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June 2022

Music & Work: On Consolation Part 5

Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder-Ruckert-Lieder; Christa Ludwig, Berlin  Philharmonic, Herbert Von Karajan, cond. - Music

"Music's importance as consolation has only grown in an age that medicates grief and treats sorrow as an illness.  In moments of grief and despair, there is something unsayable about the experience that only music seems to express." 

Chapter twelve of Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation grapples with consolation as modernity began to move beyond god and religion.  He discusses Nietzsche, Freud, and Wagner, but the focus of the chapter is Gustav Mahler and in particular his Kindertotenlieder (which I found interesting given that last year I read Martha Nussbaum's Upheavals of Thought which also spends a chapter on this music).

In essence, the music admits that there can be no consolation on the death of a child.  Instead the music attempts to "provide meaning for men and women living after the death of the gods."  It does so through providing "an experience of the transcendental and sublime."  Such music can be an emotional release.  Any consolation we find will be the work of a lifetime.

In the next chapter he discusses Max Weber, who experienced "catastrophic depression."  Ignatieff argues that Weber was the first to critique the "disenchanted spiritual emptiness of capitalist modernity."  I'd not thought of Weber this way, so that was interesting.  Weber was critical of how work had come to be the thing that people focused on to give them meaning, after other forms of meaning-making had failed.  This idea was rooted in Luther's theological concepts of vocation and calling, but had become a secular, disenchanted notion.  He argued that work had largely become "remorseleness duty without purpose."  Instead, what humans needed was to live in truth and "To live in truth was to live without any consolation at all."

Weber was also deeply critical of many of the political developments early in the twentieth century, as people sought for meaning in politics and latched onto dangerous ideologies.  He thought we should put aside our "longing for salvation" and instead "assume responsibility" for creating our own future.  We were responsible for our own call.  Ignatieff concludes "the times themselves called him to inspire the next generation to embrace responsibility instead of taking flight in hatred or refuge in illusion."

Max Detweiler

May be an image of 2 people


Last night Sebastian and I went to see The Sound of Music at the Rose Theatre.  Somehow I made it to 48 without seeing a staged production of the musical, and I'm not quite sure how.  

Anyway, it was a good and enjoyable production, and also Sebastian's first full-length stage musical.  He seemed to enjoy it and really be into the songs.

My one new takeaway from this production was the now smack my forehead obvious conclusion that Max Detweiler is gay.  Which adds layers of complexity to his character and the decisions he makes, particularly why he chooses to get along to survive rather than take the bolder actions of Captain Von Trapp.  

What do you think?

The Consolations of History: On Consolation Part 4


The next three chapters of Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation explore the theme at the nexus of the personal and political realms by focusing on Condorcet, Marx, and Lincoln.  Each faced personal despair as part of larger historical, political forces that also required consolation for the public.  Condorcet was a believer in the more rational, early part of the French Revolution, and thus despised by the Jacobins.  He continued, from hiding, to argue that rational self-government and human progress were possible.  Marx also sought consolation in his understanding of history and vision for the future, in a revolutionary politics that would create a more just world.  Both men were critical of religion for holding people back from taking the steps into a better human society.  Marx in particular found the consolations of religion distracted people from the work that needed to be done.  

Ignatieff has a very telling description of Marx's vision:

It was a utopia that was only possible to believe in if you had faith that human beings as they actually were--harassed, lonely, oppressed, selfish, and envious--could be transformed by revolutionary change.  Why bother with revolution if, on the other side, you were left with men as miserably individualistic, as egotistical and divided as before.

Lincoln, of course, did find solace in religious traditions.  He is also less optimistic and utopian than Condorcet and Marx.  He has a humility about even his own side in the war.  

Ignatieff focuses on the majestic Second Inaugural Address.  Every time I'm in the Lincoln Memorial I, of course, re-read the words engraved on the wall.  And every time I cry.

Lincoln believed humility created space for mercy and reconciliation, at the same time believing that a righteous God had judged everyone for their complicity in the sins of the nation.

Ignatieff concludes by holding up Lincoln as an example for our times.  He writes, "He struggled with exactly what we struggle with: the tidal force of political malice that recurrently rises and threatens the hard-won civility on which a democracy depends.  What helped him, as it might help us, was the tenacity with which he forced the best traditions he had inherited--in this case the Gospels and the Psalms--to deliver insight and perspective."  And so Ignatieff draws from Lincoln this lesson for us:  "That we are not condemned to live imprisoned in the rhetoric, foolishness, and mendacity of the present."

May it be so.

Modern Wisdom: On Consolation, Part 3

Michel de Montaigne rejected the consolations of philosophy.  He thought empathy and human solidarity had their limits.  We often "spoiled our lives with joyless moralizing and self-regarding high-mindedness."  What Montaigne taught us instead was "the passionate vindication of life itself."  And not some fantasy of "living your best life," but all the ordinary routines of human existence.  If you were going to enjoy life, you had to enjoy ordinary human life itself.  And so the lesson from Montaigne is to find solace "in the pleasures, rhythms, and resilience of the human body itself.  In doing so, he moved the search for consolation away from the mind to the feeling . . . that life was worth living simply because you could feel its rhythms coursing through your veins."

