Thursday, December 07, 2006

Emerson's "Gifts"

from Essays: Second Series (1844)

Gifts of one who loved me, —
'T was high time they came;
When he ceased to love me,
Time they stopped for shame.
Essay V Gifts
It is said that the world is in a state of bankruptcy, that the world owes the world more than the world can pay, and ought to go into chancery, and be sold. I do not think this general insolvency, which involves in some sort all the population, to be the reason of the difficulty experienced at Christmas and New Year, and other times, in bestowing gifts; since it is always so pleasant to be generous, though very vexatious to pay debts. But the impediment lies in the choosing. If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone. Flowers and fruits are always fit presents; flowers, because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world. These gay natures contrast with the somewhat stern countenance of ordinary nature: they are like music heard out of a work-house. Nature does not cocker us: we are children, not pets: she is not fond: everything is dealt to us without fear or favor, after severe universal laws. Yet these delicate flowers look like the frolic and interference of love and beauty. Men use to tell us that we love flattery, even though we are not deceived by it, because it shows that we are of importance enough to be courted. Something like that pleasure, the flowers give us: what am I to whom these sweet hints are addressed? Fruits are acceptable gifts, because they are the flower of commodities, and admit of fantastic values being attached to them. If a man should send to me to come a hundred miles to visit him, and should set before me a basket of fine summerfruit, I should think there was some proportion between the labor and the reward.
For common gifts, necessity makes pertinences and beauty every day, and one is glad when an imperative leaves him no option, since if the man at the door have no shoes, you have not to consider whether you could procure him a paint-box. And as it is always pleasing to see a man eat bread, or drink water, in the house or out of doors, so it is always a great satisfaction to supply these first wants. Necessity does everything well. In our condition of universal dependence, it seems heroic to let the petitioner be the judge of his necessity, and to give all that is asked, though at great inconvenience. If it be a fantastic desire, it is better to leave to others the office of punishing him. I can think of many parts I should prefer playing to that of the Furies. Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift, which one of my friends prescribed, is, that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought. But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man's biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man's wealth is an index of his merit. But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith's. This is fit for kings, and rich men who represent kings, and a false state of property, to make presents of gold and silver stuffs, as a kind of symbolical sin-offering, or payment of black-mail.
The law of benefits is a difficult channel, which requires careful sailing, or rude boats. It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. We can receive anything from love, for that is a way of receiving it from ourselves; but not from any one who assumes to bestow. We sometimes hate the meat which we eat, because there seems something of degrading dependence in living by it.
"Brother, if Jove to thee a present make, 
Take heed that from his hands thou nothing take."
We ask the whole. Nothing less will content us. We arraign society, if it do not give us besides earth, and fire, and water, opportunity, love, reverence, and objects of veneration.
He is a good man, who can receive a gift well. We are either glad or sorry at a gift, and both emotions are unbecoming. Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit, and so the act is not supported; and if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him. The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. When the waters are at level, then my goods pass to him, and his to me. All his are mine, all mine his. I say to him, How can you give me this pot of oil, or this flagon of wine, when all your oil and wine is mine, which belief of mine this gift seems to deny? Hence the fitness of beautiful, not useful things for gifts. This giving is flat usurpation, and therefore when the beneficiary is ungrateful, as all beneficiaries hate all Timons, not at all considering the value of the gift, but looking back to the greater store it was taken from, I rather sympathize with the beneficiary, than with the anger of my lord Timon. For, the expectation of gratitude is mean, and is continually punished by the total insensibility of the obliged person. It is a great happiness to get off without injury and heart-burning, from one who has had the ill luck to be served by you. It is a very onerous business, this of being served, and the debtor naturally wishes to give you a slap. A golden text for these gentlemen is that which I so admire in the Buddhist, who never thanks, and who says, "Do not flatter your benefactors."
The reason of these discords I conceive to be, that there is no commensurability between a man and any gift. You cannot give anything to a magnanimous person. After you have served him, he at once puts you in debt by his magnanimity. The service a man renders his friend is trivial and selfish, compared with the service he knows his friend stood in readiness to yield him, alike before he had begun to serve his friend, and now also. Compared with that good-will I bear my friend, the benefit it is in my power to render him seems small. Besides, our action on each other, good as well as evil, is so incidental and at random, that we can seldom hear the acknowledgments of any person who would thank us for a benefit, without some shame and humiliation. We can rarely strike a direct stroke, but must be content with an oblique one; we seldom have the satisfaction of yielding a direct benefit, which is directly received. But rectitude scatters favors on every side without knowing it, and receives with wonder the thanks of all people.
I fear to breathe any treason against the majesty of love, which is the genius and god of gifts, and to whom we must not affect to prescribe. Let him give kingdoms or flower-leaves indifferently. There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them. This is prerogative, and not to be limited by our municipal rules. For the rest, I like to see that we cannot be bought and sold. The best of hospitality and of generosity is also not in the will, but in fate. I find that I am not much to you; you do not need me; you do not feel me; then am I thrust out of doors, though you proffer me house and lands. No services are of any value, but only likeness. When I have attempted to join myself to others by services, it proved an intellectual trick, — no more. They eat your service like apples, and leave you out. But love them, and they feel you, and delight in you all the time.


