Your Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning
Finalist #4 in the Book Review Contest
[This is one of the finalists in the 2023 book review contest, written by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done. I’ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you’ve read them all, I’ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked]
Patient in Labor: What do I do?
Obstetrician: Nothing, dear, you're not qualified.
— Monty Python's The Meaning of Life
Hello, reader. This is one of those reviews that starts with one book and switches to a completely different book in the middle. Plus a few more twists. Also, there will be orcs, golems, concentration camps, a lot of questions, mostly rhetorical, conjectures, wild swings and some poetry. It starts with a Monty Python’s quote, and it will only get more serious from there. It might all come together towards the end, but catharsis is never guaranteed. We will also use our imagination a lot. So consider yourself warned.
As we begin, dear reader (if you braved through the preface, you are already dear to me), please imagine a young and talented man of 37 years of age. His name is Viktor Emil Frankl. He is a doctor with a specialty in psychology. He studied from the most esteemed psychologists of the generation, including Sigmund Freund and Alfred Adler, but he also formulated his own approach and started his own practice. He was recently appointed a head of the neurology department in one of the major hospitals in the capital of his country. He is writing a book that he is immensely proud of. He is also nine months into a rather happy marriage.
And then he and all his family are being sent to a concentration camp.
I know that you might have seen this twist coming. It is one of the most famous books written by a psychologist, after all. It is also more than fifty years old. But I wanted to model an infinitesimal fraction of his life-shattering loss, and let him come, at least to the tiniest extent, to life in your mind, dear reader. This exercise in empathy and imagination will come handy in the future, but for now just keep his image alive.
The first version of the book in question, Man’s Search for Meaning, was written by Frankl in 1946 in his native German. The book was translated to English in 1959, and quickly became a world sensation. It consists of two parts. The first is dedicated to prisoner’s life (or, rather, survival) in the concentration camp, from arrival to release. The second part is a rather concise explanation of Frankl’s theory, interspersed with some cases from his psychological practice. It would seem that the second part is more important to the author himself. Alas, a reader’s attention is almost inevitably more drawn to the first. I also expect that it is a reason for the book’s popularity.
The book is written in a pleasant, if somewhat dry manner, sometimes with a strange emotional detachment from described gruesome events. I believe this is due to the author’s professional deformation, and not a traumatic one. Frankl, pardon the unwanted, but necessary pun, is very frank and very direct. Here he describes the first hours of his arrival to the camp, after a majority of reluctant passengers did not pass the process of “Selektion”.
We who were saved, the minority of our transport, found out the truth in the evening. I inquired from prisoners who had been there for some time where my colleague and friend P– had been sent.
“Was he sent to the left side?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Then you can see him there,” I was told.
“Where?” a hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
Although it starts from the beginning and ends at the end, this part of the book is not a diary in the strictest sense, it is still somewhat loose, both chronologically and geographically (Frankl spent three years in four different concentration camps — Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering, and Türkheim). He brings to life his first-hand experiences in order to illustrate his more global observations, and structures his writing by the different aspects of camp incarceration, rather than a mere sequence of events. The author himself calls this part an “existential validation of my theories”.
Frankl identifies two major stages in a prisoner’s camp existence. The first one is characterized by shock, denial, and unwillingness to fully comprehend the situation. In this stage the prisoner still exhibited a full range of human emotions, for example they couldn’t watch other prisoners being punished or tortured. Days or weeks later, as Frankl simply puts it, things changed.
After the first stage comes the second, and in many cases the last one, the apathy. It is important here not to confuse it with apatheia, a Stoics’ virtue. Apatheia is dispassion, a state of calm acceptance of both desirable and undesirable events which lie outside one's control. Apathy, on the other hand, is inability to feel or emote, linked to many psychological disorders, such as dementia or schizophrenia. The author himself calls it “a kind of emotional death”. Frankl pays careful attention to this stage.
Apathy, the blunting of emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings. By means of this insensibility the prisoner soon surrounded himself with a very necessary protective shell.
Beating occurred on the slightest provocation, sometimes for no reason at all. [...] At such moments it is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all.
