Viktor Frankl’s seminal book was written in 1946 and draws on his experiences in four different concentration camps but particularly during his time in Auschwitz, that great factory of mass murder where over 1.5 million Jews and other political prisoners were exterminated. Frankl had to suffer several of his family’s deaths including his pregnant wife while he had to continue labouring and blocking out the suffering from his mind.
The philosophical content of the book is rather deep and centres mainly on the reflection of certain situations. I found it very disturbing in some places but also quite cathartic in others. In a way the experiences of Frankl kindled thoughts in my mind which were reflective on certain situations and which were also very deep and beautiful.
Frankl’s encounters with the terrible and almost unreal experiences in the concentration camps truly prove to be harrwoing reading. Yet he is constantly searching for catharsis and redemption in his experiences whilst continuing to understand the human psyche and how it manages to cope with such extreme and arbitrary cruelty. However he also realises that innately, man is a cruel persona and he manages to find even beauty in cruelty especially when those who are about to die leave with dignity and without fear.
I found most of the narrative extremely reflective and very beautiful with very deep philosophical content. Sometimes Frankl focuses on Nietzsche where he actually denies the existence of God but in the end he always manages to fine peace and solace in harrowing situations.
I also find his text quite revealing in a philosophical context as he manages to create situations where what is innately ugly at first glance turns into reflection on aspects which are not always visible.
The experiences of those who are left in the starvation block are particularly harrwoing and disturbing as Frankl has to examine some of them who are very near death. Here one begins to understand the horror and torture that these person were going through with absolutely no chance of survival. Yet again however, I find Frankl’s powerful narrative imbued with philosophical reflection and innate spiritual beauty.
Frankl is particular descriptive in a passage where he describes himself and other workers being herded out into the icy cold of the Polish winter to work like dogs. He finds incredibly deep thoughts in terrible situations such as the arbitrary beating of weak men to death, guards shooting prisoners for no reason and also setting of dogs upon them. It obviously makes for some pretty harrowing reading, yet it is all too real and effective. He also splits persons into good or bad with no fine lines in between and here the situation becomes ever more complex to understand. The sense of chance is also present as more often than not, survival depended on sheer luck which was the mood of the guard at the time. Frankl also deplores his fellow men who acted as Kapos who were only in their situation for personal gain. Again I find this very revealing.
However Frankl is always positive even when apparently in the depths of despair especially in the inner recesses of the nights in Auschwitz. His reflections on the smoke coming from the crematoriums and the clouds of ash which descended silently onto the camp are quite harrowing and at times also very beautiful. He manages to find positive notions when even in the blackest moments of despair such as arbitrary executions which happened almost on a daily basis in Auschwitz and other camps such as Dachau, Mathausen and Buchenwald.
Conclusion – philosophy as a means to an end
The experiences which Frankl faced in the concentration camps undoubtedly changed him forever and would have affected his life substantially. The final section of the book focuses extensively on life after the camp experineces and how former prisoners had to deal with that. Obviously some would have been completely destroyed by what happened and having lost a considerable number of loved ones in the catastrophe, they would have had great difficult in rebuilding their lives. Others could perhaps focus on the positive, that they had survived this living hell and come to terms with their new life. Frankl tries to focus on this positive aspect as at the end of the day, after such an experience, there remains nothing to fear but fear itself.
Suicide is also a subject which is tackled accordingly but Frankl is ambivalent on this topic. I believe that suicide can never be good and it is crucial to note that the moral dilemma behind suicide remains something very sketchy.
Frankl’s book is seminal in more ways than one as it treats the camp experiences in an entirely different manner than other others. It brings about an understanding and personal catharsis to these harrowing situations whilst also focusing on character study and inner philosophical meaning. In making sense out of the wanton slaughter and cruelty, Frankl manages to paint a picture of reality which can only be understood through personal experience. In his own way, Frankl is positive about the camps as they also served a purpose, almost like a cleansing of suffering and the peak of darkness in the world. After the darkness comes the light and life will never be the same again. That is perhaps the overriding theme of the whole book which is running through the narrative text and which Frankl succeeds in imparting to his raeders. Philosophy can change according to situations and here Frankl is indeed a master in extracting the good from the bad in what can only be described as a sublime feeling.
Frankl V (2000), Man’s Search for Meaning Beacon Press