On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times     
By Michael Ignatieff. Picador. 2021. 304 pages

It is worth reading both the preface and the introduction to this thoughtful – or rather heartfelt – book with greater care than one would normally do. This is because the author, Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian writer and historian, wrestles with the concept of consolation, a word he recognises has profound religious connotations, from the awkward position of someone outside religious belief.

That he feels awkward is clear from the way that he indeed struggles with his subject, asking the legitimate question: what kind of consolation can an unbeliever experience and how is this experience still an authentic one?

In his preface, Ignatieff provides the background to his book: in preparation for a talk he had to give during a choral festival in Utrecht in 2017 in which all 150 Psalms would be sung, he read them in advance and has been trying ever since “to understand [their] impact…on me.” The festival itself was “cathartic” for all participants, leading to his search for an answer to the question: “How had ancient religious language exerted such a spell on us, especially on a non-believer like me?”

As a scholar and man of wide culture, Ignatieff’s understandable response is to examine the great classical texts on consolation as well as more modern responses to the perennial search for meaning in the face of suffering. In his introduction, he realises that “The challenge of consolation in our times is to endure tragedy, even when we cannot find a meaning for it, and to continue living in hope.” He knows that hope, in some form, is intrinsic to consolation; there has to be some soulful purpose in the darkness, even if it is not the traditional solace of Judaeo-Christianity.

There is something of the outsider’s longing and lament in Ignatieff’s further question: “We might suppose that religious texts – Job, the Psalms, Paul’s Epistles, Dante’s Paradiso – are closed to us if we don’t happen to share the faith that inspired them. But why should we be required to pass a test of belief before we can derive consolation from religious texts? The religious promise of salvation and redemption might be closed to us, but not the consolation that comes from the understanding that religious texts can offer for our moments of despair.”

The defensive subtext here reminds those who do believe the Christian story that, as Shakespeare writes, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” We share kinship with other men and women by virtue of being human; and it is this kinship that Ignatieff explores in the texts he chooses to examine.

Thus he finds meaningful links between Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, penned while he was in prison awaiting certain death at the hands of the emperor Theodoric, deriving solace “constructed, phrase by painful phrase, in documentation of his own struggle”, and Dante, 800 years later, reading Boethius during his own exile from Florence, and Primo Levi, 600 years after Dante, remembering both authors at Auschwitz in 1944 and reminding himself enduring this human hell that “We are not born to be brutes. We are men, created for knowledge and virtue.”

What can we learn from these writings and experiences of those who have undergone tribulation in the past? “Something very simple. We are not alone and we never have been.” Thus Ignatieff, groping for solace in our unbelieving times, claims a fraternal bond with all who have given voice to their own need for solace in life, life that is often baffling, mysterious, cruel and ineffably beautiful – all at the same time.

Reading the Book of Job – the seminal text about the sufferings of a just man – and the Psalms, he reasons that the hope needed for consolation depends on “faith that our existence is meaningful”, leading to the conclusion that it is “an unavoidably religious idea.” In other words, we are not born “only to suffer and die.”

In discussing the Epistles of St Paul, the author is aware that a “transformation” has taken place in the heart of this incomparable letter -writer; thus, a person “could be reborn anew…” Interpreting St Paul from the standpoint of his own unbelief, Ignatieff does not understand the theological significance of Pauline conversion. Nonetheless, by including St Paul (who was, bizarrely, ignored by the historian Simon Sebag-Montefiore in his anthology of great letter-writers), Ignatieff shows an openness and humility before seminal texts which he has the grace to accept he cannot fully encompass.

The subject of this book is so rich in its shades of meaning, and the writings chosen by its author are so varied, so demanding and so worthy of debate, that it is not possible to cite all of them, or Ignatieff’s lucid, responsive commentary on them. Nonetheless, they provide a little excursion into the world of the great literature of Western civilization – including Cicero (“It is from Cicero and Roman Stoicism that men learned, for 1000 years and more, that they must refuse the comfort of tears…”); Montaigne (for whom consolation lay in “the deepest attachments we have, our love of life itself”); Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, after the appalling carnage of the American Civil War, in which he understood the connection “between consolation, forgiveness and  reconciliation”, thus making a magnificent effort to bind up the wounds on both sides of the conflict; and Albert Camus’ The Plague (in which men discovered “our reliance upon and our need for each other. There was no consolation other than that, no faith other than the conviction…that we would not let each other die if we could possible avoid it”).

I was very glad to note that the author has concluded this literary (and religious) survey with a final chapter titled “A Good Death. Cicely Saunders and the Hospice”. Having described in this chapter the deaths of his own parents, in bleak, clinical, hospital settings which he continues to mourn, Ignatieff grasps the unique contribution Cicely Saunders has made in our times in answer to the question: what is a good death? Resolutely opposed to any form of euthanasia or so-called ‘dignity in dying’ Saunders, who moved from being a hospital social worker, to nursing and finally to study medicine in middle age, pursued with single-minded determination her quest to give the dying a death that was both sensitive to their need for palliative care and pain control, but also their need (sometimes unspoken) for reconciliation and forgiveness of those left behind; their need to be listened to and to acknowledge each patient’s unique life and circumstances.

So, the author concludes with the Hospice movement, which began as a medieval refuge for the dying that was resurrected by Cicely Saunders and which, for patients with religious faith or not, offers true and compassionate consolation for those facing death. Saunders, Ignatieff comments, understood that “being consoled in our final hours is possible only if we never give up hope of giving our death meaning to those we love.”

There are two parallel quests in this book: the first is personal: the author’s continuing, if underlying search to discover why the Psalms made such an impression on him, an unbeliever; the second, in teaching mode, to present the reader with passages from well-known writers, forced to confront mental anguish and to seek existential answers. I highly recommend it.