Elemér Hankiss shows how human beings act simultaneously in two plays. On the “trivial” surface of their everyday lives they work, make money, raise children, build houses, and do a lot of other things. At the same time, they also act in the “existential” drama of their lives—even if they are not aware of doing so. They construct and reconstruct their selves each day by striving for authenticity, the intense experience of being, dignity, meaning, and the hope of immortality.

Hankiss explores this interaction between the trivial and existential, in the process unfolding its context in “consumer civilization.” This concept is brilliantly illustrated in a section entitled “the toothpaste of immortality”:

If we watch enough commercials, we believe that this or that special brand of toothpaste preserves our teeth, and—per metonymiam—ourselves, young and beautiful indefinitely. And then, for a fleeting moment, there, in our bathrooms, we experience the sweet and melancholy illusion that we may stay young and beautiful forever; that we may defeat mortality; we may defeat decay and death.

First published to great success in Hungarian, this entertaining and compelling book reveals surprising insights into the challenges and possibilities of self-fulfillment.

Elemér Hankiss is professor of sociology at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. He has taught in European and American universities and has served as senior scientist for the Gallup Organization, chairman of Hungarian Public Television, and managing editor of the English-American Section of Europa Publishing House. He has published books in French, English, German, Polish, and Hungarian. His most recent book is Fears and Symbols: An Introduction to the Study of Western Civilization. He was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1987–88 and 2003–4.



Introduction: Trivialities Are Not Trivial

Part One: The Self in Everyday Life 
1. The Morning Reconstruction of the Self
2. The Reconstruction of the World
3. The Self in the Public Space
4. The Limits and Freedom of Self-Construction
5. The Self at Work
6. The Self and the Articulation of Time
7. The Self at Home

Part Two: The Self in the Consumer Age
8. The Self in a Changing World
9. “Proletarian Renaissance”
10. The Self in a Syncretic Age
11. The Self and the Intensity of Life
12. The Self in Boundary Situations
13. The Myth of the Self
14. The Self in a Reenchanted World



“The magic of Hankiss’s exposition is found in his capacity to elevate the small things into their larger, sometimes cosmic symbolic meanings. His style is that of a virtuoso, often playful, almost always insightful and convincing. He is a shrewd observer and interpreter of life.”—Neil Smelser, University of California, Berkeley

“Offers an extensive overview of the psychological and philosophical literature concerning the self.”—Ulrich Muhe, Metapsychology

“A surprisingly entertaining as well as revealing examination of consumer habits essential to any college-level collection strong in sociology.”—Bookwatch

“A nuanced portrait of the search for identity and significance in the consumer age.”—Christina Simko, Culture

“Draws an interesting and balanced parallel between the dawn of modernity in the Renaissance and the postmodern age of consumerism.”—Veronika Koller, Discourse Studies