The scholarly gift that keeps on giving

Shahidha Bari examines the ritual of exchanging Christmas presents as she mulls the best gift that academics can share

December 24, 2015
Pierre-Paul Pariseau illustration (24 December 2015)
Source: Pierre-Paul Pariseau

Early in an episode of the second season of Seinfeld, Jerry buys Elaine a birthday gift. Gleefully tearing open the box and pulling aside a mountain of tissue paper, she extracts a stash of banknotes tied with a jaunty red ribbon.

Cash?” she exclaims contemptuously, “You bought me cash?

“One hundred and eighty-two bucks!” Jerry replies, taken aback by her dismay. “What? No good?”

To my mind, 182 bucks (£120) is actually pretty good going and, as I mournfully shuffle between department stores and festive pop-up stalls, weighing up the merits of a pair of tartan slippers against a ghostwritten Alex Ferguson autobiography, I think that the gift of cash would be a mercy devoutly to be wished for by any of the poor souls on my Christmas list.

As we all know, those whom the gods wish to destroy they first send into John Lewis on the last weekend before Christmas. In the run-up to that, they also expose them to the annual array of po-faced seasonal piety regarding the ills of consumerism. This often takes the form of priggish tabloid sermons on the “true meaning” of Christmas and usually ends by berating single mums for buying their sons a Nintendo rather than a bag of nuts. Don’t worry, though: in my current state of decline, I suspect that I am disqualified from lecturing anyone about the dangers of worshipping at the temple of Mammon – the Lego version of which I am pretty sure I bought on Amazon last week for my nephew.

One very “special” baby, of course, received gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh at Christmas – the real stuff, I suspect, rather than the grated, steamed and foamed versions that gastronomic wizard, Heston Blumenthal, once served up for a mind-bogglingly aspirational seasonal supper on television a few years ago. But in the Gospel of Matthew, which recounts the star-guided visit of the Magi, the details are rather different from those provided in John Henry Hopkins’ familiar Christmas carol.

The precisely “three kings of Orient” are, it turns out, only inferred from the three named gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches of the Levant and India, the Magi more often number 12. Neither were they “kings”, it seems, the misnomer being a result of later Christian writings (and likely linked to a passage in Psalm 72 that reads “May all kings fall down before him”).

In early Christian commentaries on Matthew, the story of the Magi is further embellished with names – the mellifluous Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar – and they are identified as Persian, Indian and Arabian. In El Greco’s gorgeously subdued version of The Adoration of the Magi, dated 1568, they are indeed racially distinct, each of them captured mid-motion, sinking to their knees. Baby Jesus thoughtfully reaches for the proffered gold and, at the far edge of the canvas, the insouciantly swooping necks of a pair of dozy dromedaries drift into sight, reminding us of the exoticism of the scene to European viewers.

The term “Magi” seems to derive from the Old Persian magus and refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, for whom stargazing was a skill and the arts of astrology esteemed as a science. In English, the cognate “magic” acquired more pejorative associations with superstition and the occult. But in the King James Bible the Magi are not magic, nor magicians: rather they are “wise men” – or, more specifically, scholars. And there is an intelligence to their selection of gifts: gold to symbolise kingship and eternity; frankincense for votive offerings and prayer; and myrrh for embalming oils, prefiguring the anointment of Jesus’ body at death.

There is a curious symmetry in the idea that Christ’s gift-givers might have been scholars, and the fact that scholars have long been intrigued by the idea of the gift. In 1922, anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski described the ceremonial exchanges of “trinkets” between people from the Trobriand Islands, off New Guinea, which so often required precarious passage across dangerous stretches of ocean. He recognised how a gift could be more than itself, freighted with the weight of political authority, and he read commitment to the ritual as a sign of universal rationality.

For French sociologist Marcel Mauss in 1925, the reciprocity of gift-giving formed the foundation of social theory, evidenced in his observation of so-called archaic communities. In gift-giving, one builds alliances and solidarity, and so the idea of the gift permeates all aspects of society, from politics and economics to law, morality and aesthetics. Yet for philosopher Jacques Derrida, curiously, a gift could exist only as long as it eluded relationships of exchange. The true gift must be freely given, with neither hope nor promise of reciprocation, never demanding indebtedness nor incurring obligation. It’s an oddly beautiful notion.

In our strained culture of marketised higher education and student debt, perhaps there is absurdity in the idea of the free gift. But it is not so alien to the work of a university where we so often teach around the edges of a curriculum, over and above the call of duty, imparting more than our “knowledge”, giving sympathy, encouragement and friendship, sharing in the sensibility and culture of learning, all beyond the logic of quantifiable excellence frameworks and those crude metrics of apparent “value”. In 2016, holding fast against the iniquities of those things – not giving in to them – might be a decent gift too.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in literature and philosophy at Queen Mary University of London. She is writing a book on the poetics of dress.

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Print headline: We come bearing gifts

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