Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book: The Doctor and the Soul by Viktor E.Frankl

Viktor Frankl is widely known for his book “Man’s Search For Meaning”, which I imagine is far more accessible to the layman that the “The Doctor and the Soul”, the latter being a pretty dense professional text on existentialist based psychotherapy. The Doctor and the Soul is highly praised by reviewers and it was clearly very popular and influential at the time of publication, advancing the frontier of psychotherapy by introducing and making central the concept of “will to meaning”. However, it was all a bit much for this poor soul who just wanted an insight into Frankl’s thinking and got a lot more than he bargained with paragraphs like:

“Like all other neurosis, obsessional neurosis has a constitutional basis. Wexberg and others, whose interests lie mainly in the fields of psychogenesis or psychotherapy, have assumed that a somatic substructure ultimately underlies obsessional neurosis.”

The first half of the book covers general existential analysis as applied to the meaning of life, death, suffering, work and love and is far more readable than the second half, which is far more specific to the psychology profession, looking at different neurosis and the useful role of logotherapy as therapeutic approach. I made it half-way through the text before the trudge became a slow crawl, which quickly became a complete stop. Nevertheless, I did read enough to appreciate Frankl’s approach and it is something I am partly in agreement and partly something I struggle with. For example, Frankl says that it is self-evident that a belief in a super-meaning (metaphysical or religious) is of central psychotherapeutic  importance, that it adds immeasurably to human vitality; this is something that makes sense but I feel that he doesn’t tackle this fragile concept with sufficient rigour, particularly with respect to some of its failings. Something tells me his earlier book, Man’s Search for Meaning, may have filled this gap rather nicely. Another key issue is suicide. Frankl states that it is “our duty to convince the would-be suicide that taking one’s on life is contrary to reason, that life is meaningful under any circumstance”. I appreciate the importance of his “will to meaning” in keeping him going when he was at Auschwitz, but disagree that a person should keep on going under any circumstance. On this note, the chapter “On the Psychology of the Concentration Camp” stands out for being both deeply personal and insightful. The chapter starts with the ultimate qualifier regarding observations of what happened to the deformation of the human psyche at the camps: on one hand, the ethical and psychological warping that took place must have hindered objective self-evaluation or assessments of other, while the outsider was simply too far removed to empathise. In the camps, one of the problems was that prisoners couldn’t foresee an end to this stage in their lives, which made their existences lose content and meaning due to lack of useful future goals.

Nit-picking some of the less central issues, Frankl makes claims such as “No great idea can vanish, even if it never reaches public circulation” which is clearly far-fetched. His idea that time captures and preserves everything, acting almost like a vault, is romantic but the idea that the passage of time doesn’t change the meaning of the content of person life is unrealistic.

The tone of the book can also come across as austere and harsh, yet at the same time it can be highly motivational and uplifting. Despite my criticisms, many of which could well be a result of my own misunderstandings and failings (I'll blame the teacher!), the central message that we are responsible to ourselves is one I am in very much in agreement with.  All in all, the book is a mixed affair but it has succeeded in giving me much to think about and encouraging to look a little further into this work. After all, it’s no good just reading stuff that you agree with all the time!

Quotes and notes to be included in follow in another post.

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