Night by Elie Wiesel, 5/5
This firsthand account of a Jewish teenager’s experience in four German concentration camps during World War II is short, stark and brutal. While most other historical accounts from this era that I have read contain some sliver of hope, faith, humanity, and closure, there is none to be found in Wiesel’s testimony. Presumably these elements are explored in the following, fictional, books of the trilogy, Dawn and Day. There are many disturbing and moving scenes in this book, but strangely, the thing that hit me most was the author’s brief mention of electrical fences around the camp. Some irrational part of me pictures the Holocaust as happening in the dark and distant past, before modern civilization. Realizing that something as thoroughly modern as an electric fence was used to contain innocent men, women and children, 11 million of whom were doomed to die, brings the horror of the Holocaust back to the very near past, where it belongs.
Why I read it: My boyfriend and I found the battered little paperback in a box of his high school relics. If it’s still not required reading, it should be.
When a psychiatrist who endured the German concentration camps of WWII has something to say about happiness and the meaning of life, you can bet it’s something worth paying attention to. Frankl’s thoughts on the bigger questions in life are woven into the first part of this short book–an account of the author’s experiences and observations in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. An introduction to the foundations of logotherapy (the author’s approach to psychotherapy) comprise the second part of the book, in which Frankl’s ideas really come into focus.
Frankl’s refreshing premise is that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (121) and that “A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease” (125). The author’s theory of the meaning of life encompasses the complexities of human existence with startling simplicity:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he 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 (131).
I have seldom been moved as this book moved me, right from the preface, which contains this bit of wisdom that alone would make the book worth reading:
Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run–in the long run, I say!–success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it (17).
[Why I read it: it was mentioned in Your Money or Your Life and the title sounded interesting.]