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game to the priests, who cook the birds at a sacred ¬re. After they have
eaten some of them, the priests have an offering ceremony in which they
return the hau, in the form of a part of the birds, to the forest where it
is supposed to produce a new abundance of birds to be killed by the
hunters again. As occurs in the Kula, there is a cycle of gift giving: the
forest gives its richness to the hunters, the hunters give it to the priests,
and the priests return it to the forest. The ceremony performed by the
priests is called “nourishing hau,” feeding the spirit, a literal form of
feedback. The spirit of the gift is only kept alive by returning it to where
it comes from. By placing the gift back in the forest, the priests treat the
birds as a gift of nature.
The key idea of Maori law is that the thing given or received is not
inactive. After a thing has been abandoned by the giver, it still possesses
something of him, hau. Through hau, the giver has a hold over the re-
cipient because, as Mauss writes, “it is the hau that wishes to return to its
birthplace, to the sanctuary of the forest and the clan, and to the owner.”
The spirit of the gift remains attached to the chain of bene¬ciaries until

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

they give back from their own property, “their goods, or from their labour
or trading, by way of feasts, festivals and presents, the equivalent or some-
thing of even greater value.” The legal tie in Maori law, a tie occurring
through things, is “one between souls, because the thing itself possesses
a soul, is of the soul. Hence it follows that to make a gift of something
to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself ” (1990 [1923]:
12). Therefore, the recipient of the gift “must give back to another person
what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance, because to
accept something from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual
essence, of his soul. To retain that thing would be dangerous and mortal.”
The reason for this is that things do not only come from persons morally
but also physically and spiritually. Gifts exert a magical or religious hold
over people. The thing given is invested with life and “seeks to return
to . . . its ˜place of origin™” (13).
Several scholars of authority have criticized Mauss for his spiritual
interpretation of the hau. Firth (1929), for example, prefers secular to
spiritual explanations. According to him the fear of punishment or social
sanctions is the real reason to ful¬ll one™s obligation to return a gift. These
sanctions can include a threat to the continuity of economic relations
or to the maintenance of prestige and power. Another anthropologist,
Sahlins (1972), offers an alternative explanation, which is secular as well.
Returning to the original text of the Maori legend, he discovered an
interesting aspect that Mauss had neglected in his rendering of the story.
The participation of a third party in the cycle of gift exchange is crucial
to Sahlins™s conception of hau: for a gift to bring increase, it is necessary
that a third party causes this increase. In the Maori legend, after having
received the birds taken by the hunters, the priests offer some of them
to the Mauri “ a sacred stone acting as a shrine “ which can then cause
the birds to abound. According to Sahlins, the term “pro¬t” would have
been a better translation of hau than Mauss™s “spirit.” Sahlins conceives
of hau as the “increase power” of the goods of the forest. The ceremonial
offering of birds by the priests restores the fertility of the forest. In Sahlins™s

The Anatomy of Gratitude

words, “the hau of a good is its yield, just as the hau of a forest is its
productiveness” (1972: 160).
More recently, the French anthropologist Maurice Godelier (1999)
reevaluates the various interpretations of hau. Godelier interprets the
game the hunters give to the priests as an “offering of thanksgiving in the
hope that the forest and the priests will continue acting on behalf of
the hunters” (1999: 52). According to him, the essential idea in hau is that
the original donor retains his rights over the object he has given regard-
less of the number of times it changes hands. Here he is paying tribute
to the work of the late Annette Weiner (1992), who analyzed the Kula
ceremonials from the perspective of “keeping-while-giving.” She stated
that certain categories of objects, in particular sacred objects, are given
and kept at the same time because their ownership is inalienable in the
end. Objects may circulate, and every person who receives them becomes
a donor in turn. But only the original donor has the ultimate rights over
the object because his ownership is inalienable; the other donors merely
enjoy alienable and temporary rights of possession and use, which they
transfer when they pass on the object. Following Godelier™s view, it is not
so much the spirit or the soul of the gift that makes it want to return to
its original owner, or its pro¬t or yield, but rather the owner™s inalienable
rights over the object, which are known, felt, and respected by the other
donors. Godelier makes an interesting shift here from explaining the re-
turn of gifts on the grounds of properties of the object itself to attributing
the cause to characteristics of the recipient, namely his original rights: he
replaces the animistic and spiritual interpretation with a psychological
and personal one.
However interesting Godelier™s interpretation in terms of the ¬rst
donor™s rights may be, the spiritual explanation cannot so easily be dis-
missed. In many other tribal communities, there are examples of things
that are thought to possess a spirit, to be animated or alive, to have a will
of their own, to wish to return to where they originally come from. An
animistic way of experiencing things often originates in situations where

