In Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea (now available on Amazon Prime) the two main characters, Lee (Oscar winner Casey Affleck) and his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) attempt to deal with multiple deaths. Joe (Lee’s brother and Patrick’s dad) dies early in the film, and later we learn of other deaths that become the chief source of the grief that will haunt Lee for the rest of the movie—to avoid being a complete spoiler, I’ll remain a bit vague here. How to cope with death and not despair also troubled four of Russia’s great nineteenth-century writers, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov.
Dealing with death and other human tragedies, retaining hope in the face of great misfortunes, is indeed a universal and timeless concern. Sometimes, as with Lee, tragedies occur because of human carelessness or other faults, sometimes not. If we bear some responsibility for a tragedy—say we’re texting while driving or drinking and driving and we cause an accident that kills someone—can we ever forgive ourselves? Should we? And how about the suffering that seems to occur through no one’s fault? Like an infant with a painful disease?
Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov rejects God and salvation because he cannot accept the reality of the suffering of little children. By the late nineteenth century, the old certainties of God and religion had disappeared for many intellectuals. In “Dover Beach” the poet Matthew Arnold spoke of the decline of “The Sea of Faith” and added:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Before the century was over, Nietzsche proclaimed “the death of God.” And in the twentieth century writers like Albert Camus and the dramatists of the Theatre of the Absurd attempted to grapple with a world they thought devoid of God and which no longer seemed to provide any satisfying answers.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, who while writing The Brothers Karamazov [BK] had sought spiritual counsel to deal with the death of his two-year-old son, followed the religious path that many people retained in order to keep himself from despair. One of his favorite Biblical books was that of Job. Like Dostoevsky, Job had suffered much including the loss of children—in 1868 a baby daughter of Dostoevsky’s had also died. And Job’s answer—we cannot understand the ways of God—after an agonizing search for why he (and other innocent people) suffered tragedies, gave Dostoevsky some satisfaction.
At about the same time that Dostoevsky was writing BK, Leo Tolstoy was working his way through his own struggle with despair. (See here for more on the experiences of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev in the 1870s.) From 1873 to 1875, his three youngest children had died—five remained and several more would be born in the future. In late 1875 he wrote of being in a “condition in which nothing from the outer world has any interest, in which there are no desires and one sees nothing but death ahead of one.” Latter recalling this period in his My Confession, he tells us that he was strongly tempted to end his own life. His fear of death and his mental anguish seemed greater evils than death itself. So as not to succumb to temptation in one of his many moments of despair, he wrote that he removed a rope from his study and stopped taking his gun out to hunt.
Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy eventually found solace in religion. But unlike his fellow writer, Tolstoy did not return to the Russian Orthodoxy in which both men had been brought up. Instead, he ended up developing his own religious beliefs that differed from Orthodoxy in some fundamental ways. Like Dostoevsky, however, he came back to religious answers primarily because of observing the faith of Russian commoners, who were then overwhelmingly peasants.
Ivan Turgenev was the third great writer of that generation, and he also tried to make sense of death, but unlike the other two great writers he was unable to find any answers that satisfied him. One of his Poems in Prose written about this time captures well his fear of death.
WHAT SHALL I THINK?. . .
What shall I think when I come to die, if only I am in a condition to think
Shall I think how little use I have made of my life, how I have slumbered,
dozed through it, how little I have known how to enjoy its gifts?
'What? is this death? So soon? Impossible! Why, I have had no time to do
anything yet. . . . I have only been making ready to begin!'
Shall I recall the past, and dwell in thought on the few bright moments I
have lived through—on precious images and faces?
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Will my ill deeds come back to my mind, and will my soul be stung by the
burning pain of remorse too late?
Shall I think of what awaits me beyond the grave . . . and in truth does
anything await me there? . . .
When dinning with Tolstoy and his family in 1878, Turgenev requested that those who were afraid of death should raise their hand, and he immediately raised his own. No one else joined him except a reluctant Tolstoy, who after a moment stated "Oh well, I also do not wish to die.”
Standing between the religious consolations that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy arrived at and the gloomier fears of death that characterized the more secular Turgenev stood the thoughts of a younger man, the fourth great Russian writer, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). A year before his death, he wrote, “I lost my faith years ago and can only look with perplexity at any ‘intellectual’ who does believe.” Yet, his hundreds of stories and smaller number of dramas taken together reflect well the human condition, which spans a spectrum from the most comic to most tragic.
Already displaying in his twenties signs of the tuberculosis that would kill him at age 44, Chekhov personally experienced the fear of death that troubled the earlier great writers. At times, such as in his “A Dreary Story” (1889), written shortly after his brother Nikolai died of tuberculosis, Chekhov’s views seem as pessimistic as those of Turgenev.
