When we lose someone we love, when we suffer loss or defeat, when catastrophe strikes_war, famine, pandemic_we go in search of consolation. Once the province of priests and philosophers, the language of consolation has largely vanished from our modern vocabulary, and the places where it was offered, houses of religion, are often empty. Rejecting the solace of ancient religious texts, humanity since the sixteenth century has increasingly placed its faith in science, ideology, and the therapeutic. How do we console each other and ourselves in an age of unbelief?
Michael Ignatieff pushes aside this commercial, foamy emotion [of happiness] and dives into the murkier waters beneath ... His book is an ambitious restoration project, a survey course of Eurocentric anguish from Job to the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz ... I must warn those weak of stomach that the straits faced by Ignatieff’s subjects, mostly white and male though they may be, are among the most dire that Western history has to offer ... Ignatieff believes that holy texts of all denominations can be mined for comfort and insight even by the faithless ... Humor is not one of Ignatieff’s recommended solace staples. More satisfying to him is the poetry that abject misery and grief can inspire. When words fail, as they so often do, there are love messages to decode in the visual arts ... Sitting among a teary audience at a concert devoted to the Psalms, where Ignatieff lectured, inspired this project, which gathered further momentum following the coronavirus, when he saw a symphony orchestra break from isolation into Zoom squares to play Beethoven’s 'Ode to Joy.' Happiness this wasn’t, but something deeper and more enduring.
... for those who find consolation as elusive, if not as impossible, as a political solution to our darkening times, Ignatieff’s book makes an eloquent and empathetic case for us to look a bit longer ... One of the many virtues of Ignatieff’s book is that it does not flinch from [dark] perspectives. While a deeply sympathetic writer, Ignatieff is never sentimental ... At...times, these portraits seem to be missing a stroke or two ... In a chapter devoted to David Hume, he offers a beautiful rendering of the Scottish philosopher’s final days ... Ignatieff’s other portraits, ranging from Marcus Aurelius and Michel de Montaigne, through Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, to Albert Camus and Václav Havel, are rich and nuanced. They are also touched by a sense of urgency, stirred by personal events in Ignatieff’s life and public events that have swept across all our lives. This no doubt accounts for the occasional textual misstep ... Yes, consolation is so terribly important. Perhaps now more than ever. In this regard, Ignatieff has done us a great service with this moving and affecting series of reflections.
Thoughtful ... Especially moving are the final chapters in which Ignatieff profiles poets of the Holocaust and Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement. Along the way, the author shares his own struggles with grief and search for consolation. While not an easy read, this moving and meaningful work will be compelling and comforting for readers looking for perspective and balance.