Reprinted from City Journal.
A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in This Life and the Next, by David Horowitz (Regnery, 128 pp., $24.95)
Death is every life’s inevitable denouement, but La Rochefoucauld told us that we can no more stare it in the face than we can stare at the sun. For the most part, we continue our daily round in a state of presumed immortality, and because we are so unfamiliar nowadays with death—it having been carefully put out of our sight by a host of professionals—we treat it as an unwarranted intrusion into our affairs rather than as an existential limit to our brief earthly sojourn. For many, death has become anomalous rather than inevitable, something to protest against rather than accept. For them, the concept of a good death is entirely alien or antipathetic.
David Horowitz tries to stare his own death in the face. Now 71, he has had cancer of the prostate, and he has diabetes and angina; his diplomatic immunity from death, which we all grant ourselves, has been unmistakably withdrawn. His short new book, which it is both necessary and a pleasure to read in one sitting, is a meditation on the meaning of life, sub specie aeternitatis.
Horowitz begins by reflecting on the nature and character of his dogs, whom he takes for regular walks. Perhaps those who don’t love dogs will think this an odd way to begin a book on the meaning of life, but it seems entirely natural and fitting. Indeed, I was struck by how Horowitz’s meditations paralleled mine, occasioned by my relationship, and walks, with my own dog—a relationship intense and happy, at least on my side and, if I don’t delude myself, on his also. The dog, of course, has no intimation of his own mortality, while the owner’s pleasure in the animal’s company is increasingly tinged with a melancholy awareness of his swiftly approaching dissolution. Yet the dog maintains his passionate interest in the little world around him, his small-scale curiosity in his immediate environment. In the face of the physical immensity of the universe and the temporal vastness that both preceded and will follow his oblivion, is a man in any fundamentally different situation?
As far as we know, we are the only creatures to demand of their existence a transcendent meaning. This can be supplied by various means, most commonly religious belief. Horowitz is unable to accept belief in a personal God, but wishes he could and, unlike many in his position, does not scorn those who do. He is decidedly not the village atheist.
More than most, however, he has reason to know that politics can also give, or at any rate appear to give, transcendent meaning to life. The secular religion of Marxism was particularly adept at supplying this meaning, though nationalist struggles could do the same. To believe that one was a soldier in history’s army, marching toward the predestined final victory when mankind would become terminally happy, and that one’s participation would help bring forward that consummation, was to know that one did not live in vain. Even personal suffering can be lessened by adherence to a political cause: either such suffering is experienced as a consequence of the struggle, or it is at least ameliorated by an acceptance of its pettiness by comparison with the greater goal.
Horowitz offers brief but moving glimpses of his father, a true believer in the ability of Marxism (in what he considered its indubitably correct form) not only to interpret the world but to change it. The preposterous intellectual grandiosity of this belief contrasted comically, and sadly, with Horowitz senior’s position in the world. His son’s depiction has an elegiac quality, portraying the tragicomedy of a man who thought he had penetrated to the heart of existence’s mystery but was really quite weak. Though he embraced a doctrine that had done untold evil in the world, he himself was a gentle soul. His son writes in sorrow, not anger.
The author has reason to know better than most the religious nature of the revolutionary creed. In 1971, when still under the influence of leftism, he edited a book of essays dedicated to the life and work of the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher. Like Horowitz’s father, Deutscher kept his faith in the immaculate conception of the October Revolution, a revolution that was, alas, subsequently to be corrupted—just as Rousseau thought naturally innocent mankind was corrupted by society. One of the essays in this book, by the Economist’s former Paris correspondent, Daniel Singer, contains the following passage:
Could one trust the statement of a Komintern ready to distort in such a fashion? Isaac was driven to question all authorized versions, to go back to the October revolution, to study the conflicts that followed Lenin’s death. The German heresy thus led him logically to an understanding and rejection of the Stalinist system.
The religious nature of Deutscher’s belief in revolutionary Marxism could hardly have been clearer. Authorized versions give rise to, or at least are the precondition of, heresies. Deutscher went back to the October Revolution, and to Lenin’s words, as Muslim fundamentalists go back to the Koran, for a source of undoubted and indisputable truth. Inside every heretic, it seems, a dogmatist is trying to get out.
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