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

natural fertility and growth are felt to be important. Lewis Hyde (1983
[1979]) describes a practice among American Indian tribes who depend
on the ocean for their primary sustenance, especially the salmon that
annually enter their rivers. The salmon are believed to dwell in a huge
lodge beneath the sea and to have a human form when they are at home.
Only once a year they change their bodies into ¬sh bodies, swim to the
mouths of the rivers, and sacri¬ce themselves to their land brothers as
food for the winter. The ¬rst salmon in the rivers is welcomed with an
elaborate ceremony. The ¬sh is caught, placed on an altar, and laid out
before the group with its head pointing inland to encourage the rest of
the salmon to continue swimming upstream. According to Hyde,

the ¬rst ¬sh was treated as if it were a high-ranking chief making a visit from
a neighbouring tribe. The priest sprinkled its body with eagle down or red
ochre and made a formal speech of welcome, mentioning . . . how much the
tribe had hoped the run would continue and be bountiful. The celebrants
then sang the songs that welcome an honoured guest. After the ceremony the
priest gave everyone present a piece of the ¬sh to eat. Finally . . . the bones of
the ¬rst salmon were returned to the sea. The belief was that salmon bones
placed back into the water would reassemble once they had washed out to
sea; the ¬sh would then revive, return to its home, and revert to its human
form. . . . If they were not, the salmon would be offended and might not
return the following year with their gift of winter food. (1983 [1979]: 26“27)

This beautiful Indian story, demonstrating the idea that gifts of nature
can only bear fruit if people show them gratitude in a proper way, clearly
illustrates the action tendency of gratitude. The view that natural wealth
should be treated as a gift is as old as the Old Testament, where the ¬rst
fruits of the earth are perceived as belonging to God. The fertility of the
earth is a gift from God, and in order to continue it, its fruits should
be returned to him (Hyde 1983 [1979]). Perhaps this religious origin of
gratitude also has an ecological aspect. Throughout history, people have
had some sense that it is wrong to usurp the wealth offered by nature.
Traditionally it has been a common practice among European farmers

The Anatomy of Gratitude

to let their ¬elds rest after they had intensively cultivated them for some
time. It is dif¬cult to separate the religious awe felt by humans for the
abundance of the earth from their feeling that they should not exhaust
its resources.
Hyde describes another interesting category of gifts where gratitude
can be seen at work, namely gifts given at funerals. Gratitude apparently
not only binds the living to nature and to one another; it also connects the
living to the dead. Gifts given at someone™s death are part of a general class
of “threshold gifts” that mark the passage from one state into another.
By means of these gifts, the transformation from one identity to another
is facilitated. Often some attributes pertaining to the life of the deceased
(human or animal) are inserted into the cof¬n: pharaohs are buried with
their most valuable treasures and jewelry, and children are accompanied
by their most cherished toys on their journey to another state. Many
people believe that corpses should be buried with gifts intended to help
the soul on its journey. If the dead are not properly laid to rest, they will
walk ceaselessly on earth, according to some folk beliefs. Gifts not only
help transform the identity of the once living being into the now dead
one; they also express our gratitude to the deceased, to the fact that we
knew them and enjoyed the privilege of being in their company for a
certain period of time.
Hyde speaks of gratitude as a “labour undertaken by the soul” to effect
the transformation after a gift is received. “Between the time a gift comes
to us and the time we pass it along, we suffer gratitude. . . . Passing the gift
along is the act of gratitude that ¬nishes the labour” (1983 [1979]: 47). In
this ¬nal act, the true acceptance of the original gift is accomplished. The
spirit of the gift has been kept intact by giving ourselves away: our ties with
people who are or were dear to us have been renewed and strengthened.
How people react to natural abundance and how they create and main-
tain mutual bonds by exchanging gifts can be interpreted in terms of the
concept of gratitude. Malinowski™s principle of give-and-take seems to
be based on an underlying feeling of indebtedness to the giver, which

