Themes: dark fantasy, gothic, macabre
Mediums: digital painting, mixed media, artificial intelligence, design
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“We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce their weapon arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons, we see our own minds — our own prejudices, fears and ignorance. Even if we transport all the bombs to the moon, the roots of war and the roots of bombs are still there, in our hearts and minds, and sooner or later we will make new bombs. To work for peace is to uproot war from ourselves and from the hearts of men and women. To prepare for war, to give millions of men and women the opportunity to practice killing day and night in their hearts, is to plant millions of seeds of violence, anger, frustration, and fear that will be passed on for generations to come.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, “Living Buddha, Living Christ”
There are many Western intellectuals who claim to be against the evils of oppressive structures while: (1.) hiding in the isolation of academia, (2.) benefiting from those unjust structures without doing anything meaningful to challenge them, (3.) “helping” the oppressed on a superficial level without addressing any deeper systemic issues, (4.) perpetuating the ideas of the oppressors themselves.
Noam Chomsky wrote about these types of intellectuals in his 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” He said that intellectuals, unlike the average citizen, are a privileged minority who are in a unique position to influence society. They should seek to “speak the truth and expose lies’’ rather than remain silent and apathetic. Yet they often fail to meet these moral standards.
Even though in the Western world, intellectuals have the right to freedom of expression and have access to more information than those in other nations, they often represent elite class interests. They maintain the status quo, and support the current ideologies in power, while neglecting to criticize the unjust policies of their own countries.
In traditional education, intellectuals are primarily trained for conformity. The institutions that they work for, according to Paulo Freire in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” focus on socialization, conditioning students to follow a certain social order. Students who question those in authority too much are filtered out over time. They are not supposed to critically think about, or act against, the structures already in place. Traditional education is not about a radical transformation in consciousness. It is more about a subservience to power.
According to Freire, education is never neutral. It is either on the side of the oppressor or the oppressed. While the oppressed are dehumanized, treated as abstractions or disposable objects or inferior beings, those who oppress are dehumanized through oppressing others.
Oppressors depend on the low position of the oppressed to maintain their power. They form exploitative relationships, taking advantage of unfair conditions for their own gain. They have a mentality of more for themselves and less for everyone else. Oppressors want the oppressed to feel unworthy, helpless, and isolated, because under those states, they are easier to control.
After years of teaching literacy to peasants and laborers, after being put into prison and then exiled, Freire came to believe that education should liberate people instead of imprison them.
The oppressed have to reclaim their humanity for themselves, even though at times, they may fear taking on responsibility, internalize the values of their oppressors, or follow charismatic leaders more than their own consciences.
Freire attacked the passive methods of learning in education as well. Students are often seen as ignorant while teachers are seen as authorities. Students are taught to take in information, to rote learn, to listen so they can regurgitate answers on exams, rather than participate in relevant issues.
When schools value the humanity of their students, learning is done in collaboration and with mutual respect. There are open possibilities for individuals to grow. Themes connect to the existential struggles in people’s lives, helping them to overcome their unjust circumstances.
Education has to help the oppressed to reflect on the causes of their oppression. Even though oppressors have tried to limit the critical thought of the oppressed, people need the freedom to learn about themselves and make their own choices.
bell hooks, in a similar fashion to Freire, argued in “Teaching to Transgress” that education should be (1.) communal in spirit, (2.) rooted in the values of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust, and (3.) promote the well-being of the individuals involved.
Students caught in oppressive circumstances often feel powerless to make a difference. They are alienated from their communities. They are conditioned over time to see themselves as inferior to their oppressors.
hooks, on the other hand, argued that education should be about fostering an open space where different perspectives are shared, students are encouraged and not belittled, and everyone is respected.
hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins) experienced both educational environments when she was raised in the segregated south, when she was bussed into a majority white school during integration, when she attended college, and when she taught at different universities. Freire’s work helped her to clarify her own feelings of marginalization and shame under those oppressive systems.
Freire also learned how unjust conditions could impact a person’s ability to learn. He grew up in Northeastern Brazil around poor rural families. During the Great Depression, he suffered from extremes of poverty and hunger. He even had to temporarily drop out of elementary school to work.
In Gadotti’s book, “Reading Paulo Freire,” Freire said, “I didn’t understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn’t dumb. It wasn’t lack of interest. My social condition didn’t allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge.”
