Ideas

The meaning of life in the works of Viktor Frankl, Anton Chekov, and Joan Didion

Pondering the meaning and purpose of life is not a trivial pursuit, and indeed, the search becomes most urgent when people are confronted with tragedy, loss and grief. But as some of the world’s great thinkers and writers have argued, there is great beauty and joy to be found in the truths about existence that sorrow reveals, This month's edition of The Enright Files explores how the works of Viktor Frankl, Anton Chekhov and Joan Didion wrestle meaning and solace from tragedy, horror and suffering.
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Pondering the meaning and purpose of life is not a trivial pursuit, and indeed, the search becomes most urgent when people are confronted with tragedy, loss and grief. But as some of the world's great thinkers and writers have argued, there is great beauty and joy to be found in the truths about existence that sorrow reveals. On this month's edition of The Enright Files, we explore how the works of Viktor Frankl, Anton Chekhov and Joan Didion wrestle meaning and solace from tragedy, horror and suffering.

Even if life was without pain, drudgery and disappointment, even if we could have everything we wanted, we would probably still wrack our brains and search our souls to find meaning in our lives. A reason for our existence. It's just the way we humans are wired. 

But that impetus to find meaning seems more urgent in the face of suffering, tragedy and unspeakable acts of senseless cruelty. What could possibly be the purpose of that?

Or as people endure the banal grind of everyday life or the slow extinguishment of dreams and ambitions, the questions are pointed: What's the point of it all? Is that all there is?


​Haddon Klingberg on Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning"

Viktor Frankl (Jacqueline Godany/Reuters)

Viktor Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning after surviving three years in four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, enduring the most inhumane of circumstances.

Frankl confessed that when he learned that his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother had all been murdered by the Nazis, he wanted to die. But writing pulled him out of his despair.

Part memoir, part manifesto, part discourse on human psychology, Man's Search for Meaning poured out of Frankl in a torrent. He dictated the book over the course of nine days.

Frankl was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, who said a person who has a why to live can endure almost any how. Frankl's own experience taught him that while a person can be humiliated and tortured and reduced to almost nothing, even then, one can still find meaning, beauty and joy in life.

Man's Search for Meaning was first published in 1946. Since then it has been translated into more than 30 languages. When he was ninety, Victor Frankl, estimated he was getting more than eight thousand letters a year, most of which thanked him for changing a life.

In 1993, he visited Chicago with his second wife Elly. Their host was Haddon Klingberg, a psychology professor from North Park University. Frankl reminisced about his life's adventures. Professor Klingberg was surprised that Frankl's stories hadn't been written down and was inspired to write the remarkable book, When Life Calls Out to Us, the Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl.

Michael Enright spoke to Haddon Klingberg in April 2016. 


Julia Zarankin and Carol Rocamora on Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov (Keystone/Getty Images)

Anton Chekhov was born in Russia in 1860, and died 44 years later. In the course of his short life, he wrote more than 500 short stories and more than a dozen plays. His most famous four plays —The Seagull, The Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard — are performed constantly around the world.

His many short story readers treat his work as a master class in empathy, clarity and complication. There are no easy answers to be found in Chekhov's writing. He shows us people as they are, not as we would like them to be. And the world as it is, not as it should be.

There is an absorbing dailyness to his characters' lives; they eat, smoke, argue, fret, have affairs. They wonder what will truly fulfill them. They desperately want to live worthwhile lives, but they can't stop longing for some person, some place or some version of themselves just beyond their reach.

Julia Zarankin is a Russian literature specialist who was born in Ukraine and immigrated to Canada when she was three-years-old. Michael spoke to Professor Zarankin on the Sunday Edition last April as part of a special program called We Must Go On Living: Anton Chekhov for the 21st Century, produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

In 1898, Chekhov met Olga Knipper, the young actress who would later become his wife. They had a passionate love affair, but Chekhov's failing health, and her career in the Moscow Art Theatre, kept them apart for most of their marriage.

While they were apart, they wrote each other letters, hundreds of them. In an early note, he addressed her as "dear last page of my life." When he died in 1904, they had been married for just three years.

Their letters inspired Chekhov scholar Carol Rocamora to write a play called I take your hand in mine, after the line Chekhov often used to end his letters. She is also the author of a biography called Anton Chekhov: A Life in Four Acts. 


Joan Didion on tragedy and sorrow

Joan Didion (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Joan Didion has been one of the most renowned writers in the United States for decades,  a novelist, journalist and writer of plays, screenplays and non-fiction.

Along with her husband, John Gregory Dunne — a novelist, screenwriter and literary critic — she was also part of the most glamourous literary couple of recent times. As John and Jacqueline Kennedy were to American politics, Didion and Dunne were to American letters. But Didion's greatest work as a writer came as she reckoned with loss and personal tragedy of the most profound sort  — the sudden death of her husband and of her only child, Quintana.

Didion said, "the unexamined fact is like a rattlesnake. It's going to come after you. And you can keep it at bay by always keeping it in your eye line."

She wrestled with the facts in two memoirs of grief. The Year of Magical Thinking was a raw chronicle of the year following her husband's death, a year when she says she went a little crazy. Blue Nights is a rumination on motherhood, frailty, aging and loss.

Michael spoke to Joan Didion in November, 2011.

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