By Wilfred M. McClay — December 2011
There are only three chapters in David Horowitz’s brief, poignant, and gracefully written memoir, A Point in Time. But their unadorned titles convey the book’s underlying theme: “October 2006,” “November 2008,” and “December 2010.” This succession of months marks the inexorable tread of winter closing in, which is the ultimate subject of Horowitz’s book. After an extraordinarily energetic public career at the white-hot center of the era’s greatest and most passionate political and cultural controversies—a courageous and complex life filled with an outsized complement of battles, causes, conversions, enemies, and war wounds, not to mention the confusions of late 20th-century marriage and family life and the mounting array of physical infirmities that come with age—Horowitz has set down his sword and now peers out toward the unknown reaches that await him beyond the horizon of his mortality.
Horowitz brings to the task not only his characteristic intellectual vigor, but also a certain chastened skepticism that is wise enough to be skeptical of itself. Such reflexivity is expressed in the very prose, which flows with ease, shifting freely between the personal and the philosophical and then doubling back on itself. There are moments of peace, uncertainty, sadness, resignation, quiet joy. There is no rage against the dying of the light. This is no longer the enfant terrible or fierce truth-seeking missile of writings past. These are the reflections of a lion in winter.
For us, meaning is a necessity, not a luxury. We cannot manage for long without it. The impulse to write our histories and tell our stories is intrinsic, one of the ways we stave off the unbearable terror of meaninglessness and find a way to bring forward into the present some part of the past that is constantly slipping away from us into darkness. “When a day passes, it is no longer there,” wrote Isaac Bashevis Singer; “What remains of it? Nothing more than a story.” Indeed, he continued: “The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”
Horowitz sees matters similarly, although he carries an awareness of not one story but a multitude. His book lovingly rehearses some of the best of them, especially as rendered in the works of Marcus Aurelius and Fyodor Dostoevsky and in the Hebrew and Christian Bible. He insists both on the imperishable human need for our stories and the inescapable fact that we are generally the ones constructing them, a position that makes both belief and unbelief difficult to sustain. Hence he dwells in a kind of uneasy post-secular staging area, respectful of religious stories, convinced of their richness and fundamental truth, as well as their indispensability to our moral lives, but unable to partake of their metaphysical consolations. He is an unbeliever at bottom, but in a way that has nothing in common with our era’s loud professional atheists, who are merely believers of a different kind.
Of course, the one story to which this postmodern dilemma surely does not apply is the story of our individual biological existence: the steady tread of time, the unstoppable decline against whose force so much of the rest of our storymaking is deployed, a winter that can only be delayed, never denied. About that story Horowitz is brutally honest; it is the one story for which the empirical evidence is overwhelming. Now in his 70s, he relates the signs of bodily decline with a stoical detachment that most of us would find hard to emulate. But he is too wise to be a simple materialist. True, he will not permit himself the reassurances of faith when his intellect refuses to consent. But that refusal includes a refusal to regard the faith of others as mere illusion, especially in cases like that of Mozart, whose transfiguring faith formed the basis for his sublime achievements.
It seems to him that the meaning of our lives depends, paradoxically, on the existence of something outside ourselves, and that we must feel ourselves part of something larger in order to feel ourselves whole. “In order to be moral,” he says, “men must inhabit stories that have no end,” and they tell such stories with the presumption that “someone will be there to take it all in,” watching and listening. It might be God, it might simply be our fellow humans, but we require “the audience of others” to confirm our humanity. And yet he cannot dismiss the possibility that this performance is illusory, that our storytelling may be, in the words of novelist Julian Barnes, “just a scratching on the wall of the condemned cell,” something we do to certify, “I was here, too.” To which Horowitz darkly adds: “But to whom?”
Nor are stories always edifying. One must find a way to distinguish among them and judge their fruits. Horowitz comes by his pattern of unbelief honestly, since he has spent much of his life freeing himself from the death grip of modernity’s most seductive story: the progressive myth of the redemption of the world through revolutionary transformation. For Horowitz, as a red-diaper baby raised by committed Communist parents, the task of liberating himself from this story would be doubly difficult, because it was not only an intellectual chore but also an existential challenge. He had the misfortune to find the deadening abstractions of revolutionary theory embodied in the person of his father. To rebel against one was to conquer the other.