People ultimately want to be free. They want to grow and change and live authentically. But they are constantly being undermined by the interests of interconnected power-structures. hooks called some of these power-structures the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
From an early age on, whether through violence or propaganda or censorship or other means, people are trained to obey their masters. They are taught about their inferiority rather than their intrinsic value, fractured rather than united, and dehumanized rather than treated with dignity.
Those in power usually shift the burden of proof onto the powerless, pressuring them to prove that they are worthy of their basic rights. But these systems, which have so much control and influence, need to justify their legitimacy to the people. If they fail to do so, then they should be changed or dismantled.
Sometimes, though, when the oppressed rise to power, they carry over the violent patterns of their former oppressors. That is why there needs to be a radical education of self-discovery and inclusion and critical thought, a place of transformation for everyone who seeks to learn. When people aren’t united, when they aren’t free, then the same oppressive practices will resurface.
Freire believed that people have to learn how to be themselves. Education is a process, a path of critical effort. Individuals must seek out the “whys” of their existence. They must be free to choose their own paths.
“Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways — the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.”
Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
“All those qualities, capacities and tendencies which do not harmonize with the collective values–everything that shuns the light of public opinion, in fact–now come together to form the shadow, that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized by the ego. The endless series of shadow and doppelgänger figures in mythology, fairy tales and literature ranges from Cain and Edom, by way of Judas and Hagen, to Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde in the ugliest man of Nietzsche; again and again such figures have appeared and made their bow before human consciousness, but the psychological meaning of this archetype of the adversary has not yet dawned upon mankind.”
Erich Neumann, Depth Psychology and a New Ethic
“People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.”
Horror attracts us while it repulses us. We are confronted with our most hidden taboos in sinister forms. We investigate our shadowy dreams and terrors, seeking out the Other, anxious before the strange and unknown. We face forbidden ideas, lurking beneath the sewers and deep in the woods, unspoken, uncomfortable ideas, in the darkness of ourselves.
Our monsters reflect the most terrible aspects of our nature. They are our unconscious rejections, our atrocities against one another, our insatiable greed and consumption and narcissism. They return to haunt us, to torment us, when we foolishly believe that we are gods, when we transgress the laws of all humankind.
Horror sickens and disgusts and nauseates us. Yet our hearts tremble to the pleasure beneath our fear, to the endorphins of our near death, to the tragedies that we cannot help but stare at.
Horror teaches us the consequences of when we take too much and care not enough for others. It shows us what happens when we deceive and murder and destroy our sacred idols.
We must take on the embodiment of evil, whether it afflicts us in the realms of the supernatural or natural, literal or metaphorical. Through our struggles, we may be releasing the ghosts of our past or preventing the apocalypse of the near future.
Even if we pretend that we are going to remain young for eternity, we are flesh, we are bones, we are blood and pus and aging and disease and death. We are part of a cosmos we don’t fully comprehend. We don’t know what our fates will be as individuals in a community, as a species, as organisms on a planet.
We are temporary, vulnerable. We are primates lost in the vastness of space. We struggle for an illusion of control, a sense of familiarity, so that we can feel safe and secure, while knowing that nothing will ever last. We fear the threat of what we don’t know, the possibility of future anguish.
There are dangers inherent in everything we do, existing on different scales, from driving our cars down a highway to walking alone at night, from polluting our atmosphere to declaring war on a neighboring country.
We are agonizingly aware that we are going to die, that everyone we know will die, even if we distract ourselves with parties and drugs and work and fashion and games and sex and religion and politics. We are filled with an existential dread that we try to alleviate with meanings beyond ourselves. Yet there is always the possibility of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe and societal unrest. There is always the promise of the undertaker.
Horror is a safe place for our fears, our anxieties, to express themselves under the guise of a chainsaw-wielding maniac, a zombie horde roaming through the mall, a cannibal, ghoul, goblin, snake, slasher, demon, or vampire that casts no shadow.
We can look at our inner darkness rather than hide from it. We can grapple with the unknown rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Only when we are honest, when we burn our light through the chasm of darkness, can we be liberated from our suffering.
Horror disturbs our sanity, shocks us out of our comfort, mocks our hypocrisies, exposes our underlying insecurities. We need horror to awaken us out of our complacency, our smug delusions of perfection, and let go of false certainties.
We must find a way to grieve for our losses, to turn toward the truths that scare us, to participate joyfully among the sorrows of the world. We are human beings, achingly conscious, here for a short time with each other. Our life on this earth is precious and fleeting and uncertain. We can withdraw from the unknown, clinging onto normalcy, wallowing in our most mundane days, or we can free ourselves to the mysterious.
Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), better known as George Orwell, was an English writer. Although he was an accomplished essayist, he gained his fame through later works such as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
He was born in India but grew up in England. When he was eight years old, his parents sent him off to a private prep school in Sussex. As a young adult in the 1920s, he served as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. After Blair resigned from his post in Burma, he tramped around London and Paris. He set out as a wanderer, sometimes without any place to stay, recording the daily struggles of the poor.
He wrote enough to get by but didn’t find much acclaim until years later. During different periods of his early adulthood, he picked hops in a field, washed dirty dishes in fancy restaurants, taught teenagers at a private school, and clerked in a bookshop.
Ever since the publication of his first book (Down and Out in Paris and London), which was seen as too scandalous for the time, he wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell.
In 1936, at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he volunteered to fight in Spain. He joined up with the communists and anarchists and socialists, among other leftist groups, in opposition to fascist powers.
During a battle on the front, a sniper shot him in his throat, almost killing him. While recovering from his wounds, he was forced to flee to France after conditions around him became too unsafe (Soviet propaganda turned against the militia he once was a member of). After many dissenters were repressed, Blair became disillusioned with intellectuals who supported the Soviet Union. Throughout his life, however, he deepened his commitment to democratic socialist principles.
Blair wanted to fight against the Nazis in WWII, but the British army rejected him due to his poor health. He accepted a position at the BBC instead. While there, he contributed a minor part to the propaganda campaign against the fascists. Eventually he quit so he could work on literary pieces for the Tribune, a democratic socialist magazine.
During different periods in his life, Eric Blair worked as a dishwasher, novelist, journalist, schoolteacher, bookshop clerk, and soldier. He was a tramp on the muddy roads of England, a lieutenant in the trenches of Spain, and wrote about it.
His writings exposed the brutal inequalities in authoritarian systems. As a result, his ideas were seen as too subversive. In some countries, his novels were banned and burned. People caught with his words were put in prison.
Blair had his blind spots as well. Some scholars have criticized his racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes. Yet many of his experiences were so impactful that he was forced to confront his prejudices.
He felt a lot of guilt, for instance, as a privileged white man in the service of the British empire. During his employment with the Indian Imperial Police, he had to take on the compromised role of an authority figure. He was seen as an outsider, as part of an occupying force, oppressing the poor of another country. The more that he adhered to the duties expected of him, as if he were performing before the locals, the more ashamed he felt. After five years as a police officer, after witnessing the direct effects of imperialism, he quit his position.
He later disguised himself as a tramp, voluntarily living in destitution, so that he could learn more about those in extreme poverty. While many in the lower classes had no way out of their unjust circumstances, he could escape. Even though his family were “lower-upper-middle class,” (as he wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier), he still had socioeconomic opportunities that others didn’t have.
After his time in Burma, though, he had changed. He wanted to write authentic stories about the downtrodden. He often took the side of the poor laborer who struggled for higher wages, of the vagabond who roamed the countryside, of the hopper who slept next to other workers in a tin hut, of the miner who toiled in the coal mine.
Blair was known for being a sharp critic of injustice. He looked through the biases of ordinary living to find truths that most were afraid to admit. He attacked authoritarians in every guise, despising those who wanted power for themselves while hiding their true intentions behind propagandistic language. Despite their claims of morality, many ideological groups imposed their order through violence and censorship.
Blair wrote with a sense of wry humor, almost as a defense against his own disappointment. His opinions were unflinchingly honest. He believed that while people were so capable of progress, they were still susceptible to the dangers of totalitarianism.
Orwell, George. The Complete Works of George Orwell: Novels, Memoirs, Poetry, Essays, Book Reviews & Articles: 1984, Animal Farm, down and out in Paris and London, Prophecies of Fascism… Frankfurt am Main, e-artnow, 2019.
Orwell, George | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. iep.utm.edu/george-orwell/. Accessed 17 Sept. 2022.
Woodcock, George. “George Orwell.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 8 Mar. 2019, http://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was an English philosopher. He wrote On Liberty in 1859.
1. Individual liberty must be protected against all forms of tyranny. Tyranny can arise from the state, a powerful minority, or the prevailing opinions of the masses.
2. Mature people should have sovereignty over their bodies and minds. Societal power can justly be exercised over those individuals, socially and legally, when preventing them from harming others.
3. The majority has the potential to suppress the ideas of the minority. Those who are in power, whether they are part of the minority or majority, have historically persecuted those who are not in power. There needs to be precautions in place to protect people from an abuse of power.