I think it was Lessing who once said, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.
The apathetic stage was omnipresent in the camp, and Frankl clearly equates it with loss of the will to live. He attributes his own survival of this stage to two main anchors that occupied his mind and held him strongly tied to sanity and reality. One of them was love, and specifically constant thoughts of his wife, Tilly Grosser, who was taken to a women's camp nearby. These are probably the most poetic instances in this most pragmatic book — Frankl's recollections of the times he’s thinking about her. They are usually preceded by him discerning some sliver of beauty in the monotone camp life. He never saw his wife again.
The other one was his book. When Frankl was arrested, he managed to sneak in with him his finished manuscript in a naive attempt to save it. It was confiscated on the first day of the camp, along with all other personal possessions. Throughout the whole three years of incarceration he tried to rewrite it, or at least to reconstruct it in his head. As he puts it, my deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camps I was in. This resurrected book was later published under the name “The Doctor and the Soul”.
(As a side note here, it’s worth mentioning that Frankl’s main scientific and philosophical teaching, logotherapy (from Greek λόγος — “meaning”), was formulated before his incarceration, and was the basis of the book in the paragraph above. You can only ponder whether such a horrific experimental vindication of one’s theories was one of God’s evil ironic jokes. I definitely wouldn’t wish such a hypothesis validation on any scientist, even though it is often coveted above all else.)
Going back to Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes different aspects of camp life through the prism of what exactly kept people going. There was definitely religion, not just Jewish, but all kinds, including bizarre ones. Peculiarly, there were also talks of politics. Frankl writes, “politics were talked about everywhere in camp, almost continuously; the discussions were based chiefly on rumors, which were snapped up and passed around quickly.” Other types of cultural discussions were “hibernated”.
Maybe less peculiarly, there was humor in the camp.
To discover that there was any semblance of art in a concentration camp must be surprise enough for an outsider, but he may be even more astonished to hear that one could find a sense of humor as well; of course, only the faint trace of one, and then only for a few seconds or minutes. Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.
I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation.
In the end of the first part of his book Frankl talks a lot about suffering. I believe I can summarize his idea thusly: our suffering, in itself, may have no meaning, it can originate from an external violent and unjust source. In order to persevere it we need to instill it with meaning, conjure it up from within us, explain the unreasonableness to ourselves in a way that would help us survive. After that we must act upon this meaning. Frankl’s own meaning was loving his wife and the will to publish his book. He tried to communicate with her and to preserve the book in his head. These actions, ephemeral and hopeless as they may seem, are paramount. Then, and only then, will the suffering be bearable. I usually hesitate to give here citations longer than one full paragraph (I feel I’m cheating the author this way), but for you, dear reader, I’m ready to cheat once, since this piece is the touchstone of the whole book.
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping arguments. “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 to each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. 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 take use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear its cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
When a man finds that it’s his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will also have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.
But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning.
This may sound pessimistic at first, and some of it is justified. Despite a certain reputation, Frankl is no optimist at all, not in a strictest sense. He is what is left when optimism fails, when happiness is not in reach. “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue,” he writes. “One must have a reason to “be happy”. Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.” If it doesn’t happen, one can infer, then the reason is not good enough.
In the last few pages of the first part he writes about the third stage of a prisoner’s mental reactions: the psychology of the prisoner after his liberation. If I found anything in this book lacking, it is this topic. I would welcome more discussion on rehabilitation of camp survivors and on how the traumatic experiences shaped their future life. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” comes to mind here, and indeed it may serve as a companion piece to Man’s Search for Meaning. The book was first written in 1946, and it is possible that Frankl himself didn’t have enough material yet. But he describes one powerful scene that took place almost immediately after their release, that gives us a glimpse into future hardships.
We came to meadows full of flowers. We saw and realized that they were there, but we had no feelings about them. The first spark of joy came when we saw a rooster with a tail of multicolored feathers. But it remained only a spark; we did not yet belong to this world. In the evening when we all met again in our hut, one said secretly to the other, “Tell me, were you pleased today?”
