The following essay was originally published in The International Forum for Logotherapy (2013, 36, 82-86). 

I want to especially thank Robert Hutzell and the International Journal of Logotherapy for allowing me to re-print this essay, which was written so everyone (not just academics) might be inspired. 

Search for Meaning in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

While their post-apocalyptic novels were written almost two centuries apart, Mary Shelley and Kurt Vonnegut’s conclusions about the human condition remain identical: what makes us human is finding purpose in life and in tragedy. Using these works as case studies for the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole, it becomes clear that while hedonistic and ambitious characters frequent many pages, only those driven by Viktor Frankl’s Will to Meaning survive. Each character’s self-transcendence is essential for recognizing their purpose in life — only when they realize that: “Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind” (3, p.82) do Shelley and Vonnegut’s characters learn how to respond.

What makes us human is finding purpose in life and in tragedy

Post-apocalyptic fiction intrigues us because it proposes fundamental questions about the human condition: how do humans survive catastrophe; how do they maintain their humanness; and can we find meaning despite catastrophe, or do we lose all sense of purpose as the solitary Last Man? The genre offers a warning to humanity as well as a means of salvation; what’s more, it can be viewed as a therapeutic response to life’s travails. InThe Last Man (1826) (6) a fear of the loss of loved ones is countered by a will to overcome personal tragedy, while despite humanity’s “oversize brains” in Galapagos (1986) (8) — which lead to gruesome wars, financial meltdown, and nuclear apocalypse — the fear of nihilism is combated by finding meaning in the face of apathy. It is no coincidence that Shelley and Vonnegut’s imaginings of humanity’s destruction, and the subsequent response, coincide with Frankl’s real-world example of survival in the concentration camps. Through the lens of Frankl’s theory, the juxtaposition of post-apocalyptic fiction and logotherapy offers interesting insight into the human condition.

Man’s Search for Meaning

At the outset of World War II Viktor Frankl was a Neurologist and Psychiatrist in Vienna. When he was liberated in 1945, he had lived through four Nazi concentration camps. Although surviving the Holocaust does not fit into the traditional post-apocalyptic mould, the Nazi extermination centers remain one of the nadirs of human history, places that even today human beings have trouble contemplating. It is imprudent to declare concentration camps a post-apocalyptic idea, but this does not deter from the fact that their purpose was to extinguish prisoners’ humanity. And yet in the concentration camps, just as in The Last Man and Galapagos, not just human beings but humanity survived. Viktor Frankl’s most important book,Man’s Search for Meaning, is a testament to human survival but also the cornerstone of logotherapy.

Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival.
— Viktor Frankl

According to Frankl’s school, human malaise originates from a sense of meaninglessness. Nihilism is the antithesis to the human condition. The remedy — meaning and purpose — can be derived in three ways: “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” (3, p.111) Whether such a purpose lies in religious, artistic, or loving context is secondary; nihilism is the source of our discontent, not a lack of pleasure (Freud) or a sense of inferiority (Adler). (3, p.113) The key shift is to realize that life is not about what a person expects from it, but rather what life expects from the person. Life questions the person, not the other way around — the individual is not free from life’s conditions, only in how he or she responds. In the shadow of the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl thus proposed the fundamental question that post-apocalyptic fiction attempts to reveal: “Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival.” (3, p.115)

One of the tenets of logotherapy is that it is possible to find meaning even in suffering. Frankl attributed much of his survival in the camps to reconstructing a scientific manuscript, in remembering and honoring the image of his wife, and in bearing witness to Nazi crimes. Frankl, however, does not believe in a singular “meaning of life”; since human experience is subjective, we must respond to life’s conditions by fulfilling the tasks that are constantly set for us. (3, p.109) The tasks that life sets for a wealthy aristocrat may be different from that of a widower or a novelist, thus making it impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.

Multiple characters in post-apocalyptic fiction represent this subjectivity. There is the Last Man protagonist in The Purple Cloud,7 who finds purpose in building a palace, in teaching English to a feral woman, and in chronicling the post-apocalyptic world. There is X-127 in Level 7, who “shall go on writing this diary as long as I live. For this is the only way in which I can feel the sun.” (5) There is the protagonist in War of the Worlds,9 whose purpose (like Frankl’s) lies in the memory of his wife, and there is also the father in The Road, (4) who finds meaning in caring for his son. While these examples provide evidence of Frankl’s Will to Meaning, The Last Man andGalapagos provide particularly interesting parallels with Frankl’s purpose in writing a manuscript and subsequent survival in the camps.

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man

Frankl states, “when lower needs are not satisfied, a higher need […] may become most urgent.” (2, p.33) In The Last Man, Evadne — the abandoned mistress of the power-hungry Lord Raymond — represents exactly this: a pitiable character whose lower needs (health, social connection, and proper shelter) are unsatisfied. Destitute and alone following a failed love affair, she succumbs to poverty, sickness, and meaninglessness. Although she is loved by no one and becomes terminally ill, even Evadne finds meaning in her suffering. “It was only through her present sufferings,” Shelley writes, “that she hoped for any relief to the stings of conscience; that, in her state of mind […] the necessity of occupation was salutary medicine.” (6, p.152) Evadne finds solace in the memory of her love for Lord Raymond, as well as in her courage to respond to life’s conditions.

