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 SearchersDo you believe that actually happened? Granted, it makes a wonderful story, so wonderful that the story has been told many times through the ages.
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.
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 onceDo 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:
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.
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?"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.
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...
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.