4. Punishing individuals for having differing views is harmful to society. People should have the right to publish what they want. They should have the freedom to agree or disagree with popular beliefs. They should be able to determine how they want to live as long as they are not causing suffering to others. If they are mature enough to make their own life decisions, they are mature enough to accept the consequences of their actions.
5. People are not infallible. They are not perfect. Even the wisest individuals will make mistakes when pursuing the truth. Civilizations grow out of the failures of past ages. Even the present time may seem inhumane to future generations.
6. Nobody has the right to decide the best way to live for everyone else in the world. Many possibilities exist for a meaningful existence. People have varying degrees of knowledge in certain subjects. And they know nothing about other subjects. The more that they learn over time, the more they will become aware of what they know and don’t know. Those who impose their dogmatic beliefs on others act from an assumption of infallibility.
7. Individuals come from different backgrounds. They have a variety of preferences, perspectives, and experiences. People grow through a diversity of views. They are challenged to examine their old beliefs when they are confronted with new evidence. Ideas have to be tested continuously rather than obeyed out of custom and habit.
8. Societies are held back when individuals are too scared to share their opinions. If they are punished for their thoughts, then more people will be hesitant to express themselves. They will self-censor. They will hide their minds. They will internalize what is deemed as acceptable by their dominant culture. They will rebel.
People should not be afraid to make mistakes when seeking the truth. Many timid geniuses have been suppressed before they have reached their conclusions. Many promising minds have been smothered by the negative pressures of the masses. Geniuses, although small in number, can only prosper when they are free to think.
9. There may be errors hidden in accepted views. Some ideas, once considered true, have eventually been shown to be false. No belief is above being criticized, even the most cherished ones. Nonconformists, who often question the prevailing dogmas in society, shouldn’t be silenced or denounced. They should be honored for disturbing the unthinking complacency of the masses, for challenging the status quo.
10. People do not exist in isolation. If they harm themselves, they may negatively affect those who are closest to them. Individuals should be free to express themselves. Other members of society have the right to approve or disapprove of their choices. But when their actions are harmful to their communities, then they have to be held accountable.
Questions and Criticisms:
1. How is harm defined? The meaning of harm changes throughout Mill’s essay, especially when applied to the blurring contexts of public and private life. Will there ever be a universal definition of harm?
2. Practically speaking, do the ends justify the means if the moral gains are higher than the moral losses? Who determines what ends are justifiable, especially if the means are unjust?
3. Mill supported colonialism on utilitarian grounds. He believed in liberal values for certain members in his society, but then made exceptions for this standard.
He considered England, which was a major hegemonic power of the time, to be acting out of civilizing benevolence.
When he was writing in 1859, England had already committed atrocities in countries such as India. Mill believed that England was justified in “civilizing” places that were considered “primitive.” He wanted to educate the “barbarians.”
These “backward” countries were all coincidentally outside of Europe.
Powerful countries often intervene in the affairs of weaker countries. They claim to be humanitarians. They talk about peace and justice, while actually serving their own self-interests. These interests can be devastating for the population, while enriching those in power.
Chan is beyond symbols. It is a practice that directly points to our minds.
We don’t need to avoid or get caught up in our stories. When our thoughts and feelings and perceptions arise, we can let them come and then let them go. We can return to the present moment, softening our hearts.
As the seasons change, we can be alive to that change. Before our categorizations of right and wrong, big and small, good and bad, dead and alive, past and future, and so on, life is what it is.
We can honor every moment with our presence. Our time is so precious and fleeting.
When we wash the dishes, we wash the dishes. When we go to the bathroom, we go to the bathroom. When we listen, we listen. When we walk, we walk.
Rather than trying to accomplish everything at the same time, we can do one thing at a time.
We are so often distracted by our worries and ambitions and regrets. As Seneca said, “We are more afraid of our imaginations than reality.”
When we are single-minded, we can gain clarity. We can be present, over and again.
Venerable Chang Zao said that we practice so that our minds can go from defiled to pure. When we first start to meditate, our minds may wander. With enough patience, we will eventually settle down. We will become stable.
When we meditate, we are letting life be as it is. Because we are creatures who are so used to thinking, we become attached to our thoughts. We abstract ourselves away from the moment, forgetting who we are. Usually we are living in symbols, believing that we are separate and permanent.
We often don’t notice that we are aging every moment of every day. But after a few decades pass, we might look at ourselves in the mirror, and wonder how we ever got to be so old.
