On Consolation by Michael Ignatieff review – timely meditations on comfort

Essays

From Cicero to El Greco, Marx to Mahler, a study of solace through the ages offers lessons from the broken

When the world is in crisis, where should we look for comfort? Given humanity’s dwindling religious beliefs, we are less likely than previous generations to see our lives as part of a grand cosmic plan, or believe that paradise awaits in the great beyond. All of which can make consolation – the idea that there is a point to existence, and therefore to our tragedy and suffering – that much harder to find.

In his new book of essays, the Booker prize-shortlisted novelist, academic and erstwhile 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 times,” he explains, “is to endure tragedy, even when we cannot hope to find a meaning for it, and to continue living in hope.” This is not a tract on how to improve your mental health or a guide to self-care. Rather, it’s a meditation on the nature of comfort, explored via a series of portraits of artists, writers and thinkers who have stood on the precipice of despair and sought consolation in difficult times.

In his preface, Ignatieff recalls visiting a friend who was bereft following the death of his wife. The writer’s impulse was to offer comfort but words were not enough to alleviate his friend’s suffering, and so they mostly sat in silence. “To understand consolation,” Ignatieff observes, “it is necessary to begin with the moments it is impossible.” He is dismissive of our present-day 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 becomes understood as an illness 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 tackle human suffering, Ignatieff would rather go back in time and study the examples set by our predecessors, first of which is Job, on whom God inflicts multiple cruelties to test his devotion, from slaughtering his cows and burning down his house to giving him the plague. Ignatieff is not religious but does respect religious traditions and parables. From the trials of Job, 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 convictions were put to the test when his daughter, Tullia, died in childbirth. He also considers the art of El Greco, the music of Gustav Mahler, the letters of St Paul and the political convictions of Karl Marx. Like Max Weber, another case study here, Marx’s ideas were tethered not to a higher power but to the welfare of future generations.

Ignatieff’s subjects are unapologetically high-minded – much as it could be fun to read him on the healing properties of Chic’s Good Times, or the films of Billy Wilder, popular culture doesn’t get a look-in, which is his prerogative. That the subjects are overwhelmingly white and male is more dispiriting, however. Just two women feature: the social worker and physician Cicely Saunders, who advocated for better end-of-life care and in 1967 founded St Christopher’s Hospice in London, gets a chapter to herself, while the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, writer of Requiem, about the Great Purge of 1937, gets a paltry three pages. Ignatieff makes clear that his choices are personal, though his approach seems strangely blinkered.

It feels significant that this book was started long before the pandemic, at a time when ideas about consolation might not have seemed as vital as they do now. So will it bring solace to the anxious reader? Well, yes and no. In Ignatieff’s gallery of the broken and bereaved, there is no escaping the ultimate trajectory that we are all on. Grim anecdotes also abound, from Cicero’s grisly execution, which involved having his head and hands cut off, and his severed tongue being stabbed with needles by Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, to Michel de Montaigne watching plague-ridden peasants digging pits to die in. If you think we’ve got it bad, the author seems to say, try watching a sick man climbing into his own grave.

But there are also lessons to be taken from those who have faced enormous hardship and emerged with a greater understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Ignatieff’s aim in telling these stories is to remind us that we are not the first generation to encounter despair and to search for pathways through it. “What do we learn that we can use in these times of darkness?” he asks. “Something very simple. We are not alone and never have been.”

• This article was amended on 5 February 2022. An earlier version incorrectly described Michael Ignatieff as a “Booker prize-winning novelist”. His book Scar Tissue was shortlisted in 1993.

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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