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TRICKSTER MAKES THIS WORLD: Mischief, Myth and Art. By Lewis Hyde . Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 418 pp., $26 : THE GIFT: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. By Lewis Hyde . Vintage: 352 pp., $14 paper

January 25, 1998|MARGARET ATWOOD | Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 25 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. Her most recent novel, "Alias Grace," was published last year. She lives in Toronto, Canada

"Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art" is Lewis Hyde's second masterpiece of--well, of what? Of wondering, of pertinent storytelling, pondering. Of making connections that seem both absolutely true and absolutely obvious once Hyde has made them but which we've somehow never noticed before. He's one of those quirky, eccentric Wise Children the United States sometimes throws up--a sort of Thoreau-cum-anthropologist-cum-seer, an asker of naive questions that turn out to be the reverse of naive, fascinated by why we behave the way we do, and why our right hand is often so blind to what our left hand is up to, and why it matters, especially to that elusive entity we've named the soul. Robert Bly calls Hyde a mythologist, which sort of fits, but perhaps he could also be called an illuminationist. In short, he casts light.

It's hard to discuss "Trickster Makes This World" apart from Hyde's first such syncretic masterpiece, "The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property." The classification on "The Gift's" back cover reads "Literary Criticism / Sociology," but I expect many distraught bookstore workers have attempted to jam it also into "Anthropology," "Economics," "Theology" or "Philosophy." "The Gift" was first published in 1979 and has been in print ever since. It passes from hand to hand, primarily the hands of those in any way connected with the arts but also the hands of all who are interested in the sometimes arbitrary values placed on the material goods of this world. The primary question it poses is simple: Why is a poet, in our society, unlikely ever to be rich? Or, in another form: What is it about a series of romance novels designed entirely through market research that leads us to believe none of them will ever be a work of art? Or else: What is Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" worth in dollar terms? In the course of explaining why the answer is both "nothing" and "it's priceless," Hyde stitches together not only folk tale and impressive erudition but biographical anecdote, personal observation and anything else he finds useful, and on this flying patchwork he covers an immense amount of essential human ground.

By the pressures of the market economy we live in, he says, we've been fooled into believing that there is only one way in which things are exchanged: through money transactions, or buying and selling. Yet on some level we know there's another economy at work in human societies: the gift economy, which has quite different rules and consequences. It's the relation between the two economies that "The Gift" explores. In the course of reading it, we discover how "Indian givers" got their undeserved name, why usury developed the way it did, why you don't normally charge for donating a kidney to your brother, why women were traditionally "given" in marriage and sons were "given" by mothers in war and why the Welsh passed free meals over the coffins of their dead.

Money transactions create no bonds of love or gratitude and imply no obligations. Gifts, on the other hand, are reciprocal and also emotionally loaded: Market exchanges move through the bank account, gifts through the heart. Where the gift circulates, spiritual life flourishes. All societies exist in both economies, says Hyde, but each tends to value one economy over the other. Our own society has overemphasized the market and denied the gift, and the result is stagnant wealth on the one hand and spiritual death and material poverty on the other.

The artist belongs primarily to the gift economy; without that element of creation that arrives uncommanded and cannot be bought, the work is unlikely to be alive. "The Gift" is the best book I know of for the aspiring young, for talented but unacknowledged creators or even for those who have achieved material success and are worried that this means they've sold out. It gets to the core of their dilemma: how to maintain yourself alive in the world of money when the essential part of what you do cannot be bought or sold. All literary and theatrical and film agents should read this book; they may be surprised to learn what a mythological role they play as guardians of the threshold that separates gift from dollar transaction but which must somehow be crossed if the artist is to eat. "The Gift" should also be read by every patron, every legislator and every die-hard opponent of arts funding. It lights up the dark corners.

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