seams of plantation culture and disrupts them in a way that we now value. Whereas, Bill Clinton satisfying his appetites in the White House—this is just stupid.

BLVR: How about someone like Abbie Hoffman…

LH: Yeah, I’m more interested in someone like Abbie Hoffman, or to take somebody who knew Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg. Tricksters are sometimes shameless, but I think the characters I’m interested in are people who are shameless because they have a sense of shame. What they’re really trying to do is to change the face of shame itself. Ginsberg was an ethical person, but he grew up ashamed of his mother’s insanity and ashamed of his own sexuality. And what he managed to do was to erase the shame he felt in those areas. Ginsberg’s line, once, when somebody asked him, “How do you become a prophet?” was—“well, you tell your secrets.” And for Ginsberg, the secrets were, as a teenager and as a young adult, these things around sex and mental illness. To the degree that his work had an effect on the culture, it helped change the way we talk and think about these things.

BLVR: I was thinking about that one image in Adbusters—the ballerina on the Wall Street bull— that began the whole Occupy movement, whether that’s the trickster intelligence at work.

LH: In American politics right now, I don’t see the trickster spirit having any success. So maybe we have to keep our eyes peeled and imagine. The one thing that I think the Occupy movement managed to do was to get the language of the 99% and the 1% front and center. Some people have been talking for a long time about the great disparity in wealth that we now have and that we did not have for almost a century. Now it’s become even more a part of the discourse. And that simple move of getting a piece of language spoken where it wasn’t spoken before may be part of the boundary crosser’s task.

II. DIVIDUAL

BLVR: Artists, as you mentioned, are often the carriers of the trickster spirit. Do you think America’s relationship to its artists has changed in any substantial way since its founding?

LH: I think it’s evolved about 5%.

BLVR: In the direction of increasing suspicion?

LH: [Laughs] No, in the direction of acceptance of non-remunerative artistic practice. At the founding of this country, one thing that was going on was a radical break from European practice. People like John Adams thought of art practice as being synonymous with the luxury of European art—in particular, the Catholic Church and the aristocracy. In Europe, there was a break away from the old church-dominated and aristocracy-dominated cultures toward a more modern, democratic, market-based, secular culture, but the break was not as radical as it was in the United States. So that the idea of art patronage, which used to belong to the aristocracy, is more acceptable, it seems to me, in Europe than in the U.S., even if it comes from the government.

What people like Adams could not imagine was there could be, sort of, non-luxurious arts. He couldn’t imagine a poet like Walt Whitman. He couldn’t imagine an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright, or a writer like Henry Thoreau. So we’ve slowly changed as we’ve developed a native art. It’s still remarkably contested.

In a certain degree, the high point of public and government acceptance of funding the arts in the United States was during the Nixon administration, when that acceptance was part of the Cold War, a sort of self-fashioning to make it clear that we were not the money grubbing capitalists the Soviets accused us of being. But we’ve fallen away from that now, so that public support for the arts is constantly embattled.

BLVR: You referred to those artists as non-luxurious. What did you mean by that?

LH: If you see a television show like Downton Abbey, or if you go to Europe—if you go to Milan and see the cathedral—those are astounding buildings, and that was what John Adams thought the arts meant: the kind of arts that required servants. Walt Whitman did not require any servants.

BLVR: Speaking of the sacred, I re-read “Self-Reliance” in preparation for this interview, and there’s a quote: Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. I feel like a couple of your books have a quarrel with Emerson.

LH: I mentioned earlier that, in the early 19th century, individualism was thought of as a negative. It was something that you would advise people against, because they ought to think of themselves as having a public portion to their being. And it’s really Emerson who re-valuates the term, who speaks strongly for going off by yourself and trying to think what you, privately, believe, and sticking to it.

BLVR: I remember that he feels bad when he gives a dollar to a beggar.

LH: He says, “are they my poor?” It’s not that Emerson wasn’t a generous person, or wouldn’t support people locally, but—to give him his due—I think he’s attempting to get away from the abstractions of doing good and get his actions grounded in the particulars of doing good.

Actually, let me say something that opens this up a bit. I’ve been interested lately in the word dividualIn-dividual means something that cannot be divided. So an individualist myth asserts that the single person is indivisible, a sort of atomic unit of social life in which you can find no subsets, no particles. Whereas the word dividual means that the thing can be divided up. It turns out the word dividual has become of interest in anthropological circles. Because sometimes when anthropologists go into communities and see how people think of themselves, they find that people think of themselves in terms of multiplicity. I am made up of my family, and my gods, and the nature that surrounds me, my job—these many different parts make me up. And if they were to disappear—and certainly if all of them were to disappear—would disappear. It’s one of the reasons that we think of solitary confinement as a cruel and unusual punishment. If you really strip someone of all of the webs of connection that we each have—that person would not exist anymore. This at any rate is the belief of a dividualist culture. In the United States, the individualist argument is the myth we can’t get out of. And therefore I find it useful to pester it with images of dividualism.

