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Film in American Popular CultureVisit the Film Archive
“OH, YOU SHOULDN'T HAVE!”: BOOKS-AS-GIFTS TURNED TRYSTS

In a recent article in the Virginia Quarterly Review, I was reminded of a very publicized instance of the exchange of books as gifts from the not so distant past. The exchange in question involved Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. As the Starr Report details, Clinton gave Lewinsky Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (which as it turns out he also had given to Hillary), and in turn Lewinsky gave Clinton Nicholson Baker’s Vox. For Salon.com columnist Jack Hitt, the exchange of these books in particular was significant:

For a liberal-arts dilettante like Clinton, “Leaves of Grass” is the book that yokes the sacred and the profane into meaningful union. It's what you give your lover before you move on to a Henry Miller novel or James Joyce's letters to Nora from the winter of 1909. And what is the book Monica gave Bill -- Nicholson Baker's phone-sex tour de force "Vox" -- but a Gen X attempt at signaling the same complex of spiritual longings bound up in physical desire? Yet, the differences are interesting. "Leaves" is hopeful, even defiant, while "Vox" has an almost tragic quality to it, an acknowledgment that the real world will never allow the couple's profanity to bloom into holiness. The book ends with the woman hanging up the phone because "I have to put a load of towels in the laundry." (Knowing now of the DNA-stained dress, one wonders if Monica ever finished the book.)

The books exchanged symbolize the givers themselves, and signify to the recipient the giver’s hopes, desires, and beliefs.

But, these days, almost seven years since the Clinton and Lewinsky scandal emerged, it seems our only publicized versions of celebrities (political or not) and the books associated with them is by way of the American Library Association’s Read posters that advertise the likes of Orlando Bloom holding (you guessed it) Lord of the Rings, or Ani Difranco posing with Woodie Guthrie’s A Life, and less predictably, Kim Bassinger donning butterfly wings and the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and L.L. Cool J. with The Children’s Health Cookbook, and, most recently, Ice Cube standing with (and like), The Greatest: Muhamed Ali. These we most often see hanging in libraries. Rarely do such images of celebrities and their books make it to the cover of popular news, music, or fashion magazines. The Clinton and Lewinsky gift-exchange did make it to the cover of The New Republic, which was titled, in that October 9, 1998 issue, “Leaves of Crass,” and featured an image of a romance novel titled the “Starr Report” with a caricature of Clinton and Lewinsky embracing. A cartoon of a nude Clinton reading Leaves of Grass was featured in The New Yorker and a drawing of Whitman’s book with a zipper down its spine appeared in Reason magazine. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the not so scandalous ALA Read posters aside, it is quite rare to encounter such attention in popular culture and mass media given to the exchange of books.

However, a scene of book-giving in the movie Unfaithful (2002) is one such rare instance. The movie, directed by Adrian Lynne and starring Diane Lane, Richard Gere, and Olivier Martinez, is similar in plot to Lynne’s earlier Fatal Attraction. Yet, this movie was, as New York Times editorialist Maureen Dowd wrote, “hyped as a bold gender-bender because it had a manizer instead of a womanizer.” Dowd argues that the two movies reproduce the same message (and its message is not one of gender-bending): “Mr. Lynne’s bookend movies are driven by the same dynamic: men fearing that women will challenge their manhood, topple them from their perch as lord of their cave. When male supremacy and territory get threatened, things get bloody.” Indeed, things do “get bloody” in this movie, but the straightforward dynamic Dowd critiques is a bit more complicated than she grants. It is especially complicated because of the “dynamic” of gift-giving and receiving. The movie, Unfaithful, is saturated with exchange – various kinds of exchanges, surely, but in particular an exchange of gifts – and at the focus of these gift-exchanges is a book that initiates an affair. Like the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal the book-as-gift in this movie is a sign and symbol of tryst.

Because gifts – or the economy of exchange – are central to this movie, as I’d like to argue, it’s important to examine briefly what has been theorized about the gift in the past. Much has been written (most commonly in the field of anthropology) about the economy of gift-giving in its relation to social interaction, as both enabling and disrupting these interactions. In his book The Gift (1954), Marcel Mauss initiated this work, later influencing the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss whose work will be particularly helpful in attending to Unfaithful. He argues that gift-giving is a “skillful game” which “consists of a complex totality of maneuvers, conscious or unconscious to gain security and fortify the self against risks incurred through alliances and rivalry.” We might see the gift then as motivated out of a desire to reassert one’s “king of the hill” or in Dowd’s terms, “lord of the cave” status. Additionally, the gift-exchange involves a principle of reciprocity in which the gifts are returned. These gifts, given and received, have “non-essential consumptive value” producing a “great psychological aesthetic and sensual value.” Thus, the gift obtains its meaning through its status as “gift” rather than as purchased commodity.

