Tag Archives: Lewis Hyde

Culture Is Always Arising

LH_Lear_Rothko-21-225x300When I lived in Cambridge, Mass., I had the good fortune to live around the corner from Lewis Hyde and his wife, writer Patsy Vigderman. Lew was recently in Los Angeles to talk about his new book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, and television legend Norman Lear held a book party in his honor–this is a snapshot of Lew in front of a happy Rothko that hangs on a side-wall in Norman Lear’s very large home.

Common as Air is Hyde’s third book. His first two (The Gift and Trickster Makes This World) are cult classics among artists. Hyde writes about ancient ideas and inheritances with startling freshness. There are anecdotes and shards of autobiography in his writings–his persona is of a scholar in a thicket of tangible ideas. He’s at home in both secular and sacred realms and brings the past into the present with alacrity. His arguments take the form of stories.

In his introduction to Hyde, as moguls settled into chairs and ingenues draped themselves on the stairs, Norman Lear spoke about our culture being “gobbled up.” He was hosting this book party because “of the importance of Hyde’s ideas….”

“Culture is always arising, and those who participate in its ongoing creation will rightly want to question any cultural expression that comes to them wrapped in a right to exclude,” Hyde writes in the first chapter of Common as Air…which is also Book of Questions.

It took Hyde six years to write this 300-page book. He gave Lear’s guests a nutshell version in his 20-minute talk, tracing ideas of copyright, notions of creativity, and examples of enabling and disabling protocols of ownership. Hyde’s an autodidact with a lyric poet’s style and sensibility. He puts pressure on words, squeezing meaning from etymologies, shifting social contexts, and sensitivities. His vocabulary re-animates old words and presses them into service in a multiplicity of meanings. Early on he states, “I want ‘common’ to be available as a verb….”

He looked a bit of the Trickster at Norman Lear’s house–a disruptive presence among Hollywood types. He spoke of ideas as belonging to all of us, and he referenced the founding fathers’ notions of property-rights as material goods. He quoted Jefferson: “Ideas cannot in nature be the subject of property,” Jefferson wrote. (JEFFERSON! I might add, slave-owning Jefferson!)

The founding father that Hyde gravitates toward is Benjamin Franklin. In a chapter entitled “Benjamin Franklin: Founding Pirate,” he describes Franklin’s attitude toward his own contributions and inventions as not being about self-promotion but for “the common Benefit.” Franklin shared ideas freely, and he absorbed ideas quickly. He did not hoard what he knew, and he did not personalize it either. “He understood, first of all, that scientific claims do not depend on particular scientists; the more personal the origin of the claim, in fact, the more likely its errors.”

Lewis Hyde’s arguments are critiques of the commodification and distribution of art as product. Questions of Intellectual Property become increasingly fractious as experiences of art become virtual, as we take the body (video games) and the object (the book) out of the experience (somatic?) of art. Lew wanted some resistance, and Los Angeles should have been one place to receive it–but he received only sanguine admiration for the sacrifice he’s gone to in creating this argument. At Norman Lear’s pad he was talking to artists, actors, and entertainment industry visionaries. Gore Vidal was there as well, and at the end of the evening Lear asked Mr. Vidal to speak. Gore Vidal spoke of Benjamin Franklin, bringing us back again to that founding pirate. Everything seemed possible.

This idea that the self, that the ego, that the personality needs be distilled out of the work is longstanding. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T.S. Eliot states: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

Things Need Me

A bumper sticker that was popular in my Las Vegas youth: He who dies with the most toys, wins.

books-300x225There’s a reality television show (a confession is implicit in that utterance, I know!) called Hoarders and it’s fascinating slash horrifying. Here are people buried by Things that they cannot stop buying, saving, stashing. They lose all sense of value—all objects become important.

The show puts me in mind of Richard Greenberg’s brilliant play The Dazzle which is based on a true story: Homer and Langley Collyer, two New Yorkers die from hoarding—crushed by their Things—in their Harlem apartment in the early 1900’s. In the preface Greenberg states that “this play is based on the Collyer Brothers, about whom I know almost nothing.” The research that Greenberg does is imaginative, inward, there is empathy and despair and humor.

I have always had an ambivalent relationship to Things, and identified with the character in Marilynn Robinson’s novel Housekeeping whose mantra is “It is better to have nothing.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few things that carry resonance, and that I carry from place to place (I move around a lot).

“Ask anybody about the most meaningful object he owns, and you’re sure to get a story—this old trunk belonged to Grandpa, we bought that tacky mug on our honeymoon,” Rob Walker writes in his ongoing column in the NY Times Magazine.

I started asking people about their most meaningful object—and every response did have a story, an embedded narrative, anecdotal and antidotal. Many people wear their Most Meaningful Possession—a silver & gold ring made for her mother by her father, a jeweler; a crucifix, with Jesus on it, not real gold, but her mother gave it to her, or a favorite pair of earrings, the small one never comes off…. Of course, because this is Los Angeles many of those I asked mentioned their cars, or one of their cars.

Many of my writer friends mentioned books—a first edition, a book of fairytales from childhood, tattered and stained. Other meaningful objects: a fountain pen; a Purple Heart medal that was a gift from her father; her grandmother’s amber beads brought from Russia. Most of these Meaningful objects were gifts. (Except the cars. People tend to buy cars for themselves). But the gifts, the gifts were plentiful.

0307279502.01.LZZZZZZZ-191x300What is it about the Thing as Gift? It has immediate resonance, connotation, totemic power. Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift is a poetic, scholarly and digressive meditation on art-making in a consumer culture. It’s always on the overall reading list that I give to my students (usually they are artists) who sometimes ask for such a list. The Gift is a solace and a preparation. Lew’s second book Trickster Makes This World is a cross-cultural study of trickster figures—and the artist is often a trickster. His newest book, Common as Air, is the culmination of his interest in Ideas and Ownership. Lewis is in Los Angeles this Thursday, September 23, at the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD Series, being interviewed by visionary theatre director Peter Sellars.