- Viktor Frankl’s Search for Meaning: An Emblematic 20th-Century Life by Timothy Pytell
Viktor Frankl’s Search for Meaning represents a revised version of Timothy Pytell’s 2005 biography, Viktor Frankl: Das Ende eines Mythos, which itself was a revised version of Pytell’s doctoral dissertation, completed in 1997 at New York University. This English edition includes two new chapters and, according to Pytell, a response to expert criticisms of his 2005 biography, in particular those of Alexander Batthyány, president of the Viktor Frankl Institute in Vienna. Pytell’s work foregrounds Frankl’s significance both as the founder of the third Viennese school of psychotherapy and more widely in the enduring global impact of his Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). Pytell claims from the outset that he is less interested in the veracity or reception of Frankl’s logotherapy than in Frankl’s life and experience and how these shaped his development of logotherapy, a claim upon which I shall base my critique below.
Chapter 1 opens with little biographical framing of Frankl’s life and times, offering instead a summation of Frankl’s early interest in but eventual disillusionment with Freudian psychoanalysis, after which he became a follower of Adlerian psychoanalysis. Chapter 2 explores the schism between the Freudian and Adlerian schools, extrapolating from the latter an ostensible connection to current thoughts in the “Red Vienna” of the 1920s in which Frankl came of age, thus offering a little more socio-historical context than did chapter 1. Pytell here locates Frankl’s turn toward a “third path” in his dismissal by Adler and the increasingly “pragmatic philosophy” he was developing in the late [End Page 181] 1920s. Chapters 3 and 4 expand this line of argument by framing Frankl’s work in youth counseling and suicide prevention in the turbulent 1930s while setting the stage for the controversial charges of unethical medical practices and questionable relationships to ostensible Nazi scientists and ideologues that formed the basis of some of Batthyány’s criticisms of Pytell’s earlier work. These charges are elaborated in chapter 5. Chapter 6 explores Frankl’s ordeal after being deported to various concentration camps, setting the stage for Pytell’s convincing analysis of Frankl’s post-Holocaust writings as a means of coping with trauma and loss and of finding new meaning in life. Pytell also attempts at this point to open a discussion into Holocaust memory and literature, which becomes something of a secondary line of discussion toward the end of the book, to which I shall return shortly.
Chapter 7, one of the additions to Pytell’s earlier work, offers a succinct critique of Frankl’s intellectual development after the Holocaust, in relation to his existentialist forebears, while chapter 8 embeds and analyzes Frankl’s prominent yet ambiguous impact in the Second Austrian Republic. These are far and away the most coherent and effective chapters. Chapter 9, another new addition, examines Frankl’s work and impact in the United States. Regrettably, there is no discrete conclusion, only a sudden summation of Frankl’s life at the end of the chapter, in which Pytell states: “His life was fascinating and inspiring, but also profoundly tragic—an emblematic twentieth-century tragedy” (177). Why this long and ultimately very successful life was tragic, when Pytell dedicated so many pages to its redemptory qualities and the hope it inspired in millions and how this ostensible tragedy is “emblematic” for the twentieth century, could have been elaborated better. In lieu of a conclusion, Pytell offers a brief postscript citing the need to engage critically with Holocaust literature. This works more as a conclusion to the secondary (in my opinion underdeveloped) theme of critically appraising Frankl’s memoirs than as a conclusion to either the intellectual discussions running throughout the work or to the (equally underdeveloped) narrative of Frankl’s personal life, leaving the reader rather dissatisfied.
I was convinced by Pytell’s complex yet lucid discussion of Frankl’s ideas and the careful and consistent manner in which he embeds these...