I picked, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning at the airport in March 2022, on my way to Benaras. It felt like the perfect book to read considering the place I was visiting. For those who do not know, Benaras or Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus, it’s where the Ganga flows and where people from all over the world travel to, to soak in a experience that’s unlike any other. I was hoping to read the book on the journey to Benaras but I could not go beyond 50 pages. I remember finding it too heavy to read. Perhaps, I was not ready for it, even though I was taking a trip to the holy town of Benaras.
I picked up the book again after six months- when I was feeling a little lost and purposeless in life. This time, not only did I complete it but I found the book reminded me that there was a lot I needed to be thankful for. It helped me look at my current situation of moving to a new country where I know noone and starting this second chapter of my life with the children moving away from home to University, objectively.
The book was originally named ‘From death camp to existentialism’. The title was later changed to the current one and new additions were made to the book- in addition to Viktor Frankl’s chronicling his time at Auschwitz camp, the newer version also explains logotherapy- a theory he coined during his stay in the camp. The new title more apt as the book is more than the account of prisoners in the concentration camps. While the details of life in the camps is horrific, the book is an inspiring read. The grey cover of the book showing sky and sea in grey, with a red robin perched on a barbed wire running across it reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘Hope is a thing with feathers’. It also represents how the sky, the sun and the rest of nature cannot be fenced and is free for all to view and take joy in. Those prisoners who found solace in nature did better than others at camp. The simple cover speaks volumes.
The book is a must-read book for multiple reasons– a) you get to know history from someone who lived it- which is important as it helps one appreciate the present and avoid mistakes of the past; b) you understand that the mind is stronger than you think and that no amount of mental or physical abuse can break a person who wants to live; in fact sensitive or creative people who often look weak on the outside are stronger on the inside than those who may appear physically stronger, as they have the ability to retract from their surroundings and delve inwards c) love and creative enterprise are two things that keep a man going which means a sense of responsibility towards those who love us or a desperate need to share one’s creative unfinished project with the world keeps hope alive. Frankl quotes Nietzche, ‘He who has a why to live can bear almost any how’. As per the Japanese, this sense of purpose is called, ikigai. Most people have heard of it but reading ‘Man’s search for meaning,’ will help you truly understood its relevance.
‘Man’s search for Meaning’ is a book that can be re-read to appreciate the true essence of life. Reading it is bound to make you look at life positively and not let yourself get bogged down by trivial issues.
About the book
Viktor Frankl, the author of the book, is a holocaust survivor and a psychiatrist. In the book he shares his experience in the concentration camp and looks at what it was that keeps him going despite the inhumane conditions there. He begins the book by explaining how Jews were put into a train and transported to the camp. A soldier standing at the entrance, raises his finger and points it to the left or the right. That decides the fate of the new inmates. ‘Right’ meant the person should step to the right as he is healthy enough to work and ‘left’ means the person would be sent to the gas chambers. Once a person moves to the right, they have to hand over all their belongings and go for a bath. Inmates are asked to undress in two minutes; any delay results in a whiplash. After bathing, they had to stand in the cold, open air, naked. Viktor Frankl says of this experience, ‘In the next few days, our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.‘ It is details such as these that will give the reader goosebumps. New entrants were asked to clean filth and the latrines. If any shit fell on their faces and they cringed, they were beaten by the guards.
“Beating occurred on the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all. For example, bread was rationed out at our work site and we had to line up for it. Once the man behind me stood off a little to one side and that lack of symmetry displeased the SS guard. I did not know what was going on behind me, but suddenly I received two sharp blows on my head. At such moment it is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.”
On Frankl’s second day at camp, he is told by a friendly inmate who has been at Auschwitz for a longer time, that he should fear the gas chamber as he appeared weak. To the others in the room, the inmate says, “shave daily, even if you have to use a piece of glass to do it. It will make your face look ruddier. If you want to stay alive, there is one way: look fit for work. Even if you have a blister in your feet, walk straight. If a SS soldier spots a limp, you will be sent to the gas.’ Frankl proves the inmate wrong despite his weak disposition.
