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Vol 3, No 14
23 April 2001
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We Fear,
Therefore We Make

The "Genesis of Culture"
Fears and Symbols: An Introduction to the Study of Western Civilization
Elemér Hankiss
CEU Press, 2001
ISBN 9639241075

David Graber

"In order to mitigate... [their] fear, human beings and communities have surrounded themselves—not only with the walls of their houses and cities, with instruments and weapons, laws and institutions, but also—with protective spheres of symbols: myths and religions, values and belief systems, hypotheses and theories, the shining constellation of works of art. In a word, with a brilliant construct: civilization" (p 2).

The genesis of culture is fear, argues Hungarian sociologist Elemér Hankiss in this ambitious study, and in order to prove his thesis, he examines an array of human symbols, behaviors and other cultural phenomena as manifestations of how people cope with what frightens them.

The author, who is director of the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, begins with a survey of existing literature from social scientists and concludes that they have undervalued the role of fear as a motivating force in the creation of culture. He then grounds his theory in three basic concepts: the state of fear, the use of symbols to combat fear and the nature of the hostile world in which humans exist.

Subsequently, he turns to the fundamental duality of refuge/outside world and applies the duality to cultural categories such as the explanation for evil, human feelings of guilt, the need to see the universe as a rational entity, art and beauty as reflections of the breakdown and/or restoration of order, and later takes up phenomena such as jokes, play and games, and human "trivialities"—here he focuses on advertisements for perfume. Hankiss also borrows from a vast range of fields, citing thinkers and theories from not just sociology, anthropology and psychology, but also from areas such as literary and cultural studies, philosophy, theology, mythology, drama, music, the visual arts and others.

Perhaps such a task sounds too ambitious? Yes, certainly. But isn't it marvelous that someone has made a serious effort to take it on?

To his credit, Hankiss has incorporated lots of good material, and has produced many useful distillations of various works or bodies of thought. Along the way, he has amassed some very nice quotations which relate well to his ideas—such as Sartre on evil ("L'enfer, c'est les autres") or Samuel Johnson on the gods and human fate ("As we drown whelps and kittens, [the gods] amuse themselves...with sinking a ship"), or Jung on the meaning of the individual life ("I am a question addressed to the world").

The author is at his best when summing up the theories of others, or analyzing individual works. The section on tragedy, for example, elucidates the ways dramas rationalize the hero's death—from martyrdom to justice to making a symbol out of one's passing on—drawing on examples from antiquity and the great European national traditions.

Cherries and chance

Unfortunately, the author quite often launches into speculation based on personal observations. This tendency results in many unsubstantiated generalizations, superfluous detail and rambling—as, for example, in the chapter on play, where Hankiss attempts to rationalize play(s) and games by citing how he used to throw cherries up into the air and try to catch them in his mouth "as a naughty boy of ten." He uses this anecdote as the basis for assumptions about causality and chance. It's an interesting thought; it may all indeed have some connection; but the book does not flesh out the connections, nor does the author subject the ideas to any rigorous examination.

Hankiss writes in the Introduction that the book is intended for academics and the general public (p 4), but the serious academic will find much about the book unscholarly. The author tends to accumulate and analyze evidence without reaching any new conclusions or taking the argument deeper. Also, the structure is opaque—the reader is forced to supply the underlying rationale for the progression of the argument, and fill in gaps along the way.

He also uses figurative language which may alienate some readers. In the chapter on guilt, for example, Hankiss writes as if at some point in history, humankind—like a smart shopper about to make a big purchase—had the conscious choice of whether to take on the responsibility of having feelings of guilt.

"On the one hand, guilt... liberated man... It explained the presence of evil... It gave people... a kind of control... and offered hope... It guaranteed the help of God... On the other hand, this may not have been such a good bargain after all. According to all available evidence, humankind has had to pay an exorbitant price for living in the safety of this moral universe" (p 159).

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In several spots, Hankiss himself seems to sense that his argument is uneven, and apologizes with observations that he has been "unacceptably superficial" (p 74) and pleas that "the reader should forgive me" (p 61). Also, due to the attempt to combine borrowings from so many disparate fields of thought and theories, we find odd mixtures of terminology—such as the "hypertrophic superego" (p 162)—and curious metaphors—such as the phrase "people living under the wing of Western Civilization" (p 159).

Rich terrain

Fears and Symbols ultimately is not quite able to deliver all it promises. While it does indeed bring up important underlying ideas in cultural phenomena ranging from tragedies to jokes to the symbolism of medieval cathedrals and contemporary shopping malls, it does not go far enough in putting it all together in a way that deepens our understanding. It may all add up to a "theory of civilization," but in its current form it is not very systematic. This book is full of interesting and thought-provoking ideas, but the author has difficulty bringing together so many different scientific and metaphysical systems of thought, and relies heavily on personal speculation.

Still, Hankiss' terrain itself is rich and worth covering, and the overwhelming majority of scholars would never attempt anything on even a fraction of this scale.

David Graber, 23 April 2001

(Fears and Symbols was first published in Hungarian as Az emberi kaland by Helikon Kiadó, Budapest in 1999.)

Moving on:


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60 Years after the Jedwabne Pogrom

Ljubco Georgievski, Prime Minister of Macedonia

The Carpathians

Suzie Holt
Overview of the Region

Facts and Figures

Jaroslav Štika
What the Flock?

Brian J Požun
Warhol Nation

Andreas Beckmann
Tracking Wolves

Antonín Buček
National Parks

Andreas Beckmann
Public vs Private Forests

Tony Snape
Managing Resources

Andreas Beckmann
The Wolf as a Marker

Suzie Holt
Ecoregion Initiative

Wojtek Kość
Powerless Euroregion

Andreas Beckmann
Big Bad Wolf?

Suzie Holt
Carpathian Conference

Andrew James Horton
Jerzy Hoffman and Ogniem i mieczem

Wojtek Kość
Filip Bajon's Przedwiośnie

James Partridge
Sergei Paradzhanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Book Review:
David Graber
Fears and Symbols by Elemér Hankiss

Štěpán Kotrba
Sow and Reap

Brian J Požun
Shedding the Balkan Skin

Martin D Brown
Czech Historical Amnesia

Dejan Anastasijević (ed)
Out of Time

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Oil Scandal

Sam Vaknin
After the Rain

Czech Republic

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