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

we are now inclined to call gratitude. Gifts returned to nature because
nature “expects” us to do so and gifts “wanting to return” to where the
original giver lives both seem to indicate an inner feeling of obligation
to the outside world, which is projected onto that world. That sense of
obligation can only be resolved by means of an act of gratitude. Also the
story about the “spirit of the gift” can be regarded as a metaphor of grati-
tude. The difference with our modern conception is that gratitude is not
thought of as an internal feeling or emotion but as an external force that
compels the recipient to reciprocate. Perhaps this conception of gratitude
derives its compelling force exactly from the fact that it is externalized
and objecti¬ed: acting in the spirit of gratitude is felt as a generally en-
dorsed obligation that you cannot afford to shirk on the penalty of social
disapproval and exclusion.

The Recipient of the Gift

From a psychological point of view gratitude may be considered a virtue,
a personality characteristic, or asset. It is something one has to learn, and
some people are better equipped to learn it than others. Learning to say
thank you, to share, and to return is an important part in the education
of children. What are the preconditions for developing a capacity to
be grateful? In her essay “Envy and gratitude” (1987b [1957]), Melanie
Klein considers gratitude from a psychoanalytic point of view. She holds
that envy is the most powerful factor in disturbing feelings of love and
gratitude at their root, because it originates in the earliest relation of a
child to its mother. This relationship has a fundamental importance for
the individual™s whole further emotional life, according to Klein. The
quality of the mother™s earliest breast contact with the child and, more
symbolically, of her capacity to represent to the child a “good object” with
which it can identify is of great importance for laying the foundations
for hope, trust, and belief in goodness. Any deprivation in this respect,
not only the breast™s literal failure to provide enough milk but also “ and

The Anatomy of Gratitude

more important “ the mother™s withholding of emotional nourishment,
may cause the child to develop a serious emotional impairment in the
form of hate, envy, jealousy, or greed.
The most signi¬cant consequence of this emotional impairment is that
the child is deprived of the opportunity to experience enjoyment as a re-
sult of being satis¬ed by the good object. Envy tends to become such
a persistent characteristic because it spoils the capacity for enjoyment;
enjoyment gives rise to gratitude, and only gratitude can mitigate de-
structive impulses like envy and greed. Only children who have been able
to develop a deep-rooted relationship with a good maternal object can
build up a strong and permanent capacity for love and gratitude, which
can withstand temporary states of envy and hatred. In Melanie Klein™s
words, “One major derivative of the capacity for love is the feeling of
gratitude. Gratitude is essential in building up the relation to the good
object and underlies also the appreciation of goodness in others and in
oneself. Gratitude is rooted in the emotions and attitudes that arise in
the earliest stage of infancy, when for the baby the mother is the one and
only object” (1987 [1957]: 187).
Just as Freud describes the infant™s bliss in being suckled as the proto-
type of sexual grati¬cation, Klein considers these experiences as consti-
tutive for all later happiness. The full grati¬cation of the maternal breast
brings about the experience of having received a unique gift from the
loved object, a gift that the child wants to keep. This ¬rst gift is the basis
of gratitude. The gratitude of being satis¬ed enables a child to accept and
assimilate to the loved primal object, not only as a source of food but also
as a whole person. This is the ¬rst sign of basic trust in other people. The
more regular the grati¬cation and the more fully it is accepted, the more
often the child will experience enjoyment, gratitude, and the wish to re-
turn pleasure in its wake. This recurrent experience plays an important
role in the capacity to return goodness. Here we can see how gratitude and
generosity become connected. Only inner wealth makes one able to share
gifts with others. As Klein says, “if this gratitude is deeply felt it includes