Designed by Allan Ramsey

Montaigne stayed aloof from society in his later life, but David Hume did not.  Ignatieff portrays how for the young Hume, the intellectual development of his skepticism of reason was "an anguished process of self-discovery."  Note: I've long wanted to write a book about how new philosophical ideas arose from personal crises, and by this chapter I realized that Ignatieff has done something similar with this book.  He writes of Hume's sociability as consolation:

In seeking diversion in the company of others, Hume was acknowledging how much he needed others to escape the maze of his own mind and how little reason actually contributed to consolation of any kind.  We need human society in order to escape ourselves, to see ourselves as others do, to compare our understanding with theirs, to share a common world of feeling. . . . he realized that he could not make sense of life or bear it except in company with others.

Earlier this year I read Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he talks about social connection as the antidote for depression.  It seems a little trite when one reads it, but as Ignatieff points out, for Hume it was learned from actual experience, as he struggled to overcome his depression and that's what helped him.  

What explains the different forms of consolation--Montaigne's private reflection or Hume's being social?  I imagine something of individual temperament?  Or maybe different things work for different people at different times?  I know when I've been struggling I've needed both--time for personal reflection and time to get away from it by the society of others.  What about you?

Hume provides yet another lesson.  He was one of the first Western intellectuals to die publicly rejecting any belief in God, and thus without the consolations of religion.  Many of his contemporaries found that unfathomable.  But Ignatieff writes that Hume then pioneered a new way to die, in that one could die well and content without religious faith.  And in doing so, Ignatieff writes, Hume had modeled that "the test of a good life" was "whether you had been true to your ambitions and fashioned a path for yourself."  In doing so, Hume "had crafted a new form of consolation: autobiography as a narrative of self-realization."

Escaping Despair: On Consolation Part 2

El Greco - The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.JPGCicero had been a paradigm of Roman Republican virtue.  Michael Ignatieff describes this as "to be public-spirited, to sacrifice one's life, if need be, for the defense of the republic, and to be stoic in the endurance of pain."  Yet, when his own daughter died Cicero became inconsolable.  His former friends and associates found this disgraceful and dishonorable.  Yet, what Ignatieff concludes is that during this episode of suffering, Cicero did not permanently change his mind about consolation.  Instead, he eventually returned to public life and the republican and stoic virtues.  And so his chapter on Cicero ends by this statement, "Of all the legacies that this particular father bequeathed to the story of consolation, the one that remains most enduring is in the way men learned to repress their emotions."

Stoicism is in a resurgence of popularity, and the philosophy does have some important lessons when it comes to handling our emotions.  An overly emotive society can learn from it.  Finding the proper balance between good, open, and authentic emotional discussion and overly emoting and creating unnecessary and unhealthy drama is not as easy as it initially appears.  This spring I taught a class on the emotions at church, and we discussed how most of us middle aged and older had never been taught to talk well about our emotions, but mostly to repress them.  Good to know I can blame Cicero for some of that.

But there is a lesson Ignatieff finds buried in the period of Cicero's life when he is inconsolable, a clear reminder that this is a typical and important human experience.  We can find solidarity in our experiences across space and time.

Ignatieff next turns to Marcus Aurelius who he describes as "striving to master fear and loneliness in the solitude of darkness, found consolation in confession."  Marcus's Meditations (which I highly recommend reading) were initially for himself, and Ignatieff writes that these are the best parts.   In later parts of the book it becomes clear that Marcus is now aware that others will read him, and so he begins to write more for an audience.  But in those moments of private confession, Marcus is "reckoning with himself," a key practice for any of needing consolation in dark times.  

Of course Boethius wrote the book on consolation, which I also recommend as a good read.  Boethius was a prominent official in the late Roman empire, on the outs with his emperor, he is exiled awaiting execution.  In that season he imagines a visit from Philosophia, come to console him of his doubts and his suffering, but he engages her in conversation.   Part of Boethius's value, which Ignatieff draws attention to, is that in him flow together the Roman-Stoic and the Christian traditions and their very different approaches to suffering.  Ignatieff writes that for Boethius the consolation came in the act of writing, which allowed him to explore and gain "some sovereignty over his inner world."  But he does not imagine Boethius was completely consoled, the work contains too much doubt and comedy at the misfortunes of life.  What Boethius represents for us is someone struggling to make sense of his world, when it no longer make sense to him.

In El Greco's painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Ignatieff finds a treatment of the relationship between time and suffering.  The painting layering of images invites a sense that "the faithful can inhabit a moment where past, present, and future are experienced as simultaneous."  According to our author, this then helps us to understand "that the recurring subject of consolation is time itself."  He continues:

the fact that it goes one way and cannot be stopped, cannot be slowed down, cannot be reversed; that our losses cannot be made good; that the future is unknowable, the past is irrecoverable, and time for us ends in death, while it goes on for others as if we never existed.  The painter's deeper intention was to depict consolation as the dream of an escape together from the downward funnel of time.  The painting's ecstatic feeling is just the other side of despair, in its recognition that this escape from time can be imagined only through art but cannot be lived or experienced.