III. THE HUMOR OF “PRESERVED AMBIGUITY" 

BLVR: You write that “a lively culture will have transformative gifts as a general feature”—in which portions of our culture do you see the presence of such gifts?

LH: To my mind, there’s a class of pursuits which are not well-delivered through the marketplace. My book The Gift is about one of them: artistic practice. But you could also say that people who do pure science, people who are dedicated to spiritual life, people who are dedicated to medicine, people who are dedicated to education—all of these participate in markets, and their services can be delivered through markets, but in each case there’s also something else going on.

To be a great teacher, you can’t simply be looking at how to earn your income. And with a priest or spiritual leader—there’s another relationship that makes those lives what they are. And in each of these cases you’ll find elements of gift exchange thriving, and you’ll also find a tension around it. For example, right now there’s a lot of tension in education around whether the colleges and universities should essentially give themselves over to business models and have “outcome assessments” and fire the teachers who don’t produce. This is all the hegemony of the market.

BLVR: All of those very different professions that you just named—do you see them connected in some way? What do you think they share that makes them not deliverable by the market?

LH: Well, what they probably share is relationship. In education and in spiritual life and in medicine, at the ground level you have people relating to each other who have to actually look into each other’s eyes and feel their suffering, or feel their thirst, or have some back and forth.

Science may not be as intimate as the medical profession; nonetheless, it certainly is a community in which ideas are often shared as contributions, not as proprietary things.

BLVR: You’ve talked about truth existing as something independent of a particular creator. Water always boils at a certain temperature, no matter who figures it out. Do you see something similar happening in creative works, where the individual creator is no longer important?

LH: Let’s begin this by considering scientific ideas. In Common as Air, I use Benjamin Franklin as an example. Franklin invented the lightning rod after he began to understand how electricity moved from the atmosphere to the ground. He could have patented the lightning rod—he didn’t, in fact, but he could have. Now with scientific inventions, it seems pretty clear that, if Franklin hadn’t figured it out, someone else would have done so soon. Same with bifocals. Franklin invented bifocals, but if he hadn’t come up with that idea, somebody else would have—it seems impossible that nobody else would have ever thought of it.

So one argument for giving patents for short terms, is that yes, you want to honor the individual who thought this up but in fact you shouldn’t over-honor this individual, because science is always collective and communal and additive. If one person doesn’t do something, somebody else will do it sooner or later. It therefore seems odd to let somebody who does the first thing then own it forever. So we limit the term.

In the book, I write of scientific ideas as being ideas “without a thinker.” I mean that in the simple sense that these ideas—for example about how electricity works—do occur in an individual mind, but they aren’t dependent on that individual mind. They would have occurred in some other mind sooner or later. So they are thoughts which we collectively, dividually, come up with—not individually.

Now it’s true that in artistic creative work—a novel like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, for example—nobody else would have written that. Or, to take something I discuss in the book, we wouldn’t have a song like "The Times They Are A-Changin’” if Bob Dylan hadn’t written it. So, I think it’s right to honor that differently, and to give maybe a longer term.

The puzzle is that even those things have cultural context. When Dylan was young, he immersed himself in the folk tradition. There’s one whole book, called The Formative Dylan, that shows that in two-thirds of all the songs that Dylan first wrote and sang, he lifted their tunes from the Anglo- and African-American folk tradition. So these are tunes without a tune writer. They’re tunes which we all have inherited. And again, a puzzle arises about the degree to which we’re going to let somebody take them private, and give that person the right to exclude other people from what we used to think was the commons. So again, one wants to look on a case-by- case basis, but even in the most creative of things, there’s always a dividualist portion as well as an individualist portion. And the dividualist portion means that we should be thinking of social benefit and limits to the individual right, as well as honoring the individual right.

BLVR: More and more artistic commerce happens online nowadays. I’m wondering if you think this has the potential to cut off the flow of gratitude that circulates around works of art. It’s hard to imagine a blog post or a website getting more holy as people visit it—or an mp3 as it is downloaded—in quite the same way as a tangible object.

