The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

Giving and Taking


    EMERSON, in his essay on “Compensation,” says that he had long wished to draw attention to that important law of the universe. Giving and Taking, the law of exchange, is merely a part of compensation.

    The capacity for giving and taking is an elemental one. In all nature it seems to be the most primary law of life. The very weathering of rocks mean that they receive the sun and frost and rain, absorb them, transmute them by chemic change, and then give off the resultant dust and detritus — infinitestimal portions of themselves to be returned to the great clearing-house of nature.

    A grade higher, in the plant world, the exchange is more apparent. The flowers and [Page 89] trees and grasses, the whole sensitive covering of the earth, taking from the elements and giving to the elements, seem to have no other function than this process of exchange. The living organism of the flower is, we know, endowed with capacities and needs for receiving light and moisture and warmth from the heaven above and the earth beneath. Sunshine and dews and showers and the more solid elements of the ground are received by it and made part of its very composition. It has the power to take of these passing phenomena just so much as it may need and transform it by a secret law into a part and parcel of its own singular beauty. The flower is born after its kind, but hour by hour, day by day, year by year, minute by minute, it is sustaining its life, its individual self, from particular qualities which it takes from its surroundings. And also minute by minute and year after year the flower or the tree is giving again to the world about it something of itself — seeds, perfume, shade, and falling leaves and petals. [Page 90] Evidently it could not go on for ever, or even for an hour, receiving sap and air and giving out nothing in return. One-half of its nature would be paralyzed; it would begin to die. It would begin to perish just as surely as if it ceased to receive and continued to give. The power of exchange, the power of receiving and giving, is the very vitality of the plant.

    This equal law runs on up through the higher grades of created things. The creatures which move over the face of the ground and with conscious desire seek their nourishment here and there are really doing only what the flowers do. They feed on this and that, some on herbage, some on other flesh; they inhale, some by air and some by water, the oxygen they need; they are warmed to what degree their nature requires. Always they are taking from the world about them those elements necessary for their subsistence, and always they are giving back again these elements, after they have transmuted them to [Page 91] their own use, or rather to their own nature. In growth, in energy, in motion, in deeds, the animal is constantly giving out to the earth about it an equal compensation for all it receives.

    How all these processes are carried on, ministering to life from hour to hour, and transmitting that life from generation to generation, we can largely understand. The patient and devout labours of science are daily making it clearer to us. But why they are carried on does not yet appear. Science shows us wonder after wonder of beautiful law and orderly succession, and gives us the clear reason for this or that method of procedure, and yet stands abashed before the final query. Why the beaver should build his house is clear enough. He wishes to survive the iron winter, and his wisdom has contrived that admirable plan of doing so. Why he should wish to survive, no man can tell. I know why I go to market and to the tailor’s and to the bookshop, and why I do a hundred things; [Page 92] it is because I am glad of life. I know that I am glad of life; I know how I am glad of it; but why I am glad of it I do not know. If I knew that, I should know everything, for the What, the How, and the Why are all there is of the universe. It sometimes seems as if we might comprehend the what and the how, the physical and mental, of the universe. But the why, the spiritual, is still hidden.

    In man’s life certainly, as in the lower manifestations of existence, the law of give and take obtains. And there, as in the sub-human kingdom, that process of transmutation, that change of what we receive into what we bestow, is the essence of life itself. You and I, like our friends the trees and our cousins the creatures, are every moment receiving. We must have air and light and food and water to cast into the crucible of the body and be transformed into blood and bone. Every moment we are parting with some transformed remnant of this matter in exhalations of the lungs, and evaporations [Page 93] from the skin. This is only the grosser and more obvious transformation of matter in which we participate. But there are finer, more delicate changes as well. Our need of rest and activity is the need of chemical change in the tissues of muscle and nerve. And while the changes of circulation and breathing are instant and imperative, the timekeeping rhythms of life, other energizings and recuperations are more leisurely — eating and abstinences, sleeping and waking, for example. In all these operations there is the obvious rhythm, a balancing of receipt and output.

    So, too, in a still more intangible way, the impressions we receive are transmuted by our own thought and emotion, and are then given back again to the world in words and looks and actions, as expressions of ourselves; so that expression is nature plus personality. The best thought of the world, the most beautiful art treasures that we have, are the creation of man, no doubt. Yet whence did [Page 94] they come to him? Did he not first receive them as impressions of the natural world about him? Then having made them his own, he gave them back again. First the taking and then the giving.

    Always, through every metamorphic process, we may notice how imperative it is that the rhythm be kept up. Indeed, it is impossible that existence should continue unless both functions are being performed. In the world of organized being there can be no such thing as giving constantly without receiving, for exhaustion and death would follow quickly. On the other hand, there can be no such thing as receiving continually without giving forth again, for death, though more tardy, would be no less sure. Starvation will produce death, but so also will a coat of varnish over the body. In the one case, our power of receiving is interfered with; in the other, our power of giving. Life is a stream for ever flowing through these fragile and diaphanous shapes of ours. [Page 95]

    Just so, too, our spiritual or intellectual life is always fleeting, passing, renewing itself. I am myself for a few years or decades; but I am not the same without change for two moments together. And the obvious thought to be derived from this physical life is, that in the higher as well as in the material existence there must always imperatively be a balance of giving and taking, perceiving and expressing. It is this thought which shows us the folly of greed, the absurd ambition which so easily besets us to possess everything which pleases us. Do you wish to own a whole museum of beautiful objects? Do you not see that, according to the laws of life, you could never keep these things for yourself? You would have to give them away again in one way or another. What you really need, that you may take, and that no one can keep from you. Do you think the one success in life is to receive and have? Under the pinch of hunger and cold, it seems to you that death through poverty is the only horror in the [Page 96] world to be guarded against. It seems to you that those who have devoted all the splendid energies of man to receiving and acquiring alone are the fortunate ones of the earth. You think that what is called wealth is the one thing needful. But if you look a second time, and consider all the persons of affluence whom you know, and all those whom you see in public places, you will perceive that many of them are dying as certainly as the destitute, perishing of inertia, a dyspepsia of body and spirit. And because they are so mistaken, those poor, unhappy, fat people, trundled uselessly by in their carriages are as deserving of your pity as the beggar on the sidewalk.

    Between giving and taking lies the nice poise or calm which is the gladness of life itself, perhaps. [Page 97]