We are not the same people at five or fifteen or fifty. Our thoughts, perceptions, and feelings change over the span of our development. We adapt to our environments, whether natural or social, while those environments shift around us. Even the atoms that make us who we are, such as hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, came from a process billions of years old.
We are interwoven in this universe. Yet in our ignorance, we act as if we are apart from it.
When we are present, we can naturally gain wisdom. We can begin to see the confluence of conditions that make us who we are. Without the sun, trees, and oceans, we would not be. Without our ancestors, we would not exist.
We are as old as the Big Bang and as young as a newborn. We are transforming right now.
When favorable conditions arise, we can be thankful, but they will not last. When unfavorable conditions arise, we can be thankful for their many lessons, but they will pass too. Everything can be our teacher if we are aware enough.
Chan practice is not reserved for monasteries hidden deep in the mountains. It is not only for seekers who wander alone in the wilderness. Any activity can be sacred when it is done in a space of stillness. We are practicing wherever we go, touching eternity in a single moment.
in a town
nap under a
so they can
in three years
will be replaced
when they turn
all the bark
a boy jumps
in his new
while his father
works at an
smiles in a
side effects of
diarrhea depression fatigue
insomnia high blood pressure
paranoia irregular heartbeat;
I’m a book reviewing machine.
I’ve been programmed to write about “Breakfast of Champions” by The Creator of the Universe.
Here’s another possibility: I am a character in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. Kilgore Trout can’t be the only one to suspect he’s in a fictional universe, which on some days, seems far too absurd to even be a cheap imitation of reality.
But you, dear reader, are neither a character nor a biological machine. Beyond your clothes and hair, flesh and blood and organs, you are much more than a robotized thing.
You are an unwavering band of light.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” share some similarities. Although they’re set in different time periods, both authors are criticizing a deep-rooted ugliness in American society. Both authors are commenting on the division of communities, and the alienation of individuals, through the evils of racism and sexism and classism.
Both authors are asking what it means to be free in a country that so often treats its human beings terribly. Many human beings, for generations and generations, were not even considered to be human beings.
Many are still not.
Vonnegut does not ignore how cruel people can be toward each other. He nauseatingly forces his readers to look at what happens when, instead of everyone treating each other with the dignity that they deserve, they categorize each other instead.
In “Breakfast of Champions,” he shows what it is like to live in a decaying America. Unregulated companies use up the natural resources of the land with barely any legal consequences. The rich exploit the poor while blaming them for being poor. Politicians order young soldiers to commit atrocities in unnecessary wars. Neighborhoods are separated by class and race. Organized crime is the undercurrent of many businesses. Communities repeat the same violent patterns that they learned from their ancestors, patterns as old as centuries of slavery and genocide. They pass down their ghosts to their descendants, pretending that the worst parts of themselves are over.
Yet in such a systemically unjust world, people still have a choice. They can still use their “free will” to be compassionate to one another. They can show small kindnesses to strangers. They don’t have to hate just because they were taught to hate. They don’t have to become unthinking, unfeeling machines.
People are not mere robots programmed by their environments, their genes, or even “The Creator of the Universe” to be a specific way or to follow one set path. They aren’t predestined to meet a certain fate.
Many people can choose to behave humanely, even in an unjust country. But if the same force of societal ignorance continues as it had in the past, there may not be enough time left to prevent a nuclear or environmental catastrophe. Homo sapiens may become another extinct species, unable to adapt to the chaos of their natures.
If humans are to ever survive together, they must acknowledge each other. They have to see that other beings suffer just like them, want just like them, cry just like them, and love just like them. They deserve to be respected, not because of their status or wealth, but because they are human.
“This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. It is the inside story of a concentration camp, told by one of its survivors. This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed), but with the multitude of small torments. In other words, it will try to answer this question: How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” (Frankl, Viktor)
The life of the average concentration camp prisoner, who had no special status or distinguishing marks on their sleeves, was a daily struggle for existence.
They were tattooed on their flesh. Most of their possessions were stolen. Even their identity was taken away as they were reduced to a number among other numbers. To live, if only barely, if only briefly, was to know of another’s death.
“Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends. With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Viktor Frankl was Number 119, 104. His job in camp was digging and laying tracks for railway lines. Eventually, he tended to the sick, injured, and dying.
For the Capos, who still got their regular rations, they earned cigarettes as well as other perks. For ordinary prisoners, cigarettes were luxury items, traded for soup to prevent their starvation. Then there were the cigarettes left for those who had lost themselves in despair.