LH: Let’s try one small slice of the topic. In one of the Platonic dialogues, there is an attack on writing, and the story is that the fellow who invents letters offers them as a gift to a king, and the king says, well actually these are not so useful, because what’s going to happen is people will learn from books and they won’t ever have to actually know the thing—they’ll just write it down and there won’t be dialogue. And so, there’s an old critique of writing as destructive to memory and to intimacy. In a way, your question implies the same critique of electronic media. Now, we flash two thousand years forward and it seems to me that both sides of this old debate are present in the electronic media case as well.

You know, you can read a book from the 18th century that changes your life, and the fact that it’s printed and the author is dead and perhaps anonymous makes no difference. Plausibly the same is true of something you find on the Internet. So I don’t think the medium itself necessarily works one way or the other—it’s going to be situational, how it works.

BLVR: You talk about “insoluble tensions” a lot—the lover’s quarrel between the individual and the community, for example—and in your most recent book, you identify humor as the lubricant that allows people to thrive in these tensions rather than being damaged by them. When talking about Benjamin Franklin, for example, you use the phrase “philosophical levity.”

LH: Yes, I’m interested in that kind of humor—in Franklin’s case, I say that it’s the humor of “preserved ambiguity.” What you see in Franklin, for example, is the way he’s able to joke around questions of humility and pride. To say this in another way, Franklin was a remarkable individual and different from many people around him. At the same time, he was a communitarian. He was a person who believed in acting for the public good. These things can often be at odds: the individual impulse and the communitarian impulse. What you see in Franklin is the ability to preserve that doubleness with humor.

There’s a famous line of William Blake’s: “One law for the lion and ox is oppression.” You have to be able to honor the multiplicity of life, and humor is one of the ways in which we do it.

BLVR: What have you been thinking about since the last book?

LH: In the Common As Air book, in one place briefly I quote a Zen philosopher named Dogen. Dogen Zenji. And Dogen says that, in Buddhist practice, “you study the self in order to forget the self, and when you forget the self, the world becomes magical.” I’m interested in self-forgetfulness and its relationship to creativity.

There’s a theme of self-forgetfulness, for example, in John Cage and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp had a friend, a painter, named Picabia. And he said what he liked about Picabia was that he was able to totally forget what he had been doing in his recent paintings and do something new. Apparently in creative life, as in meditation, sometimes your habits of mind just bind you, and if you could forget them, that’s useful.

So I’m interested in forgetting. I’m interested in it also politically. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa has as its model something like Dogen’s aphorism. It’s as if, if you studied political trauma sufficiently, maybe you could also begin to forget it, and give amnesty to people who had committed crimes. Now, the word amnesty is related to the word amnesia—it’s a kind of judicial forgetting. It’s important to have the first clause—you must study; you don’t simply suppress things that you haven’t worked through. You really need to know what happened before it can be forgotten.

To the degree that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has worked, it has allowed South Africans to live in a post-apartheid world. The United States is not very good at this. We tend to not study slavery or what happened to the Native Americans, and so we live in a culture that, rather than forgetting in the healthy way, has ghosts who remind us that we haven’t done the work. So, what I’m doing now: I’m trying to write “a primer for forgetting.”

BLVR: A last question about community. You’ve written about how industrial society was in some ways a relief for people who were stifled by village life. I’ve heard many people express a thirst for community, but when you try to keep a group of some kind together, it’s often so difficult to do. To what extent is the society we have the one that we actually want?

LH: [Laughs] Well, there are two things that come up. First, to talk about the commons and gift exchange runs the risk of sentimental nostalgia: “there used to be these wonderful communities where people shared all their wealth.” I’m fond of a line by E. P. Thompson; he has a good book on the commons, Customs in Common, and he says there that we shouldn’t forget that a lot of the old culture was “in many ways otiose, intellectually vacant, devoid of quickening, and plain bloody poor.” We wouldn’t want to live in it. So, you know, I think we need to be on guard against a kind of retrospective, nostalgic look, and work with the world we have today.

And yes, I think it’s hard: the forces that we all have to deal with day to day mean that communities are harder to form, and each of us is so busy that our commitments overwhelm us before we even begin. Paul Goodman used to say, you can’t change a lot of things, but if you can change something 2%, that would be a great thing. My book on gift exchange and the book on the commons are about ideals—and thus run the risk of overstating what they offer. But still: if the ideal appeals to us, then let’s find a way to move 2% toward it. That would be a great accomplishment.

Akshay Ahuja is the Production Manager for Ploughshares, and lives with his wife and son in Somerville, Massachusetts. Along with writing fiction and essays, he reviews books for Dark Mountain online and for his own blog, The Occasional Review.