Welcome to my Sunday Book Review. Today I’m sharing my thoughts in review for Viktor E. Frankl’s powerful psychological examination of life- Man’s Search For Meaning. I have always been fascinated by WWII era history and holocaust survivor stories as my curiosity for the human condition never ceases to wonder how survivors of such atrocities – actually managed to survive.
Victor Frankl was a psychoanalyst who was also a prisoner at Auschwitz and 3 other camps. He first published this book in 1959 and the book has been revised twice since in this current 2006 edition. In Part 2, Frankl elaborates on his Logotherapy method of psychology, which is an amazing and positive method of healing the mind of concerning issues without dragging through past negativity, followed by a deeper look into Frankl’s life work and small biopic in the afterword. In the first part, Frankl shares his experience in the camps, but not to dwell on the horrors, but his observances while being a prisoner – of the human condition, resilience, and what motivates the will to live despite all odds. The second part is a fascinating approach to psychoanalysis that Frankl invented called Logotherapy – an approach that enables the patient to discover the meaning of their lives through passion
I’d like to add that in my recent interview with historical fiction writer – Paulette Mahurin, I asked her to share a book that moved her so much it stayed with her. She replied that it was this book:
“Frankl made it out of the camps and went back to his psychiatric profession in Vienna, and was subsequently a visiting professor at Harvard. What a teacher he must have been. He certainly changed my life for the better—to me there is no better educator.”
You can find the interview with Paulette HERE.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey for the Library of Congress that asked readers to name a “book that made a difference in your life” found Man’s Search for Meaning among the ten most influential books in America.
My 5 Star Review: ( Difficult to make this review short with such a book)
I was introduced to this book by an historical fiction author friend who recommended it, and I’m thrilled that she did. She expressed that this book is one of the most important books to read about the holocaust. It is no surprise that this book is touted as one of the top ten most influential books in America with over 10 million copies sold in various languages. Frankl, a former holocaust survivor and psychoanalyst shares his observations of survival during his imprisonment in part 1 of this book as a memoir, and part 2 is focused on his formal analysis of the human condition and his Logotherapy system.
As Frankl states about this book, “We are never left with nothing as long as we retain the freedom to choose how we will respond.” This book is a factual accounting of life in a concentration camp and Frankl’s observations reflected from that of a prisoner’s mind. As Frankl begins his story, he informs us this is not just another holocaust story, but a study about how the mind adapts to life in captivity, how some managed to survive, and the power of the human mind and how it can be uplifted as easily as it can live in a dark place.
The author’s original intent was to remain anonymous, but Frankl later came to realize by remaining anonymous would ‘mar its validity.’ Frankl had obtained a US visa prior to the outbreak of war to enable him to teach in the US. He shares with us his decision not to flee from Vienna after he questioned his father asking why he’d kept a mere piece of marble on a mantle. His father told him it was a piece that broke off from the tablet of the 10 Commandments housed in one of Vienna’s oldest synagogues til the Nationalist Socialists had burned down the synagogue. His father picked it up and inscribed on it was one Hebrew letter on the back which stood for one of the commandments – Honor thy father and mother. The simple broken piece of history was taken as a sign for Frankl to remain in Vienna with his parents.
This book is written like an essay on life as a camp prisoner, accounting for how prisoners survived, how they were affected by suddenly having their lives and dignity stripped, and coping mechanisms – a look into the human psyche. The essay covers the 3 phases a prisoner goes through mentally, as quoted by Frankl: “When one examines the vast amount of material which has been amassed as the result of many prisoners’ observations and experiences, three phases of the inmates’ mental reactions to camp life become apparent: the period following his admission; the period when he is well entrenched in camp routine; and the period following his release and liberation.”
