Reading David Horowitz's "A Point in Time: The Search for Redemption in this Life and the Next" is like taking an autumn stroll with a gray-haired elder encountered at a family reunion. You were expecting his usual social, political, and economic rants that sometimes alienated you, and sometimes frightened you. Sometimes you saw some shaft of insight in his words, an insight you defiantly resisted because his worldview was so different from your own. You see the world through rose-colored glasses of universal brotherhood and a brighter tomorrow. This guy insistently reminded you of failed utopias.
Before you set out on your stroll, though, he made sure to bring his three pooches along. The tenderness he showed the dogs gives you pause. You realized that as different as you are in age and worldview, you both love dogs.
As you step out into the gray light, suddenly crepuscular so early in the afternoon, the elder speaks. You're accustomed to clipped who-what-when-where-why-style headlines. Today the rhythm and care of poetry shimmers just under the surface of his prose.
He's talking about death. Well, yes, that would make sense; he is a septuagenarian. He has had a cancer scare and one of his children has pre-deceased him.
You slow your steps and listen. His words seem, like the moldering leaves, fading light, and the migrating geese overhead, to be arising organically out of the autumnal scene. You'll be pondering what you hear today for a long time.
"A Point in Time" is a meditation on death and mortality, morality, religious faith, and the Utopian urge. Horowitz uses Marcus Aurelius' and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's works as touchstones.
Horowitz's parents had been members of the American Communist Party. Horowitz himself was close to the Black Panthers. In 1974 their bookkeeper, Betty Van Patter, was murdered. Horowitz was convinced that the Panthers were responsible. In 1985, Horowitz publicly broke with the left. My former comrades spoke of Horowitz as if he were the devil incarnate.
I went to heckle Horowitz ten years ago. He said something that silenced me, and that I pondered repeatedly: Camden, Newark, and Paterson have had Democratic leadership for decades. I grew up among people who vividly remember Newark and Paterson as thriving, even enviable cities. That they are now slums breaks many New Jerseyians hearts. Horowitz's comment was a significant paving stone in my own turn away from the left.
Even so I did not expect a book like "A Point in Time" from Horowitz. It is meditative, serene, and stoic. It is not a Christian book, but it treats Christianity and its impact with respect.
Horowitz talks about death using dogs, pet ownership, homes, and writing. Dogs live for about a decade, much shorter than the average human lifespan. We must watch our beloved four-footed friends age and die at a more rapid rate than our own. Homes are our carapace. We experience them almost as extensions of ourselves, renovating them with a sense that our lives might go on forever. Moving into, and then out of a home, also reminds us of mortality.
Horowitz's daughter Sarah was a writer who never married. She died relatively young, and having published relatively little. Horowitz contemplates her one bedroom apartment, and her writings, her most significant material legacy. Medical diagnoses, too, remind us of mortality. If we go on living long enough, eventually we will get cancer, or diabetes, or something. We will fight the illness as long as we can. We lose the fight in increments, as Horowitz has in the amount of walking he can do before fatigue reels him back home.
We turn to bookcases. Marcus Aurelius provides a stoic model; Dostoyevsky a Christian one. Horowitz's selection of quotes from Dostoyevsky convinces me that I need to read more of him, or at least about him. The quotes Horowitz selects are stunningly apropos to American college campuses today. Horowitz positions Dostoyevsky as the antidote to atheist nihilists and Utopians.
Horowitz considers faith, but acknowledges that he is an agnostic. He briefly describes a few unspeakable crimes from current headlines. With a few spare sentences, he describes the kind of sadism that occurs every day. How do we believe in God in a world in which not just children, but even dogs, are subject to cruel and meaningless tortures? If God is omnipotent, how do we avoid assigning responsibility to God for horrible events?
Rejection of God has been for many a sort of religion of its own. Horowitz's father did not believe in God, but he did have a myth and a telos. "When he read his morning paper it was not to gather tidings of events that actually affected him – prices rising, weather brewing, wars approaching – but to parse the script of a global drama that would one day bring history and its miseries to an end."
Similarly, Dostoyevsky's fellow conspirator Nikolay Speshnev said that his political hope "is also a religion only a different one. It makes a divinity out of a new and different object, but there is nothing new about the deification itself." The difference between Dostoyevsky and men like Speshnev is acted out on college campuses in America every day, and on the international stage. Dostoyevsky describes how radicals justify "wading through blood." One need only look to the former cradle of civilization to find examples.
The book's intimacy is typified by a lovely passage on page 22. Horowitz lays awake at night, "haunted by reflections of death." Kissing his wife, or petting "the small bodies curled like furry slippers at my feet" provides him with a reprieve from "this emptiness."
The book's cover by Bosch Fawstin depicts the scene at Dostoyevsky's mock execution by czarist police: three erect stakes. I cannot help but think of the anachronistic reference to Christ – "three pale figures led forth and bound to three posts driven upright in the ground" – in W.H. Auden's poem "Shield of Achilles." Horowitz's book, like Auden's poem, like Marcus Aurelius, recognizes that each generation must confront, struggle with, and then lose, "The mass and majesty of this world, all that carries weight and always weighs the same," whether we live under the House of Atreus, or the Pax Romana, or the reign of Obama.
Death gave us this David Horowitz. If mortality were not knocking on his door, I don't think he would have written this book; if it were not knocking on ours, however faint the sound, we could not resonate to it. Death "focuses the mind" and awakens the heart. The myth of, or perhaps the evidence for, immortality gives us the determination to apply death's lessons.