Tag Archives: Man’s Search for Meaning

Yes to Life by Viktor E Frankl

We all have dark days. Some people have continuous dark days. Among the worst of all dark days was imprisonment in a concentration camp during the Second World War. And yet we have been given such thoughtful reasons for dignity and hope by two of those prisoners. Primo Levi gave us If this is a ManIf not Now, When?The Periodic Table, as well as poetry and essays. I quoted from his poem, Girl of Pompeii, when I wrote about my visit to the ancient city, buried in a volcanic eruption. Here are some lines, referencing Anne Frank, ‘who wrote of her youth without tomorrows’.

Nothing is left of your far-removed sister,
The Dutch girl imprisoned by four walls
Who wrote of her youth without tomorrows.
Her silent ash was scattered by the wind,
Her brief life shut in a crumpled notebook
[From The Girl Child of Pompeii, translated from the Italian by Ruth Feldman]

Primo Levi was Italian, while Viktor E Frankl came from Vienna. He too addressed the question of how a person can survive ‘without tomorrows’. Perhaps his most famous book, published in German in 1946, was Man’s Search for Meaning. The original English title was From Death Camp to Existentialism, but the revised title speaks more directly to a reader.

Recently I read another collection of writings by Viktor E Frankl, also with an irresistible title: Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. The ‘everything’ that we have to put up with may not be as overwhelming as the experiences of Jewish people and others in Europe during the Holocaust. But I do often wonder what is the point of continuing, and why one should say yes to life, in our troubled times. I’m sure many other people do too.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything

The title of this book comes from a song composed for the prisoners of Buchenwald to sing when they were exhausted from their hard labour and from the smallness of their rations. They were forced to sing this song.

Whatever our future may hold:
We still want to say ‘yes’ to life,
Because one day the time will come – 
Then we will be free!  (3)

Some prisoners, no doubt, found hope in the words of this song, but Frankl has taken it with its evil origins and reclaimed it to explore that existential question about survival.

Liberated from a labour camp, and returned to his work as a psychiatrist, Frankl gave three lectures in 1946 at the adult institute of Ottakring, in Vienna. He had been liberated for just 9 months. The lectures form the basis of this book.

Auschwitz

Much of this short book is given over to reminding the people of Vienna what the policy of euthanasia meant in the Third Reich. And an even stronger theme, the topic of suicide, permeates the book. Frankl argues strongly that it is not an appropriate response to hopelessness. 

Here he summarises his three main approaches for saying yes to life in this way.:

We have already heard that the fulfilment of meaning is possible in three main directions: human beings are able to give meaning to their existence, firstly, by doing something, by acting, by creating, – by bringing a work into being; secondly, by experiencing something – nature, art – or loving people; and thirdly, human beings are able to find meaning even where value in life is not possible for them in either the first or second way – namely, precisely when they take a stance towards the intolerable, fated, inevitable and unavoidable limitation of their possibilities; how they adapt to this limitation, react towards it, how they accept this fate. (68, emphasis added) 

Frankl expanded his ideas shortly after writing Yes to Life, in Man’s Search for Meaning from which this paragraph stood out for me.

Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for every individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or other destiny. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. [85, from Man’s Search for Meaning]

You must excuse the sexist language. I am sure that, as was common at that time but unacceptable now, Frankl included women when he wrote ‘men’.

I have been trying to apply the ‘three directions’ in my own life, pretty depressed by the state of things as I am. In particular, I have been noting the natural world as we advance into spring. One of my projects is to be more aware of bird song, since I frequently take walks in our local woodlands, on Dartmoor and feed the wild birds in my garden. I have learned to identify the ubiquitous robin and can usually identify the wren by its whirring final bars. Gulls and pigeons have never given me any problems. I discover, from my app, that invisible visitors to my garden a couple of days ago included robins, blue tits, wrens, chiffchaffs, dunnocks, greenfinches, firecrests and goldfinches. The app also identified the song of a Great Kisadee, a bird native to central and south America. I need to turn on my location control! But recently a flutter of long-tailed tits passed through. On a walk with a friend yesterday, in the woods on the site of an iron age fort, we came across clusters of primroses, the first bluebells and those delicate and unassuming woodland flowers, wood anemones. 

I am not being so simplistic as to suggest that noting birds and flowers are any kind of mental health solution. I am reporting that I read Frankl and it has sharpened my pleasure in those living things.

