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19 January 2022updated 28 Jan 2022 5:27pm

The liberal platitudes of Michael Ignatieff

On Consolation promises to show how writers and artists found solace in suffering – but delivers only bland pieties.

By Lola Seaton

Raymond Williams once witheringly described Christopher Caudwell, an English Marxist critic who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War, as “not even specific enough to be wrong”. Reading Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation, the phrase kept coming to mind, or rather my botched, inferior version of it: “not specific enough to be true”. This is only partly true of On Consolation, meaning not somewhat true throughout, but entirely true of parts of the book. A chronological suite of “portraits of particular men and women in history struggling to find consolation” – Western men and women (mostly men), from Job to Boethius, Montaigne to Abraham Lincoln, Marx to Primo Levi – On Consolation has two rhetorical modes: sprightly biographical narrative (thankfully predominant) and sententious philosophising, particulars and platitudes.

Ignatieff, a Canadian academic, journalist, novelist, broadcaster and, briefly, politician, is an agile and engaging, if not dazzling, storyteller. But he too often succumbs to his evident penchant for declarative abstraction, even in his fiction. His Booker-shortlisted, autobiographical novel Scar Tissue (1993), in which the narrator, a philosophy lecturer, sinks into personal crisis at the slow demise of his mother, contains insightful but detachable meditation on dying, during which the book feels less like a novel than a cerebral memoir, the narrator more like a conduit for thought than a vividly ramified consciousness. His family history, The Russian Album (1987) – about his paternal grandparents, members of the Russian aristocracy who fled during the revolution, finding eventual exile in Canada – also begins with thoughtful but slow-moving reflections on the relations between memory and selfhood, history and photography, before it proceeds to the story proper and the imaginatively enhanced historical mode in which Ignatieff excels.

The abstraction in On Consolation is less insightful and inquiring, more sermonising and mawkish. “Consolation is possible only if hope is possible, and hope is possible only if life makes sense to us… The hope we need for consolation depends on faith that our existence is meaningful or can be given meaning by our efforts.” The cascading definitions confer an ambience of profundity that disguises the repetitiousness (consolation requires hope that life makes sense; consolation requires hope that existence is meaningful). With the accumulation of this lofty vocabulary – “faith”, “hope”, “justice” etc – the prose becomes impenetrable and ultimately stupefying. There may be truth here, but it’s not experienced as such.

When he snaps out of this numbing magniloquence, Ignatieff is an energetic scene-setter and an agreeable portraitist, even if his historical sketches are by necessity somewhat cursory. This is primarily what the chapters are made of – not exegesis or analysis, but lightly embellished biography and quasi-novelistic forays into capturing each figure’s immediate context and state of mind, plus a companionable paraphrase of their consolatory works. The crowd listening to Lincoln’s second inaugural address outside the Capitol in March 1865, “had come through the rain and now stood in the breaking sunlight”. Chapters often have an emotional arc: the one on Max Weber opens with the “39-year-old German professor” recovering from “a depressive illness that had forced him to… abandon his professorship” and crescendos, after he recovers his capacity to work and write, with Weber delivering a triumphant lecture: “When he stepped off the stage, at the end of this prodigious evocation of polar night, he would have been euphoric. He joined his lover, Else von Richthofen… and later they tasted the delights of love in a railway carriage.”

[see also: How we lost the art of getting well]

Similarly intimate speculation attends the chapter on Marx – a “fervent, relentless, tough, broad-shouldered man with a black halo of crinkly hair and a dark complexion” – and his wife Jenny, who arrive in Paris from Cologne: “For two young revolutionaries, the excitement of being together, in love, and in the home of world revolution must have been overwhelming… Fellow radicals were impressed by his vigour, his manliness, his cold fearlessness. She would have been attracted to that too.” Ignatieff likewise imagines Boethius’s “distracted and desperate mind” when writing The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting death in prison: “Whatever the physical hardships he endured, it was the longing for a lost life that tormented him… Psychic suffering plus hard rations caused him to waste away and his hair to turn white.” The inconspicuous hedges (“would have been”, “must have been”) license a kind of imaginative extrapolation from the evidence, which, however intellectually gratuitous, does humanise figures whose personalities are often overshadowed or ossified by the canonisation of their work.

