Making room for, and sense of, largesse

In his otherwise scathing New York Review of Books review of Jean Starobinski’s Largesse, Ernst Gombrich notes at the outset that the term refers not just to gift giving of any sort but, ‘in a more technical context, [to] the ceremonial scattering of gifts expected from a king or prince on festive occasions.’ Largesse, Starobinski asserts, is an example of an ‘ostentatious gift,’ and we might observe the concept of largesse slowly expanding beyond the realm of kings and princes to include great men and women of wealth: landed gentry, captains of industry, mafia dons, investment billionaires.

Jane Jacobs, in Systems of Survival, and Gombrich in his New York Review of Books review are both quick to point out how often and how easily largesse becomes–or is–a bribe, yet, despite this tendency and this danger, the more basic question remains, ‘How does largesse proper fit into our grasp of our economic relationships?’

Continue reading “Making room for, and sense of, largesse”

‘Therefore, I tried the hammer…’: On how not to receive a gift

The impetus for the following letter was a guffaw. Last week I ordered a copy of Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time and, by mistake, had had it shipped to my conversation partner’s residence.  Here: a non-gift for you! Thanks!

In his turn, he had mailed the book to me. On Monday, I noticed that the package was heavy, and when I opened it, I saw that he had included a cache of Harvard Loeb Edition books (if you’re not familiar, these are the creme de la creme). A true gift then! Ah!

In the letter, the literary persona makes an allusion to the color green. The Harvard Loeb books are this lovely shade of mint green.

Dear W,

I noticed first that the box was heavy. Almost immediately, I ruled out the possibility of your sending sandwiches. Also telling against the sandwich hypothesis was the cost of shipping. Who in his right mind would spend $21 on the delivery of sandwiches for one philosopher? I felt convinced that sandwiches could not be the items inside. In fact, I was sure of it.

The thought of sandwiches lingered. As I opened the package, my mind began leaning–perhaps an apter word is tipping–so then my mind began tipping toward exercise equipment. My apartment, I considered, could always use a decent kettlebell. I have pictures of lakes, of swans, a picture of a 50 yr. old view of the Mississippi taken in spring. In addition, I own a foam roller, a couple pair of Tom’s, but yet no kettlebells. So far, I have not given into despair.

Let’s return to the box, shall we? By now, I have managed to lug the heavy thing upstairs, up all 5 flights of stairs. By now, I was dog tired, the light was shining gaily, the doves were doing their coo-cooing, a new afternoon was blossoming like a child’s second set of teeth. I realized the time was right to act swiftly and decisively, and so I did the latter.

First I tried prising apart the package with the aid of my bare fingers. The tape, sturdy and true, did its job, twice it appears: once to hold items inside, a second time to keep prying fingers without. I yanked, the tape stretched, the package yawned, but nothing budged or broke or gave forth. Mussels, clams, first loves dot dot dot.

I admit, I felt frustrated. (Add an adverb here, if you please.)

Next, therefore, I tried the hammer (I lie). No, I went for the scissors that were scintillating near the cutting board. I tried them, and the tape yielded, as if by the Dao. Just as good wood bends without breaking, it is said, so good scissors cut without shaking. By God, I thought. What scissors, I exclaimed. What magical, incisive scissors. I sat and thought long about the properties of scissors. I thought of silver blades and of razor’s edges. I thought of dawns and of new worlds, but mostly I thought of cutting.

After this moment of pure bliss, nirvana, and whatnot and after a 2 hr. conversation with one conversation partner about bliss, nirvana, and whatnot, I returned to peer inside. It seemed time, so I gave myself full-bore and whole hog to the task at hand. Inside, I found Dreyfus’s book. In the end, it came through unharmed. Hurray!, I said. Hurray! So this is what was weighing everything down all along. I felt lighter, as if I had been relieved of a very heavy burden.

Doubt is like that, I suppose, heavy until it is light. Unbearable otherwise. Know thyself.