“The only exceptions to this were those who had lost the will to live and wanted to ‘enjoy’ their last days. Thus, when we saw a comrade smoking his own cigarettes, we knew he had given up faith in his strength to carry on, and, once lost, the will to live seldom returned.” (Frankl, Viktor)
When a prisoner first entered camp, they were shocked. Unable to grasp the brutal reality of their situation. Barbed wire and spotlights. Shrill commands in German. Ragged humans slumped in a gray dawn. As the days passed from the train to the camp, prisoners dulled into a nightmarish world.
“In psychiatry there is a certain condition known as ‘delusion of reprieve.’ The condemned man, immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute. We, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that it would not be so bad.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners who first arrived at camp were starved and cooped together in the cold. Guards would walk over and inspect each person, deciding on whether they would be sent to work or die. With one finger pointing to the right or left, there was existence or non-existence, life or execution.
“‘Was he sent to the left side?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Then you can see him there,’ I was told.
‘A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the grey sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.
‘That’s where your friend is, floating up to Heaven,’ was the answer. But I still did not understand until the truth was explained to me in plain words.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners had their most precious items stolen, which included wedding rings, writings, jewels, and photographs; anything that resembled their former identities. They were stripped until they were trembling and naked, whipped and beaten, washed of lice, shaven until completely hairless.
“Thus the illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humor. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives. When the showers started to run, we all tried very hard to make fun, both about ourselves and about each other. After all, real water did flow from the sprays! Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances. When my life was once endangered by a climbing accident, I felt only one sensation at the critical moment: curiosity, curiosity as to whether I should come out of it alive or with a fractured skull or some other injuries. Cold curiosity predominated even in Auschwitz, somehow detaching the mind from its surroundings, which came to be regarded with a kind of objectivity. At that time one cultivated this state of mind as a means of protection. We were anxious to know what would happen next; and what would be the consequence, for example, of our standing in the open air, in the chill of late autumn, stark naked, and still wet from the showers. In the next few days our curiosity evolved into surprise; surprise that we did not catch cold.” (Frankl, Viktor)
In Auschwitz, a prisoner had to adapt to the most horrendous conditions imaginable. Cold, unclean, sleeping huddled together after eternities of hard labor, shirt weathered, feet cracked in the mud.
Suicide loomed in every prisoner’s mind — from the ever present danger that took those around them, threatening at every moment, to the utter hopelessness of the future. While some did kill themselves, most commonly by electrocution when touching a barbed wire fence, others, despite their small chance of living on, bared through those grueling days of survival, aware that they would still be sent to the gas chamber.
As time grinded on under ever harsher conditions, prisoners were desensitized to emotions such as disgust and pity and compassion. From being around so much trauma, they had become apathetic, blunted of caring, having only the instinct to survive. After so many days, their physical punishment didn’t matter nearly as much as the agony of injustice. They felt a complete helplessness to do anything about the terrible conditions that had spread through the camp.
Guards regularly punished prisoners for the smallest of infractions. If somebody stepped out of line, talked back, helped another person who was struggling, or couldn’t do their work, they would be murdered, if not beaten. They were treated with the same respect as livestock.
Prisoners, who had once lived as husbands and wives and students and doctors and professors and musicians and teachers and shopkeepers, were barely afforded the dignity of their humanity.
After being reduced to such a blunted state, prisoners became primitive in their need to live each day for one more day. Just for a little longer. They dreamed more than they lived. Imagining that they had their simplest desires fulfilled from cake to cookies, from warm baths to a deep sleep, they craved the illusion of peace while bearing a terrible reality.
“When the last layers of subcutaneous fat had vanished, and we looked like skeletons disguised with skin and rags, we could watch our bodies beginning to devour themselves. The organism digested its own protein, and the muscles disappeared. Then the body had no powers of resistance left. One after another the members of the little community in our hut died. Each of us could calculate with fair accuracy whose turn would be next, and when his own would come. After many observations we knew the symptoms well, which made the correctness of our prognoses quite certain. ‘He won’t last long,’ or, ‘This is the next one,’ we whispered to each other, and when, during our daily search for lice, we saw our own naked bodies in the evening, we thought alike: This body here, my body, is really a corpse already. What has become of me? I am but a small portion of a great mass of human flesh … of a mass behind barbed wire, crowded into a few earthen huts; a mass of which daily a certain portion begins to rot because it has become lifeless.” (Viktor, Frankl)
Once they were woken out of their longing and dreams, the prisoners huddled together to work. They moved from a shrill whine of sirens. They barely fit their swollen feet into wet shoes before another day of labor began. If their feet could not fit inside those shoes, they would have to trudge through the snow, barefoot and frostbitten. While undernourished and starving, prisoners generally lost the ability to care about sex or anything except for a fulfillment of basic needs. Even feelings of sentiment, of caring, numbed into apathy from repeated daily trauma.
