The New York Times’ Style section ran two articles this weekend advising readers on how to make peace with the experience of receiving a bad gift. The Sweater Only a Mom (and Analyst) Could Love by Matthew Weiner argues that most gifts are disappointing because of the anticipation programmed into us by movies and commercials depicting scenes of joyous, perfect gift-receiving involving ribbons and hugs and tears:
But the reality is that getting a gift is like being set up on a blind date. Like it or not, your friend or family member is sending you a message telling you in a coded way what they think you want, what you deserve and, on some level, who they think you are.
In What Do You Mean, Giving Me That?, Guy Trebay reflects that “the strange and the ambiguous and the mixed and and the heartbreaking intentions behind gift-giving are an overlooked bonus.” Furthermore, he writes:
I feel less lost at Christmas if I conjure an image of the person she was imagining I might become. If the problem with presents is that they reveal too much, that is also their value. Even with the most ludicrous or empty of presents, the exercise of following the object back to its intention is beneficial.
I was struck by how identical these messages were. First of all, are we actually expecting bad gifts now? Are we so pessimistic that the Times had to run two articles mentally preparing us for the experience? But if it’s interesting that these two pieces address the same problem, it’s even more interesting that they propose the same solution. “It’s the thought that counts” is a commonplace, but both these authors play a new tune on the old saw by specifying that one ought to think about the person that the gift-giver imagines one to be. This turns gift-receiving into an occasion for reflecting on the mystery of our relationships — I am surely not the person that my aunt imagines would love to wear a long, faux-tribal necklace made of seashells, but she loves me in spite of and because of this inaccuracy. We can only know each other through fantasies — filters — veils.
Sylvia Plath confronts precisely this question in “A Birthday Present”, which I recommend that you go read before continuing further (it’s just a little too long to reprint here). The first time I read this poem, knowing the standard Plath suicide mythology, I figured that the unnamed gift the speaker longs for was obviously death: “Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger. // Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty / By the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it.” But the gift is stubbornly unspecified, and the only time it is called “death” is in the conditional: “If it were death // I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.” This opens the door to other possibilities, and in a few places the poem outright contradicts the “death” reading — “only you can give it to me,” for example, doesn’t seem to refer to death, especially given Plath’s multiple suicide attempts. What is it, then, that can only be given by a particular “you”?
Let’s look at the first lines: “What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? / Is it shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges? // I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want.” Here, the desired “it” is at least possibly a person. I propose a counter-reading, then — both alongside and against the “death” reading — that what the speaker yearns for is the truth of the other person. She rails at this person to “let down the veil, the veil,” but this is impossible because this person sees “only transparencies, clear air.”
Death stands for profound otherness here, for anything “beyond the veil” and unknowable. But we must recognize veils before we can contest them. This is what the Times’ columnists are trying to tell us about gifts: they are rare opportunities to see how others see us. But if it’s true that we always see each other through veils, then every gift ought to be a “bad” one, to some degree. Somehow, this is not true. Weiner closes his article with an anecdote about the one good gift he received that ruined him for all others — he was a struggling writer supported by his wife’s meager salary and feeling like a failure, when the following happened:
My birthday came, and the gift I wanted was to be shot in the back of the head while I slept — to be mercifully put out of my misery before I gained any more weight or finished the extremely depressing movie I was writing.
My wife handed me a large, very heavy flat box. Inside was a silver Zero Halliburton briefcase.
Now, if you missed the ’80s, let me explain what this was. It was the ultimate briefcase. It was the one you saw in the movies, carried by Feds, moguls, guys in sports cars, drug dealers. It was the kind that was filled with rows of hundreds and then handcuffed to somebody’s wrist. I had admired one in a window at the mall. My wife had clocked that and delivered. It cost $300. Our rent was $800 a month.
It was so extravagant, so ridiculous, so desired. I was speechless. My wife knew what I wanted. I wanted to feel successful. I wanted to go somewhere everyday with my papers in that gleaming hand-held Learjet.
When I saw that gift, I knew that no matter what I felt like, she somehow saw me as the kind of person who carried that thing. She somehow saw me as a success. And yes, there were hugs and kisses and tears.
The reason this gift is so successful is that the way the wife sees the husband is the way the husband wants to see himself — which is very different from the way he does see himself. This anecdote also calls to mind Jacques Derrida’s Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, in which he argues that for a gift to truly be a gift, it has to be unrepayable. Most gifts are not really gifts, because they open up cycles of debt and repayment — once you give somebody something, they are obligated to reciprocate. It’s been a long time since I read it and I don’t have it on hand, but I think he does eventually admit that unrepayable gifts are possible — but only if the gift itself is, in a sense, impossible, as in the case of the Halliburton briefcase. What makes this gift impossible is not only that it is “so extravagant, so ridiculous, so desired,” but that it literally does not correspond to reality — Weiner was not the kind of person who carried that thing, but his wife knew that he could be, and now he is writing for the New York Times as well as executive-producing Mad Men and The Sopranos.
This leads me to a different and better reading of Plath’s poem: it is not just the true self of the other person that she wants — though this is part of it — but her own true self. Here is the end of the poem:
Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death
I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes.
I would know you were serious.
There would be a nobility then, there would be a birthday.
And the knife not carve, but enter
Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,
And the universe slide from my side.
What the speaker wants is for the other person’s knife not to impose its own order by “carving,” but to simply cut her open. Death turns into birth, and “the universe” inside her becomes visible. Good gifts, then, can teach us something about who we are — just because our loved ones’ perceptions of us are not always the same as our own doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Love gives us to ourselves.