The two modes Ignatieff switches between in On Consolation – anecdote and generalisation – correspond to the two categories of his liberal humanism: the suffering individual and the consolation found in transhistorical “solidarity” or “kinship”. But can the consolation founded on these categories – man and Man – be anything other than banal? Or, to put it differently, can it avoid carrying in its train the bland, quietist politics of blurring the distinction between suffering we can’t do much about – the ineluctable, perennial sort – and suffering we can: the contingent, potentially avoidable kind?

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Ignatieff writes that “To live in hope, these days, may require a saving scepticism towards the drumbeat of doom-laden narratives” and counsels us to “retain some sceptical self-command in the face of [them]”. We must not “let our own resilience buckle before the tide of public commentary that predicts environmental Armageddon, democratic collapse, or a future blighted by new plagues”. “To see ourselves in the light of history is to restore our connection to the consolations of our ancestors and to discover our kinship with their experience. We will be astonished when we do.” Ignatieff’s chronic recourse to that cloying, coercively inclusive “we” is symptomatic, while “resilience” here is subtly equivocal – is Ignatieff recommending political resolve or resigned endurance (or even “defensive indifference” or “denihilism”, as Richard Seymour puts it in his forthcoming book The Disenchanted Earth)? It may be true that we live in an age not just of catastrophes but catastrophising, alarmism mixed up with legitimate causes for alarm. But Ignatieff’s “light of history” turns out to mean almost its opposite – the haze of eternity, sifting through “the human record” in search of timeless wisdom about suffering and solace.

On Consolation is not an explicitly political book, but the vestiges of Ignatieff’s unswervingly liberal biases, however reflexive and subterranean, interfere with its sentimental humanism, or with one’s – my – capacity to be moved by it. Occasionally, the political flavour of Ignatieff’s idea of consolation becomes arrestingly overt: “To be consoled is to make peace with the order of the world without renouncing our hopes for justice.” This gradualism surfaces even in the act of attempting to suppress it: “Consolation is the opposite of resignation… We can derive consolation, in fact, from our struggle with fate and how that struggle inspires others.” Invoking “fate” – an impersonal, immovable, supra-political force – is odd even in the context of the book: it is striking how much of the suffering it describes is political in provenance – death sentences, exile, war, genocide.

The chapter on Marx ends with the perplexing suggestion that rather than questioning whether Marx’s “utopia” is “attainable”, it would be better to ask whether “a world beyond consolation is… even desirable”. Ignatieff never pursues the thought, but it’s not obvious, given consolation is by definition second best to not needing it in the first place, why we’d prefer it to a world with less suffering.

In a personal epilogue, Ignatieff discusses failure – perhaps alluding to his leadership of the Liberal Party, defeated in Canada’s 2011 election, and more euphemistically, to his public support for the Iraq War (and its eventual public retraction) – as well as the “all-access pass” that comes with privilege. (Ignatieff has spent much of his adult life outside of Canada, enjoying berths at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard.) “It takes some time to accept the emergent sense of solidarity with the rest of mankind that begins to dawn when you do hand in that pass, when you realise that your previous liberal protestations of abstract solidarity had been so false, when it finally hits you that you are yoked together with all others in a common fate.” This is, of course, only true in the most banal of senses. Far from being “yoked together”, we have drastically uneven relations to – responsibility for, exposure to, ability to change the course of – the contemporary crises Ignatieff cites. Solidarity must be continually forged, not blandly asserted as another spontaneous facet of the “human condition”.

The only common fate (for now, anyway) is death, a subject Ignatieff has thought deeply about. But how and when and why each of us dies, as with how each of us lives, are always partly political questions to which there are radically divergent answers. As liberal professions of solidarity go, On Consolation is just as abstract as the previous efforts Ignatieff disowns – sincere, but not specific enough to ring true.

On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times
Michael Ignatieff
Pan Macmillan, 304pp, £16.99

[see also: Why Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise is an unconvincing redesigning of America]

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party