In On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, the distinguished Canadian historian and political theorist Michael Ignatieff reflects on the consequences of the enduring disruption in the metaphysical supply chain that had connected countless generations to hope. The book could hardly arrive at a more critical moment. Though conceived in 2017, it was shaped and shaded by the explosion of the novel coronavirus into our lives a few years later.
With the even more explosive arrival, a few weeks ago, of war into the lives of Ukrainians — and the shadow of nuclear war now cast over every life — Ignatieff’s book has gained an even sharper edge. Literally overnight, political leaders are consumed with finding a solution to the war launched by Vladimir Putin, while the Ukrainians and the rest of us are condemned to finding consolation in times far darker than Ignatieff had imagined a few years ago.
And yet, 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.
The search for consolation is as old as humankind. Four thousand years ago, the eponymous hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in his frantic and futile flight from death, finally accepts his fate upon seeing once again the vast walls of his city. Turning to Ur-shanabi, the boatman rowing him home, Gilgamesh urges him to climb the walls, survey the foundations, and examine the brickwork. It seems the returning king, in the end, finds consolation in the invincible city walls. They, at least, will always stand.
Except, of course, they don’t. Gilgamesh is not just taking the measure of all that he himself will lose, but of all that will eventually crumble and collapse.
One of the many virtues of Ignatieff’s book is that it does not flinch from such perspectives. While a deeply sympathetic writer, Ignatieff is never sentimental. The challenge of consolation in our times, he observes, “is to endure tragedy even when we cannot find a meaning for it.” Derived from the Latin consolor, consolation is the act of finding solace in the company of our fellow men and women. It is more than mere comfort. While the latter is fleeting, the former is lasting; it is, Ignatieff states, “an argument about why life is the way it is and why we must keep going.”
In the end, Ignatieff believes, consolation offers hope and the “possibilities to start again, failing perhaps, but as Beckett said, failing better.” To illustrate (and sometimes complicate) this point, Ignatieff offers a series of biographical portraits of men and women across time and space — or, at least, the space we refer to as “the Western world” — who have responded to the tragedies and absurdities that scored their lives.
There are some of the usual suspects when it comes to the literature of consolation. One chapter is devoted to Job, who loses his children thanks to God’s wager with the Adversary; another to Cicero, whose daughter, Tullia, dies giving birth to a son; yet another to Boethius, author of The Consolations of Philosophy, who loses first his freedom, then his life because of the emperor’s paranoia. The strokes of these portraits are always deft and telling. Ignatieff captures in a single line the paradoxical quality of Cicero’s relationship with Tullia — “Cicero loved her, no doubt, but she was a chattel” — as he does on Cicero’s equally paradoxical position as the writer who “had perfected consolatio and now he was inconsolable.”
At other times, these portraits seem to be missing a stroke or two. For example, Ignatieff captures Job’s sense of the unbearable triteness of being. “It is not only God’s errant malignity that torments him,” Ignatieff writes, “but also a new sense of mankind’s cosmic insignificance.” It is also true, as Ignatieff writes, that Job “must make peace with what he cannot understand.” What choice has he when confronted by an order whose creator, as bellows the voice from the whirlwind, makes it “rain on a land without man / wilderness bare of humankind”? But is it true, as Ignatieff concludes, that God tells Job there is “no good answer” for his searing questions? Or, instead, that there is a good answer, but one God alone comprehends?
More important, Ignatieff concludes with the final lines of the Book of Job, which reassure us that Job’s family, health, and riches were restored. The problem, though, is that these lines belong to the book’s frame-story — the last chapter along with the first two chapters — that predate by at least a century the poem that is sandwiched in-between. It might well be, as Ignatieff believes, that Job finds consolation at the end of his life. But for the Job poet, it sufficed to end at the preceding chapter, where we leave Job, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, wondering how hope is possible in a world dominated by the Leviathan.
Ignatieff has more surprising subjects sit for a portrait, as well. In a chapter devoted to David Hume, he offers a beautiful rendering of the Scottish philosopher’s final days. While dying from stomach cancer, Hume refused to abjure the atheism that had made him a lightning rod for so many of his contemporaries. He had no need of the consolation of an afterlife; the knowledge that one had succeeded in shaping one’s life was consolation enough. When James Boswell visited Hume shortly before the philosopher died, he left deeply impressed by his great calm and good humor in the face of death. As Ignatieff notes, Boswell then recounted this visit to Samuel Johnson, who flew into a rage of disbelief upon hearing it.
Yet also telling, though not told by Ignatieff, was Boswell’s reaction. Desperately distraught upon learning of Hume’s death, Boswell blinded himself with alcohol and shagged a prostitute in Edinburgh. The following day, though, after following the burial procession in pelting rain, Boswell went to a nearby library and started to reread some of Hume’s essays. One of them might well have been “The Sceptic,” in which Hume observes that “[w]hile we are reasoning concerning life, life is gone; and death, though perhaps they receive him differently, yet treats alike the fool and the philosopher.”
Cicely Saunders would have no doubt understood both Johnson’s and Boswell’s responses. In his portrait of this remarkable woman who almost blazed the field of palliative care in the mid-20th century, Ignatieff notes that Saunders grasped that people like Hume are the great exception. When faced with death, most of us instead react with denial or flight. What she understood, Ignatieff writes, and what most doctors ignored, was that “the anguish of dying was not just about the pain and the fear. It was also the feeling, sometimes desperate, sometimes enraged, that they were not being listened to and were even being denied the truth.” When she died, like Hume, from cancer, Saunders was able, also like Hume, to look back and find solace in a life well lived.
These and 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. Montaigne did not write his essays, but instead mostly dictated them; Max Weber did not privilege the ethics of responsibility over the ethics of conviction, but instead believed they were equally essential; Camus found the epigram for The Plague not in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year but in Robinson Crusoe; Beckett did indeed write, “Try again. Fail again. Better again,” but also continued to write, “Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.”
It should be no surprise that, when it comes to consolation, Beckett does not have much to offer. But that is not why I, at least, read him. What he has to offer is, quite simply, extraordinary words and enduring art. 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.
But is it also possible that consolation is, at times, not all it’s cracked up to be? That instead, as Iris Murdoch remarked, the purpose of great art is not to console. Instead, she insists, it is to invigorate. Perhaps in a culture numbed by the surfeit of images and static of voices, invigoration is no less vital.
Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His latest book is The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas (2021). His new book, Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague, will be published next month