On Consolation by Michael Ignatieff review – timely meditations on comfort | Trials

Ohen the world is in crisis, where should we seek comfort? Given humanity’s diminishing religious beliefs, we are less likely than previous generations to see our lives as part of a grand cosmic plan, or to believe that heaven awaits us in the afterlife. All of this can make consolation – the idea that there is meaning to existence, and therefore to our tragedy and suffering – all the more difficult to find.

In his new book of essays, Booker Prize-winning novelist, scholar and former politician Michael Ignatieff examines the concept of solace over the centuries and how we might find it in our more secular age. “The challenge of consolation in our time,” he explains, “is to endure tragedy, even when we cannot hope to find meaning in it, and to continue to live in hope.” This is not a tract on how to improve your mental health or a guide to taking care of yourself. Rather, it is a meditation on the nature of comfort, explored through a series of portraits of artists, writers and thinkers who stood on the edge of despair and sought solace in difficult times.

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In his preface, Ignatieff recalls visiting a friend who was stripped after the death of his wife. The writer’s impulse was to offer comfort, but words were not enough to ease his friend’s suffering, and so they sat in silence. “To understand consolation,” observes Ignatieff, “one must begin with the moments when it is impossible.” He disregards our current use of therapy and medication and believes that mental health professionals “treat our suffering as an illness from which we need to recover. Yet when suffering is understood as a disease with a cure, something is lost. His assertion casually overlooks the fact that there are those for whom such treatments are life-changing and, in many cases, life-saving.

To deal with human suffering, Ignatieff prefers to go back in time and study the examples given by our predecessors, in the forefront of which Job, to whom God inflicts multiple cruelties to test his devotion, ranging from the slaughter of his cows to the burning of his house through the plague. Ignatieff is not religious but respects religious traditions and parables. From Job’s trials, he sees a man who keeps faith in the face of despair.

Elsewhere, he looks at the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero who preached stoicism and self-control, and whose beliefs were tested when his daughter, Tullia, died in childbirth. It also considers the art of El Greco, the music of Gustav Mahler, the letters of Saint Paul and the political convictions of Karl Marx. Like Max Weber, another case study here, Marx’s ideas were not related to a higher power but to the welfare of future generations.

Ignatieff’s subjects are decidedly noble – while it might be fun to read him about the healing properties of Chic’s Good Times, or the films of Billy Wilder, popular culture doesn’t get a peek, which is his prerogative. The fact that the subjects are predominantly white and male, however, is more discouraging. Only two women feature: social worker and doctor Cicely Saunders, who advocated for better end-of-life care and founded St Christopher’s Hospice in London in 1967, gets a chapter for herself, while Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, author of Requiem, on the Great Purge of 1937, obtains only three derisory pages. Ignatieff makes it clear that his choices are personal, though his approach seems oddly narrow-minded.

It seems significant that this book was launched long before the pandemic, at a time when ideas about consolation might not have seemed as vital as they do today. Will it bring comfort to the anxious reader? Well, yes and no. In Ignatieff’s gallery of broken and bereaved people, there is no escape from the ultimate trajectory we all follow. Grim anecdotes also abound, from Cicero’s gruesome execution, which involved having his head and hands severed, and his severed tongue being stabbed with needles by Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, to Michel de Montaigne watching plague-stricken peasants dig pits to die. If you think we’re in pain, the author seems to be saying, try watching a sick man climb into his own grave.

But there are also lessons to be learned from those who have faced tremendous hardship and come out of it with a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Ignatieff’s purpose in telling these stories is to remind us that we are not the first generation to encounter despair and seek pathways through it. “What are we learning that we can use in these times of darkness?” he asks. “Something very simple. We are not alone and never have been.

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times is published by Metropolitan (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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