Do you believe these things really happened?


On balance, we do not: The piece was featured on page one of the New York Times Sunday Review.

It was the only piece on page one. That’s a very high-profile placement.

Shown below are the opening paragraphs of the piece, headline included. Do you believe this actually happened?
SMITH AND AAKER (12/1/13): Millennial Searchers

For Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor who wrote the best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the call to answer life’s ultimate question came early. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” But Frankl would have none of it. “Sir, if this is so,” he cried, jumping out of his chair, “then what can be the meaning of life?”

The teenage Frankl made this statement nearly a hundred years ago—but he had more in common with today’s young people than we might assume.
Do you believe that actually happened? Granted, it makes a wonderful story, so wonderful that the story has been told many times through the ages.

But in the case of Viktor Frankl, do you believe it actually happened? Do you believe that Frankl, then a teenager, “jumped out of his chair” as he posed that question to his teacher?

Everything is possible! But no, we don’t believe that story. Why is it being told?

Granted, it makes a great story. The story is so great, it’s one of the western world’s oldest, at least in translation. Consider Book 9 of The Iliad:

Odysseus is sent to persuade Achilles to return to battle. As he does, a familiar image appears, perhaps for the very first time. Or so Professor Fagles has it in his current translation:
So Ajax and Odysseus made their way at once
where the battle lines of breakers crash and drag,
praying hard to the god who moves and shakes the earth
that they might bring the proud heart of Achilles
round with speed and ease.
Reaching the Myrmidon shelters and their ships,
they found him there, delighting his heart now,
plucking strong and clear on the fine lyre—
beautifully carved, its silver bridge set firm—
he won from the spoils when he razed Eetion’s city.
Achilles was lifting his spirits with it now,
singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes.
Across from him Patroclus sat alone, in silence,
waiting for Aeacus’ son to finish with his song.
And on they came, with good Odysseus in the lead,
and the envoys stood before him. Achilles, startled,
sprang to his feet, the lyre still in his hands,
leaving the seat where he had sat in peace.
Do not interrupt Achilles when he is delighting his heart and lifting his spirits, singing the famous deeds of fighting heroes, accompanied by his beloved Patroclus! That said:

At least in translation, Achilles was so surprised by the envoys’ approach that he “sprang to his feet,” leaving the place where he had been sitting.

That sort of action is now a standard part of Saturday morning cartoons. But has it ever actually happened in real life?

More specifically, did it actually happen in the case of the teen-aged Frankl? Or are the scholars simply drawing us in with a good solid pleasing tale?

A similar thought occurred last week when we read the opening paragraphs of Larry Sabato’s new book about the death and afterlife of President Kennedy. Do you think this actually happened? These are the first two paragraphs of Chapter 1:
SABATO (page 6): "We're heading into nut country today. But Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?"

Her husband's words brought little comfort to Mrs. Kennedy—she was still nervous about the trip to Dallas. The full-page ad she had just seen in the Dallas Morning News accused the president of supporting Communists and using the Justice Department to silence his critics. Were such extreme political views common in the city? If so, then perhaps they should cancel the final leg of the trip. She had even asked her primary Secret Service agent about it, but he replied that Dallas was probably no more dangerous than anyplace else...
We like Larry Sabato around here. On C-Span last weekend, we watched him discuss the Kennedy killing for an hour. To us, he seemed highly informed.

Beyond that, the highlighted quotation is taken from a 1972 memoir written by Dave Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell, two top Kennedy aides. That said, do you believe Kennedy actually made the quoted statement? Do you believe he said the whole thing?

We’re not inclined to believe that. And that somewhat implausible quotation evokes an antique story too. You can read it in its first appearance in Book 6 of the Iliad, when Hector tries to comfort Andromache before he goes off to be killed.

It's a long, remarkable passage. At one point, Hector says this:

“Andromache, dear one, why so desperate? Why do much grief for me? No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it, neither brave man nor coward, I tell you—it’s born with us the day that we are born.”

(Moments earlier, the spouses share a good laugh as their infant son draws back in fear from his father's flashing helmet. Hector sets the helmet down and kisses his crying son.)

Everything is possible, of course. But we aren’t inclined to believe that Kennedy actually made the quoted statement. We are inclined to believe this:

Much of what we’re handed is novels. Our public discourse tends to be novels—novels all the way down.

The western world’s foundational stories often trace to The Iliad. These are the stories scholars may use, sometimes rather sketchily, to help us imagine a somewhat cartoonish world.

Viktor Frankl jumped out of his chair. Like glorious Hector, Kennedy knew what was coming.


