Fears and Symbols: An Introduction to the Study of Western Civilization

By Elemér Hankiss | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWELVE
THE WORLD OF TRIVIALITIES

Trivialities are sometimes not trivial at all.

In this chapter we discuss a contemporary mythology, the mythology of perfumes, a system of feelings and beliefs, ideas and symbols created by the advertising industry. In the course of this analysis it turns out that even trivialities may be indispensable building blocks of civilization.

Vanity fair is not a fair of vanities. It is not a fair of frivolous and unimportant things. Vanities may be a deadly serious matter. So much so that instead of vanitatum vanitas we should rather talk of vanitatum gravitas—the importance and seriousness of vanities. They, too, play a crucial role in building around us protective spheres which help us survive in an alien world.

In the course of history, people have surrounded themselves not only with idyllic gardens and city walls, cathedrals and football domes, myths and religions, but also with a shining cloud of vanities.

In order to show that vanities are not trivialities, I have chosen as an example something which was born in the very heart of our vanities. I shall argue that even perfumes, and the mythology created by and around perfumes, have played an important role in our age-long, and contemporary, struggle for meaning, safety, and freedom. They have helped us build our civilization.


PERFUMES AND THE HOLY GRAIL

Scents may be pleasant, even delightful. The world would certainly be a much less agreeable place to live in without them. But in themselves, in their natural state, they would play only a modest role in our lives. However, if and when

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