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The Refusal of the Gift (The Giver)

To her
ignored my gifts
refused me

unexpected gift, unexpected time."

William Forrester, "Finding Forrester"

I love giving gifts.

Not that I have that much money to spend or that many friends to spoil. It's just that there is something exciting in giving a gift: exciting for me, the giver and for the friend, the givee. What with the unexpectedness and surprise that veils the coming of each gift and perhaps the imagined unguarded smile and delight that dawns on the givee's face (imagined because surprise gifts are gifts received when the giver has long gone and withdrawn), the gift displaces the relationship between I and Thou.

Friendships, like love, is built on a commerce unlike the everyday economy we willingly take part of. Economy feeds on the exchange between this for that, my money for your product. Yet the commerce and exchange in friendship while sometimes reduced to the economic principle of equality ("We should split the bill equally") is shaken with the sudden arrival of a gift ("This one's on me"). Real friends understand and accept the giving of the giver and do not feel themselves unworthy of the gift; for the gift which was given was given not with malice or with the intention to subsume the givees under the giver through the politics of money. Yes, politeness may be called for -- and not even gratitude yet -- by the giving of the friend; but one need only say 'thank you' and forget both the giving, giver and being given.

Yet what if the givee refuses the gift which was given? What if, by one reason or another, the surprise gift or the unexpected treat is deemed unacceptable (ignored) and even returned (refused): sent back to the giver and disqualified as gift.


In a short section in Being Given (pp. 108-111), Jean-Luc Marion gives a phenomenology of the acceptability of a gift which was given. Acceptability is the other end of a gift's reduced givenness; it focuses on the givee who sees (or does not see) the gift which was given. If the gift is givenness par excellance, would its freedom and giftness be completed if the givee does not receive it or does not accept it? In other words, if the gift is refused, woulf it still count as gift?

Marion asks: "What does it mean for the givee to receive a gift thus reduced?" (108).

Is it to own the gift as to acquire a new property? Obviously, no: "because such a transfer no longer concerns the gift, but exchange and its economy, where it signals buying and selling..." (Ibid.). And again: " receive from the Other life, time, death, confidence, his word, love, or his friendship is never spoken or accomplished in terms of property..." (Ibid.). Even if we sometimes give gifts through things (money, food, presents), "every object is absent here" (Ibid.) for what we in fact give are tokens and symbols -- tokens which represent a kind of gratitude and symbols which point to deeper realities (admiration, love, friendship, etc.). To never see past this or that gift -- the object -- is to miss the givenness of the gift, that is, to miss the gift totally.

Receiving the gift (its completion) consists therefore in the "acceptance, or rather the acceptability, of this gift" (p. 109). Marion gives us two instances of the acceptability of the gift: the gift ignored and the gift refused.

It may so happen that the overwhelming coming-over (Uberkomnis) of the gift so surprises the beloved that the rug is swept from under her feet and she is turned upside down. To overwhelm the beloved with a gift: to also up-set and dis-joint her. The flushed face symbolizes the dis-placed ego; the gift can shove the lonely I with such force as to overtake its place at the center and leave the givee in the periphery to merely gaze at the given gift. Marion gives the example of the Grail which Perceval discovered one night:

The young man who arrived there that night saw this marvel, but refrained from asking how this thing happened. . . . He feared that, had he asked, it would have been thought impolite; and so he did not enquire (quoted by Marion, 109).
Perceval, seeing this gift from Christ, could not believe his eyes that it was his for the taking, it was there to be recived. He ignored the grail -- thinking it impolite for a knight to receive such an overwhelming gift because he saw that it was an undue gift for himself to receive -- and then left it to itself. "The decision to receive the gift in the role of its givee implies no real effort and yet costs much," Marion says (Ibid.). Humiliation -- to owe something to the absent giver -- and hubris -- "I can do without such an undue gift" -- prevent the completion of the gift because it prevents the givee to accept and see the gift as gift: "The gift merely lacked Perceval's gaze for it to be seen as a gift and find a givee" (Ibid.).

Yet while it prevents the acceptance and reception of the gift, ignoring the overwhelming gift (reducing its glory and givenness to "nothing") also helps the startled and dis-oriented givee to find its way back to the center and to finally displace the gift -- even by just forgetting the gift, and ignoring its presence there.

See all those gifts left unopened, all those letters left unread.

Ignoring the gift: ignorance of the givenness of the gift --the easiest way of accepting the gift (it remains there) without really receiving it as gift (it remains there but is ignored and shall never be known).

To be continued...


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