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Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Ein Psycholog Erlebt Das Konzentrationslager)

MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEANING: AN INTRODUCTION TO LOGOTHERAPY (Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager)

Memoir and Study by Viktor E. Frankl, 1946

Man's Search for Meaning (1963; Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentrationslager, 1946) introduces readers not only to Viktor E. Frankl's experiences as a prisoner within the Nazi concentration camp system but also to the fundamentals of logotherapy, a branch of existential analysis that he founded. Frankl begins with "Experiences in a Concentration Camp," a gentle description of daily life and death within the concentration camp. Frankl's theoretical analyses are interwoven into the context of this narrative, which is presented chronologically and in the first person. The latter two sections of the book are principally theoretical. "Logotherapy in a Nutshell" is divided on the bases of explication of terms and therapeutic processes. This is followed by "The Case for a Tragic Optimism," an update of his theory that includes the idea of an optimistic future built from a tragic past.

Many may elect to read about Frankl's experiences in the concentration camps but then not follow up by reading the latter two parts of the book. The essence of Frankl's analysis of life in the camps, however, can be better understood, internalized, and valued if one reads his more theoretical chapters. It is important to remember that the basic framework for Frankl's ideas were well established prior to his deportation and internment. His perceptions of logotherapy and the search by individuals for meaning provide a context for his Holocaust experiences. In fact many may find it useful to read the latter two sections of the book prior to reading about Frankl's experiences in the camps.

While most of his family perished during the Holocaust, Frankl survived imprisonment in four concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and two satellite camps of Dachau. In Man's Search for Meaning he presents an intimate glimpse into his camp experiences. His narrative is laden with descriptions of his fears, frustrations, and thoughts as he and others survived the camps. While he doesn't focus on the gruesome, it is ever-present. Instead he focuses on the everyday experiences, such as the incessant thoughts of food, the various work details, and relations with other victims as well as those in positions of power, such as the kapos and SS. He also discusses why others, when meaning for life and survival was lost, often slipped into a path toward death.

Frankl's existential approach is not based on the idea of lack of meaning associated with life but rather the inherent need in humans to achieve a meaningful existence. Associated with this will toward meaning is the need to transcend oneself, to seek meaning through one's focus toward others and the world. He argues that meaning can be found in achievement (not success), through relations with others, and through suffering. It is the latter that is particularly relevant to an understanding of Frankl's interpretation of his camp experiences. Frankl's descriptions of his relationship with his wife through memory while in the camp and his attempt to reconstruct his lost writings illustrate how such a transcendent focus and will toward meaning worked to assist with his survival. It should be noted that Frankl does not portray a picture of survival based simply on whether one is successful at achieving such meaning. He clearly relates the arbitrariness of luck associated with life in the camps that factored heavily into whether one lived or died each day.

One major problem with Man's Search for Meaning is Frankl's dichotomous presentation of those who lived in the camps into two primary categories: devils and saints. While arguably Frankl clarifies that most individuals are not totally in either category, he fails to fully acknowledge the difficulties of morality in the camps. He focuses on the choices that individuals make at every moment of their lives, whether in extremity or in everyday life. At each moment individuals can make choices that are positive and bring meaning to their lives, or they can make choices that are negative and serve to waste their lives or harm others. He fails to acknowledge situations in extremity in which individuals may be faced with what has often been termed "choiceless choice." When an individual faces choices that have no possible positive outcome or times of extreme adversity outside the range of normal human experience, the issue of morality becomes much more clouded. Thus, one must use care in reading and interpreting the work of Frankl so as to not blame the victim.

Frankl also received criticism for his failure to examine or mention that the focus of the Holocaust was the destruction of European Jewry. The word "Jew" does not even appear in the text of Man's Search for Meaning. For those who define the Holocaust as a unique event perpetrated against Jews, this remains problematic.

—Linda M. Woolf

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