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes, "Hurricane Beverly" in Slim and The Beast: A Novel

Illustration: Aaron Lopez-Barrantes, "Hurricane Beverly" in Slim and The Beast: A Novel

Similarly, the protagonist Lionel Verney realizes early on that happiness cannot be pursued but that “it must ensue,” as Frankl has stated. (3, p.138) For a time Lionel finds pleasure in his loving relationships and his adoration for culture, but an inevitable final storm strips him of all prior purpose as the Last Man. Much like Frankl, instead of succumbing to life’s miseries Lionel assumes responsibility. Instead of surrendering to the notion that all is lost, Lionel decides to chronicle the history of humanity as well as his past. He finds purpose in preserving life’s memory, echoing Frankl’s statements on the importance of what once was:

To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity. (3, p.150)

On the final page of The Last Man, Lionel Verney finds an answer to the post-apocalyptic question. Though he is alone, he is fulfilled. He has a Why and can bear almost any How: “I long to grapple with danger, to be excited by fear, to have some task, however slight or voluntary, for each day’s fulfillment.” (2, p.ix)

Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos

In Vonnegut’s Galapagos the spectral narrator (Leon Trout) also finds purpose through writing and memory. Trout makes the decision to continue to remain “in limbo” in hopes of learning what life is all about.

Alluding to the Anne Frank epigraph at the beginning of the book — “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart” (1, p.237) — Trout remains optimistic about the human condition. He often speaks of beauty and ingeniousness in the human race. Trout’s refusal to enter the afterlife and instead bear witness to humanity’s future reveals a nuanced interpretation of his cynical view of humans: if he were convinced people were bad, he would not care how the future played out.

The origin of Trout’s malaise becomes even clearer towards the end ofGalapagos. He repeatedly refers to a trauma in Vietnam, when he felt sorry to be alive because it made him “envy stones.” (7, p.104) Vietnam left him terrified that life was nothing more than a “meaningless nightmare, with nobody watching or caring what was going on.” (7, p.104) Trout’s reason to remain earthbound is twofold: to confirm that life is not meaningless, and to realize that although his father’s books were never read, the act of writing was what mattered.

In his former corporeal life Trout sought medical help for his nihilistic fears. During this therapy he learned that a doctor on the other side of the world was a great admirer of Trout’s father. Finally, in limbo, he realizes that actions do indeed have consequences, and that his father’s life was not meaningless. Much like Frankl, Trout learns that the Will to Meaning is fundamentally human, and what is done does matter, whether anybody notices or not. (7, p.206)

The act of recounting becomes Trout’s meaning. An identical literary purpose is found in the post-apocalyptic novels The Purple Cloud and Level 7. In the end it does not matter if Trout’s words are read, only that they are written. Trout’s hesitation to enter the afterlife originated from his fear that life was meaningless, but in the end he realizes that even an unrewarded life maintains purpose. Much like Lionel Verney in The Last Man, as long as he can write Trout has purpose.

Conclusion

To answer the “meaning of life” question in post-apocalyptic fiction, it is necessary to return to Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” (2, p.ix) Viktor Frankl believed he survived the camps because of the memory of his wife, the importance of writing a manuscript, and because of his responsibility to respond to life’s conditions. Similarly, Lionel Verney and Leon Trout survive in the words they write. They may pursue pleasure or power early on in their journeys, but without transcending these drives of the Freudian and Adlerian schools they cannot achieve the humanity readers associate with the genre.

Lamentable characters pursue pleasure, unlikable ones power, but only those pursuing meaning represent the best of the human condition.

We are interested in post-apocalyptic fiction because it gives us hope. However devastating a catastrophe may be, in the end it is not what humanity has lost that matters, but rather what remains. It is no coincidence that post-apocalyptic literature affects the reader on a fundamentally human level — like logotherapy it reveals the origins of our disquiet while offering a voice that can respond. Judging by the voices ofThe Last Man, Galapagos, and other works in the genre, a post-apocalyptic meaning of life becomes clear: lamentable characters pursue pleasure, unlikable ones power, but only those pursuing meaning represent the best of the human condition.

References

1. Frank, A. (1993). The Diary of a Young Girl Research paper for sale. NY, Bantam Books. http://www.essaywriting.expert/research-papers-for-sale/

2. Frankl, V. E. (1978). The Unheard Cry for Meaning. NY: Simon & Schuster.

3. Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.

4. McCarthy, C. (2009). The Road. London: Picador.

5. Roshwald, M. (2004). Level-7. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press — Kindle e-book.

6. Shelley, M. (1826). The Last Man. London: Henry Colburn. Retrieved October 20, 2012 from Free Classic e-books @http://www.freeclassicebooks.com/Shelley%20Mary/The%20Last%20Man.pdf

7. Shiel, M. P. (1901). The Purple Cloud. London: Chatto and Windus. Retrieved November 7, 2012 from Feedbooks @http://www.feedbooks.com/book/2637/the-purple-cloud

8. Vonnegut, K. (1994). Galapagos. London: Flamingo.

9. Wells, H. G. (1898). The War of the Worlds. London: William Heinemann. Retrieved October 25, 2012 from Planet e-book @ http://www.Planetebook.com.