  1. Why wouldn't the blogger believe

    ' SABATO (page 6): "We're heading into nut country today. But Jackie, if somebody wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?" '

    Because it wounds his neo-confederate Angry White Male heart - DALLAS in the 60s was nut-country? NO WAY !!!!!! All those good old boys (even those who allegedly had champagne when news of the shooting broke out) had nothing but love for the Yankee catholic president.

    There was a Klan rally as late as the late 1980s in the blogger's beloved city.

    1. JFK had a neo-confederate Angry White Male heart?

  2. i dont get this.

    i can easily picture a willful and impulsive student getting very annoyed at implicitly being told that *his* life also means nothing and jumping out of his chair to protest.

    second, what jackie kennnedy allegedly told powers and odonnell also seems very plausible to me. what jfk reportedly said is very arguably true, that dallas was a different sort of place even from the rest of texas. also it is true, even with the transparent bubble on, he or anyone else could be shot and killed from above if he wanted to allow himself to be seen by the public by using an open top car.

    what is somerbys angle here in using these poor examples to make his larger point?

    {btw, im not implying that dallas itself was somehow culpable in the assassination. i believe it was the cia doing the bidding of huge moneyed interests, not oswald, vp johnson, the mob etc. oswald was cia and fbi at a very low level and was probably one of a number of pasties available to wear the jacket depending on how things went. they most likely did not even know what really was up. the operatives came to dallas. sickening listening to the hacks in the media drone on about oswald. how do you beelieve anything else they say? and they wonder why they are losing ratings. it isnt just changing technologies. 9/11 the same deal.}

  3. The point here is that these are very familiar cultural scripts that should make one's BS detector go off full blast. Heroes and martyrs are not sui generis but rather cultural kinds that display remarkable uniformity down through history. The "precocious youth" who displays signs of his future greatness and the doomed martyr who foretells his own death are old chesnuts. Take the 12-year-old Jesus preaching in the temple, and predicting his own death multiple times in the New Testament.

  4. kennedy and jesus pissed a lot of powerful people off and they surely knew they were doing so

  5. I'm reminded of the Kevin Kostner film, "Thirteen Days," which should have been titled, "Kenny O'Donnell Matches Wits with Khrushchev and Saves the World From Nuclear Annihilation, With a Little Help From Friends Jack and Bobby."

    Never mind jumping out of chairs. The film, financed in part by Kenny's son Kevin, marked Costner's 105th consecutive terrible accent.

    The film's depiction of historical events was controversial, especially among those who had heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As usual, the guy playing Adlai Stevenson had too much hair and the guy playing Walter Cronkite was Walter Cronkite. This time, however, the guy playing McNamara was not fat.

    A defense of the liberties allegely taken might be "it's just a movie" but it's a movie for which people were led to have expectations of verisimilitude and historical accuracy, especially now that we get our history from movies and miniseries and our news from comedy shows and talking heads morality plays.

    The story about Frankl (whose book would have been more aptly titled, "Man Must Come up With His Own Damn Meaning") is the kind of thing that makes me cringe every time I read one of these Woodward-style insider books.

    Gore Vidal died over a year ago and took the secret of elegant historical fiction with him.

  6. Sabato benefits from passing this quote as a fact, as he is currently hawking a book that promotes the lone-nut theory of the JFK assassination.

  7. Startle reactions have been studied (Boo: Culture, Experience and the Startle Reflex, Ronald C. Simons, 1996). I've seen film of subjects being startled by an unexpected starter pistol fired behind them. Some fell out of their chairs but none sprang to their feet. Some barely blinked. It was very interesting.

    At the time Frankl was in school, Dewey hadn't yet spread his message that student questions enhanced learning. Questions would have been regarded as disruptive, rude, insolent, to be punished. He may have sprung to his feet because students were required to stand when addressing the teacher, but wouldn't likely have done so because startled. That makes the story seem apochryphal to me. The kind of student who would have such a thought wouldn't express it that way in the disciplined classroom of that time period.

  8. Let me add a quote by Kenneth O'donnell, one of Sabato's sources. Former Speaker of the House Tip O'neill wrote a book titled, "Man of the House" (Publisher: St Martins Mass Market Paper, September 1988).
    In this book O'Donnell is quoted as saying " "I told the FBI what I had heard (two shots from behind the grassy knoll fence), but they said it couldn't have happened that way and that I must have been imagining things. So I testified the way they wanted me to. I just didn't want to stir up any more pain and trouble for the family."

    Again, Sabato doesn't give us THAT quote by O'donnell, because it does not fit into his lone-nut theory.

