Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”: Book review

I’ve read Holocaust survivor accounts that talked about difficult struggles to find meaning in life after liberation, or that told of how many gave up and lost their hold on life during their incarceration. I’ve read of the suicides of survivors like the Polish writer Borowksi, and of the possible suicide of Primo Levi. There are those who found it impossible to forgive, such as Rudolf Vrba, escapee from Auschwitz and author of “I cannot forgive.” There are those who cannot subscribe to any collective guilt theory, and those who have learned to forgive entirely all those who acted against them.
But I think no book has been as inspiring as Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in which Frankl explains how his experiences in four concentration camps (where his parents, brother, and pregnant wife died) helped him to solidify his views on the ultimate purpose of life, the thing that drives man to survive – the search for meaning.
The manner in which such a profoundly terrifying and traumatic experience acted as a crucible of growth for Frankl is exemplified in this staggering analogy where Frankl nonchalantly makes use of a gas chamber as a way to talk about suffering and joy.
“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative. […] It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.”
There is something deeply reassuring about reading such an illuminating passage, something that makes one feel somehow understood, even if there is nothing in one’s own experiences that can possibly compete with those of the author. And that is precisely the point: here is this survivor of those experiences telling you that suffering is relative, that it expands and contracts to fill the available space. Here he is negating the idea of competing pains, or comparisons or scales of trauma. Such a negation allows one to dispense with the ultimately distracting exercise of attempting to justify one’s reaction to suffering, and allows one to move ahead with the job of focusing more specifically on what one intends to do about the situation.
Frankl’s book, published originally in 1946 and expanded in subsequent editions, is divided into two main parts – part one dealing with his experiences in Theresientstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering, and the Dachau sub-camp of Turkheim; and part two expounding his theory of Logotherapy, which “focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as man’s search for such a meaning.” Frankl does not so much challenge other therapeutic theories as much as simply explain why he does not find them to be true, such as when he addresses the Freudian pleasure-pain principle: “Logotherapy deviates from psychoanalysis insofar as it considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling a meaning, rather than in a mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment.”
Frankl’s text addresses a range of theories such as the Adlerian pursuit of power and the modern-day concept of nihilism, or the idea that life is a joke, a random chaos – and enunciates how Logotherapy’s approach differs. He is not attempting to force his theories on you, or attack ‘competing’ theories. He has no interest in competition, and seems to act by attraction rather than promotion.
He states plainly that “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.” This is frankly refreshing to read from a learned man of his specific experiences, especially as a counterpoint to equally compelling arguments such as Richard Dawkin’s elegant theory of the “Selfish Gene,” whereby all human actions are the product of the incessant pulse of the machine code of DNA, pulling the puppet strings of the gene, which has built the organism around it, and which is constantly communicating a myriad of complex messages that can appear to have meaning and transcendent import but which are simply the drum beat of the machine code instructing the organism to replicate, damn it, replicate, and now, and constantly, for the sake of the gene, for the sake of the DNA strand, for the sake of copying the tape over and over. Frankl flatly denies this theory: “Procreation is not the only meaning of life, for then life in itself would become meaningless, and something which in itself is meaningless cannot be rendered meaningful merely by its perpetuation.”
Frankl seems to have the sequel to Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents,” arguing that “Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.” He goes on to state something that I believe many American mental health professionals and doctors would do well to understand and come to terms with, although perhaps the cultural divide on this matter between Europeans and Americans is simply too entrenched: “It may well be that interpreting the first [existential distress] in terms of the latter [mental disease] motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development.”
Frank addresses what he sees as another misdirected tendency of modern therapeutic practice when he quotes Edith Weisskopf-Joelson’s statement that “our current mental health-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.”
In reading lines like this, one can’t help observing that, sometimes one may wait many years to hear someone put things succinctly, and give one the confidence to allow the shattering of ill-founded social belief systems.
Frankl goes on to elucidate that optimism is “not anything to be commanded or ordered”:
“To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. […] This need for a reason is similar in another specifically human phenomenon – laughter. If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason e.g. you have to tell him a joke. In no way is it possible to evoke real laughter by urging him, or having him urge himself, to laugh.”
He is careful to differentiate between necessary and unnecessary suffering, and one feels it is important to consider whether one’s suffering is the result of enforced circumstances or choices made freely. That said, once the choices recede into the past, the matter of whether those choices were made in limited circumstances with clouded vision or made with clarity of mind and a range of options freely available seems to become a point of little import, left with the obligation of being responsible in dealing with the consequences or aftermath of those choices. Read from that perspective, there is much to be gained from hearing Frankl relate the claims of POWs of the Vietnam war that “although their captivity was extraordinarily stressful – filled with torture, disease, malnutrition, and solitary confinement – they nevertheless … benefited from the captivity experience, seeing it as a growth experience,” or the statement of Jerry Long who, paralyzed from the neck down since a diving accident at age seventeen, said that “without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.” Such statements, borne of such experience, challenge one to look anew at one’s own suffering.
In addressing the role suffering can play in man’s search for meaning, Frankl questions the popular notion of man as a product of his environment, his biology, his upbringing:
“In attempting this psychological presentation and a psycho-pathological explanation of the typical characteristics of a concentration camp inmate, I may give the impression that the human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings. […] But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? […]
We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”
How these exemplary men “bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
Frankl refers to his theory of self-actualization, of the movement towards fulfillment of meaning, as “the self-transcendence of human-existence.” By this he means that “being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter.”
“The more one forgets himself,” writes Frankl, “by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” In service, he seems to be saying, lies a path to finding true meaning and true realization of the self.
This book made me stop dead in my tracks several times and think deeply about what was being communicated to me, and the implications for my own life. All the Holocaust eyewitness and survivor accounts I have been reading were, in some ways, crystallized and brought together here in Frankl’s work, at least in so far as trying to understand my own relationship to this subject and why I have chosen to pursue it, after stumbling unexpectedly into its depths in January via the William Styron novel “Sophie’s Choice,” with its carefully researched narrative of Auschwitz, and its use of Rudolf Hoss’s memoirs.
This kind of book demonstrates why I read books.
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