When I made a trip to Berlin in early November 2017 I took with me the short story collection by David Foster Wallace “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” and, in page 98, I came upon the subject of an interview (titled B.I. #46 07-97), who uses Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to explain what is it like to be fully stripped way of your identity in the face of complete and absolute degradation and still making the choice to keep your humanity. Although Frankl’s book deals with the experience of living in a concentration camp from a psychological perspective, subject 46 uses it as the starting point to advocate that incredible things can come from horrible events. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the text that sets the whole thing in motion:
“Having a knee-jerk attitude about anything is a total mistake, that’s what I’m saying. But I’m saying especially in the case of women, where it adds up to this little condescending thing of saying that they are fragile or breakable things and can be destroyed so easily. Like we have to wrap them in cotton and protect them more than anything else. That is knee-jerk and condescending. I’m talking about dignity and respect, not treating them like they are fragile little dolls or whatever. Everybody gets hurt and violated and broken sometimes, why are women so special?”
I’m writing this on February 4th 2018. A time when the following terms are being thrown around quite a bit: “safe-space”, “victimhood”, “third-wave feminism”, “#Metoo”, “#Timesup”, “Tweet/Twitter” and “Donald Trump”. The reason why I’m stating the date and terminology is because context of the time that we live in is important to explain why, in barely five pages, David Foster Wallace’s text (published in 1999) and Viktor’s Frankl book (published in 1946) have managed to really get me thinking on a topic that is in everybody’s mind these days.
Following the question of “Why are women so special?” and continuing with the reference of Frankl’s experience, subject 46 proceeds to mirror the idea of a woman being raped with the idea of a man living in a concentration camp, but also making clear of how narrow-minded it would be to just think of her as just a victim:
“What she knows is that the totally most terrible degrading thing that she ever could have even imaged happening to her has really happened to her now. And she survived. She’s still here. I’m not saying that she’s thrilled, I’m not saying she’s thrilled about it or she’s in great shape or clicking her heels together out of joy it happened, but she’s still here, and she knows it, and now she knows something. I mean really knows”
The brilliance in Wallace’s text and these interviews is that we never get the chance to read the question or rebuttal to what subject 46 is saying, and instead Wallace writes “Q” and lets the reader fill in the gaps. So as the text goes on and the subject 46 continues to explain the idea of rape as a possible “catalyst” to self-discovery there is one “Q” that, at least for me and based on the following answer, appears to ask if subject 46 is justifying a woman being raped. To which he answers:
“That’s the knee-jerk reaction, that’s what I’m talking about, taking everything I say and taking and filtering it through your own narrow view of the world and saying what I’m saying is Oh so the guys that gang-raped her did her a favor. Because that is not what I’m saying. I’m not saying it was good or right or it should have happened or that she’s not totally fucked up by it and shattered or it ever should have happened.”
The interview follows this line of thought and shows subject 46’s increasing frustration with women and with the interviewer as he continues to defend the idea of destruction leading to improvement (Nietzsche’s: What doesn’t kill you make you stronger) whilst making clear that he is not justifying rape to women. As the conversation escalates, right before the end, there is very powerful turn of the table: What if he was the one that was raped? What if it was a man being raped?
This text is so well written that ever since I read it I kept thinking about the argument being exposed, and I was shocked and in awe of how compelling it was (particularly with the last twist in mind). However there was one thing that I couldn’t help thinking over and over again: The book is titled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Key word being “Hideous”. Could there be a possibility that David Foster Wallace was trying to make me agree with a horrible man?
I thought about this for a long time and I wasn’t able to find a clear conclusion, but considering the impact this text had I decided to buy Frankl’s book (again in my favorite used book store) to see if it could help to clarify things and also because the premise of a psychologist in a concentration camp seemed quite fascinating.
The holocaust constitutes one of the saddest events in human history and Viktor Frankl’s book dealing with his experiences in a small concentration camp is both a sad reminder of the worst and the best of humanity. Frankl doesn’t dramatize nor exaggerate the events; he merely narrates his experiences and observations through a psychological perspective, explaining the effects of the systematic dehumanization that he and other people in the concentration camp were subject to.
All these actions designed to destroy the human spirit resulted most of the time in death in all its different forms: suicide, exhaustion, cold, age, sickness, hunger, etc… However, according to Frankl, when it didn’t come in the form of death it all came down to a choice: to be oneself and hold to your identity and humanity or choosing to be lower than an animal like the sadistic guards favored by the SS to keep the rest of the prisoners in line. He then proceeds to explain how the few people who made the active choice to hold on to their humanity began to flourish spiritually (the word is stripped from all religious connotations), and how, because everything that surrounded them was so horrible, their sense of self and their sense of purpose had to come from within
At the end of the book of the edition that I bought there is a section that explains the principles of Viktor Frankl’s psychological practices which he himself labeled logotherapy, and that expands the idea of psychology beyond merely explaining the “logic of the brain” and adds the idea of the “meaning” of oneself as a key aspect to take into consideration in psychotherapy. According to logotherapy there are three ways to search for man’s meaning: through an action (i.e: desiring to publish a book, feeling the need to teach), accepting the donations of existence (i.e: looking in awe at the beauty of a sunset, loving another human being), and through suffering (i.e: incurable sickness). Frankl states that the search for meaning is ever-fluctuating between these three options based on each individual’s circumstance.
If we return to Wallace’s subject 46 it is now easy to spot that he is advocating’s Frankl’s third way for meaning: through suffering. However, if this is the case, why do I still feel that there is a “but” to his whole argument?
After thinking about if for quite a while I was able to conjure a couple of counter-arguments, but even I feel that they are somewhat weak. First, he is challenging a “knee-jerk attitude” (absolutism) with an extreme example and that as in most cases the truth must be somewhere in between and not in the extremes (but if this is the case I can’t find it). Second: considering the limits of fiction and the interpretation of Wallace’s text, this short story is most likely designed to question rather an answer and to trick rather than to expose. But then again, this would be me changing the subject from the content of the text to the intentions of the author (which would be really fucking weak and a disservice to this whole post) and I really wouldn’t be finding a flaw in the subject 46’s rationalization per se.
I may just have to admit that after reading Frankl’s book all signs indicate that this is indeed the case, because even if at the beginning of the post I stated that I found myself agreeing with subject #46, I was really hoping that by the end I could find a deeper truth or a hidden meaning beyond such an extreme example; but the truth is that I can’t.
I think that Wallace’s last sentence may be very appropriate in this case to close this failed exercise: You don’t know shit.
Editorial note: I finished reading Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning the 4th of February 2018. It has been snowing all day. It was such a pretty picture from the window were I sat and typed this.