In that story, an honored professor and doctor, says “I know perfectly well that I cannot live more than another six months. . . . Everything is disgusting; there is nothing to live for, and the sixty-two years I have already lived must be reckoned as wasted.” Unable to arrive at any satisfying philosophy of life, the old professor says, “And if there is not that, then there is nothing.”
Such thoughts led one Russian philosopher and literary critic, Lev Shestov, to write: “To define his tendency in a word, I would say that Tchekhov [variant spelling] was the poet of hopelessness. Stubbornly, sadly, monotonously, during all the years of his literary activity, nearly a quarter of a century long, Tchekhov was doing one thing alone: by one means or another he was killing human hopes. Herein, I hold, lies the essence of his creation.” But Geoffrey Borny’s in Interpreting Chekov insists that Shestov was wrong and criticizes directors of Chekhov’s plays who overemphasize the gloomy and fail to maintain “the precarious balance between ‘hope’ and ‘despair’ that is so important an element of Chekhov’s vision of reality.” The director of his last play, The Cherry Orchard, Constantin Stanislavsky, thought it was a tragedy, but Chekhov insisted it was a comedy.
One scholar writes that Chekhov saw “laughter as medicine, and a vital prerequisite for any treatment of his fellow human beings. Implicit is the sense that laughter—and comedy—are restorative. . . . Chekhov's comedy is therefore not only a stylistic feature in his works, but is also a vital part of his philosophy. It is the point where content and form meet, the one usually inseparable from the other.” The writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote about him that “things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up.” (See here for sources of quotes and more on Chekhov and here for more on the importance of humor for dealing with life’s misfortunes.)
Besides humor, Chekhov’s humanistic beliefs helped keep him from despairing over death and life’s other woes. In his “An Anonymous Story” (1893), Chekhov’s narrator and chief character makes the following statements that characterize Chekhov’s own beliefs: “Man finds his true destiny in nothing if not in self-sacrificing love for his neighbour. It is towards that we must strive, and that is our destination! That is my faith!” And at another place in the story, his narrator says: “I believe it will be easier and clearer for the generations to come; our experience will be at their service. But one wants to live apart from future generations and not only for their sake. Life is only given us once, and one wants to live it boldly, with full consciousness and beauty. One wants to play a striking, independent, noble part; one wants to make history so that those generations may not have the right to say of each of us that we were nonentities or worse.”
Many modern-day humanists are more like Chekhov than like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, who found comfort in their religious beliefs. Loving other human beings, as well as caring for future generations, helps keep them from despair over their own inevitable deaths.
The Catholic religious activist Dorothy Day admired the humanist Camus and in 1948 paraphrased a character in his The Plague, “who says that he is tired of hearing about men dying for an idea. He would like to hear about a man dying for love for a change. He goes on to say that men have forgotten how to love, that all they seem to be thinking of these days is learning how to kill. Man, he says, seems to have lost the capacity for love.”
Poet Archibald MacLeish’s modern rendition of Job in his play J.B. (1958) also emphasizes human love as an antidote to death and life’s tragedies. Like the Biblical Job, MacLeish’s J.B. loses much, including children who die, but instead of turning to God, he returns to his loving wife, from whom he had separated, and they plan to start a new family.
In his When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981) Rabbi Harold Kushner reflects upon both Job and J.B. in his attempt to make sense of the sickness and death (at age 14) of his son Aaron. Kushner’s answer is like that of Dorothy Day—“forgiving and loving,” both other people and God. Thus, loving others (and God if you are a believer) is the major recommendation of wise people who have given much thought to how best to cope with death and tragedies. (Reversing the title nouns of Woody Allen’s 1974 comic view of Russian Literature, Love and Death, we might say “death and love” is the answer, or more precisely coping with death by loving more.)
In Manchester by the Sea, Lee is not consoled by his apparent Catholic religion. As he twice tells his nephew Patrick near the end of the film, “I can’t beat it.” He can’t overcome his grief over the deaths he believes he has caused. And he can’t forgive himself for that tragedy.
Like Chekhov, director Lonergan does mix in humor with tragedy. Several scenes with the young Patrick provide comic relief. He and Lee exchange comic gibes when they can’t find their car on a freezing night or later when trying to find an address. And some of Patrick’s entanglements with two girlfriends amuse us. But for Lee humor cannot do much to lessen his suffering. Perhaps the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who greatly valued the positive effects of humor, was correct when he wrote that it was insufficient in dealing with the “ultimate incongruities of life.”
Yet, the film does not end on a completely hopeless note. Love, of the self-sacrificing type that Chekhov wrote of, does offer at least a glimmer of hope. And it is Lee’s love for his now-fatherless nephew. Despite his continuing grief, Lee works hard to make arrangements so Patrick can finish his schooling in Manchester and not have to move to Boston with him. And he lets his nephew know that he will continue to look out for him. The final scene shows them fishing together on the boat Patrick has inherited from his father. Who knows, perhaps in some future that viewers are free to imagine, Lee’s spark of love will expand and crowd out his guilt and misery.