The only reason I was not surprised that this book came from the hand of David Horowitz was that I had read his Radical Son, and already gotten over my surprise that such a ferocious political combatant would write so sensitively and reflectively—and so well. I reviewed that book here last October (link). Horowitz ran across the review, thought I might be interested in A Point in Time, and graciously sent me a copy.
“I think you’ll find it challenging,” he wrote to me. And although I did not find it so in the way that I think he meant, I understand why he thought I might. It is a rich and hopeless book, the most affecting attempt I can remember to quiet the human longing for eternity in the face of mortality, individual and collective, and the absence of any hope beyond extinction; to make a sort of meaning out of the acknowledgment of unmeaning.
I wish I could place my trust in the hands of a Creator. I wish I could look in my life and the lives of my children and all I have loved and see them as preludes to a better world. But, try as I might, I cannot. And so I am left to ponder the pointlessness of our strivings on this earth and to ask impossible questions, and receive no answers.
The book is structured as a series of three meditations, each bearing a date—October 2006, November 2008, December 2010—in which are interwoven, like currents from several streams meeting in a larger one, the personal, the philosophical, the literary, the political, and the history and fate of the Jewish people. It opens with a scene very familiar to me, one in which I play my role twice a day: a man taking his two dogs for a walk, on the same route each time. It is a peaceful routine for the man, a thrill as exciting each day as it was on the last for the dogs:
As though life were an endless horizon always met for the first time. How their excitement when I put on my cap at the onset of our rituals never fades. How they do not contend with their fates but devour them as if their days will go on forever. But I, who do not have the luxury of their comity with nature, see the silence coming, and look on the brief turn of their lives with bittersweet regret, and mourn them before they are gone.
Which situation holds greater pathos: the dogs unaware of death, or the man all too aware? In any case only the man foresees the end, and feels the impact of knowing it. The man experiences this point in time, but also knows that others came before and will come after it, that even a man’s lifetime is only a somewhat longer span of time than the daily walk: longer, but no less decisively bounded.
From here Horowitz moves to a theme which recurs throughout the book, and which was also prominent in Radical Son: the sad waste of his father’s gifts on an unworthy object, the dream of a communist utopia. Perhaps even more than in the earlier book he focuses on the hopelessness of this dream, though now more in sadness than anger, and maybe more sympathetic to the longing that produces the delusion: the longing to find a meaning in history, and to see the fulfillment of its apparent movement. He might have added the word “futile” before “search” in his subtitle, with no redemption in the next life, and the quest for it in this life not only hopeless, but often the engine of enormous evil.
The creed of the revolutionary divides the world into forces of good and evil—on the one side enemies of the people, on the other the social redeemers. The passion to create a new world is really a passion to destroy the old one, transforming the love of humanity into a hatred of the human beings who stand in its way.
I think this is the reason why the Church’s zeal for purging heresy when it was the dominant cultural influence did not generally result in the same level of carnage that the revolutions of the 20th century did. I don’t think the effectiveness of modern technology accounts entirely for the difference. The Church insisted that every Christian affirm its theological and moral teachings, and was often intolerant of non-Christians, but it never believed that it could or should create a perfect world on earth, and destroy those who could not or would not be perfected, or who stood in the way of the program of perfection.
In this context Horowitz refers often to Dostoevsky, to that writer’s experience of the revolutionary dream and witness to the demonic turn it took. He looks closely at the famous Grand Inquisitor passage from The Brothers Karamazov, and its description of the potency of the human longing for a fulfillment of history. But Dostoevsky—and I didn’t know this about him—apparently succumbed to a dream which was at least semi-utopian: that of a Russian-led Christendom which would be “the fulfillment of the destinies of humans on earth.” Even for a Christian whose theology more or less explicitly denies the possibility, it is difficult to resist the temptation to believe that the fulfillment of history will arrive within history.
Similarly, Horowitz spends a good bit of time with Marcus Aurelius: “Be not troubled, for all things are according to nature and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere.” But—and this also I did not know, having read Marcus Aurelius only in brief excerpts—the great Stoic also succumbed to the difficulty of living without purpose, and toward the end of his meditations declares his belief in a kind of God.
If even Marcus Aurelius was, in the end, unable to face the idea that life has no meaning, and if Dostoevsky couldn’t resist the idea that Russia would bring about the nearest thing possible to a perfect Christian society, what is to be expected of the rest of us, who generally have not explored the questions at hand as deeply as they did?
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