Witness to Life

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Stalked by mortality, he is constantly distracted from the consolations of philosophy. Sometimes “I wander in a purgatory of half sleep and fitful thoughts where I am harassed by images of our common fate.” In that state, “I am often overcome with remorse to think how I have brought four children into the world as hostages of time.” These are words that sear, especially coming from an author who knows what it is to lose a child (detailed in his book A Cracking of the Heart, published in 2009). It is all well and good to hold oneself aloft from the world — or to turn the other cheek, as Christians would have it. But not even the stoutest stoic can take that same attitude where progeny are concerned. Stoicism ends at the nursery room door.

Nevertheless, its philosophical appeal persists. “We are wounded by losses,” Horowitz observes, “and rage to have them reversed. But eventually we come to terms with our fate, knowing that this was all there was ever going to be.” Unhappy marriages, career reversals, deaths of loved ones, loss of youth and health and strength: Often enough, as A Point in Time observes, there seems no end of the sadnesses that life throws our way, except of course for the obvious and ultimate release — one that we universally dread, even as we know there is no other way out.

In considering alternatives to Aurelius, Horowitz holds up in the middle of the book the thought on which Fyodor Dostoevsky centered his life and work. That is, as the great Russian himself described it, “the belief that there is nothing finer, profounder, more attractive, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ.” Yet Dostoevsky too, Horowitz reasons, runs aground with his vision, as earthly activists of any kind ultimately do. After all, “the nihilistic idea that had captured his youth and nearly destroyed him became an inspiration for the next generation to lay waste his country and make it a desert.” All of the great writer’s tumultuous words, every vision he ever sweated to paper, could not keep his country from hurtling to the disaster that he himself foresaw — tens of millions murdered and imprisoned in a crime whose dimensions can still barely be grasped. Indeed, calculates Horowitz, Stalin “had ordered the murder of virtually one member of every Russian family.”

In Russia as elsewhere, “the quest for an earthly redemption has led to the greatest crimes.” That is the thought connecting Horowitz’s life work to this current reflection, and it is a deep one. Yet it seems to me, as a friendly amendment to his meditation, that there may be a middle ground between Aurelius’s fatalistic shrug and Dostoevsky’s Russo-Christian millenarianism. As another great Russian soul, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once mapped it: “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme — only not through me” [emphasis added].

It is a quote that points the way to a modified stoicism. We need not, with Dostoevsky, seek the Christian heaven here on earth. But neither need we give up altogether on the possibility that what we do here can indeed improve the place, however modestly. In dedicating our work to one simple principle — i.e., that we refuse be used as vessels for the lies of our particular time — we may, in the end, accomplish something positive after all. We might by such witness spark the second thoughts in others that will spare them the same entanglement in falsehood, and the predictable pains that result.

In persisting through the decades to make sense of his own life, David Horowitz has shed light on the world the rest of us live in and forced at least some readers who needed forcing to face the truth. “The audience of others, real or imagined, is the way we persuade ourselves that our drama has no end, that what we do matters,” he observes in A Point in Time; and like his hero Dostoevsky, he seems prepared to believe with equanimity every writer’s fear — that a moment will come in the future when there is no one left to read one’s stories at all. Even so, the unique witness of David Horowitz continues to deserve real readers in the here and now, and more of them at that.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and consulting editor to Policy Review.

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