I CONCENTRATE ON YOU
by Charles R. Hale
Cole Porter wrote “I Concentrate on You” on the eve of America’s entrance into WWII. During the war Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, and author of “Man’s Search For Meaning,” and his wife, Tilly, spent time in a number of concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. I never considered the parallel nature of Porter’s lyrics or the words Frankl penned until quite recently.
Frankl recorded his memories in his book after the war ended. At the core of Frankl’s theory is the belief that man’s primary motivational force is his search for meaning.
Here’s a passage from his book:
I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the helplessness 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….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.”
Frankl was continually seeking solace in the last thing he had control of, the only freedom he hadn’t relinquished, his capacity to love. When his only positive achievement was enduring his suffering, when in utter desolation he was surrounded by death, he clung to the thought of his beloved wife, Tilly, who died in Bergen-Belsen at the age of twenty-four. They stripped him of his writings and research, his clothing, and even his hair; he retained the freedom of his private thoughts. He created his own reality. That sustained him.
I thought of this passage one morning while I was working out Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You” on the piano. I was familiar with the song; I’d heard a number of artists perform it, including Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. But this time, as I began playing the song, I spoke the words aloud and they moved me in a way they never had.
Whenever skies look gray to me and trouble begins to brew
Whenever the winter-winds become too strong, I Concentrate on You
On your smile so sweet, so tender. when at first your kiss I decline.
On the light in your eyes when you surrender and once again our arms intertwine.
When fortune cries “nay, nay” to me and people declare, “You’re through,”
Whenever the blues become my only song, I Concentrate on You.
And so when wise men say to me that love’s young dream never comes true.
To prove that even wise men can be wrong, I concentrate, and concentrate on you.
During the war years Porter moved between Hollywood and New York City, while Frankl moved between camps in Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic, Auschwitz, Poland, and Turkheim in Bavaria, Germany. For years I thought of Porter’s lyrics as everyday words of love and adoration, painted with loving attention. Yet, when I read Frankl’s words describing the profound love he felt for his wife, Tilly, words that are quite similar to Porter’s, somehow I felt his words were sacred. And now I wonder, why do I make distinctions between the sacred and the everyday? There are none.