“There were fifty of us in the prison car, which had two small, barred peepholes. There was only enough room for one group to squat on the floor, while the others, who had to stand up for hours, crowded round the peepholes. Standing on tiptoe and looking past the others’ heads through the bars of the window, I caught an eerie glimpse of my native town. We all felt more dead than alive, since we thought that our transport was heading for the camp at Mauthausen and that we had only one or two weeks to live. I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city. After hours of delay the train left the station. And there was the street — my street! The young lads who had a number of years of camp life behind them and for whom such a journey was a great event stared attentively through the peephole. I began to beg them, to entreat them, to let me stand in front for one moment only. I tried to explain how much a look through that window meant to me just then. My request was refused with rudeness and cynicism: ‘You lived here all those years? Well, then you have seen quite enough already!’” (Frankl, Viktor)
As prisoners struggled to endure, sometimes their only salvation came through reflection, religious rituals, debate, or the recollection of a loved one. Frankl imagined his wife while marching on his sore feet, touching her with his memories, with his imagination of where she was, how she was, and how deeply he loved her.
“This intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past.” (Frankl, Viktor)
By creating such a rich inner life for themselves, prisoners developed an intense appreciation for nature and art. In contrast with their suffering, they found glory in the simplest miracles of existence.
“Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be!’” (Frankl, Viktor)
“Another time we were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria. ‘Et lux in tenebris lucet’ — and the light shineth in the darkness. For hours I stood hacking at the icy ground. The guard passed by, insulting me, and once again I communed with my beloved. More and more I felt that she was present, that she was with me; I had the feeling that I was able to touch her, able to stretch out my hand and grasp hers. The feeling was very strong: she was there. Then, at that very moment, a bird flew down silently and perched just in front of me, on the heap of soil which I had dug up from the ditch, and looked steadily at me.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Most of camp life, however, wore on the very existence of each prisoner. They had to suffer ongoing turmoil, which threatened their values, beliefs, and high purpose, “throwing them into doubt.” (Frankl, Viktor) The brutality of their world ground their dignity down to its barest form, where they sensed that at the end of all their struggle was death. They were used up until their bodies failed them, until their will to go on, to persevere, had faded. After so many nights of relentless abuse, their spirits were like the lights of candles, dwindling into enveloping darkness.
Camp inmates often were tormented when they had to make decisions or take an initiative, believing that their lives were subject to fate. Small decisions could lead to life or death, whether in the moment or in the future.
On Frankl’s last days at camp before he was rescued, when he thought about escaping, he wrote: “We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death. I was confronted with photographs which had been taken in a small camp not far from ours. Our friends who had thought they were traveling to freedom that night had been taken in the trucks to this camp, and there they were locked in the huts and burned to death. Their partially charred bodies were recognizable on the photograph.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Trusting in fate, at times of almost certain death, was an acceptance of what was to come. In other ways, it was only one defense against the evil of the camp. Apathy was another way of survival, of psychological defense. In conditions of starvation and death, of malnutrition and poor hygiene, of regular slaughter and grueling work, of being treated as livestock instead of as humans, prisoners had to find a way to endure.
Despite the apathy, exhaustion, and irritability of the prisoners, they were never completely lost, never completely forsaken to the hells of their conditions. They still had a choice, a chance within every moment, to act humanely. There were many who, under extreme duress, acted heroically.
“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
‘We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Everything could be taken from an inmate but their inner freedom. Some prisoners, despite the most terrible conditions, still maintained their human dignity. Among the greatest suffering and injustice, they still had to choose and not choose.
Even though they were surrounded by the most extreme external restrictions, prisoners had the choice to reflect on what had meaning for their lives. They could still hold onto their higher purpose or discover a new meaning. Their attitude of spiritual freedom was a crucial element in the ongoing struggle for their existence.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.” (Frankl, Viktor)
While many prisoners fell into despair or conformity because of the brutal injustice perpetrated against them, there were still some who remained compassionate, courageous and loving, giving of themselves when they had no obligation to give, accepting their fate when others denied it, selflessly helping others when everything was stolen from them, up until the time of their extermination. They died with no names, no families or friends, but they never forgot their humanity.