I took the box to the recycling bin, a few green threads hanging loosely out the back, and thought how fortunate we humans are to have the capacity to reason deductively and, failing that, to proceed inductively. You see how I have managed to make it in NYC so far.


Some Educational Notes

1.The literary persona, above, is an unreliable narrator, modeled partly on Swift’s narrator from A Tale of the Tub. If you missed this, then consider re-reading the letter with this conceit in mind. (Incidentally, there’s also more than hint of the mock heroic and the melodramatic about the piece.)

2. Among other things, what is being dramatized is the failure to receive a gift properly. Also a set of moral defects: garrulity, self-absorption, self-deception, insincerity, lack of attunement to reality (consider all the cliches and heavy-handed language).

3. The letter exhibits a series of reasoning errors: errors in deductive reasoning first, then errors in inductive reasoning.

4. A meta-level consideration: by writing such a letter to a conversation partner who is himself an excellent writer (a writer far better than I), I’m attempting to thank him in a form that could prove suitable. (Then again, could also be a second error…) Playful and suitable and fun.

5. One job of good jokes, I gather, is to put our reasoning errors on full display. Laughter is a signal that (a) “we all get it” (mutuality), (b) we acknowledge the error, and (c), by acknowledging the error, we are on the way to repairing it. We are learning to see cues for it next time, to keep an eye out for this kind of error in the future. Laughter, on this construal, is a first step on the road to reasoning better.


The following is an excerpt from an email exchange that took place between one conversation partner–I guess I’ve renamed her “S.”–and me from this past weekend. I pick up the thread about education in Tuesday’s post. Till then, A.

Dear S.,

There’s a rock on my desk. (A fine opening line!). It’s black. Away from the light and on the desk it’s black still. I turned it over in my hands, thought for a moment of Beckett’s sucking stones, and then put the rock to the light. By this time, it was morning. I brought the rock to the window and held it in my hands and turned it over again. Then…  The flowers were like henna, were like bundles of fruits, were like the purple leaves that grew freely in my mother’s garden.

It was a gift, we know this because you told me so, but a gift of a kind that threw light on its being a gift. The gift first lures us, as it were, allowing us to see it as if it were an ordinary object that conforms entirely to our expectations. But then it entreats us to take a second look. When we do, we are surprised that it was other than what we had thought or expected. A good gift humbles us, revealing to us that our ordinary ways of perceiving won’t do it justice, implying also that our ordinary ways of being do life a grave disservice, taking the breath from life.

I think there’s something here about error being inextirpable from being human. Hegel insisted that modern philosophy got off on the wrong foot, with the idea that, since Descartes, doubt must be introduced in order for it to be vanquished and replaced, in turn, by absolute certainty. We think of life certainty as being not just the desideratum but also the default setting and yet, so long as we think this, we err doubly.

We err doubly and, in so doing, fail to learn. Hegel’s approach would be to show us how we started off in error because our conceptions of life and the way that life revealed itself may be discordant. Hegel, ever stern-browed, was on the path to telling a joke. Error in judgment, reason, and conduct must come first (so far, so good) as if we leaned into our perceptions, so that learning may come after, arriving with our whole person acknowledgment of our errors together with the object’s ‘demand’ that we make amends to it and to life.

The troubling implication is that education today, and parenting by extension, presumes that error is anomalous, perfection being a worthy and unquestionable ideal, and that good parenting is about getting along nicely, without any hitch. Perfection, the unfulfillable, external ideal lying beyond all too human existence, throws light on our very human blushes, as if our blushes arrived from elsewhere and could never be our own. Perfection is the fear of error captured as a frieze.

But good parenting is not like that. Parents get angry, they melt down, they yell, they almost lose it; they try one thing and then another; they get nothing from self-help nonsense; they err and err again, thus grasping the pain and release of the gift. The important point, however, is that they “show their errors” to their children, show their strengths as well as their weaknesses, but also that they are able to get the hang of putting their hand–just so–on the back of the neck, of brushing their child’s hair–just right–at the right moment, how–in sum–to set things to right. “Come here, old lady–thank you for putting away my bonnet–kiss me.”