The first phase, naturally, would be shock. The second is apathy – the blocking of emotions to the point of no longer caring – a self-defense mechanism. Survival of the most primitive occurs when all that becomes important is having an extra piece of bread, a cigarette, and dreams of a hot bath.The only decisions left to be made by a prisoner were if he’d save the daily piece of stale bread for later or eat it right away. Survival meant being in the right place at the right time – a roundup, a transfer, a beating, depended on a moment. Their last human freedom was that every day left a new decision whether or not to submit – “a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom . . .”.
Those prisoners who looked to the past to hold on to sanity, left themselves in danger. Frankl elaborates on this, saying nothing to look forward to and choosing to vegetate within was a common chosen method of survival – “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future . . .”. Frankl continues to explain how he used visualization to take himself out of the present and focused on freedom – “The prisoner who lost faith in the future – his future was doomed,” he added that the state of one’s immunity of his body will and a loss of hope will no doubt bring on death. He adds a Nietzche quote – “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
Phase 3 of the stages is how a prisoner’s mental state of mind reacts after liberation. Frankl talks about the guards in the camp, which I’m sure many of us wonder how any human can become so inhumane to his fellow man. Frankl informs us that naturally, there were some hardcore sadists who enjoyed their jobs, as well as during ‘selections’ within the camps for these jobs, the Nazis chose the worst of the lot to be capos, as well as some of the meek who were to do their jobs or die. Years of them being guards emboldened them to ‘do better’.
Frankl continues on by declaring there are only 2 races of men in the world – decent men and indecent men.
The psychology of a liberated prisoner is well documented by Frankl. One would think that prisoners would all feel jubilation, but freedom was still a word difficult to grasp. Frankl describes it as seeing a flower for the first time again giving only momentary joy because everything now seemed too unreal and most prisoners had become depersonalized. He shares that for many prisoners it took some time until they could actually speak – an unfamiliar god-given right. Frankl shares his personal moment when he again found his voice: A few days after liberation he walked through a flower meadow – one he’d walked daily since his release. He took in the silence and beauty of the field as though it were his first time experiencing the beauty. He acknowledged “the freedom of space”, dropped to his knees and quote: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.” That was the day he said his life started and he became a human being.
Frankl continued his observances well after liberation and noted some prisoners would go on to become ruthless and malevolent in retaliation for their own sufferings. It is far from easy to assimilate back into the race. Severe psychological damage leave moral deformity, disillusionment, bitterness, and melancholia. Frankl remarks that suffering has no limits. It was a devastation many could never overcome when they went back to their homes and found either or both of no home and no family. And for those who allowed themselves to eventually look back on their imprisonment, could not even fathom how they endured living in a nightmare, realizing there was nothing left on earth to fear but God.
Part 2 of this book is a fascinating insight into Frankl’s work and his successful invention of his Logotherapy, a new kind of psychoanalysis which focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. Frankl explains the difference between psychoanalysis and Logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy which focuses on the future for people to heal and get on with their lives, rather than rehashing their pasts bringing up painful memories – described as a reorientation toward the meaning of life.
-Approximately 1 in 28 people survived the camps.
-Logotherapy focus was not to change lives but to change attitude. Quote : “…it may well be that an individual’s impulse to take his life would have been overcome had he been aware of some meaning and purpose worth living for.”
-Frankl’s recanting of his arrival at Auschwitz and through all he’d been through managed to still cling to his manuscript – his legacy, kept hidden under his clothing, until they were stripped down for the showers. He goes on to explain, “I had to undergo and to overcome the loss of my mental child. And now it seemed as if nothing or no one would survive me …”.
“Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect, or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal itself.”
“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
A small summary of Logotherapy from Frankl: “Logotherapy is neither teaching nor preaching. It is as far removed from logical reasoning as it is from moral exhortation. To put it figuratively, the role played by a logotherapist is that of an eye specialist rather than that of a painter A painter tries to convey to us a picture of the world as he sees it; an ophthalmologist tries to enable us to see the world as it really is.”
This book was a most engrossing and fascinating read about the human spirit and always relevant.