Ahren Baesler said...

“The best of hospitality and of generosity is also not in the will, but in fate.” -Emerson

Emerson: Gifts

Option One (Essay)

Ralph Waldo Emerson had an opinion on just about anything. He had views on both the simplest and most complex matters of the known world and he was not afraid to speak his mind. As a strict transcendentalist and individualist, he allowed no influence from others and was exceptionally stringent in his beliefs. In this essay, entitled Gifts, he analyzes the world and what the concept of gift giving has really done to our society as a whole. He provides measures in which receiving and giving is acceptable and when they should, or shouldn’t, be used. He gives us insight into what a real gift is and what is not. No matter what essay you encounter of Emerson’s, you are bound to come out of it with a newly strengthened or softened view of the matter.

Emerson starts of the essay by saying that the world is in a current state of bankruptcy. He says that because of gift-giving, and the notion that you should, the world is forever in debt to each other. As a solution to the problem, he jokingly proposes that we just sell the world and start anew once again. As we know, this isn’t really possible in a society with morals, beliefs, and opinions because of their set-ways and inability to open both eyes to each side of the issue. However, Emerson knows this and, instead, uses the essay as a tool to provide guidelines to proper gift giving, and the rules that will help the world reach its previous state.

The blatant truth is that when someone gives a gift, they will eventually expect one in return when that time comes around. This is the concept of bankruptcy that Emerson is trying to get across. The fact of the matter is that this is completely correct. When a person goes to a bank to receive a loan, this can be seen as a “gift” of some sort because the bank is giving that person money. In that sense, the bank requires, or expects, that amount to be paid back in full, which can be seen as the “gift-in-return”. This analogy can be applied to every day gift giving, and is also where the entire problem stems initially.

If one were actually to give a gift, Emerson has the specifics for what you must do, should you find yourself in that situation. He believes that a true gift comes directly from the heart. According to Emerson, jewelry is in no way a gift because it symbolizes apologies, instead of a kind gesture. Gifts that one can purchase at any store are what Emerson believes are gifts only fit for kings. His reasoning is because the gift is not actually from the giver, but instead from another person, such as the goldsmith that you purchased it from. These gifts represent a false state of property and instill hollowness. He says that the only gift worthy of its status is one that someone creates themselves, especially for that person. The quote, “Thou must bleed for me.” is a prime example of what Emerson is trying to say. These gifts that fit the criteria include a poet and his poem or a farmer and his corn. These are gifts that someone made themselves and put time and effort into. They are essentially morally right and are the key to restoring society’s balance.

A vital argument in this essay is one that many people may agree with. Emerson says that humans, as a group, are sometimes uncomfortable with the fact of receiving a gift because they were created to be self-sufficient and providers of their own needs. If someone falls into this example, they may feel like the gift-giver is encroaching upon their ability to be independent. Emerson states himself that, “…if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him.” If the person were to accept the gift, then they would feel a need to return to favor so that they would not be “out-done” by the other, hence the recurring theme of bankruptcy.

Essentially, Emerson does not deem gift-giving as a demeaning activity, but he notes that expectations are what hurt it the most. People have the tendency to never be pleased with what they do receive, but instead, always want more and more. Also, like what was mentioned earlier, when someone gives they will almost always expect something in return. This is what causes the cycle to never end and instead of giving gifts at the time when they really do matter most; it is replaced by any time possible, mainly just to “one-up” the other individual.

Emerson states a solution, “A golden text for these gentlemen is that which I so admire in the Buddhist, who never thanks, and who says, ‘Do not flatter your benefactors’”. From this, he is arguing that the sense or need to give a gift in return can be lessened by avoiding the continual need to flatter someone. He sums up his thesis by saying that no gift isn’t ever enough for someone. His example says that if one were to give to a superior, in an attempt to flatter, the sense of guilt and superiority alone would cause the person to wonder if their gift was “up to par”. The core message of this essay is to get across that love is the ultimate gift and that nothing can beat, nor surpass, it. It is the supreme gift of all because one can never be satisfied with material things, but with love, an individual can always be content.