While Lévi-Strauss, ultimately, argues that the economy of gifts is rooted in an exercise of power, David Cheal, conversely, has tried to root this economy in an exercise of morality, grounded in social and familial intimacy. His work too will be helpful in thinking about Unfaithful, because he depicts the gift-economy as a “moral” one. Inherent in this “moral economy” is “redundancy,” not reciprocity as Lévi-Strauss might call it. He posits, for example, the idea that gifts are often perceived as “something beyond what we normally expect,” and thus elicit responses like, “Oh you shouldn’t have!” In Unfaithful, not surprisingly, there are many instances of responses akin to, “Oh you shouldn’t have!” The characters participate in a series of exchanges that at times replicate and at other times complicate Lévi-Strauss’s and David Cheal’s definitions of gift-exchange.

With husband off to work and child off to school, housewife Connie Sumner has taken a trip from suburban Connecticut into New York for a shopping spree in preparation for her son’s birthday. After a day of shopping, the camera follows Connie making her way down a wind-blown SoHo street with newspapers and trash flying about. She is being blown down the street with her many full shopping bags in tow. From the other direction on the same side of the chaotic, wind-blown street, a man walks with a tower of just-purchased (we see the receipt tucked into one of the books), but old-looking books in hand. In an instant, one of Connie’s bags flies into her face and the man, who is now just steps from Connie, loses sight of the street just ahead of him as his tower of books waivers in front of his face. Both are blown by the wind and momentarily blinded by the purchases they bear, and they collide into each other. They struggle through the wind to help each other pick up their purchases, she collecting the books, he collecting the bags of birthday presents. They are in a state of utter confusion as both attempt to sort and arrange each other’s belongings, while apologizing – she in English, he in French.

Once the items are gathered and properly divided, the two exchange apologies, though this time in English. Here, just before parting the man notices that Connie’s knee is bleeding from her fall. As it turns out, they are at the steps of the man’s apartment, and he invites Connie up to clean her scuffed knees. Lévi-Strauss defines the invitation (into one’s home for a drink, for dinner, etc.) as a kind of gift that anticipates reciprocity. It is also helpful to keep in mind Cheal’s comment that the gift is “beyond what we normally expect,” and we see this in Connie’s face. She is surprised to be invited into a stranger’s apartment. She hesitates, but when the man jokes that he is not an “axe-murderer” she too laughs and goes up to his apartment.

The apartment is covered with stacks of books, eliciting Connie’s question, “Are you a writer?” He responds explaining that he is a book-seller visiting from Paris. After cleaning her knee, Connie gathers her bags to leave, but he stops her and insists that she must choose and take a book. “I couldn’t,” she says, but he encourages her to do so, saying, “You can . . . take it as a souvenir.” Like the invitation to enter his apartment, with this offer she is similarly surprised and cautious. This is now his second gift without reciprocation. She hesitates, not knowing which of the many books to choose, so he directs her to a specific shelf, a specific row, a certain number of books in from the end, telling her to open to a specific page and telling her to read aloud from the page. He joins her – from memory – in the recitation of the final lines. This gifting is not a choosing, but a directing. Indeed, the book-seller exercises power, a power to overwhelm, but also a power to invoke a sense of intimacy. Cheal describes gift-giving as redundant because gift “givers do not always know others well enough to choose things that they will like and so it can happen that people receive gifts which are of no interest to them, or which they find offensive.” In this case, the gift is perhaps not liked, perhaps not kept, and therefore is a redundant instance of giving. As Cheal might argue, though the book-seller does not know Connie, the very fact of his socially acceptable, but unexpected behavior establishes an intimacy between them. Connie doesn’t know him, he doesn’t know her, but it hardly matters, because she is enchanted with the act of giving, not the gift itself. Yet, I would argue that the gift, the book, must matter. Throughout the film, Connie is often depicted with this very book in hand, as a reminder of the catalyst for the affair.