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

the wish to return goodness received and is thus the basis of generosity.
There is always a close connection between being able to accept and to
give, and both are part of the relation to the good object” (1987 [1963]:
The idea of a relation between the absence of shortages in motherly
dedication and the capacity to enjoy the ¬rst gifts a child receives from
its caretaker (whether it be milk, warmth, or closeness) sounds highly
probable. Also the hypothesis that one should ¬rst develop a capacity
to enjoy the good things one receives from others before being able to
experience gratitude seems reasonable enough. Finally, the connection
between gratitude and generosity, the idea that the capacity to receive
and be grateful fosters the desire to return goodness seems theoretically
plausible. The principle of reciprocity that is demonstrated in so many of
the anthropologists™ accounts apparently applies at the level of the earliest
interactions between mother and child as well. A lack of basic love and
care “ the ¬rst gift “ leads to a failing capacity to enjoy, which in turn
impairs the capacity to be grateful and to return the gift. As in all gift
relationships, the bond is only kept intact if gifts are returned properly.
Both the mother and the child may fail in this respect. In that case the
negative side of the principle of reciprocity may come to apply. The less
the mother is capable of giving the best of her being to the child, the less
responsive and grateful the child will become. An ever more disturbed
relationship may develop if the child does not give in return, causing the
mother to become less responsive as well. Just as the gift of gratitude paves
the way for new gifts to be given, a lack of gratitude evokes a diminishing
propensity in others to give return gifts.
It is clear that there are substantial individual differences in the capacity
to experience and express gratitude. Some people are much more able
to express genuine gratitude and be generous without compromise than
others. Gratitude is a personal virtue that is neither self-evident nor
equally distributed among all human beings. Not only do individuals
differ in their capacity to be grateful; there are also culturally varying

The Anatomy of Gratitude

expressions of gratitude, as the example of Japan mentioned at the
beginning of this chapter made clear. Nevertheless there seem to be
culture-independent functions of gratitude.

Gratitude, Reciprocity, and Culture

Gratitude: The Moral Memory of Mankind

A sociological view on gratitude stresses the interpersonal relationships
and social interactions in which gratitude takes shape. Gratitude is al-
ways embedded in a relationship between two parties. The capacity to
be grateful and generous develops within the context of a social relation-
ship. The primary function of gift giving “ creating social ties “ is clearly
demonstrated in the interaction between mother and child: the bond is
only kept alive and intact if there is some degree of positive reciprocity.
Gratitude plays a crucial role in establishing and maintaining social re-
lations. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the sociologist Georg
Simmel wrote his beautiful essay “Faithfulness and gratitude,” one of the
few texts to address the subject of gratitude directly. He called gratitude
“the moral memory of mankind” (1950 [1908]: 388). By mutual giving,
people become tied to each other by a web of feelings of gratitude. Grat-
itude is the motive that moves us to give in return and thus creates the
reciprocity of service and counterservice. Although it has psychological
feelings at its base, its main function is social, according to Simmel. Grat-
itude functions within the chain of reciprocity. Gift exchange and the
concomitant feelings of gratitude are at the basis of a system of mutual
obligations among people and, as such, function as the moral cement of
human society and culture. Simmel also refers to the role of gratitude
in fostering the continuity of social life. Gratitude connects people with
what has gone on before and gives them the continuity of interactional
life. He conducts a mental experiment by imagining what would hap-
pen if every grateful action based on bene¬ts received in the past were

