A version of this largely autobiographical book was originally written while Viktor Emil Frankl was director of the Department of Neurology at the University of Vienna. The book was lost when he was forced into a concentration camp, and he re-created the book by writing notes on pilfered strips of paper while he was imprisoned for three years in four different Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau. The book consists of two parts: a description of life in the concentration camps and people’s reactions to that life and an explanation of logotherapy.
Life in a Concentration Camp
In the first part of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes the daily humiliation and violence that stripped many people of their dignity and their very humanity in the concentration camps and of his own struggle to maintain a sense of meaning in the face of such brutality. He did so primarily by focusing on his wife, with whom he held imaginary conversations; on the work he hoped to resume after leaving the camp; and on the rare acts by some of those in charge that demonstrated, if not kindness, at least a relative absence of malice. Along with these personal recollections, Frankl presents the inmates’ reaction to camp life during its three phases: the period following incarceration, the period of becoming entrenched in camp routine, and the period following release and liberation.
Following incarceration, most inmates suffered from shock. In some cases, shock preceded the formal incarceration, and it was often accompanied by delusions of reprieve. As all illusions were destroyed, most inmates were overcome by a grim sense of humor. Another common sensation was curiosity; the inmates’ minds somehow detached from their surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. Most people entertained the thought of suicide, at least briefly.
During the second phase, when inmates became entrenched in camp routine, they often descended from a denial of their situation into a stage of apathy and the beginning of a kind of emotional death. As their illusions dropped away and their hopes died, they watched others perish without experiencing any emotion. At first, the lack of feeling served as a protective shield. Then, however, many prisoners plunged with surprising suddenness into depressions so deep that the sufferers could not move, wash themselves, or leave the barracks to join a forced march. No entreaties, no blows, no threats had any effect. No one could extricate them. There was a link, Frankl found, between their loss of faith in the future and this dangerous giving up. Some inmates, however, were able to discover meaning in their lives, if only in helping one another through the day. These discoveries gave them the will and strength to endure.
For Frankl, the only meaning in his camp life was to help his fellow inmates restore their psychological health. He believed that he had to learn himself and teach the despairing men that it did not matter what he expected from life but rather what life expected from him. He described a day when he became disgusted with the fact that his mind was totally preoccupied with the trivialities of camp life. To overcome this preoccupation, he forced himself to think of another subject: He imagined giving a lecture on the psychology of camp life. “Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself.” One way that Frankl helped others was to attempt to prevent suicides. Nazi jailers forbade prisoners from interfering with a suicide attempt. For example, no one could cut down a man attempting to hang himself. Therefore, Frankl’s goal was to prevent the act before the attempt. Healthy prisoners such as Frankl would remind the despondent person that life expected something from them. For example, perhaps a child waited for the individual outside prison, or work remained to be completed. Thus, healthy prisoners taught others not to talk about food when starvation...
(The entire section is 2,260 words.)