The gift we must give

Hassan Karimi
7 min readJan 17, 2024

1. The Genius Outside

In Ancient Rome, the word genius did not mean a brilliant and talented person. It referred a spirit and protector that watches over us. Every person had their own genius, as did places. It was their connection to the divine. On one’s birthday it was customary to provide libations, food, and cake as an offering to one’s genius and also to friends and family.

On your birthday, you may have received gifts, but more importantly you made offerings to the genius to receive blessings and protection in return.

In Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift, he shares the perspective of Apuleius, the Roman author of The Golden Ass:

If a man cultivated his genius through such sacrifice, it would become a lar, a protective household god, when he died. But if a man ignored his genius, it became a larva or a lemur when he died, a troublesome, restless spook that preys on the living. The genius or daemon comes to us at birth. It carries with it the fullness of our undeveloped powers. These it offers to us as we grow, and we choose whether or not to accept, which means we choose whether or not to labor in its service.

For, again, the genius has need of us. As with the elves, the spirit that brings us our gifts finds its eventual freedom only through our sacrifice, and those who do not reciprocate the gifts of their genius will leave it in bondage when they die.

2. Acknowledging art as the gift we receive.

A few weeks ago I decided to revisit my highlights and notes from Lewis Hyde’s only to find that I pretty much highlighted half the book. It was like reading the entire book again. Most of this write-up is going to be quotes from that book.

Hyde explores the nature of gifts, gift-giving, and receiving throughout different cultures and histories. Art has a core relationship with gifts. Where does an artist’s work come from? Is art purely a commercial product or something else?

As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” says D. H. Lawrence.

Not all artists emphasize the “gift” phase of their creations to the degree that Lawrence does, but all artists feel it.

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

In his book of essays and interviews, The Real Work , the poet Gary Snyder shares how his best poems came from outside himself:

I finished off the trail crew season and went on a long mountain meditation walk for ten days across some wilderness. During that process — thinking about things and my life — I just dropped poetry. I don’t want to sound precious, but in some sense I did drop it. Then I started writing poems that were better. From that time forward I always looked on the poems I wrote as gifts that were not essential to my life; if I never wrote another one, it wouldn’t be a great tragedy. Ever since, every poem I’ve written has been like a surprise … You get a good poem and you don’t know where it came from.

“ Did I say that? “

And so all you feel is : you feel humility and you feel gratitude . And you’d feel a little uncomfortable, I think, if you capitalized too much on that without admitting at some point that you got it from the Muse, or whoever, wherever, or however.

- Gary Snyder, The Real Work

3. Gift economy and market economy

Hyde uncovers a fundamental tension that all artists deal with, their work lives in two economies-The gift economy and the market economy.

The artist must learn to serve two masters.

How, if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market?

Modern artists have resolved this dilemma in several different ways, each of which, it seems to me, has two essential features. First, the artist allows himself to step outside the gift economy that is the primary commerce of his art and make some peace with the market. Like the Jew of the Old Testament who has a law of the altar at home and a law of the gate for dealing with strangers, the artist who wishes neither to lose his gift nor to starve his belly reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the work is created, but once the work is made he allows himself some contact with the market. And then-the necessary second phase-if he is successful in the marketplace, he converts market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art.

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

4. All art is inspired by what came before

If art involves a gift received from outside of ourselves to create it, the outcome itself is an outside force for others to create-an inspiration.

Hermes invents the first musical instrument, the lyre, and gives it to his brother, Apollo, whereupon he is immediately inspired to invent a second musical instrument, the pipes. The implication is that giving the first creation away makes the second one possible.

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

In his book, Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse elevates the artists as the creators of culture. Stories and ultimately mythologies arise from art’s ability to touch us. So the true contribution of the work is the way it touches and moves us, not the object or artwork itself.

Since culture is itself a poiesis [creative activity] , all of its participants are poietai [creators] — inventors, makers, artists, storytellers, mythologists. They are not, however, makers of actualities, but makers of possibilities. The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. “Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.”

— James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games

5. Creativity is served by an abundant mindset

A river of material flows through us. When we share our works and our ideas, they are replenished. If we block the flow by holding them all inside, the river cannot run and new ideas are slow to appear.

In the abundant mindset, the river never runs dry. Ideas are always coming through. And an artist is free to release them with the faith that more will arrive.

If we live in a mindset of scarcity, we hoard great ideas.

― Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way of Being

6. The creative gift spans all disciplines — use it or don’t

Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don’t do it.

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself,. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle

7. But the gift must stay in motion

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

- Maya Angelou

I love that Maya Angelou quote the truth of it cuts deeper. We pay a price for not creating.

The gift must stay in motion. “Publish or perish” is an internal demand of the creative spirit, one that we learn from the gift itself, not from any school or church.

In her Journal of a Solitude the poet and novelist May Sarton writes:

“There is only one real deprivation, I decided this morning, and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most…The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.”

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

The well of creativity never dries, so long as we create.

To have painted a painting does not empty the vessel out of which the paintings come. On the contrary, it is the talent which is not in use that is lost or atrophies, and to bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next.

— Lewis Hyde, The Gift

Originally published at https://boundlesscanvas.substack.com on August 31, 2023.

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Hassan Karimi

UX/ product former architectural designer writing about building a creative practice in modern times