Man’s search for meaning: Once elected as one of “the ten most influential books in the US,” sharing the prestige with the Bible, LOTR, and To Kill A Mockingbird, and yet I never heard of this book of modest 180 pages. In the first and main section, the author examines the psychology of concentration camp inmates, of whom he was one, which led him to developing his own psychiatric theory of logotherapy which he summarizes in the second part. The question he seeks to answer for himself and for us is why under such horrific conditions of starvation, humiliation, torture, and looming death, some people never gave up even when they couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The main argument is: Nietzsche’s “He who has a why to live, can bear any how” and the why may not only be the wish to reunite with loved ones, or to finish one’s life work, but could also be because you can find meaning in suffering. Lots of food for thought. Especially in the meaning in suffering part. It’s probably easier for people of faith who look at suffering as a test of character. But if you’re not of faith, is there any reason to embrace with dignity and grace the worst that life could give you, when it’s likely that no one would ever know about your act?

And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob yo of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate.

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

 

Down and Out in Paris and London: I picked up this book by George Orwell, somehow assuming it was similar to his Burmese Days that I read a couple of years ago. It’s not a novel, more of a travelogue/memoir and unexpectedly, from the viewpoint of a working class poor in Paris, and a tramp in London, trying to survive with little to no money in these two great cities during the Great Depression. (Not sure why I didn’t deduce this from the title.) It is distinctly Orwellian in his description and observation and remarks, but not quite. He’s more outright and the humor not as dark here. I had an ah ha moment when I found out that it was his first published long work. Things have certainly changed in terms of social services for the poor and the homeless, but a lot of the book still reads relevant about the never-ending struggle to scrap enough to barely exist and without any dignity. There’s no other writer whose political and social views I agree more with, though I’d never join any party.

A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good – for slaves, at least. This sentiment still survives, and it has piled up mountains of useless drudgery. I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think … The mob is in fact loose now, and – in the shape of rich men – is using its power to set up enormous treadmills of boredom…

It is an extraordinarily futile, acutely unpleasant life… There are three especial evils that need insisting upon. The first is hunger, which is the almost general fate of tramps… The second great evil of a tramp’s life – it seems much smaller at first sight, but it is a good second – is that he is entirely cut off from contact with women… A tramp, therefore, is a celibate from the moment when he take to the road. he is absolutely without hope of getting a wife, a mistress, or any kind of woman except – very rarely, when he can raise a few shillings – a prostitute … But deeper than these [homosexualty, occasional rape] is the degradation worked in a man who knows that he is not even considered fit for marriage. The sexual impulse, not to put it any higher, is a fundamental impulse, and starvation of it can be almost as demoralizing as physical hunger. The evil of poverty is not so much that it makes a man suffer as that it rots him physically and spiritually… No humiliation could do more damage to a man’s self-respect.

Back like me: A white journalist from Texas decided to pass as a black man in the segregated south for 6 weeks. Except for his darkened skin and shaved head, he changed nothing about himself and answered truthfully to anyone that asked about his identity, his credentials, and the purpose of his trip. His experience was nothing short of mortifying. And I cried, omg did I cry. More than anger at injustice, it’s the heartbreaking reality of the existence of a sinister side in every human soul. We’re capable of love, just as much as we’re capable of hatred. A white southern gentleman tat shows his respectable civility to to his white fellows and turns into an animal, no a demon when he sees the brown skin. This is but a specific example. It takes so many forms in so many places around the world. That people can feel so righteous while preaching and internalizing such pure hatred frightens me.

Nothing can describe the withering horror of this [the hate stare] you feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it terrifies you. I felt like saying ‘What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?”… my own people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men’s souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock.

Good thing I ended such a heavy series with the delightful The hobbit. There’s really not much to review here. Tolkien is one of my favorite novelists and the best that I’ve ever read in English in the fantasy genre.
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