This is the path of wisdom. Error, which must come first, won’t always have the final word; love will, love being (in this context) the strength to make and perceive errors and to make amends during the pianissimo moments. Love of children: a montage–a cat cozying up gingerly, rubbing her head against one’s hand.



Dear Andrew,

My cat is rubbing his head under my chin, after having sat for a while in front of the window sill, where she gazed longingly at the morning doves cooing on my fire escape. I love the sound of those doves because it reminds me of my adolescence in Florida: the heavy humid mornings and swaying Spanish moss…

Children are incredibly forgiving. With them, if a parent is honest and brave enough to acknowledge her errors, amends can be made and love accepted wholeheartedly.

I think there’s so much pressure today surrounding the conceit of being the “perfect” parent. The other day P told me how, years ago, he had received this nasty 16 page letter from a professor somewhere in the Midwest that she had  CC’d to 65 people in the company, because they had run an article saying that it was OK for a mother not to breastfeed her child if it wasn’t working out; suggesting that formula was OK as well. The professor accused P of supporting the formula industry. I wonder what she would have said about the anecdote that P told me of the time when he playfully tied his 7 year old to his chair with masking tape after having asked him 20+ times to sit down during dinner. His son giggled and wiggled the whole way through dinner. Would she have called it abuse?

When I first started working on the stone, it wasn’t so black, more of a dark gray, which got darker and darker as I worked on it. At first, I was annoyed, but then I surrendered to it: my hands and the stone clearly had more in mind than my pen. The stone wove its mystery on its own: through me but not without me.


At home with Joan

If it’s before 9 a.m. and the doorbell rings, I hurry down the stairs to get it. If it’s after 9, then I assume Joan is up and around, sitting in the kitchen, reading the New York Times as the light comes in through the front window. Upstairs in my treetop home, I loiter with my morning coffee, potter about some, write some letters and emails, look at the pigeons outside my bedroom window, generally nip at things. Then, after more loitering and my equivalent of another’s leisurely smoking, I may chance down to the 4th floor and fetch the Business and Sports sections lying there at the top of the stairs. I once told Joan that my family was “big into” sports. Something may have been lost in translation but now, I have to admit, reading the NYT Sports section–the box scores especially–has become a small indulgence. I cluck about how dismal the Celtics are doing this season–by last count, a pitiful 5-9–and then smile and become philosophical.

The mailman’s name is Bill, and he has a long ponytail and wears old black glasses that magnify his pupils. Once he was a hippie and now he wears those tall gray socks that mailmen wear. Joan told me that she slips him a $20 around Christmas; I said that that was a good idea, and I’ve made a note to myself to slip him a $20 when I see him next. Sometimes Bill and I chat, once about his winter trips to Florida, usually as I’m stepping out to run around the park. I may have Joan’s garbage in my right hand which I deposit at the corner bin. Bill is a good worker, and our chats tend to be short and chipper because he’s eager to be on his way. Something I’ve noticed mid-trot is that Bill is a seasoned waver.

When I get back from my run, Joan can’t believe that I’ve been gone for so long or so short a period of time. She’s impressed when I run 7 miles, less so (I imagine) when I’ve run a shorter stretch. Boy are you in good shape, young man. Oh, just so you know so-and-so will be staying in the guest bedroom this evening, but he won’t bother you. Off to my right on the corner of the counter, I see my mail stacked neatly upright beside the paperweight upon which my name is scrawled in gentle red letters. Joan was once a painter and a drawer, and her paintings of her second husband, a handsome physicist who could also play the piano, hang prominently on the living room wall.

Before Christmas, I accidentally opened a letter addressed to her son Andy, thinking that it was addressed to me. I left him a note with an apology followed by an exclamation point, knowing that he’d see it when he came by for dinner that evening. Andy, who’s in his mid-50s and who’s taking care of his ailing 90-year-old Uncle Henry who lives on the other side of the park, comes by most every evening for dinner. He eats with Joan, as they watch “just some old chestnut starring…,” and I’ve no idea what an old chestnut is and I’m not sure I’ll remember later who was starring in the chestnut either. On the nights I sit and watch with them, they tell me that this one was not a very good one. I’ve no other standard to go by, though.