In this book, Frankl looks into what kept him and others like him survive the camp despite the deplorable conditions in the camp, the typhus epidemic that swept the camp and killed many, the harsh weather conditions, the absence of adequate clothing or shoes resulting in frost bites and other sicknesses, the strenuous labour and the minimal food. Frankl says that it was the idea of meeting his wife again once he was released and the thought of sharing his experiences with the world, was what kept him alive. The moment he thought of this, he began to look at everything around him as an observer recording details.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is a detailed account of life in the concentration camp. While Viktor Frankl tries to make it easy on the reader by not writing every little horrific detail, the information provided is enough to shock the reader. The beatings, the verbal abuse by the SS guards was meant to strip the prisoner of his dignity and leaving him feeling like it did not matter whether he existed or not. Frankl concludes, there are two races of men in the world – the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race of the indecent’ man. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’- and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
There are some lighter moments in the book indicative of the importance of humor in life. Frankl quotes a line from Gordon W. Allport’s book, ‘The individual and his religion’ – “The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.”
‘I was number 119,104, and most of the time I was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. The feat did not go unrewarded; just before Christmas 1944, I was presented with a gift of so-called “premium coupons.” The coupons cost the firm fifty pfennings each and could be exchanged for six cigarettes, often weeks later. I became the owner of a token worth twelve cigarettes. The cigarettes could be exchanged for twelve soups, and twelve soups were often a very real respite from starvation.’
Frankl quotes Doestoevski’s definition of man, ‘as a being who can get used to anything,’ to explain how even inmates like doctors, professors, engineers, businessmen- used to a better life, got used to living in the pathetic conditions they were subjected to at the camp. He says even those who loved cleanliness now went for days without a bath, slept huddled in groups of nine with two blankets amongst them, used their muddy shoes as a pillow or the crook of a dislocated arm, wore the same shirt for half a year until it no longer resembled a shirt and how a man who was a light sleeper got used to sleeping in a room surrounded by people who snored.
Frankl observes, ‘the inmate’s mental reactions to camp life goes through three phases.’ The first stage is one of disbelief that this is happening. The second stage is apathy, when a prisoner no longer feels for other inmates or himself– in Viktor’s words, ‘the inmate goes through an ’emotional’ death. Surrounded by death and constantly beaten, the prisoner loses all feeling. Frankl says, “The sufferers, the dying and the dead, became such common sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they could not move him anymore.” When a prisoner died, the other prisoners collected what was left with him while his body was still warm- stripping him of his shoes, his coat and anything else that they could use. In the third stage, when the prisoner is liberated, he feels he does not belong- he is plagued with nightmares of torture at the camp and he feels life is not what he thought it to be.
The book helps you understand not only prisoner psychology but the psychology of an oppressed person – oppression can come through a person or a situation.
In the second part of the book, the author explains logotherapy. In a nutshell, the difference between psychotherapy and logotherapy, a theory coined by Viktor Frankl himself, is that in the former, the patient must tell you things that maybe disagreeable to tell while in the latter, the patient must hear things that maybe disagreeable to hear.
There are many takeaways in this book. Writing all that spoke to me in one review is not possible, so, here, I’m sharing a few.
a) Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensible to mental well-being.
b)The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Frankl says, ‘Now we can understand Schopenhauer when he asid that mankind was apparently doomed to vacillate eternally between the two extremes of distress and boredom.’ This is what is ‘Sunday neurosis’- a kind of depression that takes over people at the end of the busy week as they do not know how to spend their holiday.
c)Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
d) According to logotherapy, we can discover the meaning in life in three different ways : i) by creating a work or doing a deed; ii) by experiencing something or encountering someone; iii)by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The first refers to achievement or accomplishment. The second refers to expereincing something in nature, culture or love for a person. The third way is finding meaning in life by suffering- to turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.
e) Ironically enough, fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes.
f) Not every conflict is necessarily unhealthy; some amount of conflict is normal and healthy. In a similar sense, suffering is not always a pathological phenomenon; rather than being a symptom of neurosis, suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration.
There are, as I said earlier, many more gems which I might just share in another post- not as a book review but just as a matter of discussion of human psyche as explained by Viktor Frankl in his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. I hope this review makes you want to read the book (if you haven’t already) or re-read the book. Who knows what in the book speaks to you?
Who the book is for? For humanity. In the present day world, where youngsters do not know what they want or why they should want, what they want, the book becomes all the more relevant. I believe this book should be part of every school, college or university curriculum as it has the power to save people’s lives by making them appreciate what they have and value life and freedom itself.
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