On Consolation by Michael Ignatieff review – timely meditations on comfort

From Cicero to El Greco, Marx to Mahler, a study of solace through the ages offers lessons from the broken

When the world is in crisis, where should we look for comfort? Given humanity’s dwindling religious beliefs, we are less likely than previous generations to see our lives as part of a grand cosmic plan, or believe that paradise awaits in the great beyond. All of which can make consolation – the idea that there is a point to existence, and therefore to our tragedy and suffering – that much harder to find.

In his new book of essays, the Booker prize-winning novelist, academic and erstwhile politician Michael Ignatieff examines the concept of solace over the centuries and how we might find it in our more secular age. “The challenge of consolation in our times,” he explains, “is to endure tragedy, even when we cannot hope to find a meaning for it, and to continue living in hope.” This is not a tract on how to improve your mental health or a guide to self-care. Rather, it’s 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.

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