Thursday, April 21, 2011

Viktor Frankl and Auschwitz

Although it is not widely read or appreciated as such, Viktor Frankl’s celebrated book Man’s Search for Meaning is a Holocaust memoir. When it was first published in German in 1946, it bore the title A Psychologist’s Experiences in a Concentration Camp. In the opening paragraph, Frankl calls his book “the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors.” But the “great horrors,” he immediately observes, “have already been described often enough”—even though he is writing little more than a year after the Soviet Army had liberated Auschwitz. His intention lies elsewhere. What he wants is to describe “the hard fight for existence” in the camps, the “unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend.”

Everything that follows must be read in the light of Frankl’s intention. But it rarely has. The Los Angeles Times critic Robert R. Kirsch, who did more than anyone to establish the book’s reputation in English, set the tone of the discussion early on. “This work was more than a narrative of suffering,” he wrote; “it was in fact the kind of response which makes suffering meaningful.” The book was read as an account of triumph against all odds. As talk about the Holocaust began to rise into many Americans’ mouths in the early ’seventies, Frankl began to be consulted as a witness to its meaning for latter-day bystanders. The Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy summed up the message. Frankl, he wrote, “said that often the men who survived were those who had a strong, unwavering reason he survive: ‘he who has a strong enough why can endure almost any kind of how.’ ”

In the words attributed to him here, Frankl is quoting the twelfth maxim in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, a fact that McCarthy conveniently ignores. The full version, translated by Walter Kaufmann, has a rather different effect: “If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.” Frankl too chops off the end:

As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygenic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.Although he echoes the Nietzschean doctrine that “Excess strength alone is the proof of strength,” Frankl distorts and sentimentalizes the maxim’s original meaning by quivering Nietzsche’s arrow against the English. Something like that, however, is his method throughout Man’s Search for Meaning.

Compare the story that Primo Levi tells in If This Is a Man. Levi explains “the whole process of introduction to what was for us a new order”—a new order of human existence. In his first days in Auschwitz, he does not understand that the old order has been totally replaced:Driven by thirst, I eyed a fine icicle outside the [barrack] window, within hand’s reach. I opened the window and broke off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside brutally snatched it away from me. “Warum?” I asked him in my poor German. “Hier ist kein warum,” he replied, pushing me inside with a shove.There was no why in the death camps. Frankl’s entire “search for meaning” was an adventure belonging to an entirely different order of experience.

And once it is understood as referring, not to ordinary experience, but to a world (in Levi’s phrase) from which “the only exit is by way of the Chimney,” Frankl’s advice for “bearing the terrible how of existence” can be seen for what it is—a failure to plumb the depths of the Holocaust. “Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross,” he writes. Required? Yes, by the German Nazis. “One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph,” he writes, “or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” And in either case, one would almost certainly be gassed and burned and dumped in a mass grave. “[A man] may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp,” Frankl writes. “Dostoevski said once, ‘There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.’ ” Who is worthy of the gas chamber?

Man’s Search for Meaning infuriates me precisely because my own thought, under the influence of Stage IV cancer, veers dangerously in Frankl’s direction. Here are two things to remember. No human experience is comparable to Auschwitz. There is no possible advice that floats like ash from the crematorium’s chimney. The Holocaust is another world, and any effort to adjust it to the ordinary world of ordinary human experience is a perversion and a lie. Perhaps if he had written a cancer memoir—if he had written about suffering that stops short of human understanding’s limits—Frankl might have offered words of wisdom to those in extremis.

But perhaps not. Although I too have written that the response to affliction is an elective decision fully within human command (and though I too would be superficial and mawkish if I were to write such a thing about the Holocaust), I distance myself from Frankl by disputing the connection between why and how. The search for meaning is not man’s search. The real question is how to do any good, or as Etty Hillesum put it just days after learning for a certainty that the Germans “are after our total destruction,” the problem is one of “offering what little assistance I can wherever it has pleased God to place me.”


claves curiae said...

I haven't read Frankl but I'm reminded of Gilpin Faust who writes about the vast suffering of the human spirit during the American Civil War and man's search for meaning. Her book is profound at many levels but for me, it was the first time I read about how deeply people needed death and suffering to have meaning, to the point they began hoping for a "good death," and then defined what a good death would be. It's universal and very human of us to want our life to have meaning, and if we die for a cause, for it to be a good death.

