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Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

Time Event
9:13a
Auschwitz and unemployment?
OK … so I'd heard about this many times in the past, but it was always just as an “inspirational” book, and, well … that's not necessarily one of my preferred genres. However, a month or so back I'd seen it referenced, found that it conveniently made an on-line order reach free shipping, and added it. Which seems to have been a good thing, as it was sitting there when my most recent employment situation imploded, leaving me with some fresh emotional scars.

As most people recognize, Viktor E. Frankl was the psychotherapist who was sent off to the Nazi death camps in WW2, survived, and went on to form Logotherapy. His famous book, Man's Search for Meaning is primarily his story of survival, and the development of his main thesis that “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.” .

While the main part of the book is based on the author's notes from the war, which he published initially in 1946, various bits and pieces have been added on over the years. The edition I have (a 2006 paperback from Beacon Press), includes the 90-page “Experiences In A Concentration Camp” from 1946, a 38-page “Logotherapy In A Nutshell” essay that was added in a 1962 edition, an 18-page Postscript from 1984 (based on a 1983 lecture), a Preface to the 1992 edition added by the author (prior to his death, in his 90's, in 1997), plus a Foreword and Afterword added in the 2006 edition. In business this sort of thing is often referred to a “mission creep”, and, while each add-on is certainly interesting and brings context and framing to the main piece, what is presently “the book” is certainly much more rambling and less focused than what was originally published as A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.

The story in the main part is, of course, horrific. While culturally we are aware of the camps, and the broad strokes of what these entailed, it is quite the eye-opener to hear the daily details laid out by a survivor. Oddly, Frankl had the chance to have not gone to the camps, as he had been approved to emigrate to the U.S., but due to various circumstances, including not wanting to leave his parents behind (and having a serendipitous “message” from scripture come to him when deciding this, which spoke of duty to one's parents), so he and his family stayed, all to be taken to the camps.

The arrival there is a rather chilling tale, not only was there the basic “sorting” between the ones to be outright killed in the gas chambers, and those to be, essentially, worked to death, but there was the removal of everything that connected the prisoners to their previous existences. Frankl had a manuscript on his person representing years of research, and this was summarily taken from him, and (of course), any thing of value was appropriated by the guards. This was a key element in the arc of life in the camps, as the main theme of Frankl's “Logotherapy”, extrapolating from Kierkegaard, is that humanity's search for meaning is the central motivating force (as opposed to Adler's focus on a Nietzschean concept of power, or Freud's focus on pleasure). Without connections to one's previous life, many had a very hard time finding “meaning” in their dire situation.

On one level, Frankl's experience in the camps served as a lab for his developing Logotherapy, and he talks about hoarding random bits of paper on which he could keep notes towards rebuilding his paper on the subject. This was his “meaning” that kept him going. I found the following passage of interest:

On entering camp a change took place in the minds of the men. With the end of uncertainty there came the uncertainty of the end. It was impossible to foresee whether or when, if at all, this form of existence would end. … A man who could not see the end of his “provisional existence” was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life. Therefore the whole structure of his inner life change; signs of decay set in which we know from other areas of life. The unemployed worker, for example, is in a similar position. His existence has become provisional and in a certain sense he cannot live for the future or aim at a goal. Research work done on unemployed miners has shown that they suffer from a peculiar sort of deformed time – inner time – which is a result of their unemployed state. Prisoners, too, suffered from this strange “time experience”. In camp, a small time unit, a day, for example, filled with hourly tortures and fatigue, appeared endless. A larger time unit, perhaps a week, seemed to pass very quickly. My comrades agreed when I said that in camp a day lasted longer than a week. How paradoxical was our time-experience!
I, obviously (for those not following along at home, I've been searching for a new “full time” job for over three years at this point), noticed Frankl's comparison of the concentration camp experience with that of being unemployed – people who have not fought through long-term joblessness don't understand what a torture it can be … elsewhere he writes: “being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life”, which certainly plays out in the abysmal emotional impact of the endless grind of churning out resumes.

Again, in the current editions of Man's Search for Meaning, the story of his wartime experiences is only one part of the book, and much of the rest of the book is, as noted, providing more material about his theories. This is from the section on these:

Every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it. The existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as the contention that being has no meaning. As for psychotherapy, however, it will never be able to cope with this state of affairs on a mass scale if it does not keep itself free from the impact and influence of the contemporary trends of a nihilistic philosophy; otherwise it represents a symptom of the mass neurosis rather than its possible cure.
Evidently Frankl did feel that his approach was the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy", and was supplanting its predecessors with this new “meaning” centered modality.

Anyway, this is widely available, with the mass-market paperback edition being well under ten bucks, and you're likely to be able to find that at your local brick & mortar book seller. Given that there are “more than 12 million copies in print worldwide”, it's also available via the used channels, but with the very low cover price, you might as well go local. Personally, my “take-away” on this book was that I didn't get the enthusiasm that is so widely shown for it, and while it certainly had profound insights, it was, for me, “interesting”, but hardly “life-changing”. But, I'm a cynical guy with a lot of emotional damage, so you might find this just wonderful.


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