See also Bookword in Naples (May 2022)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 1946.

Yes to Life in spite of Everything by Viktor E Frankl, first published in German in 2019. The English translation from the German by Joelle Young was published in 2020 by Penguin. It contains an Introduction by Daniel Goleman. 143pp.

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Bookword in Poland

Last week I was in Poland, spending four days in and around Krakow. I came, with a friend, to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the biggest of the concentration and extermination camps built in occupied Poland by the Third Reich.

Everything about visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau is difficult. Friends questioned my motives. I dreaded the visit. What did I hope to achieve by looking at the place where so many people were murdered?

Birkenau Gate

Can fiction help us understand the Holocaust?

I prefer my reading about the Holocaust to be non-fiction. I prepared for my visit by reading A Train in Winter (see below), and I had some knowledge from my history studies. Our guide around Auschwitz kept saying. ‘imagine if you …, imagine how it would be …’ as we passed photographs of the Selection, of new arrivals and we gazed on mountains of suitcases (all labelled with names), shoes, eyeglasses, hair, and household objects. I did not want to imagine any more. I wanted to ask historians’ questions: How did it happen? Who could have stopped it? What prevented people stopping the creation of the camps? What does it mean to be part of an enterprise that murders so many people? And so on.

I wasn’t expecting any answers but a different way to experience the questions.

Auschwitz

I know we need heroes, like Schindler, because heroes give us hope. But we need more than heroes.

I know we need more than imagining walking a mile in those shoes.

We need to understand how we can continue to work against this capacity of humans to murder on such a scale. The Holocaust happened in the decade before my birth. There have been/are other such horrors: Cambodia, Rwanda, Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, continuing struggles against white supremacists in the US, the re-emergence of the far right in the German election. It is likely there will be more. It is likely that the struggle will never be over.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead

This is the stunning story of courage generosity and hope (cover blurb) but it is also an endlessly depressing account of barbarity, inhumanity and the infliction of suffering. What is omitted in this account of the 230 French women sent to Auschwitz in January 1943 is any detail of the fate of their menfolk, friends, and the others who died in huge numbers even before the women arrived in Auschwitz.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen.

It must have been a hard task to research and then write about so much death and cruelty. I felt defeated by it, wretched that humans can behave so badly.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead (2011) Vintage 374 pp

See also Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead in my post on Bookword in the Cevennes.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada

Auschwitz

I think it is almost impossible to write an authentic novel about the Holocaust. This partly because a concentration camp, the tattoo on the wrist, is a trope that prevents critique, let alone criticism and limits the reader’s responses. I felt this way about this novel.

The Auschwitz Violin is a short novel which aims to show the power of music to save the spirit in the darkest of times. Daniel is a violin maker (a luthier) in one of Auschwitz’s satellite camps. Although registered as a carpenter he finds himself used by the Commandant in a bet to make a violin. This endeavour saves him and his friend the violinist Bronislaw from death.

It was contrived and unevenly framed. I found myself asking can the sweetness of a violin cut through the dreadfulness of the camp? The tension arises from whether the violin can be made in time and be of a adequate quality under such conditions. But tension is undermined by the reader’s knowledge that it already had been made. And by the knowledge that so many in Auschwitz did not have the luthier’s skills to save them. It felt very much in the tradition of the Holocaust novels of the ‘80s.

The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada, first published in 1994, and in English in 2010. Corsair. 128pp. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennant

Other books about Auschwitz It quickly became clear that there should be a monument to Steven Spielberg in Krakow, as the film Schindler’s List is so appreciated here and much referred to by our city guide. My mutterings that it was based on a novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), impressed no one. Perhaps people deal better with the savagery of the Holocaust when it is mediated through films and/or novels. Did they feel better for a hero?

And to a lesser extent the same happened with Sophie’s Choice, also a film, this time based on the novel by William Styron (1979).

Here are some books relating to Auschwitz by those who there, without novelists or film directors.

I still think about If this is a man by Primo Levi.

An important book that I read some years ago is Man’s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946).

And a book that explores subsequent generations’ experiences of the Holocaust is After such Knowledge by Eva Hoffman (2005).

Lovely bookish things in Krakow

To finish on an easier note the city of Krakow provided several bookish delights.

We had a delicious lunch in the bookshop Bona. Delicious lunch and books …

And, according to our guide and the plaque, the first European bookshop was opened in the square.

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