Nov 23, 2008

Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Frankl
translated by Ilse Lasch

I don't remember how I first heard of this book, but I know I read it twice in high school. The author is a psychiatrist who had survived the Holocaust- three years spent in four different concentration camps. The major portion of the book describes his personal experiences in the camps, full of introspective musings on the meaning of life, observations on how the horrors and degredations there affected the mentality of the prisoners, and his theories on why some survived and others (including his own family) didn't. The main message I got out of Man's Search for Meaning is that in the face of suffering, we can choose our response to it, and that the greatest factor of a person's will to live is their inner purpose.

This first part of the book was the easiest to understand. While it's never easy for me to read stories of Holocaust experiences, Frankl's descriptions are less about the brutality of it all, and more focused on the people themselves. He was particularly interested in what caused prisoners to respond differently to camp life- some gave up all hope. Others lost their sense of civility and acted in self-interest for personal survival, often to the detriment of their companions. And some retained their dignity and compassion, helping their fellow-prisoners when they could. I did find that at times Frankl came across as being condescending to his fellow prisoners. There were also incidents where he took credit for completely changing another's attitude, via one or two sentences of advice. It struck me as a bit conceited.

The last seventy-five pages describe Frankl's theory of "logotherapy" and how it was based on his experiences in the camps. I admit I didn't understand most of this. It is very dry reading. In fact, a lot of the first part of the book can also be rather technical, hung up with psychiatric terms. I often felt like I was wading through that material to read the more personal anecdotes. But maybe this book just wasn't written for a layperson like me.

Rating: 3/5                    165 pages, 1946

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Trish said...

I don't think I've heard of this one but I do remember having a tough time with Primo Levy's account (can't remember the name off the top of my head). I do find it fascinating how the different survivers look back on their experiences--if I remember correctly Levy basically lost all faith in religion as well as mankind (I guess its hard not to lose hope in such experiences).

TheBlackSheep said...

I haven't read this one either, but since I had my course in Holocaust literature, I avoid books about the subject. Levi and Wiesel both gave me enough nightmares to last a lifetime. I would, howeverm be interesting to read about it from a more psychological standpoint.

Thanks for the review.

Jessica said...

What a trip! I just read this on the 20th. Isn't it weird when older books suddenly start popping up on people's lists?

I agree with you that the last section was much harder to read. I feel like I understood it but that it would have done better in a different volume.

Jeane said...

Trish- They are very hard to read. I read a bunch in high school- I must have done a report on the Holocaust, but I really can't remember except how horrifying all the books were.

BlackSheep- Thanks for stopping by! I had a friend in school who read tons of Elie Wiesel. She was always encouraging me to pick up one, but I never did yet.

Jessica- How funny that you just read it. Did you write about it? I didn't see it on your blog.

Bookfool said...

This is one of my favorite books, but I always forget to mention it when I come up with favorite lists!

Susan said...

I keep coming across this book, but if I read it - and it was on a reading course in college many zillion years ago - I don't remember much about it. So I should read it again, mostly because I am fascinated, like he is, by how some people survive horrors, and some don't. And, while I can't comment on his seeming condescending, I can say that I have had someone come up to me years later - still a stranger to me! and said that he had looked me up because what I had told him on a train ride across Canada had changed his life, and he wanted to thank me. Well, that kind of frightened me - one, he had managed to find me several years later and my name had changed! - and two, that our words can have that effect, because I couldn't remember what I had said! So in a place like a concentration camp, where survival is questionable, sometimes something small done, or a word here or there, does change a life.
good review of a book that I think raises questions not everyone wants to think about.

Jeane said...

Susan, thank you for sharing that. I guess because I've never had an experience where someone's words changed the course of my life, it was difficult for me to imagine how the author's words were so pivotal for other people. I thought there might be other influences he didn't see or mention. I'm glad to be corrected.

Anonymous said...

I've heard of this book, but haven't read it. I've read other Holocaust lit; I had one high school class with that as the emphasis. I agree, it's hard though I think necessary reading... 'Night' is the one I remember the best.

Did you see 'Life Is Beautiful'? It's a movie that emphasizes a similar theme about perspective affecting even the worst experiences.


Jeane said...

Yes, I did see Life is Beautiful. It's one of my favorite films.