The embrace of history, understood as the sure path of progress, was one way—his father’s way—of fulfilling the human need to inhabit a story that envelops and upholds one, the sort of story that does not end. Yet belief in that story seemed only to diminish Horowitz’s father. Horowitz speculates that it was precisely his father’s fierce “passion for worlds that did not exist,” his addiction to the bloodless abstractions that animated his ruling story, and his consequent blindness to the beauties and pleasures of ordinary and everyday things, that imprisoned him. He writes:
My father was a missionary of the promised future in which a gentle rain of justice would nourish every seed. 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. By the time I was old enough to take my father’s measure as a man, he was enveloped in a metaphysical despair so dense he could never break free.
Horowitz had his own bout with 60s radicalism and his own conversion from the left, about which he has written so memorably in his autobiography, Radical Son. The conversion seems by now to be complete. In A Point in Time, he expresses the anti-progressive conviction that history is, in fact, without any clear direction. Over against the motto cited so often by Barack Obama, that “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he offers this chilly rejoinder: “The arc of the moral universe is indeed bent, but there is no one and no way to unbend it.”
So if history is not a story to trust with one’s soul and spirit, what else might there be? Horowitz’s parents had regarded the thinkers of the past as “childlike seekers in the primitive world, groping their way to fragments of knowledge through fogs of religious myth.” But that was a sign of their characteristic progressive blindness and arrogance. To reject their premises was to discover that the past might offer insights that the present had forgotten. A Point in Time chronicles Horowitz’s search for them.
The great Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, for example, offers some hope of sustenance for Horowitz: “Our perturbations come only from our opinions” of things, and not the things themselves. Though we cannot change the world, we can change what we make of it. We can, in other words, “construct a narrative” for our lives that “does not multiply unnecessary defeats” and that makes peace with what cannot be altered. Yet the Stoic ideal turns out to be too difficult even for Marcus Aurelius, who cannot bear the thought that the world outside us might be meaningless, and, after wrestling with the problem, he declares: “There certainly are gods, and they take care of the world.” Such a jejune conclusion disappoints Horowitz and renders the whole undertaking far less impressive.
Horowitz also finds considerable insight in the writings of Dostoevsky, who recognized, through his own harrowing experience of revolutionary politics, that bloody horrors will always befall a world in which all things are permitted. Horowitz offers a deeply sympathetic reading of Dostoevsky’s messianic Christian faith as a counter to revolutionary nihilism. But then Horowitz recoils at the Russian’s appalling anti-Semitism (“the Yid and his bank are now reigning over everything,” Dostoevsky recorded in his notebooks) and he is forced to reconsider the claims of the one story which is already rightly his, like it or not—the “old idea” of Jewish identity, grounded in claims of chosenness and promised redemption. Yet this story, too, fails to satisfy him entirely, since the unique and relentless persecution of the Jews after three millennia seems to make a mockery of the old idea.
So none of the older stories can command Horowitz’s unconditional belief, or even provisional faith. Yet he finds that without them “our lives would be chaos and our existence unbearable.” It is a difficult position he takes, if one with an undeniable integrity, and one that echoes the ancient Jewish aversion to false gods, including the false god of godlessness. But it seems to have produced in Horowitz a final release from the weight of his father’s bloodless abstractions and the destructive moral self-importance that they confer on those who adopt them.
This release is reflected in the obvious writerly satisfaction he takes here in immersing himself in the careful and evocative description of his life’s routines and simple pleasures: the houses he lives in, the landscapes he walks through, the quirky behavior of his beloved dogs, the changing expressions on their faces, and the simple sadness he feels as he watches them age and faces the thought of life without them—that sense of dying piecemeal that we experience each time we lose something or someone we love, something that can never be replaced. And then face the possibility of other such losses, some of them beyond bearing.
Compared with such things, and the other intimacies of the heart and spirit that go to the marrow of human existence, the Sturm und Drang of world-historical struggles and public contentions begins to fade in interest and grow somehow smaller and more fleeting. As the public world contracts, the inner world expands. As A Point in Time shows triumphantly, that can be the greatest compensation for the onset of winter.
About the Author
Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He last wrote “How to Understand Rush Limbaugh” for our February issue.
This article was originally printed in Commentary Magazine