A Point in Time
David Horowitz's writing career spans more than forty years and at least as many books. The major portion of his work deals with political and education subjects from a conservative vantage, establishing Horowitz's reputation as one of the most notable and controversial figures in the arena of public commentary. His impact on current intellectual thought and discourse has been increasingly consolidated over the last decade and a half or so, from the 1997 Radical Son to the 2009 One-Party Classroom. Commanding respect as well as inviting censure, his name is now indelibly associated with contemporary cultural critique and political analysis at the cutting edge of social relevance.
With the publication of The End of Time in 2005 and especially A Cracking of the Heart, a memoir of the life and death of his daughter Sarah, in 2009, Horowitz's perspective begins to vary from the political to the personal. The old feminist cliché that "the personal is political," to cite Carol Hanisch's well-known 1969 essay, is reversed in Horowitz's case. For him, the political is personal and has always been so, as earlier intimated in Radical Son. And not only is the political personal, but the personal is exceedingly personal, for Horowitz writes not only from the standpoint of an erudite scholar immersed in his discipline, but also from his own firsthand, vivid, and deeply felt experience.
There is often a gaping divorce in academic and political writing between the theoretical and the empirical. Cloistered academics and the general run of media pundits tend to be insulated from the graphic immediacy of real life -- a privileged remoteness from what we might call unprocessed experience -- which allows them to float their often vapid exhalations with aerial insouciance. The opposite is the case here. Horowitz does not merely sit behind a writing desk, deliver copy, or orate to a classroom. He is also in the trenches, receiving threats to his personal safety as he travels about the speaking circuit accompanied by bodyguards. He is in the thick of it. There is a profound, almost visceral involvement with every one of the issues Horowitz treats, be it "the politics of bad faith," the corrupt and doctrinaire Academy, the American presidency, the theory and practice of economic subversion, the drama of Israel under attack, or, more recently, his close family. It is from his analytical fidelity to his own passional experience that Horowitz derives his immense authority.
And this authority is on prominent display in his latest offering, A Point in Time, which is, quite simply, a lovely book -- gentle, reflective, mellifluous. It is a form of Aurelian meditation -- the second- century A.D. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is a textual point of reference -- on the human quest for order in the midst of chaos and the search for redemption in the face of turmoil, loss, and the inevitable wages of mortality.
This quest, as Horowitz observes, is prone to go askew when, as in the contemporary West, the Judeo-Christian bedrock of our civilization has begun to buckle and shift. The need for meaning, faith, and security, however, does not go away, resulting in the worship of false gods and the erection of secular and ideological substitutes to fill the void. Thus, "the passion to create a new world," says Horowitz, amplifying a theme that has been addressed by a growing number of thinkers -- Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting come to mind -- "is really a passion to destroy the old one, transforming the love of humanity into a hatred for the human beings that stand in its way."
This is where Horowitz's second point of reference comes in: the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose message is materially compromised by his anti-Semitism but whose insight into the superbia, the arrogance and presumption of man engineering his own salvation, remains always contemporary. In such novels as The Brothers Karamazov and The Possessed, Dostoevsky understood that human beings cannot, as the Serpent promised in the Garden, become as gods. For in this world, Paradise is not an option. History has shown that when the earthly city replaces in its self-sufficiency the heavenly city, some sort of political deformation invariably ensues. "The radical vision of an earthly redemption," Horowitz writes, glossing Dostoevsky, "requires ordinary mortals, fallible and corrupt, to assume powers that are god-like," after which, in the character Ivan Karamazov's resonating phrase, "everything is permitted."
The premise of the celestial city remains necessary as a check upon earthly usurpation. Horowitz knows that we cannot merely dismiss transcendence or annul the assumption of an "invisible world" which confers value, moral stability, and metaphysical substance upon the abyss we inhabit. Paradoxically, the belief in the supernal is less hubristic, less preposterous, than the belief in our own autonomous powers. "To create a world that is harmonious and just, secular redeemers must put their trust in human beings. But 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 yet the belief in a categorically better world is bound to be disappointed one way or another. We have nothing to spend but the frugal returns of our numinous convictions, whether tenuous or rigid. The predicament is devastating but must nevertheless be borne with resilience and defiant love. For Horowitz is not recommending the austere dispassion of the prokoptôn, the Stoic postulant. Even Aurelius leaves something to be desired, for his belief in a managerial pantheon of distant, impersonal Immortals does little to assuage the crisis of faith. Moreover, the ideal of Stoic detachment from "the sensual pull of the tangible world" is beyond the capacities of ordinary men and women. Death-in-life is not the answer.
In a recent interview, Horowitz describes the book as "a summing up of what I have learned over the course of a lifetime." He explains that we confront the meaninglessness of existence by telling ourselves and living inside stories that have no end -- in other words, the illusions that keep us going. This is more or less the same argument powerfully developed in George Steiner's After Babel, in which Steiner defines language itself as "counterfactual," a human invention whose fundamental purpose is to deflect us from recognizing the terrible truth of the absurdity and ephemerality of human life. Or as T.S. Eliot famously wrote in Four Quartets, "human kind / Cannot bear very much reality."
Thus we think of our lives as plotted, as leading toward a consummation of meaning, and we regard history as a coherent narrative charting an "upward slope" in a slow but inexorable progress toward perfection. "But this is only a metaphor," Horowitz is forced to admit, "and there is no such architecture." And yet such a recognition is ultimately insupportable. "Despite all that I think I know," Horowitz writes, "I still return to the security of my stories, and am content to live in their worlds." This is because "every narrative is designed to convince us that what we do is noteworthy."
One recalls E.M. Forster, who, in Aspects of the Novel, distinguished between a story and a plot. The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. The sequence is rational, connected, and motivated. When Horowitz says he returns to the security of his stories, he actually means that he re-enters the continuum of a plot, a skein of events that are not haphazard, but tied together in a way that makes some kind of sense, the past prefiguring the future and the present shedding new light on the past. Clearly this is not enough to solace our confusion and disorientation, and yet it is all we have to carry us through the vale of our existence. When Winston Churchill was asked what it felt like to be ninety, he replied: terrible, but consider the alternative.
It must be said that A Point in Time has a testamentary ring to it, almost as if Horowitz were setting about writing his will. It is to be hoped that he will keep rewriting it for years to come. For what Horowitz has given us -- and continues to give us -- is essential. He has provided us with a species of wisdom literature, along the entire spectrum from the ideological sphere of current debate to the introspective realm of philosophical, religious, ethical, and personal speculation. And it is a literature that has become pivotal in our understanding of how the world works and how we work within it. A Point in Time, which is also the culminating point of Horowitz's textual itinerary thus far, is a book we should linger with and ponder over, as an aid to our own reflections on the nature of time, mortality, and love.