Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”


I read the amazing “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl this weekend. There has been lots written already about life in concentration camps but somehow this account proved captivating as I sat reading in a Central London bookstore on Saturday.  What is remarkable is his continuing account of the psychological impact of the experience.

Before Frankl begins describing his experiences within the concentration camp, he talks about man’s relationship with himself.  Here, it is possible he is talking about the intense discipline one’s mind requires in order to successfully detach.  Detach too much and you risk accepting a deterministic mindset, detach too little and you risk living miles away from reality.  He also correctly acknowledges that it is only the person in the epidermis or the ghost in the machine that can make honest and valuable judgements on himself.

Setting the stage for the chronological psychological telling of his experience:

Three phases of the inmate’s 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 engine’s whistle had an uncanny sound, like a cry for help sent out in commiseration for the unhappy load which it was destined to lead into perdition.

Frankl comments on the thoughts circling in their brains as they begin going through the registration at the camp:
In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as delusion of reprieve. The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. No one could yet grasp the fact that everything would be taken away. all we possessed, literally, was our naked existence. On entering camp a change took place in the minds of the men. With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end. It was impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this form of existence would end.  

Once they are all processed, they move into getting used to their new environment:

Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. I think it was Lessing who once said, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.”

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth-that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.

Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

What does Spinoza say in his Ethics? -’Affectus, qui passio est, desinit esse passio simulatque eius claram et distinctam formamus ideam. Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,”

Before Frankl begins describing his experiences within the concentration camp, he talks about man’s relationship with himself.  Here, it is possible he is talking about the intense discipline one’s mind requires in order to successfully detach.  Detach too much and you risk accepting a deterministic mindset, detach too little and you risk living miles away from reality.  He also correctly acknowledges that it is only the person in the epidermis or the ghost in the machine that can make honest and valuable judgements on himself.

Setting the stage for the chronological psychological telling of his experience:

Three phases of the inmate’s 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 engine’s whistle had an uncanny sound, like a cry for help sent out in commiseration for the unhappy load which it was destined to lead into perdition.

I will return to the meaning of life in the future.

Resources:


Viktor
 E. Frankl Quotes – BrainyQuote

Viktor Frankl: Why to believe in others | Video on TED.com

Viktor Frankl – Holocaust Survivor and Famous Author/Psychoanalyst

VIKTOR FRANKL INSTITUT. Biography of Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy

Man’s search for meaning: Google Books

 

Victor Frankl bio

See http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/frankl.html

 

Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna on March 26, 1905.  His father, Gabriel Frankl, was a strong, disciplined man from Moravia who worked his way from government stenographer to become the director of the Ministry of Social Service.  His mother, Elsa Frankl (née Lion), was more tenderhearted, a pious woman from Prague.

The middle of three children, young Viktor was precocious and intensely curious.  Even at the tender age of four, he already knew that he wanted to be a physician.

In high school, Viktor was actively involved in the local Young Socialist Workers organization.  His interest in people turned him towards the study of psychology.  He finished his high school years with a psychoanalytic essay on the philosopher Schopenhauer, a publication in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis, and the beginning of a rather intense correspondence with the great Sigmund Freud.

In 1925, a year after graduating and on his way towards his medical degree, he met Freud in person.  Alfred Adler’s theory was more to Frankl’s liking, though, and that year he published an article – “Psychotherapy and Weltanschauung” – in Adler’s International Journal of Individual Psychology.  The next year, Frankl used the term logotherapy in a public lecture for the first time, and began to refine his particular brand of Viennese psychology.

In the years 1928 and 1929, Frankl organized free counseling centers for teenagers in Vienna and six other cities, and began working at the Psychiatric University Clinic.  In 1930, he earned his doctorate in medicine, and was promoted to assistant.  In the next few years, Frankl continued his training in neurology.

In 1933, He was put in charge of the ward for suicidal women at the Psychiatric Hospital, with many thousands of patients each year.  In 1937, Frankl opened his own practice in neurology and psychiatry.  One year later, Hitler’s troops invade Austria.  He obtained a visa to the U.S. in 1939, but, concerned for his elderly parents, he let it expire.

In 1940, Frankl was made head of the neurological department of Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital for Jews in Vienna during the Nazi regime.  He made many false diagnoses of his patients in order to circumvent the new policies requiring euthanasia of the mentally ill.  It was during this period that he began his manuscript, Ärztliche Seelsorge – in English, The Doctor and the Soul.

Frankl married in 1942, but in September of that year, he, his wife, his father, mother, and brother, were all arrested and brought to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Bohemia.  His father died there of starvation.  His mother and brother were killed at Auschwitz in 1944.  His wife died at Bergen-Belsen in 1945.  Only his sister Stella would survive, having managed to emigrate to Australia a short while earlier.

When he was moved to Auschwitz, his manuscript for The Doctor and the Soul was discovered and destroyed.  His desire to complete his work, and his  hopes that he would be reunited with his wife and family someday, remained optimistic by hoping what seemed otherwise a hopeless situation.

After two more moves to two more camps, Frankl finally succumbed to typhoid fever.  He kept himself awake by reconstructing his manuscript on stolen slips of paper.  In April of 1945, Frankl’s camp was liberated, and he returned to Vienna, only to discover the deaths of his loved ones.  Although nearly broken and very much alone in the world, he was given the position of director of the Vienna Neurological Policlinic — a position he would hold for 25 years.

 


		
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About Noel Bell

Psychotherapist in London. Check out my blog posts and more at www.noelbell.net
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