Sunday, August 23, 2015

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

When a famous psychologist writes the firsthand account of his survival in Nazi death camps saying that it is not about the disgust and despair seeping out of history's one of the ugliest incidents, the Holocaust, but of the hope arising from the same atrocity; you are bound to get interested.

Viktor E. Frankl's ‘Man's Search for Meaning’, in all its honesty, justifies its tagline - 'The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust'.

Frankl along with his wife, brother and parents was captured and put in one of the Nazi ghettos in September 1942. In next three years he worked as a slave laborer in Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps before his release in April 1945. While he majorly worked as a laborer, Frankl also provided medical support in Dachau camp, in the last days of his imprisonment. After release, he worked as a psychologist and neurologist in Austria, Vienna and USA on the theory of Logotherapy, the psychotherapy using Logos, Greek word for ‘meaning’. It is considered the ‘Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ after Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology. Later, he remarried and had a daughter. Frankl’s family was either gassed or died during their tenure in many camps. His sister was the only survivor of Holocaust.

The story line

Unlike many other books written on Holocaust, Man's Search for Meaning is a narration on how human mind responds to the adversities and constant threat of death. Frankl claims that once a person finds a reason to stay alive, he can get through any suffering. Very mindfully, Frankl has kept the focus of the book to narrating psychological observations born out of camps’ proceedings, restricting the use of details of these events to just explaining or corroborating his observations.
Just like a usual day in a camp, the book serves you mundane in its most unattractive form. Frankl, by means of his observations, drills down the reader’s mind and stirs the emotions of whose existence he might not be even aware of. What bubbles up is an unprecedented feeling of compassion and acceptance you feel for your own sufferings and all those who have suffered.

The book begins with an account of how Capos, the police personnel inside the Camps, were selected. His focus stays on the psychology that compels one human being to be incredibly atrocious to the others of its own kind.

He then highlights the frame of mind of inmates at different points of time, starting from when they are first captured and sent to one of the camps not knowing whether they will be taken as prisoners or gassed to death. The reality, as Frankl narrates, takes some time to sink in for a camp inmate to finally understand and accept that his ‘freedom’ has been taken away. At this point, an inmate in concentration camp thinks much like a prisoner caught for a crime. Frankl describes the journey of emotions a person goes through realizing that his life now depends on the modalities and temperament of those who hate him and that his very existence could be wiped off at the spur of a moment.  

He then describes the impact every day event causes to an inmate’s thought process, making him emotionally dry and yet vulnerable. The desire to live any further vanishes and the person becomes emotionally dead, his immunity goes down instantly, causing physical death from one or the other disease. While most people drown in the ocean of sorrow and succumb in front of their misery, a rather few decide to live through it gracefully by not letting their self-esteem and inner goodness take a dip due to external circumstances. The latter category, as Frankl claimed, often finds something worthwhile to dream of in their otherwise seemingly bleak future, eventually helping them to get through.

The style

Frankl has explicated complex observations on human psychology in a lucid and storytelling fashion. Some events have been described with such precision that one can visualize them vividly. Important details have been spilled out in the beginning itself to prepare the reader and offer enough width for him to dive into the finer nuances of human behavior.  Though belonging to the thick of human misery, the plot never becomes depressive or loses touch with what the author promises to deliver – a riveting account of what is it that lets a person still long to live when everything around him has fallen apart; and in our battle for survival, how much of the say do we have in our own moral downfall.

Of all his observations, Frankl has kept his focus on primarily three –
-              the persistent trial of a human mind to keep itself alive,
-              the ability to get used to the most unimaginable circumstances, and
-              the significance of love for a man too weary to acknowledge any emotions

For me, the most beautiful part in the book is where Frankl introduces the idea of love in his quest for survival. His love is not romantic. It is a longing – for a lady he once deeply loved – whom he might not see again, ever – for all that was good and is now gone – for all that was imprinted in his memory and no imprisonment or atrocity would ever be able to erase.

His memories work as an imaginary hide-out for him, keeping him warm and constantly supplying him with the zest to still dream of a beautiful life. Frankl describes the beauty of his beloved’s memory as the orange hue that finds it way as the dawn cracks on to the grey gloomy sky, while he silently marches with his batch of laborers through cold dungeons on frost bitten feet. While his physical being was tormented due to his surroundings, his heart and soul was in a different world where his beloved would ask him questions and he would answer.

In an otherwise pragmatic book, Frankl brings in a beautiful heartwarming and heart wrenching description of his idea of love – claiming that love makes the suffering bearable irrespective of what you possess and what not.

Frankl has outlined his thoughts with the precision of a poet. The impeccable descriptions make the horror of Holocaust come alive for readers, while the author takes them on a ride to the deeper truths of his fellow companions. Frankl surfs through the ocean of human thoughts, jolting the reader’s consciousness to accept and admire the zeal of everyone who has been through the greatest of human miseries. The objectivity of his observations is admirable for he does not let his own thoughts help the reader make any opinion. He simple states; for this reason the reader often feels like being a part of the plot.

The actual story is captured in 100 pages, the last one third of which is pure poetry to read. He encapsulates all that he has learned during imprisonment into small lessons and shares them as anecdotes, ascertaining that suffering stays suffering only till we find some meaning in it. Once a person finds out the hidden truth or meaning behind his suffering, he accepts it and prepares to live through it. While establishing the importance of ‘meaning’ for a human life, Frankl detaches it from the perception of greatness and claims it to be an ever-changing and ever-evolving phenomenon.

In the end, Frankl has given a brief description on Logotherapy and the work he did after his release. He breaks down the concept into multiple small notes and explains them one after the other.  Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that takes us through some of the most inexplicable human emotions and thoughts in a lucidity journey, which when ends, leaves the reader startled and fulfilled. Frankl decodes these thoughts layer by layer, extracting the underlying truth. Every line in this book is a deep insight into the existence of a human being, as himself or a part of society and to really construe Viktor E. Frankl's philosophy, one would have to keep coming back to it, again and again.

About author: Viktor Frankl was born in 1905 and was a Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist who developed the theory of logotherapy. He was a student of the University of Vienna where he studied medicine, focusing on the subjects of suicide and depression. He was taken in Nazi camps in the year 1942 along with his family. Although Frankl had an option to escape before he was caught by SS, but he decided to stay with his parents and family. Frankl stayed in Nazi ghetto, Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps before his release in 1945. After his release he dedicated his life to propagation of Logotherapy and help people find meaning in their lives. He worked as a psychotherapist and counselor. He has won many illustrious awards in his time. Frankl passed away on September 2, 1997.