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

suddenly eliminated: society would de¬nitely break apart. Gratitude not
only creates and smooths interpersonal relationships; it also ful¬lls im-
portant cohesive functions for society and culture as such.
The social nature of the principle of reciprocity is very clearly illus-
trated in the fascinating animal research data collected by Frans de Waal
and his co-workers (1996). After having offered ample illustrations of
chimpanzees sharing and exchanging food, de Waal asks the crucial ques-
tion why. In his experiments, he observed chimpanzees when they see a
caretaker arrive with bundles of blackberry, sweet gum, beech, and tulip
branches. Characteristically, a general pandemonium ensues: wild ex-
citement, hooting, embracing, kissing, and friendly body contact, which
he calls a “celebration.” De Waal considers it a sign that indicates the
transition to a mode of interaction characterized by friendliness and
reciprocity. Celebration eliminates social tensions and thus creates a set-
ting for a relaxed sharing of the food. Perhaps the chimpanzees™ basic
feeling of delight preceding the sharing of food can be compared with the
joy of children receiving the good object from their mother, as described
by Melanie Klein. Perhaps celebration and joy are preconditions of the
harmonious being together in which the ¬rst acts of reciprocity can take
place. De Waal™s results clearly demonstrate that celebration is followed
by a pattern of reciprocal giving and receiving: those who share with oth-
ers will also receive from others, and those who are poor givers will be
poor recipients as well. Apparently, animals have the mental capacity to
keep track of what they have given and received and apply this capacity
whenever it is appropriate (de Waal 1996).
A sociological pattern of reciprocity is exactly what we found in our
study on gift giving in the Netherlands (Komter and Schuyt 1993). Al-
though certain categories of respondents appeared to be greater givers
than others “ women, younger people, better-educated people “ reci-
procity was the rule among all the categories in about the same degree.
The principle of reciprocity not only applied to material but also to non-
material gifts, as we have seen in chapter 2 (Table 2.1).

The Anatomy of Gratitude

Gratitude, Power, Dependence

Thus far, I have spoken about gratitude only as a positive emotion and a
social force bringing about community and cohesion. However, gratitude
is not always the positive and unproblematic phenomenon we would like
it to be but may be complicated by issues of power and dependence. For
instance, the principle of reciprocity can be disturbed if returns are not
equivalent. One party may not have enough resources to meet the other™s
expectations of what counts as proper returns. Power may be involved in
reciprocity, causing asymmetry, with one party feeling it should give, or
being actually obliged to give, much more than the other. In such cases,
gratitude looks different than in situations dominated by more or less
symmetrical reciprocity.
The sociologist Alvin Gouldner (1973a) was the ¬rst to elaborate upon
the role of power in situations of asymmetrical reciprocity. The respective
levels of the resources of giver and recipient should be taken into account,
as well as the needs of the recipient and the freedom the giver has either
to give or not. Giving may be compelled by other people or by strong
normative expectations to do so, thus restricting the spontaneity and
voluntariness of the gift giving. This probably affects the way gratitude
is experienced. Unfortunately Gouldner, like most of his sociological
and anthropological colleagues, does not elaborate upon that particular
As is often the case with really fundamental issues, literature offers some
interesting insights that are notoriously absent in the social science ¬eld.
The Russian writer and poet Marina Tsvetajeva, who wrote most of her
work just after the Russian Revolution in 1917, has a very uncommon but
enlightening view on the vicissitudes of gratitude. She deeply mistrusted
the Bolshevik rulers and their oppressive political tactics. This distrust
was reciprocal. The Bolshevik regarded Tsvetajeva as a hostile element and
obstructed publication of her work, necessitating her to live with her two
small children in one icy room at her parents™ house. Poverty and hunger

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

made her dependent on alms offered to her by friends and acquaintances
from time to time. In this type of situation, gratitude looks quite different

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