In a shot at Connie’s house later that evening, she tells her husband, Ed, of her encounter, but does not mention the book given to her. Ed suggests they send a bottle of wine, “a cheap one though” as a formal gesture of thanks, while not too pleased with his wife’s encounter with a Frenchman. Ed’s impulse to send a gift of thanks is a response of reciprocity in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, and we might even see this reciprocity as the “skillful game” Lévi-Strauss describes, in which one fortifies the “self against risks incurred through alliances and rivalry.” Or, to invoke Maureen Dowd’s comments, when “male supremacy and territory get threatened, things get bloody,” but, not before things get polite, or in Cheal’s words, not before “customary obligations to others” are fulfilled. Ed’s gesture, though, is rendered useless as Connie realizes that she doesn’t know the man’s name nor does she remember his address.

Later in the evening, we see a brief shot of Ed and the son watching TV. Connie is alone at her bookshelf, paging through the book given to her, and just as she gestures to return it to the shelf, a piece of paper falls out of it. A close-up shot reveals it is a business card with the name “Paul Martell” and printed underneath “Book Dealer” with his phone number and address. Though we see Connie return the card to the book in the next shot, the following morning Connie appears with the card in-hand at a public phone booth in Grand Central Station. Her call, she tells Paul, is to thank him for the book. (Is this perhaps, initiated by her husband’s defensive impulse to thank, we must wonder? Do her husband’s social obligations to thank, by way of gift, provide her with a reason to call?) Her “thank you” is quickly returned – “reciprocated” Lévi-Strauss might say, or conversely “redundant” Cheal might say – with Paul’s invitation to come over for coffee. Connie accepts and shows up at Paul’s door with a bag: “I brought you some muffins,” she tells him. In yet another reciprocal or redundant gesture – all stemming from the initial collide, turned injury, turned mending by way of band-aid and book, turned call of thanks, turned invitation for coffee – she brings yet another gift. This activity of exchange, I think, we can easily understand as reciprocal, but how do we understand these moves, these givings and takings as redundant?

Cheal suggests that gifts bring “no net benefit to recipients . . . nobody is better off or worse off than they would have been if no transaction had taken place.” In a way, the exchange of gifts both adds and subtracts in order to equalize. In this way, he describes the economy as “a system of transactions which are socially desirable (i.e. moral), because through them social ties are recognized, and balanced social relationships are maintained.” The “moral economy” of gift-giving that “regulates gift behavior” is actually a device for establishing expectation with hesitation. In this economy of exchange someone is always, inevitably the next giver, the next receiver. Someone always owes or expects to receive. And, here it seems is where the surprise of gift-giving fails or functions. The “difficulty of trusting others,” as Cheal argues, in a community is reassured with the gift economy because members of this community share “a common way of life” making their “actions predictable, and thus keep the complexity of social environment at a low level.” The regularity and the expectation establish intimacy and the ability to “trust others.” But, the gift also functions because it surprises. Thus the predictable must be matched with the unpredictable in the gift. Here the book – or textual artifact – re-enters and forms the focus of the attention in the film. It is the book-as-gift that fulfills reciprocity and obligation, but it is the book itself that embodies the unpredictable – we don’t know what it is when we receive it. And, here in this moment of cyclical and predictable (and therefore redundant) giving and receiving, mixed with the unpredictable text, Connie and Paul initiate their affair.

In a scene rife with trope, Paul shows her a book in Braille, a medium which fuses the tactile and textual, thus foreshadowing their own initially textual relationship turned tactile. He takes Connie’s hand guiding her fingers over the bumpy pages, as he reads and reveals the otherwise unknown meaning of the text. The intimate act of touching this text with him as guide and interpreter mimics the sexual encounter in which he guides her (though not unwillingly) into the physical consummation of their tryst. This scene then calls attention to the “exercise of power” at work between Connie and Paul. The exchange of gifts is indeed, somewhat redundant, one gift replaces the other – the book, the call, the coffee, the muffins – in a seemingly continual cycle of exchanges until they are both confronted with the potential dilemma of “things getting out of hand.” Cheal interprets this phrase as “extravagant giving” which often (and falsely) encourages a nostalgia for a “natural economy.” Whether Connie and Paul consider their exchange of gifts as “unnatural” or “natural” is unclear, but they are ultimately confronted with each other’s hands and in effect each other. But, the return of thanks is in Paul’s hands, literally and figuratively, with Connie’s hand in his and his turn to return. In this economy of gift-exchange, Paul’s return (his reciprocity) turns to Connie’s body. The shift from books to bodies is not subtle, sort of suspicious, maybe sappy, and somewhat predictable – like the gifts exchanged. But, it is an interesting case of exchange. Interesting, because the seemingly oppositional descriptions of Lévi-Strauss’s and Cheal’s gift-economies both function here. This initial scene involves a use of power, a game of maneuvers. Conversely, in Cheal’s terms, the scene involves the gift as a source of intimacy. The “moral economy” of gift-giving which establishes “balance,” “trust,” and “standardization” in relationships works in, what would socially be considered, the “moral-less economy” of an affair.