To give their last bite of bread to a child, to stand up to a guard, to offer a kind word before walking into the gas chamber, despite never being known or praised for their innumerable small sacrifices, was to act with freedom.
“This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ What did it say to her? She answered, ‘It said to me, ‘I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.’” (Frankl, Viktor)
While inside the camp, there was no time, no sense of a future anymore. Outside the barbed wire fence, prisoners felt an unreality, an alien world to their own. They had to struggle to grasp the meaning of life and to not lose themselves in their past, in their apathy, in giving up any future possibilities. Some strengthened their inner lives, maturing under the horrors of their experiences, while others resigned themselves to a previous way of life that was no more.
“Naturally only a few people were capable of reaching great spiritual heights. But a few were given the chance to attain human greatness even through their apparent worldly failure and death, an accomplishment which in ordinary circumstances they would never have achieved. To the others of us, the mediocre and the half-hearted, the words of Bismarck could be applied: ‘Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.’ Varying this, we could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Prisoners who could imagine a reason to survive, a “why” for their existence, in the moment or in the future, could endure the most unbearable circumstances.
“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.
‘These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response. Sometimes the situation in which a man finds himself may require him to shape his own fate by action. At other times it is more advantageous for him to make use of an opportunity for contemplation and to realize assets in this way. Sometimes man may be required simply to accept fate, to bear his cross. Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand. When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Inside the camp, there were those who could endure daily atrocities and those who could not. Even among those who could, they survived not only from hope, not only from having a genuine purpose in a world that was against them, but from chance.
For the guards themselves, there were those who took a sadistic pleasure in making the prisoners suffer and die. Then there were those who were sympathetic but remained silent to the abuse, to the tortures, hardening themselves after many years. Finally, there were those who secretly helped and cared for the prisoners, despite negative consequences from their superior officers.
Some prisoners, who had been promoted to the most marginal powers in the camp, became as sadistic as the worst guards. Other guards, moved by compassion, could bring a prisoner to tears from the smallest act of kindness. No one in either group was entirely good or entirely bad. Life asked each of them a question, in every circumstance, which was this: “What type of person would they be?”
“From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the ‘race’ of the decent man and the ‘race’ of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of ‘pure race’ — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.
‘Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.” (Frankl, Viktor)
When the prisoners were finally released from camp after so many years of hard suffering, returning to the world was an ordeal for them. They drifted on as if lost in a dream, unable to feel, unable to be human for a long time. It was so difficult for the prisoners, after being routinely abused, to recover from the endless torment of the camp, where death was their companion.
Prisoners often ate an enormous amount once they were liberated, compensating for years of watery soup and stale bread.
Pressure had been building inside every one of them for years because they had to repress so much trauma. Eventually, this pressure erupted into talk, into a discussion of what had been too taboo to speak about in camp, into screams and nightmares and long cries about all those who were murdered before them, into a readjustment back into the unfamiliar world of the living.
“One day, a few days after the liberation, I walked through the country past flowering meadows, for miles and miles, toward the market town near the camp. Larks rose to the sky and I could hear their joyous song. There was no one to be seen for miles around; there was nothing but the wide earth and sky and the larks’ jubilation and the freedom of space. I stopped, looked around, and up to the sky — and then I went down on my knees. At that moment there was very little I knew of myself or of the world — I had but one sentence in mind — always the same: ‘I called to the Lord from my narrow prison and He answered me in the freedom of space.’ How long I knelt there and repeated this sentence memory can no longer recall. But I know that on that day, in that hour, my new life started. Step for step I progressed, until I again became a human being.” (Frankl, Viktor)
Some of those who were freed returned to where they once had lived. Many of them could not find their families anymore. Others traveled to their hometowns, but their community could not truly empathize with them or know the magnitude of their suffering.
Some of the survivors still held onto hope. They hoped for a wife, husband and child, for a future, for a meaning that lingered beyond those barbed wire fences and spotlighted towers. They found purpose in their suffering, but not through what the Nazis desired for them to be. They endured the utter depravity of their conditions, for years and years, seeking what would transcend them, returning to their humanity again.
in blades of grass,
she pushes her brother
the moss of
lean over, leaves
the beat sun
clouds and blue
over a twig
in the spring,
the mud of
her own feet
in the field,
a raven flies
off near the