A review of the conservative critic’s latest book
By Bruce Thornton
September 20, 2011
A review of the conservative critic’s latest book Those who know David Horowitz only as a fierce critic of leftist delusions and a champion of democratic freedom may be surprised to discover that he is also the author of three volumes of memoirs laced with philosophical reflections. Yet a book such as A Point in Time, which joins the earlier volumes The End of Time and A Cracking of the Heart, complements beautifully Horowitz’s other work, which focuses more practically on contemporary ideologies and the pernicious policies they create. Politics, after all, is ultimately about ideas — about human nature, the goods states should pursue, and the limits of the possible given the brevity of a human life subjected to unforeseen change and suffering. Thus, conversations about policy must start first with those underlying ideas and ideals.
A Point in Time is one such conversation, subtly interwoven with Horowitz’s reflections on his own memories of loss, sickness, and anticipations of death, and deepened with perceptive explorations of timeless classics of philosophy and fiction, such as Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, that have addressed many of these same issues. The result is a melancholy yet hopeful story of one man’s search for order, meaning, and redemption in a world seemingly devoid of all three.
Central to the book is the recognition that, as creatures who naturally seek order and meaning, humans have been left adrift by the decline of faith and thus prey to modernity’s bloody pseudo-religions that promise a future redemption on earth to be delivered by the new god, “history.” Horowitz’s memories of his father, a faithful member of the American Communist Party, recall how that utopian creed and its failures darkened his family’s life: “Much later it occurred to me that my father’s inattention to primal needs was the other side of his passion for worlds that did not exist. . . . He never suspected that a fantasy so remote from the life directly in front of him might actually be the source of his isolation and gloom.” Yet the wages of this failure have been much more destructive, because the drive for perfection and redemption in this world, as Dostoevsky understood and brilliantly showed in his novels, ultimately justifies unthinkable horrors: “The passion to create a new world,” Horowitz says while concluding his meditation on Dostoevsky’s Devils, “is really a passion to destroy the old one, transforming the love of humanity into a hatred for the human beings who stand in its way.”
The great sin of such utopian ideologies, then, is their scorn for the imperfect, complex world of the here and now, of suffering and loss, in which all humans must live and find meaning. This simple fact is what gives philosophical heft to Horowitz’s own thoughts about the loss, sickness, and disappointments of his life, for such stories are where we find the meaning of our brief lives. Part of that narrative comprises the conversations we have with other minds whose own life stories have been recorded in their writings. For Horowitz, the Meditations, with their counsel to distance oneself emotionally from the shifting changes and losses of human existence, seemed a tempting antidote to the dread of death. Yet the cold comfort of Marcus Aurelius and Stoic apatheia cannot tell us “how one gets through a single earthly day.” Thus, in the end, the emperor’s advice will not provide the meaning and reconciliation we all crave, for it ignores “the sensual pull of the tangible world; the hunger for the life we taste, as opposed to the one we merely think about. The desire for this life, regardless of how much we get of it.” Meaning cannot be deferred to an imagined future or experienced only in the mind, but must be found now, even if only in the pleasure of a walk with faithful dogs, or the fragile beauty of a horse, or the transient vistas of the Santa Maria Valley.
A Point in Time explores further this conflict between the sensuous world of “beauty that must die” and the transcendent realm, with its “stories without end,” that undergirds our existence and makes possible our ideals of order, beauty, and love. Even the Stoic Roman emperor, like the figures on Keats’s urn “all breathing human passion far above,” ultimately must admit, “There are certainly gods, and they take care of the world.” Horowitz wrestles with this assertion, using the words of Dostoevsky’s novels and memoirs to refute the atheist delusion that humans are the real gods, able to reshape the world according to their dreams. Yet Horowitz is too honest simply to call for a return to traditional religion. After quoting a letter from Mozart near the end of his life, in which the composer professes his love of God, Horowitz sadly remarks, “I wish the faith of this great and gifted young man were mine as well. I wish I could place my trust in the hands of a Creator. I wish I could look on 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.”
Despite this doubt, though, Horowitz recognizes the powerful claim such a belief has on us, its ultimate necessity for finding any meaning in a shifting world of pain and loss, such as the one Horowitz experienced with the death of his beloved daughter, Sarah, which he describes in one of the most moving passages in the book. “The life of the world we know,” he writes, “is dependent on one we can only guess at, and this invisible world (or our belief in it) is necessary in order for the world we inhabit to continue.” The alternative is the various materialist creeds that have preached heaven on earth but are compromised by the limits of human nature: “The radical vision of an earthly redemption requires ordinary mortals, fallible and corrupt, to assume powers that are god-like.” And like gods, these “technicians of the soul” take for themselves the ultimate power of dispensing suffering and death on those who block the road to utopia and the “new men” who will redeem history. But, as Horowitz asks, “How can human beings create themselves anew? A glance at the human record reveals this to be a much greater leap of faith than relying on a hidden God.” And the consequences of these political religions in one century have been much more devastating than all the 20 centuries of violence that its enemies have laid at the feet of Christianity.
“Without our stories,” Horowitz observes, “our lives would be chaos and our existence unbearable.” And all stories ultimately embody ideas, good ones and bad, which shape our actions in the world as well as give it meaning. The seductive story of inevitable human progress toward heaven on earth has been destructive in the past, and continues to guide the policies of progressives today who demand increasing political power over our lives in order to achieve their dreams — precisely the delusions that Horowitz has exposed in over 40 years of writing. In this beautifully written, thoughtful memoir, he finds in the story of his own life another refutation of those bloody dreams: the redemptive wisdom of the tragic vision that accepts “that the life we have now is all we will get, and therefore is what is important.”
— Bruce S. Thornton is a professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno. This review was originally published in National Review.