While Connie and Paul continue their affair over an undisclosed number of days and weeks, and perhaps months (though the season remains the same), gifts continue to be exchanged between them and between others in the film. Most significantly, Connie buys her husband a present just after she and Paul have begun their affair. She is in the city to see Paul and stops by her husband’s office. He is surprised, but happy to see her: “Connie! What a surprise!” and she hands him a bag. “What’s this?” he asks. “A present,” she says. “What’s the occasion?” he asks. She has no answer, but he doesn’t notice, because he already has the sweater out of the bag and is putting it on. He immediately knows what it is and expresses concern not for the unknown occasion for the gift, but instead for how the gift “works”: “How does it fit? Does it look alright?” The sweater as gift functions in a manner opposite to the way the book functions. The sweater is not expected, it is an unpredicted gift, but the gift itself is predictable. It bears no mystery, no hidden meanings; it only needs to be taken out of the bag and put on to be “understood.” Poor Ed is so taken with the surprise of the un-warranted present and visit that he fails to notice that it is downright uncomfortable for Connie; the “occasion” (as Ed asks) for the gift is guilt. As viewers, fully aware of Connie and Paul’s relationship, we notice Connie’s awkwardness in giving this and recognize the sweater as a gift motivated by guilt. The present is un-warranted and also seems to warn. Connie plays the “skillful game,” in Lévi-Strauss’ term (unconscious or fully conscious we are not sure as viewers) of exchange providing her husband with the same, “Oh you shouldn’t have,” she feels after beginning the affair. By providing Ed with a gift, she exercises power – plays a game and wins – inducing an effect, ultimately to assuage her guilt and make herself feel better. Her gift to Ed mimics the surprise she felt when Paul invited her to her apartment and offered her a book. The gift as guilt here then works to both mimic Connie’s own feelings in another (she gets to watch what she too has felt), creating a strange kind of empathy, while also providing that other with the unsolicited gift and thus the feeling of receiving “something extra.”

The issue of “value” – of deciphering and determining the “something extra” – is important in this film. On a visit to Paul’s apartment, Connie asks Paul what he has most recently purchased. (Oddly, we never see Paul the “book-seller,” sell, rather he buys and gives away his books.) He tells her he found a first edition of Jack London’s White Fang for $1.50 but, he assures her laughing, it is worth, “four-thousand times more.” Its worth is rendered both useless and strangely invaluable when the tryst turns deadly, and this cheap but valuable book is both ruined and made crucial evidence with Paul’s blood when he is murdered by Ed.

After acquiring evidence of the affair, Ed arrives at Paul’s door only, it seems, with the intention of meeting the man with whom his wife has been having an affair. He introduces himself to Paul, and Paul, in response, extends an invitation for Ed to come in to have a drink. Again, out of “customary obligation” (in Cheal’s term) to one another they give and receive, and this social obligation, this need to “share a common way of life,” establishes a certain level of intimacy between the two men. As Ed enjoys his “gift” of vodka, he makes his way through the stacks of books to the bed, and just beyond on a windowsill he notices a snow globe. It is a globe he has seen before, and one we as viewers have seen too. In an earlier shot, we watch Connie on her way out of her house pause by a snow globe collection. She notices one labeled “Windy City” featuring a couple in a downtown city (presumably Chicago) hand in hand. We see her take this globe – almost without hesitation, as if in need of something, anything – and she flies out the door. And, here, in Paul’s apartment, we see the globe again, somewhat surprised. Like us, Ed is mildly surprised, but calm, and knowing full well where and from whom Paul received the globe he asks, “Where did you get this?” Paul answers simply that it was “a gift,” to which Ed inserts, “from Connie.” “Yes,” asserts Paul, “she bought it for me.” Ed says quietly, as if to himself, but audible to Paul, “No she didn’t. I bought it.” Ed wants to assert the importance and significance of the gift not by the current owner, but by the initial purchaser. The significance of the gift is un-done, Ed wants to believe, if the buyer is different from the giver. The power to purchase – and thus the power of money – is asserted as the essential significance of the gift. The “non-essential consumptive value” of the gift that Lévi-Strauss describes is re-asserted as “essential.” And, yet, Ed is also clearly attached to the non-consumptive, “psychological aesthetic or sensual value” of the gift.

