Man’s Search For Meaning

Following my 2/3rds completion of The Gulag Archipelago, I selected to read this popular and highly acclaimed book by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

The first half is a tale of Frankl’s experience in the Nazi prison camps (including and mostly centering around his time at Auschwitz). He uses this basis of experience to justify and give depth to his understanding of human psychology: people in the camps were able to find meaning when they had nothing else. This meaning allowed them to live, he even states that meaning is a primary motivator in human Being, not a secondary effect of more ‘primal’ survival needs.

He shares, in the camps cigarettes were used as a commodity; they were hard to come by–sometimes as a reward for labor from the guards–, highly valued, not smoked, and traded for a bowl of soup and so on. When you saw a man smoking his cigarettes, you could be sure he was going to die soon: the man had given up his will to live, falling towards seeking immediate pleasure and comfort, and once lost the will was impossible to recover.

Frankl repeatedly references Nietzsche’s: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The second half of the book provides an overview of Frankl’s Logotherapy, a now-field of psychiatry focusing on a person’s ability to generate meaning for themself. Frankl explores the paradox of happiness and success. If one is explicitly seeking happiness (or success), the goal becomes harder to access. He says: Success cannot be pursued, it must ensue.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Liberty devolves into boredom and chaos without the twin pillar of Responsibility. Frankl even mentions off hand that there could be a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast to complement the Statue of Liberty on the east. The lack of understanding of responsibility is a major factor in our society’s current crisis of western existentialism.

Heuristic: He urges the reader to live through each situation as if we are going through it for the second time. Imagine that the first time, you chose the absolute worst possible course of action, and then act with this knowledge in mind.

So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!

The Gulag Archipelago

I started reading The Gulag Archipelago on recommendation from U of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. In his lectures he repeatedly references Gulag as a reminder of the cruelty capable by humans, a cruelty which lurks around the corner of our contemporary society and supposed civilized manner.

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.

Gulag is about the soviet prison camps from the 1920s to the late 1950s. While the institution of the Gulag was technically shut down in 1960, Gulags in softer forms persisted all the way until the camp Perm-36 was closed in 1987.

This is recent history.

Arrests

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn discusses at length the random arrests which occurred before our author himself was arrested.

Arrests occurred systematically, in the middle of the night, and to no public outrcy. Arrests occurred for no specific reason— most were legally admitted under Article 58 of the Russian Penal Cod, which blanket-banned all “counter-revolutionary activities”. Arrests were most commonly handled by the arrestee with a meager “Who, me? What for?”. And then off to the holding camps.

Solzhenitzyn makes it clear that there’s no clear point at which the injustice occurring around ones-self becomes unbearable. There’s no signaling whistle to rally the people to take up arms, or to fight ‘for real’.

After reading, it is altogether too easy to imagine the same happening in the US (entirely irregardless of whether we’re under the rule of the rabid Right or the rabid Left).

Wrecking

The stalinist-communist regime specifically targeted the intelligentia, especially the engineering class in the society— being in control of the train systems, water and sewage systems, and so on. The engineers were constantly under suspicion of “wrecking”, that is, engineers destroying state property (and of course, state property is your property, you would do well to inform on any wreckers!). Engineers were put under surveillance to make sure they were not wasting resources in their construction and maintenance (the grand irony of course is in those 5 idle individuals monitoring the one productive person).

Prisoners

Solzhenitzyn discusses in great detail the life of the prisoner, the process of being moved between camps. The conditions of disease, starvation, rape, and so on to which the prisoners were subjected (as their sentences grew for reasons or non-reasons beyond rational comprehension).

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

Thieves

He discusses the thieves in these camps— arguably the only members of the prison system who had done much to deserve their fate. The thieves were the upper class of the prisonfolk (below the guards of course, but close). According to Soviet Socialist logic, thieves were created as products of the corrupt society in which they were born, they are the true victims of our cursed non-communist society! If we had communism, the thieves would not have had to steal to provide for their poor selves. And they got away with whatever within the camps, to very little discrimination. Counter-communist thought was the true enemy.

Children

Children growing up in the Gulags of course grew into adaptation to their world, growing into horrible unsalvageable wretches who would steal in gangs from the frail and elderly, beat people for fun and so on. Solzhenitzyn relays one account of an older man who, when seeing an unsuspecting child, would sneak up and push the kid face down into the mud, pressing with his knee on their back until hearing their ribcage crack. Doctors would never be able to figure out what was wrong, and the child would die within a few months.

The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: they killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it… And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself—perhaps it is this direction that will triumph? Yes, and if it does not triumph—then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning! Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving? To beat the enemy over the head with a club—even cavemen knew that.

I am not the storyteller to do justice to much of what Solzhenitzyn has written.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in exactly what a totalitarian regime can transform into, especially regimes with fantasies of creating a better life for those who feel they do not have one.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions… Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination… Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.”