The views and arguments expressed throughout this text are very much correct and meaningful. They give us the insight needed to see what really matters in life, and to not worry about continually impressing someone. As we know, you can never do enough for someone because humans have a tendency to want more than is actually obtainable. Love is arguably the thing that keeps most humans going from day to day, and Emerson said it perfectly when he said that love was the supreme and best gift that someone can either give or receive. Love brings people and nations together, and because of this fact, it is what makes it the greatest gift and the most impossible to beat, surpass, or break.

Nathan Violet said...

even though I didn't read the essay on gifts, I think that I can grasp the general concept from your response. Your analytical description lays out the main points very well and allows me to understand what Emerson's "Gifts" is all about. Having read some of Emerson's other essays, I can tell that you are skilled at defining Emerson's ideas. I also could not find any mistakes or disjunction of thought, good job.

Daphne Garcia said...

In Emerson’s essay Gifts, he successfully indicates aspects of human temperament that are associated with the picking, giving, and receiving of gifts. However, many of his ideas on a concrete way to choose, give, and receive a gift, are themselves, contradictory to each other, and then dismissed.
The most secure aspect of Emerson’s essay is that people delight in giving gifts that are necessary. The decision making process is much easier if the receiver is in apparent need of something. Not only that, but the giver feels gallant and charitable for granting what was needed. Most people experience this sometimes, if not often. This includes buying homeless children coats, to donating money to a cancer research fund, to giving a cousin their first nice pair of shoes. To give what is desired is a rewarding experience for the contributor. If the needy recipient asks for too much, Emerson suggests letting someone else be the one who denies them, so the wrath is directed elsewhere.
Friendship is better than receiving or giving presents. According to Emerson, gift giving is nothing, “compared with the service he knows his friend stood in readiness to yield him, alike before he had begun to serve his friend, and now also.” Emerson takes note of the fact that being a friend to a fellow human is not directly rewarded with money or thanks. However, the potential to receive assistance from the friend is always there and eventually a person would profit through friendship by gaining moral uprightness.
Another observation of human nature by Emerson is the universal want to be self sustained. Humans have a certain dignity that creates resentment towards anything they become dependent on. This argument by itself is mostly solid. Having to rely on another thing, whether is be a person, machine, or substance, degrades the person from the lack of self sufficiency and self worth. In relation to the rest of the essay, this point is rather contradictory. Earlier in the paper, Emerson stated that giving a needed gift was the preferable way to give because it is heroic to fulfill a persons necessary requirements. Emerson also mentions peoples desire to be self sustained. While these arguments work well by themselves, they can’t work together. If it’s human nature to resent a gift of charity because it shows lack of self sufficiency, then the preferable gift should not be just that. Using Emerson’s logic, giving necessities would strike resentment in the recipients heart, therefore, not an ideal gift as Emerson claims.
Emerson states in the beginning of his essay that decent gifts can be flowers or fruits. Flowers because they are beautiful unlike the rest of the world, although Emerson also heartily points out that flowers do not represent proper nature because they are too gentle. Fruits are adequate gifts because “they are the flowers of commodities, and admit of fantastic values being attached to them.” Another point of Emerson’s again creates a conflict with this suggestion of gifts. A great amount of emphasis is later placed on the idea that a gift must “convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought.” It must represent what the giver is and it must be somewhat of a sacrifice for the giver. “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” A poet gives a poem, a farmer gives corn, and so on. It is a terrible thing to buy and give a gift that is someone else’s work and does not represent the giver. With this in mind, flowers and fruits are not adequate presents because they do not represent the giver and they are the labor of whoever grew them. They can only be decent gifts for a select few people and they’re not “always fit presents.”
Emerson addresses the difficulty of receiving gifts. People are either disappointed or pleased with a gift, “and both emotions are unbecoming.” If the gift is bad, it is disappointing to the recipient because they did not receive a better gift, and also because the giver did not know the recipient well enough to give a decent gift. To show disappointment is unbecoming because it seems ungrateful. When the gift is agreeable, the recipient is showing that the present is the more loved part at the time, not the giver. In most cases this is true, people are generally more excited about the gift they received, then the fact that the giver gave them a gift. There are situations in which the recipient appreciates the giver more than the gift itself and still does not feel disappointment. For example, a young kid that draws a nice, endearing picture for his mommy. While, the mother is not disappointed, the appreciation goes into the kids thoughtfulness, not so much the excitement over the artwork.
At the end of his essay, Emerson proceeds to accomplish very little. He says that he “fears to breathe any treason against the majesty of love, which is the genius and god of gifts, and to whom we must not affect to prescribe.” He then goes on to explain that gifts should continue to be given in the same manner as always. This sort of conclusion leads to the questioning of the point of the rest of the essay.
Although Emerson is right about most of his concepts of how people think and behave in situations involving presents, his ideas of how and what gifts are given are unstable and he ends up disregarding them in his closing paragraph by stating all should go on as before.