Overview (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Man's Search for Meaning cover image

At the outbreak of World War II, Viktor Emil Frankl was director of therapy in a large mental hospital in Vienna and the organizer of a group of successful youth guidance centers. Frankl, along with his family and many other doctors, was soon sent to a Nazi concentration camp. He carried with him the manuscript for his first book, which was taken from him and destroyed at Auschwitz. Ironically, the desire to reconstruct and rewrite that volume on psychotherapy helped him endure three harrowing years of prison life. For Frankl, the situation confirmed Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” From his observations in the concentration camp and his knowledge of psychology and philosophy, Frankl originated the school of logotherapy, or existential analysis. Man’s Search for Meaning is both an introduction to that theory and an absorbing personal account of the most appalling event in modern history.

This brief volume is divided into two parts; the first, longer essay is titled “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” the second, “Basic Concepts of Logotherapy.” Both are written in simple, nontechnical language for the general reader.

Frankl does not dwell unnecessarily on personal hardship, but he uses his experience and observations to illustrate the life of the ordinary prisoner. Inmates performed hard manual labor, such as digging ditches and tunnels for water mains or laying railway tracks, while working on a near-starvation diet. His observations thus have both the gritty reality of personal experience and the more universal quality of shared suffering. As a psychiatrist, Frankl was primarily interested in recording the mental and emotional reactions of prisoners to their experiences.

Three distinct phases of the typical prisoner’s reactions are noted: the period of shock following his admission, the period when he was entrenched in camp routine, and the period following his liberation. Each phase has its striking images and typical symptoms. The reader will not soon forget the high-ranking Schutzstaffel (SS) officer who flicks his finger casually to right or left as the incoming prisoners file by. Those shunted to the right look capable of hard physical labor; those directed to the left head for the “showers,” where they are gassed and shoveled into the insatiable furnaces. This was but the first of many selections between life and death that each prisoner must face. More experienced inmates warned them to shave every day, stand tall, and walk vigorously; even a limp because one’s feet were frostbitten might cause an SS guard to wave a prisoner aside and send him to the oven.

The shock and horror of the first phase, marked by prisoners’ thoughts of suicide, longing for home and family, and disgust with the ugliness and filth of the surroundings, gave place to the relative apathy of phase 2. Endurance in such circumstances demands a certain callousness. Eventually, the emotions of disgust, horror, and pity simply shut down. Much of the discussion concerning this stage dwells not so much on the physical brutality as on the mental agony of personal insult and the demeaning obsession with food. The daily ration of about ten ounces of bread and one and three-quarters pints of watery soup was never adequate for the labor they were forced to perform. The prisoners often fought among themselves irritably.

In spite of these depressing circumstances, however, Frankl does have some positive comments about human possibilities. Although most succumbed in some measure to the general apathy and irritability, there were persons who displayed compassion, comforting others and even giving away their last piece of bread. Frankl suggests that the kind of prisoner one becomes depends on some inner decision, not on environmental conditions alone. There is a last human freedom, available in even the most deprived conditions: the freedom to choose one’s attitude toward one’s suffering.

The second essay is divided into short explanations of basic principles, such as “existential frustration,” “noogenic neurosis,” and “the search for meaning.” Students of existentialism will recognize some of the ideas, such as “existential vacuum” and the influence of hopes or intentions for the future on present choices.

Frankl’s observations about the concentration camp combine a certain modesty and humane tolerance of human weakness with a tendency toward strict moral judgment. In one sense, the account is more objective than most prison memoirs, partly because of Frankl’s scientific background and purpose and partly because of his refusal to dramatize himself as the suffering hero. While he never focuses on his own behavior as especially altruistic, Frankl does note that quality in others. Moreover, he usually demonstrates such negative attributes as indifference and irritability with his own reactions. In explaining the callousness that develops after the initial shock of incarceration, for example, he remembers complacently sipping his thin soup as he watched the corpse of a cellmate who had just died being dragged laboriously downstairs by the feet, the head bouncing on every step, to be thrown unceremoniously on the ground. He writes that he would not even have remembered the incident except that his lack of...

(The entire section is 2190 words.)