And the other replied, feeling ashamed as he did not know what we all felt similarly, “Truthfully, no!” We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.
Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
The second part of his book, called “Logotherapy in a Nutshell”, is exactly what it says on the tin, and it is much closer to a “classical” psychologists’ writing for the general audience. Chapter by chapter Frankl explains various concepts of his theory and interdisperses them with case studies or anecdotes from his practice. Being very far from psychology, I am unable to judge the scientific merit of this part, and my comments here would not pierce the membrane of banality. The main difference between psychoanalysis and logotherapy, as Frankl puts it, is that the latter is a method less retrospective and less introspective, it focuses on the patient’s future and what steps should they take to find meaning in it. I found one case study that he describes particularly interesting.
Once, an elderly practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”. Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice.
Viktor Frankl’s physical survival in the camp was a product of many factors: he was a doctor, and therefore useful to the camp administration, he was cautious and had good instincts, and could avoid the most dangerous moments, he was helped by those around him, ultimately, he was just lucky, as blind chance played a huge role in a prisoner’s everyday life. But his spiritual, mental survival was a result of his teaching that he himself was forced to test in the most extreme conditions imaginable.
I think this is an important book to read, not just for those who currently suffer for any reason, internal or external. It is a good reminder that life is brittle and delicate, but it is precious not because of that, and if it is broken, it does not cease to be precious. Broken things can be mended; for mending things you may need nails, stitches or adhesives; for life those are called meaning. Find it and you’ll be ready to repair.
Another reason for which this book is brilliant is that it gives you, dear reader, an interesting analytical tool. Using it one can look at different lives and different situations and find similar patterns. You have to be careful, as Frankl himself warns you: “no man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny”. But the driving forces are there, and they are similar, and they can be analyzed. This book is just another instrument to do it, another prism to refract other narratives. Caveat carissimi lector — to demonstrate its full power, we would need to put Man’s Search for Meaning aside, at least for a little while.
Dear reader, please imagine a young and talented man in his twenties. He is, as they often are, a poet, a fighter, a lover. His name is Guillaume du Vintrais. He was born in 1553, and at the tender age of seventeen he moved from Gascony to Paris, in order to live his life to the fullest. He was immediately in love with the city, and the city returned the affection. He wrote venomous epigrams, he fought in duels, he raked his way through Paris’ beau monde. One of his friends was young Henry of Navarre, the future king Henry IV. Another was Agrippa d'Aubigné, a famous poet in his own right. His book of one hundred sonnets, called “Wicked Songs of Guillaume du Vintrais”, has such titles as “Burgundy wine”, “The Kindest of Valois”, “Elixir of Hekate”, “A Poet in Paradise”, “Pigeon post” and so on. A lot of his poems are dedicated to a mysterious “Marchioness L.”; those, as you can imagine, are more romantic ones. Generally, his poetry has quite a specific combination of debauchery, blasphemy, camaraderie, romanticism and philosophy that can be described as “d’Artagnan meets François Villon”.
I took upon myself to translate some of his poems to English. Please, dear reader, attribute any imperfections to my translation and not to the source material.
The Ten Commandments
“I am thy Lord…” — Yes, so I heard somewhere.
“Thou shal’ve no others…” — What about gold?
“Thou shalt not take My name in vain” — Well, there
I must confess, I took Thy name threefold.
“Remember Sabbath…” — Such a dull mandate!
I can indulge my idleness more often.
“Honour thy parents…” — Yes. — “Thou shan’t adulterate…”
— This one’s so grim, my limbs begin to soften.
“Shan’t kill” — Should I forgive my critics’ crimes?
“Shan’t steal” — But how then will I get my rhymes?
“Shan’t bear false witness” — Oh, go on and shove it!
“Shan’t covet thee thy neighbor's wife or ass…” —
(Oh Lord, this list is long, forgive my sass!)
And if my neighbor is an ass — can then his wife I covet?