This past Saturday it snowed heavily. According to the Washington Post, Central Park got 4.3 inches. Andy made a special trip this morning to shovel and salt the front porch. I could have done that, I said. There’s no reason why Andy has to head all the way across the park to shovel the front porch. When I was a boy, I used to shovel the family driveway which was the size of halfcourt, I said. I think the last reference was lost on her, but the point got through anyway.

This conversation was taking place after I’d just gotten back from the grocery store, and Joan had asked me if I could do her a “big favor.” Stomp stomp. Off with the snow. Sure.What’s that? I ask. Would you mind dropping this prescription off at the drugstore? Not at all,” I say. Really, it’s not a problem. Oh, you’re such a dear. It’s just that I’ve got this cold, and I don’t want it to get worse, she says. By now, I think I’ve heard the story about the cold “going around” a dozen times. She gargles in the morning, she says, and one of her dear old friends went to the hospital for it but was told she’d be better off at home. There’s no cure for it, Joan confirms, bewildered or assured.

I add, And it’s kind of icy and slick outside today, and I wouldn’t want you to get hurt. I’m thinking of old ladies and broken hips. Just before I leave, I pop my head back through the door to reassure her that it’s no big deal. And I’d be happy to pick up the prescription for you tomorrow. I doubt the sidewalks will be any better by then. I think Joan, an 87-year-old widow, is learning to trust me.


Here is how our little economy works. I pay Joan the rent, but the money, in the form of a gift, actually goes to her son Henry (not to be confused with Uncle Henry) who is still recovering from cancer, who’s currently unemployed, and who’s living with his wife and daughter in Paris. Henry is attractive but diffident. His family is struggling financially. I put my old New Yorkers beside the washing machine where there is a pile of things that goes to Chris, the eldest son who’s in his early 60s and who lives upstate with his longtime partner Jean. When I see my friend Kevin, he gives me his old copies of NYRB which I read and then pass on to Chris. Andy likes to clip out WSJ articles, likes to hand me his old copies of First Things and New Criterion, lets me borrow books on monasticism and the Desert Fathers and travel writing, old browned books by Joseph Epstein and Chesterfield and Auerbach, and likes to put them at the top of the stairs for me with or without a note on top. (One day his friend Sim dropped a book through the front mail slot, and it took me days to figure out whom the gift was from.) At night, Andy may call out my name with an upward turn at the end, making my name into a question, almost a climb up the stairs, and we might talk for a while about theology and philosophy, but not too long because he needs to get back to see to his ailing Uncle Henry. I imagine him walking along the stunning Jackie O. across the park silhouetted against the turn-of-the-century buildings which would then be holding up the night.

I’ve given Joan my only copy of the collected works of Jane Austen, the green one with falling red leaves and gold letters for which I wrote the Introduction. The book is too heavy for her to read (even when you put it in your lap, it crushes your diaphragm), but I thought she would like it anyway. Today, she gave me a piece of dark chocolate which was surprisingly hard because I think she’d stored it in the refrigerator. I’m not sure she knows that I don’t have dental insurance. Tomorrow, I mean to return to the drugstore after I watch the pigeons for a while and then write some more letters.


The aim of personal essays like this one is to walk or guide the reader through a philosophical way of life. My thesis is that our old way of life is going under, carrying with it the institutions from which we have become estranged. It seems to me an open and very prescient question what family, work, home, caretaking, and the economy will look and feel like as we grope along in the second decade of the twenty-first century. In this piece, I provide one perspicuous account of how strangers become friends; of how an economy is broadened and widened and humanized; of how the young relate to the old; of how the sick are to be cared for; of what forms and shapes work may take; of how a life becomes more convivial as well as more settled.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Philosophical Life as Gift Economy”

Andrew Taggart, “On Walking Home from School”