From an Existential Vacuum to a Tragic Optimism: The Search for Meaning and the Presence of God in Modern Literature employs a new theoretical approach to critical analysis: Victor Frankl’s logotherapy (from the Greek “logos” for word or reason and often related to divine wisdom), a unique form of existentialism. On the basis of his observations of the power of human endurance and transcendence – the discovery of meaning even in the midst of harrowing circumstances – Frankl diagnoses the malaise of the current age as an “existential vacuum,” a sense of meaninglessness. He suggests that a panacea for this malaise may be found in creativity, love, and moral choice – even when faced with suffering or death. He affirms that human beings may transcend this vacuum, discover meaning – or even ultimate meaning to be found in Ultimate Being, or God – and live with a sense of “tragic optimism.”This book observes both the current age’s “existential vacuum” – a malaise of emptiness and meaninglessness – and its longing for meaning and God as reflected in three genres: poetry, novel, and fantasy. Part I, “Reflections of God in the Poetic Vision,” addresses “tragic optimism” – hope when there seems to be no reason for hope – in poems by William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Part II, “American Angst: Emptiness and Possibility in John Steinbeck’s Major Novels,” presents a study of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent – novels that together form a uniquely American epic trilogy. Together these novels tell the story of a nation’s avarice, corruption, and betrayal offset by magnanimity, heroism, and hospitality. Set against the backdrop of Frankl’s ways of finding meaning and fulfillment – all obliquely implying the felt presence of God – the characters are representative Every Americans, in whose lives are reflected a nation’s worst vices and best hopes. Part III, “A Tragic Optimism: The Triumph of Good in the Fantasy Worlds of Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling,” defines fantasy and science fiction as mirrors with which to view reality. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are considered in the light of Frankl’s logotherapy – providing paths to meaning and the ultimate meaning to be found in God. In a postmodern, fragmented age, these works affirm a continuing vision of God (often through His felt absence) and, also, a most human yearning for meaning even when there seems to be none – providing, as Frankl maintains, “a tragic optimism.”
Professor Emeritus of Taylor University and Adjunct Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Barbara A. Heavilin is editor in chief of Steinbeck Review.