Site Meter Peculiar Susceptibility: GIFT: a handkerchief of my own sewing; my poison

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

GIFT: a handkerchief of my own sewing; my poison

The Real Art Ways holiday staff party was last night. It had been a very, very long day and it was with dread that I anticipated attending it. Regarless, I had baked an Italian Almond Cake for it the night before and picked and wrapped (quite well, I think) a little cadeau for the Yankee Swap.

My plan, intitially, was to attend for an hour or so, and then to duck out before the Yankee Swap, to which I was having an increasingly visceral reaction, occurred.


The etymology of gift is lengthy and overlapping. In several northern European languages the word means "poison." In others it means "that which is given," "dowry," and the like. But my favorite was the language that combined the two meanings: Faroese, in which gift means both "poison" and "married." I had to think about it a bit. The connection between "gift" and "married" is pretty clear: a woman's dowry was a donation of sorts to the man she would marry, therefore, metonymously, she was a gift.

But poison?

It took me some time to work this out, but here's what I've come up with:
In The Gift, Marcel Mauss characterizes gifts thus: "In short, [the exchange of gifts] represents an intermingling. Souls are mixed with things; things with souls. Lives are mingled together, and this is how, among persons and things so intermingled, each emerges from their own sphere and mixes together. This is precisely what contract and exchange are." If we take Mauss at his word, then, the exchange of gifts is a corruption of the soul.

From here, a small jump. The more common etymological connotation for the word gift is "dowry." If we consider what it might mean for a woman to make a gift of herself, that is (drawing again on Mauss) intermingling her soul with her self-as-object, we can begin to see a light in which marriage is poison.

In the end, I stayed at the soirée for some time. I love the people with whom I work - they are talented and smart and viciously funny. And there was a very nice sparkling rosé. I gave the giftling for which I had swapped to Barbara after the game had finished. It made me feel better. (But was I, in a way, bribing myself to stay in so doing?)

[Mostly unrelated, but interesting tidbit...Best definition of "gift": a white speck on the finger nails, supposed to portend a gift.]

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