Things changed for du Vintrais after August 24th, 1572, also known as “St. Bartholomew's Eve massacre”. It is unknown whether he was a Huguenot himself, but his friends, both d'Aubigné and Henry of Navarre, certainly were. He fiercely protected them, first with his sword, then with his quill. His poems became political, he attacked Henry de Guise, a staunch supporter of Huguenot persecution, then Queen Mother Catherine de' Medici, then King Charles IX himself. He was arrested, sent to Bastille. At the last moment, the king changed his sentence: from execution to exile. He came back to France in secret just to learn that his friend, Henry of Navarre, converted to Catholicism in order to become King Henry IV of France. That was perceived as a betrayal.
I was your arms-bearer, friend, your shadow even…
You’ve just become the crowned King of France.
Now, I’m afraid, we end this kind of dance.
Guillaume’s new songs, my friend, you won’t believe in.
Enough! I will not lie, nor fawn, nor pester,
And most of all, I will not be your jester.
Guillaume du Vintrais went back to his quaint estate in beloved homeland, beautiful Gascony, where he passed the time with an old tome and an older bottle of wine. He passed away quietly in 1602.
Although, he didn’t really, because Guillaume du Vintrais never existed. He was completely made up. The real story, as they often are, is darker.
Hoaxes, mystifications are not uncommon in literature. Clara Gazul, a Spanish actress, was invented by Prosper Mérimée to publish his sarcastic commentary of contemporary French life and politics under her name. Romain Gary (which was a pseudonym in its own right) famously sometimes wrote under a pen name Émile Ajar, and this way received the Prix Goncourt twice. But believe me, dear reader, no hoax is similar to this one.
The real Guillaume du Vintrais was born in 1943 in a Soviet Gulag. He was conjured up by two people, Yakov Charon and Yuri Weinert. They met in a forced labor camp with an ironic name “Free”, where they were spending ten years each for “counter-revolutionary activity”, a term as loose as it sounds. Charon studied in the Berlin Conservatory, worked as a sound technician in the soviet film industry, spoke perfect German. Weinert played piano since he was a kid, wrote poetry, worked as a translator from French. In 1937 both of them were arrested and sent to the “Free” labor camp. They were the same age, they had the same interests. Naturally, they became friends.
Guillaume du Vintrais started serendipitously. They were melting cast iron. Both of them were sitting on the ground, exhausted, and watched the thick glowing orange liquid filling the skimming ladle. Yuri described the view with a poetic improvisation; Yakov replied with a rhyming line. That was enough. They started this literature game as a joke, but it quickly turned into something more. A jumbled up “Weinert” became the name of an ancient Gascony family. The poet’s first and only image was created when the friends drew long hair and a magnificent mustache on Yuri Weinert’s prison photo. And a made up french poet became an anchor for two very tired and desperate people. Very shortly after their release in 1947, both of them were (separately) arrested again, and this time sent to different camps. They continued to write du Vintrais’ poems together by mail.
(As a side note, the question “Why was someone arrested in the USSR” is somewhat similar to a child’s question “Why is the sky blue”. There actually is an answer, but a full and comprehensive one requires a lot of time, a list of literature and implies a lot of pre-gained knowledge on the side of the one who asked. A short answer, on the other hand, would probably just invoke more annoying questions, so many a parent rely on a trusty “It just is”. So, they just were.)
The first “edition” of the “Wicked Songs”, containing forty sonnets, was hand-written by Yuri on the thinnest tracing paper in five copies and sent to their friends and relatives. This type of “package” by itself could be a reason for an arrest; luckily some of their contacts were brave and decent people. They distributed the sonnets through a “pigeon network”, in secret. One of the people who read them this way was young Stella Kopytnaya. Some years later, after meeting him in person, she married Yakov Charon. They named their first child Yuri. In 1954 Yakov was “rehabilitated”, a soviet judicial term meaning that the state made a mistake ever arresting him in the first place. He died in 1972 from tuberculosis that he got in the camp. (On the two side-by-side photos he is on the right)
Yuri Weinert’s own fate was darker still. He was released from the Gulag, then, a year later, arrested again. His “Marchioness L.”, Lucya Khotimskaya, was waiting for him at home. She saved money for a visit — he was incarcerated on the other side of the vast country. During the long and arduous trip she fell ill and died in a hospital. When he received by mail her posthumously published book (she was a philologist), Yuri Weinert went into the mine he was working in and never came out. That was in 1951. In 1989 Yuri was posthumously rehabilitated, along with a few millions of others.
