Last week I read three books, which seems to be roughly the average at the moment. Two of them were by Viktor Frankl and the other I’m not yet allowed to name because it won’t be coming out until later in the year. But here’s a brief round-up anyway.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Finally I have found another writer who speaks to me as deeply and truthfully as Søren Kierkegaard, with whom I’ve been obsessed since I read The Sickness Unto Death at seventeen.
I made so many notes on this book that I could easily fill several posts about it, which perhaps I’ll do one day, but today is just about writing a round-up so I can keep track of all the books I’ve read this year.
Man’s Search for Meaning was so good I wanted to scream. When I turned the last page I immediately ordered several copies (I’d taken it out of my university’s library) so that I could give it to as many people as possible. It is utterly brilliant. It speaks to me on several levels; in fact, while I was reading it the same thought kept running through my head:
Some books speak to the mind; some books speak to the soul. The best books do both.
This one does both. Frankl demonstrates a perfect balance between the personal and the professional. He uses his unimaginably traumatic experiences in WWII concentration camps to inform his psychotherapeutic practice, but doesn’t get so swept up in subjectivity as to forget how to apply his theory to other people’s experience.
One of the things I’d been worried about when I decided to start training as a psychotherapist was whether my own trauma would seep into the therapeutic relationship and have a negative effect on clients. It’s worth saying this will certainly happen if you’re not aware of your own issues, but if you are then having experienced trauma can be a positive thing in the context of being a therapist. Gordon W. Allport wrote the preface to the 1992 edition of this book, and in it he addresses this question directly:
A psychiatrist who personally has faced such extremity is a psychiatrist worth listening to. He, if anyone, should be able to view our human condition wisely and with compassion…
Dr. Frankl’s words have a profoundly honest ring, for they rest on experiences too deep for deception.
Man’s Search for Meaning discusses what it’s like to be a human. Taking the starting point of a concentration camp – an arena in which one is stripped of many aspects of one’s humanity and individuality – and applying the lessons from such an experience to day-to-day life is a challenging task to say the least, but Frankl rises to it with aplomb. I love how he doesn’t dismiss anyone’s experiences; although he admits that some traumatic experiences might be seen as ‘less serious’ than others, nonetheless it’s all trauma and it all needs to be dealt with. He describes it in one passage as being like gas filling a space: the amount of gas (trauma) initially put into the space (person) is almost irrelevant: it will still expand and disperse and manage to eke its way across the entire space.
I could go on forever, but instead I’ll strongly recommend that you read this book, whoever you are; and I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from it:
At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.
Psychotherapy and Existentialism by Viktor Frankl
…and then, directly after Man’s Search for Meaning, I read Psychotherapy and Existentialism, also by Viktor Frankl.
Predictably, I adored it. However it probably would have made sense to have left more of a gap between the two: there was a lot of overlap and if I’d read it, say, a year later it probably would have served as a useful revision of logotherapeutic concepts rather than backing up knowledge I’d only just acquired.
Despite the overlap I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also deepened my understanding of certain elements of Kierkegaard’s philosophy (at one point Frankl quoted Kierkegaard and my brain nearly exploded in joy), specifically the subjective-objective relationship with which I’ve been obsessed since I read Fear and Trembling as a teenager.
Once again the book had a great balance between the personal and the professional, as well as being useful both for people in therapy and for those struggling more generally with existential crises. Which is all of us, to different degrees and at different times. There are a few pithy quotes which I think many of us would find helpful:
We have to try to reach the absolutely best – otherwise we shall not even reach the relatively good.
And Frankl also addressed the eternal question when someone starts reading about a particular psychotherapeutic method: Does this mean I should throw out what I know about all the others?
What is needed today is to complement, not to supplement or substitute, the so-called depth psychology with what one might call height-psychology. Such a psychology would do justice to man’s higher aspects and aspirations, including their frustrations.
He also neatly solved a conundrum I keep coming up against in my own psychological research, which is the concept of ‘spirituality’ being intrinsically linked with religion in English, making it difficult to study separately.
In German there is a distinction between geistig and geistlich, the former indicating the human dimension and the latter indicating the religious one. In English, however, we have only the word ‘spiritual’, with its religious connotations, and so logotherapy… has coined the term ‘noölogical’ for this dimension.
Unfortunately ‘noölogical’ hasn’t really made it into common parlance, which means I still have trouble discussing the ‘spiritual’ with atheists on pilgrimages. But maybe one day it’ll catch on and make my academic life easier.
In the meantime, I’ll just keep recommending that everyone reads Frankl’s work – this book is great if you’re interested in psychotherapy as it’s a little more technical and academic than Man’s Search for Meaning, but equally it could be read by the interested layperson.
The third book I read last week was a novel which I was sensitivity reading, but it’s not coming out for a while so I can’t tell you about it yet. It features some Romani characters (hence the need for a sensitivity reader) and it was better than I’d expected it to be. More on that later.
What have you read recently? What would you recommend?