    1. i cant find my copy but i remember oneill expressed disgust at odonnells acquiescence. i dont remember if he did it just in the book or if also directly to odonell. oneill said he never would have stayed quiet if he had heard what odonnell thought he did.

  9. Next time Bob says, "Our analysts came right out of their chairs," I won't believe him.

  10. If this story is true, why is it important? It shows that JFK was (literally) dead wrong in thinking he was in danger from conservatives, when the actual threat came from the left.

    Consider the irony. Jackie and JFK thought he was in danger because he supposedly supported communists, but he was assassinated by a more-or-less Communist.

    IMHO the media has stuck to the narrative they liked in 1963, namely that the right-wing was the threat to JFK. Actual facts haven't been allowed to get in the way of their preferred narrative.

    1. David, this is bad reasoning. First, he was in danger from conservatives because they were actively issuing threats and were vocally upset with him. Second, Lee Harvey Oswald did not represent the left. He was a mentally ill person who tried to find a home with communist (not left-wing) countries (Cuba & USSR) but was unwelcome in any US-based organization. He had no coherent ideology and was unaffiliated with any left-wing group in the US. He was disaffected, unstable, and clearly a threat to the president, but also to his wife and others who upset him for personal reasons. His actions were more personal than ideological, based on everything I've read about him and setting aside various conspriacy theories (in which he is generally treated as a pawn).

      You are making no friends here when you ignore the previous discussions about Oswald, in which you yourself admitted he was mentally ill, and go back to using him as a representative of left-wing violence. There has been violence on the left (SDS, Symbian Liberation Army, IWW Anarchists) but Oswald is not typical or representative of it and your statement about JFK having to fear from the left is entirely wrong.

      Crazy people do not reason like normal people. Ascribing ideological motivation to them is mistaken.

      Your preferred narrative is very annoying -- please stop it or you will enter the ranks of troll in my book.

    2. Yes, of course Oswald was mentally unbalanced. Anyone who commits a crime like this is crazy in some sense. Similarly, the men who committed the Oklahoma City bombing were crazy in some sense. But, when right-wing crazies commit a horrendous act, you liberals blame the right wing. I'm applying that same standard to Oswald.

    3. Anon7:05pm, when the perps of crimes are crazy and "do not reason like normal people" conservative "ideological motivation" or rhetoric are always ascribed to them.

      In fact, it is generally argued that conservative principles are essentially corrupting and have driven these people to irrational violent actions.

      I don't have the slightest impulse to blame Oswald's actions or those of far leftist groups, upon liberalism or liberals.

      It would be nice if your rhetoric in this instance matched the mindset of your fellow liberals and the media as regards those who don't share your politics.

    4. "....when the perps of crimes are crazy and "do not reason like normal people" conservative "ideological motivation" or rhetoric are always ascribed to them."

      For example, Ruby Ridge, Waco, NRA gun rights, abortion is murder, ......

      "In fact, it is generally argued that conservative principles are essentially corrupting and have driven these people to irrational violent actions."

      For example, Ruby Ridge, Waco, NRA gun rights, abortion is murder......

      "I don't have the slightest impulse to blame Oswald's actions or those of far leftist groups, upon liberalism or liberals."

      Typical modern day moronic republican. Conflating Marxist Communist with democratic liberalism.

    5. "Always" Cecelia? Including the Unabomber, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the PLO, Black September, and the Red Brigade?

    6. Always. I have never linked these entities to liberals in general or liberalism, and have never seen it done in the media, except via conservative media personalities.

    7. CeceliaMc,

      I can read. You said,

      "I don't have the slightest impulse to blame Oswald's actions or those of far leftist groups, upon liberalism or liberals."

      Why on earth would you blame Oswald's actions on liberalism? The very thought is bizarre, something only a twisted warped person such as DinC could think of.

    8. mm, unfortunately some people do equate "to each according to his need" philosophy that is outside the parameters of democracy, with liberal social justice advocates.

      Just like the majority of the media equates every murdering kook and extremist with pro-lifers, gun-rights advocates, and small govt adherents who work within the democratic process.

      The question now is how much akin in your thinking are you to those folks you've labeled as twisted and warped morons.

    9. I don't know what you're talking about. Tim McVeigh wasn't some kook or extremist, he is mainstream republican. Ruby Ridge, Waco, ask Senator Alphonse D'amato.

      Who said this, CeceliaMc?

      "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building."

      or this,

      "I don't really like to think of it as a murder. It was terminating Tiller in the 203rd trimester. ... I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don't want to impose my moral values on others."


      "If I'm going to say anything about John Edwards in the future, I'll just wish he had been killed in a terrorist assassination plot."

      That's best selling conservative author and celebrity, Ann Coulter.