New Book, On Consolation, Interview with Michael Ignatieff

Former CEU President and Rector, Professor Michael Ignatieff gave an interview about his latest book to Dutch daily de Volkskrant.

For the original interview, see

A translated version of the interview into English is below:

'Comfort, why a book about consolation?', historian Michael Ignatieff was told. And then came the coronavirus pandemic.

For his new book, historian Michael Ignatieff made a personal choice of literature, art and music that brought comfort to him in his life. And he wondered: what does that actually mean, finding comfort?

Troost, the new book by the Canadian historian Michael Ignatieff, originated in a concert hall in Utrecht. To be precise: in 2017 during the Early Music Festival, where 150 psalms were sung by different choirs, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the Nederlands Kamerkoor.

Ignatieff (1947) was invited to give a lecture in between singing. He spoke of justice and politics in the Bible book of Psalms. Then, together with his Hungarian wife Zsuzsanna, he listened to the music from the audience. After the psalms of thousands of years old. And then it happened. "The combination of the music and the words had an incredibly powerful effect. It was a cathartic experience that I still try to explain to this day.' He had, he writes, 'come to give a lecture, but what I found was comfort: in the words, the music and the tears of recognition in the listeners'.

Ignatieff – Canadian of Russian origin, professor, essayist, novelist, Booker Prize winner and former politician – published eighteen acclaimed books. He taught at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford in England and at Harvard in the US. In 2008 he became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The premiership of Canada was in prospect. Instead, his party was halved in the 2011 elections and Ignatieff lost his parliamentary seat. The frank Fire and Ashes – Success and Failure in Politics (2013), in which he describes his rise and fall as a politician, is one of the best-read books at the Binnenhof.

After his political career, Ignatieff returned to academia. In recent years, he has been rector of the prestigious Central European University in Hungary, founded by Hungarian - American philanthropist and billionaire George Soros. In 2019, the university, distrusted by Viktor Orbán for its progressive views, had to largely move to Vienna under pressure from the Hungarian government. Ignatieff now lives in Austria. Since August, he has not been working as rector, but is still affiliated with CEU as a professor of history. And he wrote his nineteenth book in recent years, about consolation.

What happened in that concert hall in Utrecht?

“There were two thousand people in that room. Some must have been religious, but most were probably unbelievers, just like me. And yet we were all touched, people had tears in their eyes. It made me realize that our societies are less secular than we think. Through that experience, I started the research for this book. I wanted to understand why those psalms impressed the audience so much. How could this ancient, religious language still enchant us so much, including me as an unbeliever? And what does that mean, finding comfort?”

You are not religious, but were you raised religiously?

“I grew up in Canada, my father was a Russian refugee. On Sundays I went with him to his Russian Orthodox Church. I didn't understand the language, but I loved being in that church with him, because I felt close to him there. So, I've never been hostile to religion. But when I was 18 years old, I read David Hume's scathing critique of religion from a philosophical point of view. That had a lasting effect on me. So, I'm influenced by two traditions: my father's religious tradition and Hume's skepticism. They are both present in this book.”

Comfort – As light in dark times is a collection of historical portraits of people who have sought comfort. Ignatieff studies and describes the work of writers, artists and composers. From the book of Job, the psalm texts, the stoicism of Cicero, the poetry of Dante, the paintings of El Greco, the essays of Michel de Montaigne, the music of Gustav Mahler and the letters of Václav Havel to the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and the texts of Primo Levi.

The selection is a personal choice. Ignatieff emphasizes that it is not a work of history about consolation. 'I have chosen the stories and figures that have made me who I am over the past fifty years.' When he started the book, his friends and colleagues didn't understand why he had chosen the subject. “Comfort? Why comfort?”, he was told. After the outbreak of the corona crisis, no one asked that question anymore.

What makes comfort so interesting?

“Everyone knows: comforting someone who has lost a loved one is one of the hardest things to do, because words often fall short. You encounter the limits of language. When I lost my parents years ago, I was deeply saddened. Nothing people said to me seemed to make it better. I was inconsolable. Yet I somehow got over it. Finding comfort is therefore also an unconscious process.

The works covered in this book can help us find words for what is wordless. We can learn from those I describe and draw hope from their example. One of my greatest discoveries while writing is that in the end we are not comforted and inspired by doctrines but by people: their example, their courage, their clear minds and perseverance. Not through abstractions such as progress, revolution, history or salvation.”

You write, "The challenge of comfort today is to endure tragedy, even if we cannot give it meaning, and to continue to live in hope." In this day and age, because of secularization, is it lonelier than it used to be for people who are going through something difficult?

“No, I don't agree with that. I think there's a kind of self-pity in that story about secularization and modernity. Because it actually says that in those good old days – when we still believed, went to church and there was a certain social order – we were comforted as a matter of course. I just don't believe that. I think grief, loss and death have always been frightening and lonely experiences. This is also reflected in the psalms: in those ancient texts it is exactly what it is to feel alone, destitute and lost. "I'm alone as a lone bird on the roof." You can't say it any better.

So no, it's not lonelier now than it used to be. Anyone who says that these times are so difficult and lonely for those who have to deal with death and loss is falsifying history. I wouldn't want to live at any other time in history. Especially if you look at history. Think of Montaigne, who in 1586 saw people dying of the plague in the fields. Some even dug their own graves, because they knew they couldn't do anything about the disease anyway. I will get my third jab against corona later today. Give me now, anytime.”

In Troost you say that we need to reconnect with that which comforted our ancestors.

“Yes, when someone you love dies, when you fail or fail, that feeling of loneliness is the worst kind of despair. This book tells: you are not alone. There are people behind you who have experienced exactly the same thing over the past two thousand years. That doesn't make it any easier, but it still offers comfort.

I think the basic principles of human existence are largely immutable. I'm talking about hope, loss, failure, death and inspiration. So, you can open a book that was written and feel two thousand years ago: this person understands what I am going through. You can go to Toledo — perhaps from another continent, from a country like Taiwan or Korea — and stand in front of a painting for hours to study how El Greco depicts the passage of time. The fact that this is possible means that communication takes place over time. That's one of the most beautiful things in life. That's what binds us together.”

That you feel part of humanity, as you write.


In his book, Ignatieff talks about 'connectedness with a chain of meaning through which we can still hear the voices of the past'. He gives a fine example of the Roman statesman Boethius, who in the year 524 wrote The consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), pending the execution of the death penalty imposed on him by a barbaric king. Nearly eight hundred years later, Dante, who had been exiled from his hometown of Florence, read Boethius' work. That inspired him to write The Divine Comedy.

More than six hundred years later, Ignatieff writes, in the summer of 1944 a young Italian chemist walked through Auschwitz with a fellow prisoner. Suddenly, the Italian named Primo Levi remembers some of Dante's lines. In this way, the 'language of consolation continues to exist', says Ignatieff. 'From Boethius to Dante, from Dante to Primo Levi, people in extreme situations who have been inspired by each other for more than a thousand years.'

The people in this book have experienced unimaginable suffering at times. Think of the Hungarian Miklós Radnóti in the concentration camp, or Anna Akhmatova in the Soviet Union. What was it like for you to describe these dramatic lives without becoming gloomy yourself?

“Thinking about Akhmatova and Radnóti was not gloomy, because those people make you speechless. They were able to write immortal works about unspeakable experiences.

What depresses me is something else. That is the question: have we remained loyal to them? Or have the Russians forgotten Akhmatova? In Russia, you have a president who has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. That's what he says about a regime that has killed millions of people. Akhmatova was one of the few heroics to document that story and stood for the greatness of the Russian intellectual and poetic tradition. So, what I'm worried about is her legacy.

I lived in Hungary for five years, the Jewish Radnóti is the greatest Hungarian poet of the 20th century, but he was murdered by his own people. And now, in 2021, anti-Semitism in Hungary has still not been eradicated. So that's the problem. Not them.”

This book not only offers comfort, but also shows the rich European culture. In order for the European Union to succeed, should we perhaps focus more on European cultural identity rather than politics?

“Every time I hear people talking about European cultural identity or European values, my gaze becomes glassy. That doesn't happen to me when reading Montaigne or looking at Rembrandt's paintings. So, I say, keep it specific. Give me Cervantes, but don't talk about Spain. Give me Rembrandt, but don't talk about the Netherlands.

I'm glad you see the book as a kind of history of European culture, but I hesitate to call it that myself, because there are still so many comforting stories missing. And as I said, I don't like to use European culture politically.”

Why not? Isn't that what connects us? It is difficult for us to come together politically, but it may be possible to do so at the cultural level.

“If we want to use European culture to come together politically, we run into a problem: European culture is embedded in the languages that created it. Cees Nooteboom, a great writer, is a Dutch writer.

Culture brings you back to the European problem. In other words, the EU is an experiment to create a political-economic union with people whose cultures are radically different. Because they are locked in languages and traditions. There are things about Dutch culture and language that I will never know and that are completely self-evident to you. That must be respected. The more careful, respectful and admiring European culture is looked at, the more specific it becomes.”

What do you mean?

“When I walk around Leiden I think to myself: nowhere else in the world is there such a place, it is completely Dutch. It's not Venice. It is what it is. And the same goes for me when I'm in Toledo or Ravenna. The beauty of Europe is that everything it has brought to culture is rooted in a specific tradition of its own.

This is not to say that as a Dutchman you will never fully understand Cervantes. Nonsense, we have great translators who make that possible for us. But I like the specificity of Europe. One of the things I love about the Netherlands is that Rotterdam is not the same as Amsterdam, that you have the north and the south, Protestant and Catholic. That's exactly what Europe is.”

Is there still hope for the European Union?

“Oh, I don't know. I think that is a geopolitical issue. The original motive for the EU was, in the early fifties, to prevent war between France and Germany. This has been achieved beyond everyone's expectations. Fantastic. One of the best news items of the entire 20th century. War on the continent is now unthinkable. I believe that the EU as a market economy will survive the 21st century. But it will survive as a union of states. Mark Rutte will not relinquish power to Brussels, any more than Viktor Orbán will.

There are wonderful cultural initiatives that bring us together. But when we talk about European culture, let's understand what's specific about it. This continent has produced an appalling amount of culture, at an astonishingly high level. And all these cultural expressions are completely specific, originated in specific places, in specific times and in a specific context.”