In the bloody and bizarrely calm scene that follows, Ed knocks Paul over the head with the snow globe and with a few hard blows Paul hits the ground bleeding from his head and mouth onto the first edition of White Fang. The bloody (but not broken) globe remains in Ed’s hand. Shaken, he moves into a rational series of actions to clean the blood, remove, and eventually discard the body. While cleaning up the blood in Paul’s apartment, Connie calls leaving a message on the machine ending the affair, which Ed listens to as it is being recorded. He erases the message. While Ed washes the blood from his hands in Paul’s kitchen, Connie “washes her hands” of the affair, burying the book Paul gave her in the kitchen garbage.

At a dinner party some time later, guests admire the Sumner’s snow globe collection and Connie, stunned, realizes the “Windy City” globe has returned to its place among the other globes. The sight of the snow globe does not signal Ed’s knowledge of the affair – for in fact, at this point in the film Connie not only knows Ed was aware of the affair with Paul, but she also knows Ed has killed him. Instead she is shocked that Ed found it important enough to return to their home. The next day the family appears in the living room. Ed is normally depicted as fidgeting with some gadget – a camera, a video-recorder, his son’s new video game – like the sweater he was given he likes to test how things “work,” in contrast to both Connie and Paul who surround themselves with books and test what can’t “work.” Now, however, Ed and his son appear together playing the piano. Connie is at some distance from them not with Paul’s book, as usual, but instead she is looking over the snow globe collection. She picks up the “Windy City” snow globe and turning it in her hand, as she did with the gift Paul gave her, she realizes the bottom wooden base is coming loose. In the base of the snow globe, Ed has placed a note – a love note – written when he purchased the globe, but meant to be discovered in another ten years or so on their 25th anniversary. Just as Paul’s business card was embedded in the book he gave Connie, Ed’s handwritten note is embedded in the gift he gave to her. It is significant that the note embedded in the gift is a textual artifact, for it was the textual artifacts (the book, the business card) from Paul that first established intimacy and trust, surprise and intrigue for Connie and thus, a series of trysts. The “souvenir” snow globe becomes like the “souvenir” book (as Paul called it) that re-establishes the surprise and the intimacy between Ed and Connie – by way of the gift. Connie reads the note and Ed looks up from the piano. They exchange a silent and assured look. The snow globe with the text embedded in it restores their faith in each other and significantly, Connie’s faith in Ed as a giver of the unknown – a giver of “souvenirs” bearing texts with buried meaning. The latest gift, the note hidden in the snow globe, erases all prior and regrettable actions so that, as Cheal might argue, “nobody is better off or worse off” in this series of gift-exchanges.

Cheal concludes his essay “Moral Economy” with the following assertion: “Gifts have a ‘free-floating’ presence within the moral economy of interpersonal relations, and they therefore facilitate types of interaction that might otherwise be only weakly institutionalized.” Unfaithful demonstrates the “skillful game of exchange” involved in gift-giving that Lévi-Strauss has described, while also demonstrating the gift as a source of intimacy in Cheal’s terms. Cheal’s morally sound economy, with “balance,” “trust,” and “regularization,” sustains the “a-moral” affair as well as the “moral” relationship between the husband and wife, and the two “competing” men. The “moral economy” of gift-giving in its ability to “facilitate types of interaction that might otherwise be only weakly institutionalized” leaves room for misconduct, or the a-moral economy of affairs ignited and initiated, but also regularized and finalized through the complicated exchange of gifts, and in particular, those gifts that are books, both predictable and unpredictable.

January 2006

From guest contributor Amy Hezel

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