This week 25 years ago saw the death of three prominent figures: Britain’s Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and the psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. One of them had a profound influence on Sean Brophy, a Dubliner who spent a good deal of his life in and out of hospitals.
“He was born with scoliosis in the 1940s when no one knew what scoliosis was,” his brother Michael recalls. Brophy went to CBS Glasnevin but, because he missed so much of class due to surgeries, the school sought to have him quit his education after fourth year.
However, Brophy was not to be deterred. After school he worked in a factory, moved from the floor to the office, got further qualifications and then started a management consultancy. He went on to earn a doctorate and, among other things, became chair of a school board. What he wished to be remembered for most, says his brother, was his poetry.
Brophy published nine books of poems before his death in 2017 and a common theme was “the practical application of Frankl’s philosophy”.
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The Austrian thinker wrote about finding meaning in suffering — even suffering in Nazi concentration camps, where Frankl spent three years.
“Sean suffered a lot towards the end of his life. The time he spent in hospitals shaped his thinking. He believed it’s not your fate that matters but your attitude towards it; while difficulties are certain in life, suffering is optional.
“He was only 5ft 4in but he never let size limit him. That was another thing he got from Frankl. Everything was a possibility. There was always some way out of a dilemma.”
Frankl’s innovation in the field of psychotherapy was to imagine each of us had a human spirit that circumstances couldn’t touch. His approach, known as logotherapy, was sometimes called “height psychology” — taking a heaven’s eye view, surveying the story of your life. This contrasted with the “depth psychology” of Freud and Jung who would plumb the depths of the unconscious, getting to the root of individual trauma.
The dichotomy is not quite as neat as that, however, as Stephen J Costello of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland explains. With logotherapy, he says, “there is an elevator that can take you ‘down’ into the unconscious and ‘higher’ into the realm of meaning, values, and spirit”.
The Dublin-based writer and educator says “Frankl was a great admirer of Freud. Each stressed something unique in the psychological life of the human subject. For Freud it was pleasure ... for Frankl it was purpose.”
Frankl has attracted some critics, probably the fiercest of which is Timothy Pytell — a history professor whose first book excoriating the Austrian was likened to Christopher Hitchens’ famous j’accuse against Mother Teresa. Two of Pytell’s main charges are that Frankl misled people to think he spent years in Auschwitz — whereas he spent about three days there and the remainder in other camps — and that he conducted unethical, invasive treatments on some of his patients in his early years as a therapist.
Beyond that, Pytell questions the validity of Frankl’s philosophy, and dislikes its moral tone. “The problem I have with it is that there is ‘a’ meaning [to life]. I’m too much of a modernist [to accept that],” Pytell says via Skype from California.
Of his critique of Frankl, he says, “my facts weren’t disputed, my interpretation was disputed”. Part of that interpretation is to see Frankl’s famous book Man’s Search for Meaning as a way of dealing with his own trauma.
“When you’re victimised like that, my feeling is that what you try to do is come up with a narrative that is going to allow you to function again. And I think I’m right about Frankl because he wrote that in nine days, in a kind of white heat, where it just kind of poured out of him and he just kind of recreated reality,” says Pytell.
“I think it’s not so much anything to do with his actual experience and more to do with his psychological needs, and I think that’s probably part of the charm of the book, because it’s so horrible, horrible, horrible, and then at the end all you got to do is believe in God and everything is going to be fine.”
Pytell hits on a broader criticism, that Frankl’s philosophy is a front for religious belief. That perception reinforced by very public endorsements of Frankl by, among others, the traditionalist Canadian thinker Jordan Peterson and celebrity life coach Tony Robbins — who has secured movie rights to an adaptation of Man’s Search for Meaning.
“It does appeal to those within the Judaeo-Christian tradition as Frankl was a Jew and both his wives, Tilly [who died during the Holocaust] and Elly [who is still alive in her 90s], were/are Catholic and Frankl is a believer,” says Costello.
“However, he’s at pains to point out that logotherapy and existential analysis is a secular science. He didn’t like the English translation of his word Geist as ‘spirit’ because there are religious connotations to the English which there isn’t in the German ... By ‘spirit’ Frankl means that which is specifically human in the human such as the search for meaning, art, culture, nature etc.”
Responsibility is a key theme of Frankl’s philosophy: meaning is created by embracing and not avoiding it.
“He means responsibility in two ways: to make one’s life one’s own, ie to assume responsibility for one’s personal being but also responsibility as in respond-ing rather than reacting to blows of fate. So the journey is from reacting to responding to life in all its variegated richness,” says Costello.
Conscious of the way personal freedom has been put on a pedestal in the US, Frankl proposed that “the Statue of Liberty on the east coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast”. His dream may yet become a reality as fundraising continues for such a monument. A design has been created, based on two clasped hands, and the finished product would rise 90m above the ground.
A smaller monument is planned closer to home, both for Frankl and one of his admirers. Sean Brophy sent a copy of one of his poetry books to the founder of logotherapy and received a kindly letter of thanks in return. After Brophy died, the letter was found among his papers along with five chapters of an unfinished memoir that spoke of Frankl’s influence on the life of a Dubliner who lived to 73 even though “no one thought he would get past 50″.
Michael Brophy has taken it upon himself to complete the book, adopting his brother’s voice, although “I don’t have his quality of writing”. He is hoping to have it finished by the anniversary of his death on Valentine’s Day.
One section includes an A-Z of the poet’s aphorisms (see panel). “They are Sean sayings — he put Frankl’s ideas into his own words.”
Michael, who used to work for the Office of the Ombudsman on its health portfolio, has just this month been diagnosed with a serious health condition — so the project has taken on added significance. “I have been immersed in Frankl for the last few months and now I begin to realise the reason why. Sean has beaten a path ahead of me.”
ABC of Frankl: Sean Brophy’s sayings, capturing aspects of Frankl’s philosophy
It is not the load that will break me, but the attitude with which I carry it.
There is a dimension in which I not only am, but in each moment can decide what I am going to become.
At any given moment I must decide and choose, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of my existence; tolerance or jealousy, benevolence or selfishness, hatred or love, decency or obscenity, action or apathy. The choice is mine.