One cannot help but find parallels between Frankl’s and Charon and Weinert’s stories. And I believe Frankl himself would agree. The two friends found meaning in something inherently meaningless, in a literature game, but the acts of finding it and acting upon it — writing the poems themselves — were enough for them to live through the camp. One can also infer that the true thing that kept them going was their friendship, their kinship and common love for other cultures and epochs, that manifested in Guillaume du Vintrais’ sonnets. It let them focus their attention on something other than suffering. There is an important quote in the Man’s Search for Meaning:
An attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
We know Guillaume du Vintrais’ story from Yakov Charon’s memoirs; he also assembled and published the whole hundred sonnets. I read them on the website of the Sakharov Centre, where they are one among thousands of such books. Frankl’s book helps us to understand their fate, their survival a little better. It also can shed some light on why so many of the survivors were intellectuals, soviet “intelligentsia”. One reason, of course, was that they were simply arrested unproportionally more. But I believe there may be another reason.
Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better than those of robust nature.
If someone now asked of us the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines a man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply,”Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”
I see Charon and Weinert’s story, the Guillaume du Vintrais’ story, as a positive validation of Frankl’s theories. And yes, we may remember that “no man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny”, and indeed, their destiny was unique and poetic. But the Soviet Union gave us so much “experimental” material to base on, that there are bound to be similarities between theirs and thousands of others.
Another important lesson here, at least for me, is that sometimes the “franklian” meaning is not obvious, it does not just exist somewhere inside one. Sometimes it’s not enough to find meaning. Sometimes one needs to construct it, to mold it from ash and clay, from some place deep inside one’s mind, like two exhausted people constructed the golem of a French poet and philosopher and brought it to life with a written word. Sometimes there is nothing else left to do. Sometimes it’s just bugger all down here on Earth.
To finish this part it would make sense to cite one more of Guillaume du Vintrais’ poems. See you in the next one, dear reader.
Since childhood I nurture these four words,
I have repeated them a thousand times at least.
I heard them in the songs of wind and birds,
My Gascony had them to me bequeathed.
I throw them in the face of those I kill,
I whisper them to my beloved indoors.
I took them to exile, to Bastille,
I sent them, like a prayer, to my shores.
I’ve lost my Motherland and my recourse,
I am Quichote — silly, I admit.
But even if my quill will finally split,
I’ll scrape them on my crest — just these four words.
Till I expire, nothing would precede’em.
France. Wine. Love. And the final one is Freedom.
This winter a friend of mine, an American living in Europe, went to Ukraine with a humanitarian mission. (Here’s a twist for you, dear reader.) He visited Lviv, Kyiv, Mykolaiv, Irpin, Kherson. He was shelled a few times; he now can recommend a hotel in Kyiv with “the best bomb shelter in town”. His reasons for going there in the first place were dark. The results, however, were miraculous and heart-warming, and align very well with everything said above. His story could have been a nice coda to this review. However, his story is also much bigger than this review, and it is also his, so I will not elaborate more than I already have. He will tell it in his own time and in his own way. And for now, if there are any darling buds of trust sprouting between us, dear reader, you’ll just have to trust me on this. Because for an actual coda I chose something much more grim.
In our conversation my friend called Russian troops “orcs”. Of course, this is not his invention — this somewhat derogatory term has been used at least since the 80s, and obviously, its ubiquity has raised manifold since the start of the war, especially by Ukranians. Being Russian myself, I was always somewhat irked, but never seriously bothered by this word. And, of course, after being bombed by Russian forces, and seeing first-hand some of the atrocities of war, one can use much harsher terms as well. But this time “orcs” got me thinking.
