It’s been a long time since Seneca and Boethius, among many others, gave consolation a philosophical good name. One of the main features of the modern age has been to gradually lose faith in traditional consolation, preferring lucidity to what has come to be seen as therapy not worthy of serious reflection. This book provides a critique of modernity from the perspective of a sense of irretrievable loss which Foessel considers fundamental to our age. The modern man is haunted by an unspecified loss and its indeterminacy amplifies the bereavement. In this respect, the book is a complement to Charles Taylor’s Secular Age. Despite its analytical discourse, the book impresses a sense of sadness on the reader.
With the three pillars of ancient certainty gone (cosmos, community, language), the modern individual finds solace in three substitutes, whose makeup betrays their disavowed parentage: progress, representation (i.e. political, through symbolic mediation), sollicitude. All three are meant to be consolatory, but none of them is satisfactory. Instead, the loss, like hunger, remains.
While Foessel’s effort to rehabilitate the (unexpectedly modern) practice of consolation is something to be praised, the book itself is in need of consolation for the important things it leaves out. There is a sense, even here, that something got lost.
One is balance. Foessel is too over-reliant on Foucault and Freud’s reductionisms. Another is depth. There is an over-simplified treatment of religion’s relation to the notion of consolation. The author simply tells us that religion used to soothe, but not anymore. At times, it is frustrating. For instance, the conclusion has a beautiful, yet brief analysis of the anointing in Bethany narrative, but it stops short of looking at an even more significant (non)-consolatory presence of Christ in Gethsemane in the Gospel of John. A missed opportunity.
The moderns (and postmoderns alike) remain uncomforted. Instead of pushing the critique in the direction of a debunking of the mythological makeup of today’s society, the book limits its ambit to lamentation. If grief is the magnetic pole of today’s philosophical reflection, then Foessel is obstinate in refusing to engage with notions that would perhaps lead him away from positions that the book does not plan to stray from. Whilst criticising transhumanism and, more emphatically, the practice of political and social reconciliation (because of the denial of grief and the delusion that forced communal symbolism can really soothe old wounds) – Foessel is clear that we must not let ourselves be tempted by the spectre of the ‘enchanted’. And that is exactly what I wish I had read more about in this book.