Michael Ignatieff at 75

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Michael Ignatieff at 75

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When Michael Ignatieff left Britain in 2000, for a new career across the Atlantic, he sent a farewell poem to his friends. The poem was by one of his heroes, the poet Czeslaw Milosz. It ended, “Time for me to play hooky. Buona notte. Ciao. Farewell.” Of course, Ignatieff wasn’t off to play hooky. He was going to start a new phase of his career: high-flying academic at Harvard and then leading Canadian politician. And he wasn’t just saying farewell to his friends. He was saying goodbye to his previous self.

Ignatieff has been on the move for most of his adult life, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic. But, more than that, he has constantly reinvented himself. Since he and I first worked together in the mid-1980s, he has had four very distinguished but very different careers in five different countries.

Michael was a well-known broadcaster, writer, journalist and public intellectual in Britain for over twenty years. He wrote three novels, one shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and three screenplays, including Dialogue in the Dark, a dramatisation of the last conversation between James Boswell and the philosopher David Hume, and 1919, about an encounter between two of Freud’s former patients.

He was a columnist for The Observer and wrote for the best literary magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. He presented prize-winning documentaries for the BBC and serious discussion programmes for BBC 2 and Channel 4. He wrote six books, on subjects from the new nationalism and modern war, to Isaiah Berlin. Arriving as a young, unknown Canadian historian, he left as one of the best known cultural figures in Britain.

Michael’s second career was in America, as a leading academic. He was Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. Here he played a leading part in debates on contemporary war, terrorism and human rights.

Then in 2005 he left for Canada, and his third career, as a politician, first as a Liberal MP, then as leader of the Liberal opposition party.

Fourth, he returned to Europe as the Rector and President of the Central European University, first in Budapest and then in Vienna, from 2016 until July 2021. He is now happily based in Vienna, teaching history at the CEU. The only thing that remains the same is the range of interests. In the last decade he has written books on success and failure in politics, “moral order in a divided world” and, earlier this year, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times.

Over more than forty years, Ignatieff has written and edited almost twenty books. The latest, On Consolation, is a series of meditations on loss and consolation from Job and the Book of Psalms to Camus, Akhmatova and Primo Levi.

Through all the changes, there are a number of consistent threads. First, history, the history of ideas and the Big History of the 20th century. His first book was A Just Measure of Pain: Penitentiaries in the Industrial Revolution, 1780–1850 (1978), on “a new philosophy of punishment”, followed by a book of essays he co-edited on The Shaping of Political Economy in the Scottish Enlightenment. His reflections on these 18th century ideas informed much of his later work, from his BBC drama, Dialogue in the Dark, to his recent reflections on how writers and thinkers have faced death. Much of his work has been about the 18th century Enlightenment and its enemies: localism, “Blood and Belonging”, tradition, nationalism, religion. Perhaps this is what drew him to a hugely influential figure in his life, Isaiah Berlin.

Second, Russia. One of his best books was The Russian Album (1987), a beautifully written memoir of his family’s experience in 19th century Russia and its subsequent exile to Europe and, eventually, Canada. Again, it is no coincidence that some of his best television work was a series of interviews with Isaiah Berlin, Czeslaw Milosz and E.J. Hobsbawm on their responses to what Hobsbawm famously called “the Age of Extremes”.

Ignatieff has always moved in and out of universities, tempted to reach larger audiences through television, radio and the higher journalism. “I’ve had a love-hate relationship with academic life all my life,” he told one interviewer. “I am a genuine academic; I have a tremendous respect for scholarship, and I’m always slightly nettled when people say, ‘He’s not really a scholar.’ Because I have done actual boot-camp work as a scholar. So I genuinely respect scholarship and genuinely think the academy is where new ideas come from. But you can get suffocated.”

Both in his academic work and in his media work he has taken on big subjects: liberalism and its enemies, Communism and psychoanalysis, war, “moral order” and humanitarianism, from Kosovo to Iraq. He has always had a visceral loathing for Soviet Communism and his great heroes were the voices of conscience who stood up for decency and tolerance against the totalitarian monsters of the 20th century. Hence the importance for him, again, of Milosz and Berlin and his ill-disguised contempt for Hobsbawm. When Hobsbawm died, The New York Times quoted an exchange between Ignatieff and the Communist historian on its front page:

Ignatieff: In 1934, millions of people are dying in the Soviet experiment. If you had known that, would it have made a difference to you at that time? To your commitment? To being a Communist?
Hobsbawm: …Probably not.
Ignatieff: Why?
Hobsbawm: Because in a period in which, as you might imagine, mass murder and mass suffering are absolutely universal, the chance of a new world being born in great suffering would still have been worth backing… The sacrifices were enormous; they were excessive by almost any standard and excessively great. But I’m looking back at it now and I’m saying that because it turns out that the Soviet Union was not the beginning of the world revolution. Had it been, I’m not sure.
Ignatieff: What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?
Hobsbawm: Yes.

When we first met, in the 1980s, he had just written an essay on “The Jewish Freud”. Now he is living in Freud’s Vienna, or, rather post-Jewish Vienna. He’s back in the Ivory Tower, teaching the history of ideas. What next? I wouldn’t bet against a book on Putin, another of liberalism’s enemies, bringing together the new nationalism, the new warfare and Russia orthodoxy.

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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 80%
  • Interesting points: 80%
  • Agree with arguments: 70%
17 ratings - view all

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