Tolkien (yes, we’re in the “fantasy Godwin’s law” territory now, deal with it, dear reader) has created a stringent morality system in his world. Elves are good, Orcs, Trolls and Wargs are bad, Humans, Dwarves and Hobbits move on this one-dimensional scale from one end to the other. But Orcs have always been problematic. You see, unlike other bad creatures, Orcs have sentience and even some rudimentary sense of morality, we see it in the Lord of the Rings (e.g. encounter with Gorbag). So how can it be? And, more practically, can good characters slaughter them without reluctance or remorse?
Tolkien knew about this problem and tried to write his way out of it. He couldn’t directly “George-Lucas” it, but he famously changed the origin of Orcs several times. They were Elves enslaved and corrupted by Morgoth, then they were fully “brooded” by Morgoth, then they were “beasts of humanized shape”, or possibly, results of forced mating between Elves and beasts. Each one of those retcons brought more problems. The more canonical version, I believe, is still the “corrupted Elves” theory; at least it appears in more early texts and is corroborated by the Lord of the Rings. It certainly has dark implications for the good characters, both by modern standards and those contemporary to Tolkien. This is a whole other topic for another discussion. But it also recontextualizes the whole “Russians are orcs” thing.
Tolkien had such problems with this sentience dilemma because it exists in real life as well. How we treat our enemies during wartime and after, is morally mirky. If orcs are “beasts of humanized shape”, how can they have sentience? And if orcs are sentient, how can we kill them? Not every killing is strictly in self-defense. War has an answer: necessity surpasses morals. It is a true, but an immoral statement. That doesn’t mean that morality is meaningless, even in wartime. And if we try to stick to the “corrupted elves” narrative (“elves” being normal and moral people, and “orcs” being Russian troops currently killing and dying aimlessly and meaninglessly in Ukrainian fields), can we try to postulate, what corrupted them? And can we expand single-handed experiences, such as we saw above, to a whole group of people?
You see, dear reader, I believe that this is where Frankl’s book comes into its full power as an analytical instrument. For this we would need to make up a person, since Frankl’s analysis is stringently individualistic. So it will be a separate, independent individual, not representing any larger population strata, and not just sitting here being a metaphor. Another caveat: this is a point where pure conjecture begins. Unlike in previous parts I will be talking about a fully fictional person that we construct together, and the building materials would be an amalgam of my own experiences, second-hand experiences, news items and statistics. Here we go.
Dear reader, please imagine a young man in his twenties. His name is Kirill Smirnov. His family history is simple and sad. His grandfather was arrested and perished in a labor camp. His father was raised by his grandmother, a solitary and cold woman. After serving in the army, he married Kirill’s mom, started working in a factory and drinking copiously. He died at the age of 56, an old and frail man. Kirill’s mother is now 52, but she looks 65. She works as a teacher in a local school. She wholeheartedly supports the Russian government, no matter what it does. She hates her job and the children she teaches. Kirill went to this school for 11 years. After that he went to a vocational college under his mom’s insistence.
Kirill has no realistic prospects other than those of his father. He has no hobbies, no interests, no ambitions. He lives in a town of ~100,000 people. Two of his friends are heroin addicts; one of them is dying of AIDS contracted through the needle. They all hang around and drink, and discuss sports or politics, predominantly foreign, Ukraine or Europe or the US, mostly guided by rumors or rubbish websites or what they heard on TV. Kirill’s elder brother is about to return from prison, where he spent five years for assault with a deadly weapon, after a fight broke down at a party. This is another of Kirill’s realistic destinations in life. Kirill’s girlfriend is a few years younger and already had several abortions. She thinks Kirill is cool, but wishes he’d go to prison already to get extra street cred. Kirill could love her, if he knew what it means and if he ever got it from his parents.
When I was younger my parents told me that there were two social lifts existing in rural Russia: army and prison. These are the only two ways to get out. I didn’t appreciate or understand it then, but I do now, seeing Kirill and his unlucky comrades in the news. You see, the main part of Kirill’s soul and conscious mind is occupied by suffering around him, and the main defense mechanism he has is apathy. He just doesn’t care. People around him don’t care. Just the other week Kirill saw a comatose drunk man fall down on the street, and didn’t do anything, because his father was never given any help in the same situation. Nobody else did anything too. I’ve lived in several countries, but I’ve never seen such levels of apathy, as in Russia, especially outside the big cities.
