Man’s search for meaning

Viktor Frankl's memoir is a deeply philosophical and extremely human document

Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most important books written in the 20th century and perhaps the most moving account of the Holocaust. Interestingly enough, it is all the more moving because it is a completely unsentimental account.

It is an extremely rational memoir of the two years the author was imprisoned in German concentration camps, including probably the most notorious one—Auschwitz. 

Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and he was both a victim and an observer of the unspeakable brutalities unleashed by the Nazi regime.

“The corpses near me, crawling with lice, did not bother me. Only the steps of the passing guards would rouse me from my dreams; or perhaps it would be a call to the sick-bay or to collect a newly arrived supply of medicine for my hut—consisting of perhaps five or ten tablets of aspirin, to last for several days for fifty patients.

“I collected them and did my rounds, feeling the patients’ pulses and giving half-tablets to the serious cases. But the desperately ill cases received no medicine. It would not have helped, and besides, it would have deprived those for whom there was still some hope. 

“For light cases, I had nothing, except perhaps a word of encouragement. In this way I dragged myself from patient to patient, though I myself was weak and exhausted from a serious attack of typhus. Then I went back to my lonely place on the wood cover of the water shaft."

Frankl kept himself sane by believing strongly that a human being should never give up hope, that salvation would come, happy days would return. He thought constantly of the sweetest memories of his life—of his home in Vienna, of his beloved wife (he did not know that she had already been sent to the gas chamber)—and convinced himself that to give up hope and give in to despair would be a living death.

He also helped to keep hundreds of inmates sane by exhorting them not to give up hope. 

“In spite of all the physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen… (Sensitive people) were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than those of a robust nature."

Frankl’s book is remarkably devoid of anger. Even the sadistic nature of the worst prison guards is analysed with a clinical gaze. Every sentence glows with the scientific temper of a uniquely decent person.

His experiences in Auschwitz led Frankl to develop a new psychotherapy technique called “logotherapy" and after he came a free man again, he practised this method for the rest of his working career. The second half of Man’s Search For Meaning is an explanation of logotherapy and his work with it.

The theory is founded on the belief that “human nature is motivated by the search for a life purpose". Thus it veers sharply away from Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipal complex and the hydraulic model of the human mind, and is fundamentally a positive mode of therapy. 

It is about achieving one’s potentialities at different stages of life and going to a happy death, satisfied that it was been a good life lived. At the core of the theory lies hope, that life has a meaning, and one would be able to know that meaning if one looked for it in the right manner.

Logotherapy is a kind, optimistic and near-spiritual theory. It is also commonsensical. What would make us happier than if you and I could find our life’s purpose, the meaning of our existence?

Man’s Search For Meaning is a deeply philosophical and extremely human document based on the author’s own experience during one of the most shameful periods of human history. 

Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com

The Bookmark is a series on ‘interesting’ books—intelligent and thought-provoking, but also enjoyable. 

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