‘On Consolation’ Searches for Solace in the Face of Grief and Misery

By Alexandra Jacobs

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Pharrell Williams sang about it. Tony Hsieh of Zappos promised to deliver it. Clinique named a perfume for it. Happiness has been the primary, bright-yellow pursuit of those living during what is now again modish to call, with disdain, “late capitalism,” as if the revolution were right around the corner, along with one’s Sweetgreen order. It’s the ultimate American oh-what-a-feeling, perpetually for sale and eternally elusive — and it’s been a bonanza for publishing.

In “On Consolation,” the prolific author, professor and former politician Michael Ignatieff pushes aside this commercial, foamy emotion and dives into the murkier waters beneath. In these depths, which often are close to deaths, any notion of happiness has ebbed or evaporated entirely; indeed, circumstances can be so desperate that there seems no way back to shore. What can help in such moments? Certainly not a texted smiley face. Mental-health professionals and their pills might also be inadequate. “They treat our suffering as an illness from which we need to recover,” Ignatieff writes. “Yet when suffering becomes understood as an illness with a cure, something is lost.” 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. Cicero’s beloved daughter and grandson die, for example, and subsequently assassins arrive to saw off the statesman’s head and hands; Marc Antony’s wife then attacked his severed tongue with needles. Painful kidney stones were the least of Michel de Montaigne’s problems; he was kidnapped, and watched as neighbors infected with plague lay down with resignation in graves they dug themselves. Abraham Lincoln agonized over hanging young Civil War deserters, then met his own abrupt end at the theater. Primo Levi survived and chronicled the Holocaust, but plunged into depression and down a flight of stairs at 67.

Speeding through the centuries with such ill-fated figures, you’re rudely immersed in the often compartmentalized truth that you and everyone you’ve ever loved are all going to die some day, possibly out of turn, possibly alone and scared in a hospital — like Ignatieff’s father, he reveals remorsefully. And even if you win every accolade desired in life, you’re likely to be forgotten quite soon. (“After repute, oblivion,” as Marcus Aurelius put it.) We are all, in fact, ill-fated.

How to go on then, and why?

“On Consolation” takes the erosion of organized religion as a given, and is directed at secularists who still seek meaning and purpose: nonbelievers, not nihilists. Still, Ignatieff believes that holy texts of all denominations can be mined for comfort and insight even by the faithless, for a spirituality as customized as one of those Sweetgreen salads. The crux of the Psalms is not their conviction that the Messiah will appear, but their depiction, over frequent revisions, of common human experience: “The worst of despair,” their creators knew, “is to feel alone.” Maybe, against Sartre, heaven is other people.

But then again, perhaps the purest solace is found solo, Ignatieff suggests, doing what moderns would call journaling (not the productivity-centered bullet kind) or attempting autobiography — as Aurelius did; also Boethius, imminently to be strangled by barbarians “with a cord until his eyes stood out from their sockets, and then clubbed”; and Albert Camus, who survived tuberculosis to win a Nobel Prize, only to discover it had a chilling effect on his writing, and then perish in a car accident. At times “On Consolation” feels like Edward Gorey’s “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” without the pictures.

Ignatieff can be droll, re-enacting meetings between old friend-philosophers like Adam Smith and David Hume — the latter, ailing from “a disorder in my bowels,” joked that Charon might let him revise his work one more time before foraying across the river Styx. But 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, as when El Greco embedded a portrayal of his young son into his painting “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” a parish commission finished in 1586 that draws crowds to this day. (Though I’m not sure they flock, as Ignatieff asserts, because of an ineffable longing “that time should not slip so irrecoverably into forgetting, that the present should not be so fleeting, that the future would not be so shrouded and so unknown”; some may have just seen it on TripAdvisor.)

Most transcendently, Ignatieff says, for those able to hear, consolation is available in music — though “in the death of a child,” he acknowledges, recounting a bereaved Mahler pacing the Dutch canals with Freud, “music met its match.” 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.

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