EDITOR’S NOTE: “No one can look long at the sun or death,” La Rochefoucauld wrote. That includes me. I could say that politics is right up there with the sun and death, and that’s why I don’t do politics on Head Butler — though I do write about politics on my Jesse Kornbluth Facebook account, which I use like a blog — but there are stronger reasons. One is that I have no deep knowledge about politics. The other, repeated here often, is that culture matters more. That is: Culture forms the way we think and feel, and our politics develops from that.
In the days after the election, many Butler readers wrote to me. These emails are, as you might expect, drenched in despair. If they’re hopeful, it’s the hope I know something they don’t and can make them feel better. Sadly, I have no magic mantra. What I know of the people soon to run things is in no way encouraging. It’s entirely possible that a kind of darkness never seen before in America will descend upon the land. Is there any silver lining? Try this, from Philip Slater: “The first cure for illusion is despair.”
The second cure is personal. Maintaining your health. Connecting with others. (You read it here first: Hugs are going to be a thing.) And nurturing your head and heart. There’s a reason the bad guys muzzle the press, force artists and musicians into exile, jail writers and burn books — “Poetry is respected only in this country,” said Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” All the more reason to cherish culture; as the artist Anselm Kiefer has written, art is the ultimate expression of hope.So I’m doubling down on the reason I started Head Butler: to amuse and entertain, but also to showcase ideas and artists not seen everywhere else. If you’ve got suggestions — or a better purpose for this site in the years ahead — please write me at [email protected]
THE SAFETY PIN: The Brexit vote in the UK led to a dramatic increase of racial harassment, mostly of Muslims. A post on Twitter led to a visible response: people wearing safety pins as a way of 1) showing their support for immigrants living in the country 2) and assuring immigrants that they’re safe with them. After our Presidential election, there’s been a dramatic increase in racial violence, intimidation and harassment here — people wearing safety pins aren’t making a fashion statement. If safety pins are suddenly in short supply where you live — or if you want to hand out safety pins to friends and family at Thanksgiving — Amazon sells a pack of 40 visible but not grotesque (4.8”) safety pins for $6.18. And to adorn the home, Amazon sells a pair of 23” tall pins, “a cute addition to any country decorating plan.” Yes, and now, something else.
Hitler had already occupied Austria when Viktor Frankl, a young Viennese psychiatrist and writer, learned that the United States had approved his request to immigrate. His parents were overjoyed — their son would escape the Nazis, go off to America and continue his brilliant work.
Frankl was feeling guilty about leaving his parents when he noticed a piece of marble on a table at home. What was it? His father identified it as a piece of the largest synagogue in Vienna, burned by the Nazis. On it was a fragment of the Ten Commandments — the part about honoring thy father and mother.
In this case, paper did not cover rock. Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and look after his parents. As if that were possible! Before the war was over, the Nazis imprisoned Frankl, his pregnant wife, his brother and his parents. All but Frankl perished.
In 1945, in just nine days, Frankl wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It has sold tens of millions of copies, been published in dozens of languages, been named as one of the 10 books you must read — for many, it’s been a life-changer. Somehow, I missed every opportunity to read it. Just as well. My younger selves might have missed the profundity of this short, simple book. [To buy the paperback from Amazon for $8.46, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Frankl’s message is simple: Life can be terrible. But there is one power you alone possess — the power to decide what you think about your situation. If you think there is a point to your suffering and if you can imagine your life on the other side of it, you are searching for meaning. More, you are finding meaning, for the very act of searching ennobles you. Achievements can pile up, riches may come your way — none of that matters. The search is everything.
For Frankl, the search for meaning is both a philosophy and an attitude. Going into a concentration camp, he knew what the odds were — 90% of the people on his transport train would die, most within a few hours of arriving at Auschwitz. And this led him to his first breakthrough: “I struck out my whole former life.”
Auschwitz became his teacher. He had no fear of death; the gas chambers spared him the thought of suicide. He learned to look eager for work; if you want to live, you have to be useful. And then he learned The Secret. Let him tell it:
We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road running through the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his hand behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another on and upward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look then was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when a man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way–an honorable way–in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life, I was able to understand the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.
Frankl was lucky, and he knows it; as he says, “The best among us did not return.” But the lucky did. Indeed, only the lucky did. And isn’t a great part of luck the irrational belief of a better future?
Like all concentration camp memoirs, Frankl’s is one horror after another. But unlike almost all others, his memoir is dotted with remarkable scenes. Like the time a block warden, at a very low point in the war, asks Frankl to speak to the inmates. Frankl reminds them that all they have lost can be achieved again. And then he says something at once shocking and inspiring: “Human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning.” Even hopelessness offers a kind of dignity. If we act well in dire straits, we honor God — we show that, even as we are killed, we maintain our dignity. That was some sermon….
Days after the war ended, Viktor Frankl walked out of the camp and into the countryside. He listened to the birds sing; he felt the expanse of earth and sky. He did not yet know that the wife he thought of constantly was dead. He had just one sentence running through his head: “I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and he answered me in the freedom of space.” And with that, Frankl entered his future.
Why read “Man’s Search for Meaning” now? I don’t know — have you been following the news? Our situation isn’t dire — not nearly, or, depending on your point-of-view, not yet — but it’s useful to have Viktor Frankl’s reminder us that what we do and how we think about it actually matter, that every life is important.
It doesn’t get much simpler than that, does it?
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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