Central European University Press
ISBN: 963-9241-07-5
Does our culture fulfill its "existential function" of answering the global questions of human beings? Does our society help us cope with the futility of our lives? Are we at home in this world? What forces generate and maintain our civilization? In Fears and Symbols, Elmer Hankiss focuses on these and a spate of other unsettling questions.
         The author presents the hypothesis that fears and anxieties are the main forces for construction of our civilization, which represents a complex system of symbols people erect to protect themselves from the evils of an external "alien world" as well as against the horrors of an internal life. He discusses major myths in this light and their striking vitality; touches on underlying notions of guilt and redemption; contemplates the role of art and religion, the necessity of play and trivialities, the function of moral norms and justice.
         He argues that the edifice of symbols helps us handle reality and survive spiritually, gives meaning to our lives, and mitigates existential fears. Moreover, it constructs a safe world, a protective bubble of purposeful and controllable microcosm in a savage and nonchalant macrocosm.
         Mr. Hankiss adduces evidence that in the process of building their civilization, humans, being the most intimidated animals, added internal fears to the external or partially substituted them and developed a system of beliefs, social norms, and institutions to cope with them. He shows that not only does our culture beget anxiety, but in reciprocal pattern, fears give rise to civilization. Fears mobilize defense mechanisms—our creative power—which develop our identity, a sense of self-worth, and a belief in a meaningful and just world. The author affirms that people throughout the centuries continuously create and recreate their microcosm by two strategies: technical/scientific, or Promethean; and the symbolic, or Apollonian. These strategies supplement each other in our standoff with the hostile universe and the monsters in our souls. We protect ourselves with houses and cities, arts and religions, science and technologies, myths and philosophies. The author argues that our civilization per se is "a sum total of these protective devices," and moreover, we would be extinct if we failed to create such an environment for ourselves.
         He explains why the wish to be in the center of the universe is so important in shaping our culture; discusses the symbolism of consecration and paradise, the vision of our houses and gardens as castles and sanctuaries, orderly microcosmic images of the chaotic macrocosm; contemplates the overly mythological significance of cities, architecture, and "ultimate symbols of sacred enclave"—temples and cathedrals; presents the role of our search for "ultimate equation" in physics and mathematics and the art of "rational abstraction." He pictures television and the automobile as means of keeping us at the center; shopping malls as metaphysical heavens—"beatific versions of Utopia" on the one hand, and negative worlds gratifying our basic instincts and enslaving people, on the other.
         Mr. Hankiss discusses theories and myths explaining the origin of evil and the concept of guilt that were subjects of Greek tragedies and constitute a core of all religions; he concludes that despite all efforts to rationalize their cause, evil, guilt, and fears keep besieging humans, and each civilization responds in its own way to the same challenge throughout history. The struggle between evil and good projected from our minds on the outside world was condensed in the opposition of Christ and Satan. In this war new tactics have been employed such as transformation of evil from a negative to a positive force. Among them, one of the most successful examples in Western civilization is the evolution of a fearful and indifferent world into a peaceful "moral universe." But an even more powerful transformation, contends Mr. Hankiss, was the transmutation of evil into guilt, which, however, generated as a protective device, became a problem of itself, a "jungle of guilt," a substantial source of fears.
         He discusses the double role of reason and science; on the one hand, they become an instruments to control the forces of nature; on the other, they force us to face the fact that the universe is cold and empty. Despite our feverish attempts to give meaning to everything in our lives and to proclaim goals of raising children, serving people, or a purpose sacred, cosmic plans of our existence are to be questioned. But the law of causality may be not a universal law; if this is not so, human reason will inevitably fail, and we will have to learn to live in an "age of uncertainty."
         Mr. Hankiss studies the world of play, "the world of pure and undisturbed individualism and selfishness" that helps us create an innocent universe governed by our own rules. We introduce uncertainty into its sphere, the same uncertainty we fear and flee in the real world, thus imitating reality in a scaled-down, safe and still exciting version. The act of creation is meant to be light and playful, spirited and serene, asserts Mr. Hankiss.
         Light pleasures like jokes and perfumes play an important role in fighting unpredictable forces within and outside us, transforming the world around us by combined efforts of creative artists and our docile acceptance or desire to be deluded by imagination and mythology. These fantasies, too, bring meaning and confidence into our everyday lives, a glimpse of happiness and freedom. Laughter is deemed not at all trivial; it breaks through our protective wall, contends Mr. Hankiss, sparks the world of rationality with the light of noncausal "law", and takes us back to the safety of our conventions and values.
         The ordered and logical world we created, argues Mr. Hankiss, curtails our freedom, and these brief moments of escape from the trap of determinism are thrilling and terrifying at the same time. We are drawn by the "beauty and the beast" of the unknown and probably unknowable, sitting by a campfire of the universe, catching the flashes of the unfathomable, mesmerized by its flames, unable to rationalize or ignore it.
         Where do these fears come from? The universe itself is not evil or cruel; it is indifferent to our emotions, and a source of our pain is not the world but our incompatibility with it, as Mr. Hankiss puts it. He also suggests that natural selection might be to blame for our acute suffering; strong pain signals favor the survival of the species. During our fight with nature we have formed societies that became a source of additional anxiety for individuals. Despite the fact that we have acquired partial control over nature, we are losing the battle with our minds, and this might be an indication of the crisis of our civilization, Mr. Hankiss alleges.
         We transform chaos into order, death into immortality, or presume we do; but without harmonious and structured visions of the world, humankind faces a profound social, economic, and psychological crisis, as it was during transition periods in human history, and it is now in "a transition from the declining civilization of modernism," according to some experts. However, there is a ray of hope; some scholars say our society is moving towards innocence. There are signs that the link between pleasure and guilt is loosening and that we are about to concoct a new myth of guiltless civilization.
         Even though our concepts, fictions and logic do not subsist in the real world as we define it, they are real for us as products of our creation. Postmodern thinking, states Mr. Hankiss, replaces the aeon-old search for truth with a quest for new symbols—"vocabularies, language games, or arguments"—that not only give us a sense of fulfillment through creation, but modify and therefore create interaction of humans with reality, thus indirectly changing the world. Symbols may have changed us, he continues, from feeble and fearful creatures to conscious human beings capable not of full control but at least enough to alleviate menacing external forces.
         He asserts that "it has been through them (symbolic systems) that human beings have become what they are." But do we really know who we are and what is our business in this universe? Have we managed to create freedom and harmony even in our illusionary existence? Hardly so. And the book is a wonderful proof to it despite its buoyant finale, an anthem to "the fascinating human adventure."
         The hypothesis presented by Mr. Hankiss is a brilliant constellation of ideas, a breath-taking step outside the box of our well-settled perceptions and dogmatic thinking. It calls for further quest that might come back to where it started; what if our fears are constructs that don't have any correspondence to the reality? And instead of creating the whole universe of defense and imaginative freedom we would be better off trying to look beyond them for the truth as mystics of all ages urge us to do.
         One may argue that we have so much to do in our everyday lives, why "brood over the tragic aspects of the human condition?" But the moment of such contemplation may turn out to be much more pragmatic and save thousands years of senseless suffering.