To Console: On Consolation Part 1

On ConsolationMichael Ignatieff defines consolation as "what we do, or try to do, when we share each other's suffering or seek to bear our own."  He describes it as an act of solidarity in both space and time, drawing attention to the fact that we can find consolation by connecting with a person from the past in their writings, music, art, etc.  In fact, that's what this book will be about, an attempt to see how some great figures in our history have found consolation in their trying times, in order for us to find help for ours.  And the study of the past also helps us because when we do we don't "feel that we are . . . marooned in the present."

This sentence resonated with a way I've felt for some years now.  A decade ago I began re-reading or reading for the first time key texts in the philosophical canon in chronological order (I recently reread Kant with the plan to move on to Bentham soon).  So when American politics became particularly toxic and shitty before and after the 2016 election, I was reading early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Thomas More, Francis Bacon, and Montaigne.  I felt lifted out of the fierce urgency of the now and into the great political issues of the past, which gave some perspective and lowered the temperature on the current moment.  Reading old plague literature was equally helpful in this way in 2020.

For Ignatieff, consolation is more than comfort, which he describes as fleeting.  Consolation he believes is enduring, and is found when we reconcile ourselves to life, when we can once again hope for the future.

Now, for many people, consolation is provided by religious faith and practice.  Ignatieff is himself not a religious believer, but he still mines religious texts and traditions for the themes that can be consoling even in a more secular present.  Thus he begins with Job, Psalms, and the letters of Paul. 

From Job he learns that we cannot resign ourselves to despair, even in the midst of irrational suffering.  Instead, we must "have the courage to demand recognition . . . for the reality of our suffering."  This long quote beautifully encapsulates the lessons of Job:

Job's story tells us we are fated to endure sorrow and suffering that have no apparent meaning, moments when existence is a torment, when we know what it is to be truly inconsolable.  But like Job, we must learn to endure, we must hold on to the truth of what we have lived and refuse false consolations, like believing that we deserve to suffer.  We should refuse the burden of guilt and struggle as best we can to understand the meaning of our lives.  We are not condemned to eternal silence, to meaninglessness.  There is an answer to be found in the whirlwind, in human beings' unendingly troubled encounter with our fate, but to find the answer that is true for us we will have to be as courageous as the man in rags who dared raise his fist to the sky.

"Reading the Psalms is like walking among ruins," he writes.  Here is artistry that expresses the range of human emotion and experience, giving honest expression to how we feel.  And making it beautiful.

Ignatieff understands Paul as someone who experienced mental anguish and a complete breakdown whose mental world collapsed and then had to be reconstructed.  Paul's great insight is that "a human being was not chained forever by habits, compulsion, addictions, and needs.  A person could be reborn anew, redeemed and granted a better life."

The next three chapters of the book discuss Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Boethius.  To those I will turn in the next blogpost about this book.

Forest Bathing--Sabbatical Day 1

In 1982, Japan made shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible. Go to the woods, breathe deeply, be at peace. Forest bathing was Japan’s medically sanctioned method of unplugging before there were smartphones to unplug from. Since shinrin-yoku’s inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; the documented benefits to one’s health thus far include lowered blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and stress hormones.

That's the description given in a 2017 Atlantic article.  Given those benefits, probably a great way to start my 2022 sabbatical is a morning walk in the woods.  Afterall, a huge point of this sabbatical is that, after a couple of really difficult years, I just need a break.  

My church newsletter column about my sabbatical plans was published today, so you can read more about the planning and thoughts that went into it here.    Also, Facebook memories reminded me that today is the second anniversary of when I got shot by a pepper ball and tear gassed during the racial justice uprising.  That neck and shoulder pain lingers, a reminder of one of the many difficulties of these past few years.

This morning I headed down to Fontanelle Forest.  The morning air was crisp, the sunlight gentle, birdsong filled the canopy. 

I started off by sorting through my thoughts on some recent family issues before entering into a time of prayer for this sacred time away.  Eventually thoughts settled down and I could just wander with no particular mental focus.

I walked out to the river's edge and found a fallen tree to sit on.  I sang a few hymns.  Then just sat there for a good twenty minutes at least watching the water, a bird diving for food on the other side, and a raptor circling overhead.  Walking I had been reminded of the Japanese concept of forest bathing, so I Googled to refresh my understanding, and then openly embraced the concept on my walk back through the woods.

Hungry, I decided on the Pastrami Burger at Stella's for lunch.

A couple weeks ago I got a head start on my sabbatical by reading the book I intended to begin the break with, Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation.  I wrote about why that book, here.  The book's intro contains this powerful statement:

To be reconciled we must first make peace with our losses, defeats, and failures. To be consoled is to accept these losses, to accept what they have done to us and to believe, despite everything, that they need not haunt our future or blight our remaining possibilities.

So I begin this time away with cleansing, calming, and consolation.  With hopes for much to experience, learn, and enjoy in the weeks ahead.