Rosemary Ganley The Peterborough Examiner February 24, 2022
Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s new book explores Western leadership.
What would you think of a recommendation for a good book for these tempestuous times? A book, in preference to a newscast or a Tweet or a video of goings-on in downtown Ottawa.
I’ve got one for you, and it may be an unusual topic by a surprising writer. But it is graceful and timely, for the person who reads, but is not especially academic.
Michael Ignatieff, now 75, was on our radar in the years 2008-2011, when he, a scholar and writer with international roots, was head of the Liberal Party of Canada and led the party in a federal election.
During those years I met him at the Canadian Canoe Museum when he was on a campaign stop in Peterborough with his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar. I remember accompanying her to the museum gift shop because she, having been born In Hungary, wanted to pick up some Canadiana. What better place?
Subsequently, her husband was roundly defeated in Canadian politics. I can’t help thinking that we erred on that one. That evening a reporter approached me and asked, “Why doesn’t this man connect with voters?”
I had to confess I didn’t know. To me and many others, he was the ideal leader, fiercely intelligent, kindly and humanitarian, an intellectual whose first discipline was as an historian of ideas. That’s why I think we would be wise to read him now. As a society we seem to have run out of good ideas. Ignatieff defines consolation as “what we do when we share others’ suffering or seek to bear our own.”
His father, George Ignatieff, from a noble family in St. Petersburg, had been brought to Canada at age 5, fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1918. He was a Rhodes scholar and rose in Canadian diplomatic ranks, mentored by Lester Pearson. Then he became chancellor of the University of Toronto.
Son Michael went to the U of T and Harvard, where he later became head of the Centre for Human Rights.
After politics in Canada, Michael Ignatieff went to Vienna where he was president of the Central European University. But always thinking and writing as a Canadian.
The format he has chosen for “On Consolation’’ is to write admiringly about 17 people in Western life since the time of the Romans. Ever the good teacher, he limits his description of each to 10 or 12 pages, just how I like to learn history. He inserts interesting facts about the times, the sufferings and the consolations of his heroes. (There are only two heroines: Russian anti-Stalin poet Anna Akhmatova and the founder of Hospice, Cecily Saunders.)
Ignatieff says he is not a believer in the religious sense, but he knows a lot about the Stoic, the Hebrew and the Christian testaments. Boethius, as the barbarians were descending on Rome, found his consolation in philosophy. For Job, it was in his endurance, for St. Paul in the community, for Dante Alighieri it was poetry. For El Greco, the painter in Spain, comfort came in art, for Mahler in music and for the Frenchman Montaigne, in the rhythms of the human body.
Michael Ignatieff is now back in Toronto. He has always been a writer, 16 books now, including one nominated for the Booker prize.
I hope that, post-pandemic, university humanities departments and book clubs will jump at the chance to glean this wisdom. We are a wounded species coming out of COVID. Modern people largely ignore the solace offered by ancient strategies, lives and texts. We instead trust in science and the therapeutic, or in social media, perhaps in nihilism. Ignatieff is suggesting we make use of the traditions we have inherited through years of European thought.
‘We are not alone and never have been,” he says. It is a heartfelt survey reminding us that the need for consolation is timeless. I hereby volunteer to teach an Adult Ed course at Traill College on this book this fall. In person.
"Gleanings" is Rosemary Ganley's new book. You can purchase directly from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or from >Amazon<