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

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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