This probably has not always been so, but was fostered by decades, maybe centuries of meaningless, pointless suffering. The suffering came from many places: unforgiving weather, lack of food and comfort, hostility of the government and its officials. But also from the unreasonableness of it all. The government can sometimes give explanations of the abysmal conditions that people live in, but as everyone in Russia knows, the government always lies, and there are no alternative answers, so you either contort yourself to believe in a lie, or just simply don’t believe in anything at all, believe in the inherent chaotic abyss of human life.
Kirill gets drafted in September 2022, and is sent to Ukraine after three days of training. Before getting on a bus he marries his girlfriend, so when he dies she would be entitled to a widow’s pension. Kirill gets shot in his second week in Ukraine, but he is written down as “missing”, so his family doesn’t get a notification, and his new wife doesn’t get the money. And nobody cares. His mom continues to support anything the Russian government does, because the Russian government pays her salary. His brother gets sent back to prison, where he is drafted into one of the PMCs. Kirill’s wife marries another, happy that she doesn't have a “trailer”, a common Russian term for a single woman’s child. Life in Kirill’s town goes on.
(One of the side note questions would be how to call Kirill, this thinking, conscious, qualia-filled, but ultimately apathetic and meaning-less person. “Philosophical zombie” is wrong here and overused elsewhere, although the coincidence with the letter “Z” is precious. “Orc” still sounds derogatory to me, although it did inspire me to write this part. I will probably have to jump on a pun grenade and coin the term “Frankl-stein”, just so that nobody else does.)
In a recent meeting with mothers of the soldiers who died in Ukraine (most of the women in the meeting, in reality, turned out to be middle-level Russian bureaucrats), Vladimir Putin has said: “We are all the same under God, we are all going to leave this world. [...] Some people — it’s unclear even whether they lived at all or not, and then they expire because of vodka or something else. [...] But your son had lived. And his cause was reached.” This was broadcasted on national television. To some it may seem incredibly cynical, evil-spirited even. But to many people in Russia this is the truth, or at least perceived as such.
Reading Frankl’s book, I came to an awful realization. This is how it is done. This is how people get radicalized, become martyrs or cannon fodder. Their unhappy life of suffering and apathy, life without meaning is suddenly instilled with one by someone else, typically someone is a position of power. And very often this “meaning” is to kill and die on a foreign field. This is a negative validation of Frankl’s theory, the inverse of logotherapy, if you will, dear reader. This is the other side of the coin.
Does Kirill have a choice, though? At any point of his hypothetical life? Frankl believes that he does. In a more uplifting paragraph of Man’s Search for Meaning he writes:
The experiences of camp life show that a man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritably suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismark could be applied: “Life is like being at the dentist. You alway think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.
There are a lot of people, both outside and inside of Russia, that do answer these challenges. Even in Kirill’s 100,000-people town some do gather on the main square and protest, knowing fully well they will be arrested, possibly beaten, possibly sent to prison. Maybe there are hundreds of them, maybe tens. Maybe not enough. More people write something on social media, which is dangerous in its own right. Some people sit quietly and secretly send money to Ukrainian charities. Many people are still in shock, in the perpetual stage one of prisoner’s life. Maybe their efforts and indeed their meaning can be utilized, as Viktor Frankl’s was, finding meaning for Kirill and many others like him.
That leads us to the final question, that largely prompted me to write this mess of a 15-page essay. Can someone like Kirill be changed? Can Frankl's teaching and personal experience, and more broadly, logotherapy, and more broadly, finding meaning — individual and practical meaning of Kirill's own life, finding and acting upon it — can any of it help him? A short answer, rational, cold and somewhat disappointingly anticlimactic is: maybe. Because there are no panaceas. Because not everyone can write psychology books or faux French poetry. Because “no man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny”. Because for all of us, including the orcs, finding meaning and acting upon it is our own single and unique task, and in each separate case failure is possible.
But it is a hell of a lot better than "beasts of humanized shape".
A book review should be finished with a quote. I chose this one:
Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil?