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Witness to Life
Posted By Mary Eberstadt On December 5, 2011 @ 12:18 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | No Comments
Reprinted from Policy Review.
As many a frustrated author would agree, betting money on the book industry these days is about as sound as putting it into Pokemon cards. Stores are disappearing left and right. Sales are down. Advances are down. Spirits are way, way down. Nor does all the happy talk about e-books and self-publishing change the fact that few readers seem to have the attention span for texts running longer than, say, this paragraph. To paraphrase a certain German philosopher ruminating on a different momentous event: What are Kindles and Nooks and iPads, if not the tombs of what was once the book?
Yet remarkably enough, this same literary downsizing has coincided during the past few years with the flourishing of a whole new genre of nonfiction. Seeded partly by the aging of the Baby Boomers, and partly by the seemingly shared sense that we live in darkening times, at least one corner of the publishing world has borne serious and interesting new fruit: absorbing personal memoirs centered on the elementary if widely avoided fact that no one stays in this earthly vale of tears for long.
Let’s dub that new genre the “death-oir.” Written somewhere toward the end of a given author’s life, or at least past its ostensible middle, the death-oir is a pithy (if the reader is lucky) summing up of what time has wrought — lessons learned, stories and reflections imparted. That some entries in the genre are penned when time’s winged chariot is audibly bearing down on the author only adds to the intensity. Certainly such is true of scientist Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture, for example, which sold in the millions following his death from pancreatic cancer at age 47. At times, as in Joan Didion’s latest volumes, the death-oir is unbearably heavy; at other times — as in Julian Barnes’s oddly charming 2008 Nothing to be Frightened Of, or Christopher Hitchens’s 2010 Hitch-22: A Memoir — it sparkles with bravado. Whatever the particular entries, it is a genre sharing one ironic footnote. The same internet that is killing the book has also made tapping out, enhancing, double-checking, and sharing personal thoughts easier than it ever was before. One way or another, we are all memoirists now — meaning that in addition to taxes and the grave, we can also be certain of many more death-oirs to come.
David Horowitz’s A Point in Time is one more entry in this budding genre, and it is another excellent one. Like its fellows, this book concerns the hefty matters that preoccupy most mortals more with every passing year: life, death, legacy; meaning amid the world’s sound and fury. On a more prosaic note, be forewarned that like many other books in these days of rising costs and declining readership, this one is short. Very short. Even so, the author of A Point in Time can be forgiven for asking readers to accept this brief but intense meditation as a book, rather than, say, as a pamphlet or a magazine essay in two parts. It’s just that good.
Known to much of the world as a conservative activist who takes no prisoners on his FrontPageMag site or anywhere else, Horowitz is also, as is less widely known (or admitted), an excellent prose stylist. His writing is intrinsically compelling, even when the subjects before him are intrinsically unwanted — as, say, death and decay admittedly do tend to be. As Norman Podhoretz, going to the heart of the matter, notes in his endorsement of this book, “Horowitz is so powerful a polemicist that it is often forgotten how beautifully he writes.”
The second reason why Horowitz can be forgiven his relative brevity here is that he has already left a sizable and important literary record behind him. From red-diaper baby to reconstructed radical, he has been writing his memoirs — and with them, the memoirs of his times — throughout his years. Among his many books, the 1989 volume Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the Sixties, for example — coauthored with frequent collaborator Peter Collier — definitively rewrote the prevailing benign political history of that era (inter alia rendering its apostate authors pariahs in all the expected places). Later, Horowitz’s 1997 autobiography Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey detailed his involvement with the New Left and subsequent step-by-step march to the starboard side of the political spectrum. There he named more names, righted more ideological wrongs, and proved as unflinching an observer of his own personal life as he was the lives of others. Alongside Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks, and a handful of other testimonials, these are books that appear in retrospect as isolated islands of truth in what was once a global sea of lies about Marxism and communism.
Melancholy yet elegiac, A Point in Time steps back from all that to ask whether, in effect, any of it mattered. The tent pole here is Marcus Aurelius, stoical author of the Meditations (as that classic has incorrectly been translated, Horowitz notes, from the original title of To Himself). From its disarming opening about the everyday act of taking dogs for a walk, the book quickly widens out to a broad philosophical plain.
His dogs, Horowitz observes, greet every walk with the same excitement, “as though life were an endless horizon always met for the first time . . . They do not contend with their fates but devour them as if their days will go on forever.” In this they are superior to unhappy human beings, who unlike dogs do know their ultimate fate and futilely — but inevitably — resist it. The solution to our common plight, if such exists, is for human beings to become more dog-like — in other words, more stoical. Yet the difficulty of doing just that eludes us all, including the author of this book.
Known to much of the world as a conservative activist who takes no prisoners on his FrontPageMag site or anywhere else, Horowitz is also, as is less widely known (or admitted), an excellent prose stylist.
Stalked by mortality, he is constantly distracted from the consolations of philosophy. Sometimes “I wander in a purgatory of half sleep and fitful thoughts where I am harassed by images of our common fate.” In that state, “I am often overcome with remorse to think how I have brought four children into the world as hostages of time.” These are words that sear, especially coming from an author who knows what it is to lose a child (detailed in his book A Cracking of the Heart, published in 2009). It is all well and good to hold oneself aloft from the world — or to turn the other cheek, as Christians would have it. But not even the stoutest stoic can take that same attitude where progeny are concerned. Stoicism ends at the nursery room door.
Nevertheless, its philosophical appeal persists. “We are wounded by losses,” Horowitz observes, “and rage to have them reversed. But eventually we come to terms with our fate, knowing that this was all there was ever going to be.” Unhappy marriages, career reversals, deaths of loved ones, loss of youth and health and strength: Often enough, as A Point in Time observes, there seems no end of the sadnesses that life throws our way, except of course for the obvious and ultimate release — one that we universally dread, even as we know there is no other way out.
In considering alternatives to Aurelius, Horowitz holds up in the middle of the book the thought on which Fyodor Dostoevsky centered his life and work. That is, as the great Russian himself described it, “the belief that there is nothing finer, profounder, more attractive, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ.” Yet Dostoevsky too, Horowitz reasons, runs aground with his vision, as earthly activists of any kind ultimately do. After all, “the nihilistic idea that had captured his youth and nearly destroyed him became an inspiration for the next generation to lay waste his country and make it a desert.” All of the great writer’s tumultuous words, every vision he ever sweated to paper, could not keep his country from hurtling to the disaster that he himself foresaw — tens of millions murdered and imprisoned in a crime whose dimensions can still barely be grasped. Indeed, calculates Horowitz, Stalin “had ordered the murder of virtually one member of every Russian family.”
In Russia as elsewhere, “the quest for an earthly redemption has led to the greatest crimes.” That is the thought connecting Horowitz’s life work to this current reflection, and it is a deep one. Yet it seems to me, as a friendly amendment to his meditation, that there may be a middle ground between Aurelius’s fatalistic shrug and Dostoevsky’s Russo-Christian millenarianism. As another great Russian soul, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once mapped it: “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme — only not through me” [emphasis added].
It is a quote that points the way to a modified stoicism. We need not, with Dostoevsky, seek the Christian heaven here on earth. But neither need we give up altogether on the possibility that what we do here can indeed improve the place, however modestly. In dedicating our work to one simple principle — i.e., that we refuse be used as vessels for the lies of our particular time — we may, in the end, accomplish something positive after all. We might by such witness spark the second thoughts in others that will spare them the same entanglement in falsehood, and the predictable pains that result.
In persisting through the decades to make sense of his own life, David Horowitz has shed light on the world the rest of us live in and forced at least some readers who needed forcing to face the truth. “The audience of others, real or imagined, is the way we persuade ourselves that our drama has no end, that what we do matters,” he observes in A Point in Time; and like his hero Dostoevsky, he seems prepared to believe with equanimity every writer’s fear — that a moment will come in the future when there is no one left to read one’s stories at all. Even so, the unique witness of David Horowitz continues to deserve real readers in the here and now, and more of them at that.
Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review.
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