Timely and profound philosophical meditations on how great figures in history, literature, music, and art searched for solace while facing tragedies and crises, from the internationally renowned historian of ideas and Booker Prize finalist Michael Ignatieff
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? In a series of lapidary meditations on writers, artists, musicians, and their works—from the books of Job and Psalms to Albert Camus, Anna Akhmatova, and Primo Levi—esteemed writer and historian Michael Ignatieff shows how men and women in extremity have looked to each other across time to recover hope and resilience. Recreating the moments when great figures found the courage to confront their fate and the determination to continue unafraid, On Consolation takes those stories into the present, movingly contending that we can revive these traditions of consolation to meet the anguish and uncertainties of our precarious twenty-first century.
About the Author
Michael Ignatieff is the author of Isaiah Berlin and The Warrior’s Honor, as well as over fifteen other acclaimed books, including a memoir, The Russian Album, and the Booker finalist novel Scar Tissue. He writes regularly for the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. Former head of Canada’s Liberal Party, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and president of Central European University, he is currently a professor at CEU in Vienna.
"An ambitious restoration project . . . Ignatieff believes that holy texts of all denominations can be mined for comfort and insight even by the faithless, in their depiction of common human experience."
—The New York Times Book Review
"When the world is in crisis, where should we look for comfort? . . . On Consolation is 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 . . . 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."
"To be a member of the human race is to undergo loss, anguish, bereavement, betrayal, failure, aloneness, and the fear of death . . . To be human is also, in some cases, to possess extraordinary courage, endurance, intellectual power, imagination, and capacity for hope . . .Michael Ignatieff’s remarkable and moving new book, written out of the dark times of a world pandemic . . . suggests what we might learn from individual examples of 'the human experience.'"
—Hermione Lee, The New York Review of Books
"Rich and nuanced . . . Ignatieff’s portraits . . . 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 . . . 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."
—Robert Zaretsky, The Los Angeles Review of Books
"As religious belief declines, and in a culture obsessed with success, how do we find consolation? Michael Ignatieff looks to thinkers, who came through the darkest experiences, for what they can tell us about holding on to hope and belief in life’s possibilities . . . Ignatieff argues, in this deeply important book, that it’s not doctrines that console us but people."
"A thoughtful book . . . Especially moving are the final chapters in which Ignatieff profiles poets of the Holocaust and Cicely Saunders, founder of the hospice movement . . . This meaningful work will be compelling and comforting for readers looking for perspective and balance."
"Erudite and elegant . . . Ignatieff's vivid biographical sketches of his subjects holding themselves together through failures, terminal illness, or looming execution . . . inspire and, in their way, console."
"An inspiration for those in needs of words to carry on with life."
"A poignant reminder that to seek consolation or comfort is, in many ways, one of the most universally human things one can do."
"A profound exploration."
"This erudite and heartfelt survey reminds us that the need for consolation is timeless, as are the inspiring words and examples of those who walked this path before us."
"On Consolation could not be more urgent . . . Ignatieff wants to re-acquaint us moderns with the old ways we’ve left behind, and to remind us that some problems are, by their nature, beyond the powers of technology and good government."
—Ash Carter, Air Mail
"In grief, some of the afflicted seek solace in God. Other distressed souls search for comfort in their friends and family. And some of these walking wounded find solace and hope in the arts . . . In On Consolation, Michael Ignatieff gives readers a vivid reminder of the comforting power of art."
“In an age when we are so much in need of solace, Michael Ignatieff went looking for it in texts and times whose assumptions are profoundly different from our own. The result is a secular reinterpretation of a landscape that has often seemed visible only through a religious lens: it is elegant, humane and intensely rewarding.”
—Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity
"It is at once illuminating, moving and itself consoling, to follow Michael Ignatieff as he searches for moments of consolation across the centuries. More often than not, he finds these moments not where one would most expect them but in surprising places—in the failure of Cicero’s stoicism; in Marcus Aurelius’ sleepless nights, in Boethius’ odd flash of bleak comedy, in the illusory dreams of Karl and Jenny Marx. And with resolute honesty Ignatieff follows the search into his own inner life, grappling, as we all must do, with failure, loss, and death."
—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
"A wonderful balance of literary survey and personal reflection, this book is wide-ranging, moving, and stylishly written. It makes the perfect introduction to a genre that never goes out of fashion."
—Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live and At the Existentialist Café
"An extraordinary meditation on loss and mortality, drawing on all of Michael Ignatieff’s powers as a philosopher, a historian, a politician, and a man. His portraits of figures such as Hume and Montaigne are sharp and dignified, troubling and consoling, thoughtful and deeply humane."
—Rory Stewart, author of The Places in Between
“This is an extraordinarily moving book. The idea of solidarity in time is itself consoling, amidst so much loss: in Ignatieff’s words, ‘we are not alone, and we never have been.’”
—Emma Rothschild, author of The Inner Life of Empires
“Michael Ignatieff's eloquent search for consolation is itself consoling. His confidence in old wisdoms suits our new circumstances. This is a book splendidly immune to the panics of our age, written in an affecting spirit of humility by a man of uncommon intelligence who has a rare gift for keeping his head. For many of its readers On Consolation will be—is there any higher praise for a study of this subject?—useful.”
—Leon Wieseltier, author of Kaddish
“Illuminating and moving, these wide-ranging portraits of men and women seeking answers in dark times—from the Book of Job to Montaigne, from Cicero to Akhmatova, and on to today's palliative care—appeal to us all, as a universal quest and an intimate personal testament.”
—Jenny Uglow, author of Mr. Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense
“A passionate, thought-provoking, unpredictable book.”
—Carlo Ginzburg, author of Threads and Traces
"With this book, On Consolation, we are gifted with deeply perceptive insights on eternal truths with a contemporary lens, toward a desperately-needed restoration of communal hope from Canada’s great intellectual powerhouse, Michael Ignatieff."
—Lieutenant-General (ret) The Honourable Roméo Dallaire
"Human problems are like crystals: they have so many faces that they must be turned over and around many times in order to see every side. Michael Ignatieff’s ruminative On Consolation does that artfully. Reading his memorable portraits of historical figures who needed, sought, lost, or found consolation leaves the reader with a deeper appreciation of the profound challenges and possibilities that life lays before every one of us.”
—Mark Lilla, author of The Reckless Mind