But I find it difficult to think about the death and suffering of the Holocaust as having meaning, and equally absurd to consider if the victims searched for meaning. I don't doubt for a second they searched and prayed for a meaning only to be stabbed in the heart countless times when they had to accept that evil had indeed replaced civility. Most deaths were meaningless and cruel, but there were many untold heroes who did take the opportunity to sacrifice their life and die a "good death." For example, when Himmler decided to exterminate the Warsaw Ghetto on Passover, the defenseless Jews armed themselves with whatever could be found and fought off Himmler's troops in the Warsaw Uprising. There was slim hope for survival, and it takes courage, but they knew that killing even some, or slowing them down was for the better good, and so like many others who fought back, they died a good death with purpose and meaning.

I think it's in Shoah that survivors begin to talk more about meaning, and how gravely important living became to them because they needed someone to live long enough to Bear Witness to the crimes. The how they survived didn't matter, only why. In a broader context, Levi named these acts of survival the Grey Zone in an attempt to assuage guilt while providing meaning. (Survivors' guilt is another topic entirely.)

Art Spiegelman's Maus is less complicated because he reminds us that people loved each other and wanted to live because of that love. Spiegelman answers Frankl's question why: because his Dad needed to provide for his family, and the how- which was by whatever means possible. But it seems to me that a search for meaning was never part of the equation for his Dad, not during the Holocaust, or after.
The heart can endure only so much suffering until it breaks. To live in a world surrounded by evil, where no meaning could be found required an act of conscious denial: to essentially narrow down the scope of life to what was bearable and necessary to live, and not one ounce more. Not an easy thing to do.

AJ said...

The Holocaust had very specific causes. I recommend Ediwn Black's War Against the Weak for gaining an understanding of the reasons why the Holocaust happened. Thus I disagree--the reason was very simple and at the same time difficult to behold.

claves curiae said...

I haven't read Black's book but few historians would agree the war had "very specific causes." I agree with Hilburg that demonization of the Jews was centuries old and just one of the many factors that allowed the rise of the Nazi's and ultimately the Final Solution. Many historians would even argue that the anti-Semitism was a minor aspect of the early Nazi platform. It took a long time, countless purges and many offensive regulations before the Nazis got one neighbor to turn against the other- but once it started… hence the silence that hung over the country afterward. Sebald is a must read.

I've read Gisela Block, -maybe she was one of Black's researchers? (I'll add him to my reads- thanks.) I agree the progressive period was disturbing, such that today, as much as I support a woman's right to do to her body what she wants I cringe that the government (feds or state) pay for abortions. In reality, science is rapidly moving toward eugenics with a goal of designing a more perfect human being using DNA research and genetic engineering. Diseases will be cured or eliminated, and life will be longer and better. Not if, but how and when. The most we can hope is that in the future when we look back we will be proud of the advancement, not shamed.

Sorry for the rattling on .. and thanks for letting me!

tolmsted said...

At the risk of offending, I feel you’re post is too hard on Frankl. I’ve read Man’s Search for Meaning several times, but never once did I feel that he was trying to assign meaning to the Holocaust. If anything, I put the book down feeling that what he was in fact attempting was to find a meaning behind/a reason for his own survival. (An attempt which he fails. Frankl begins with the premise that a ‘he who has a strong enough why can endure almost any kind of how’, then goes on to contradict it throughout the book by providing examples of how much acts of pure chance played in survival).

I think the value in Man’s Search for Meaning is the very fact that it does not focus on the ‘great horrors’ but on the (for lack of a better word) small sufferings. You’re absolutely right that ‘No human experience is comparable to Auschwitz.’ Nor with images of gas chambers and chimneys releasing human ash. But the magnitude of that horror I feel in some ways allows us to look back on that history, disassociate ourselves from it and assign those actions & events as having been committed by monsters. The power of Man’s Search for Meaning, for me, is that Frankl has taken the monumental symbols of the atrocity that was the Holocaust and moved them into the background – leaving us with ‘monsters’ who suddenly bear a striking resemblance to ourselves. (At one point he even states that ‘human kindness can be found in all groups’ including the camp guards).

Man’s Search for Meaning is an imperfect book. But what I believe Frankl is trying to convey – that having something meaningful in your life even in the most horrific conditions and circumstances imaginable can give comfort and hope and help to endure the unendurable – is based on what he felt to be his own experience. It’s the foundation of his school of psychoanalysis: logotherapy, so he must have believed in what he wrote. I hope you do not feel that he is implying those who died somehow bore responsibility for their deaths because their lives lacked meaning? Because there is evidence in the book that he felt just the opposite. Frankl states, hauntingly, “We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles – whatever one may choose to call them – we know: the best of us did not return”.

Thank you for letting me share my opinion.

Anonymous said...

tolmsted: I agree with you completely. Dr. Frankl is not trying to assign meaning to The Holocaust; his point is that, when one is faced with a situation one is powerless to change, one can still retain the freedom to choose how one faces that fate - thus, providing an opportunity to maintain a meaningful existence that even the evil of the Holocaust cannot take away.