David Horowitz's "A Point in Time" takes on the foremost questions that once plagued Marcus Aurelius and Dostoevsky.
The only reason I was not surprised that this book came from the hand of David Horowitz was that I had read his Radical Son, and already gotten over my surprise that such a ferocious political combatant would write so sensitively and reflectively—and so well. I reviewed that book here last October (link). Horowitz ran across the review, thought I might be interested in A Point in Time, and graciously sent me a copy.
“I think you’ll find it challenging,” he wrote to me. And although I did not find it so in the way that I think he meant, I understand why he thought I might. It is a rich and hopeless book, the most affecting attempt I can remember to quiet the human longing for eternity in the face of mortality, individual and collective, and the absence of any hope beyond extinction; to make a sort of meaning out of the acknowledgment of unmeaning.
I wish I could place my trust in the hands of a Creator. I wish I could look in 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. And so I am left to ponder the pointlessness of our strivings on this earth and to ask impossible questions, and receive no answers.
The book is structured as a series of three meditations, each bearing a date—October 2006, November 2008, December 2010—in which are interwoven, like currents from several streams meeting in a larger one, the personal, the philosophical, the literary, the political, and the history and fate of the Jewish people. It opens with a scene very familiar to me, one in which I play my role twice a day: a man taking his two dogs for a walk, on the same route each time. It is a peaceful routine for the man, a thrill as exciting each day as it was on the last for the dogs:
As though life were an endless horizon always met for the first time. How their excitement when I put on my cap at the onset of our rituals never fades. How they do not contend with their fates but devour them as if their days will go on forever. But I, who do not have the luxury of their comity with nature, see the silence coming, and look on the brief turn of their lives with bittersweet regret, and mourn them before they are gone.
Which situation holds greater pathos: the dogs unaware of death, or the man all too aware? In any case only the man foresees the end, and feels the impact of knowing it. The man experiences this point in time, but also knows that others came before and will come after it, that even a man's lifetime is only a somewhat longer span of time than the daily walk: longer, but no less decisively bounded.
From here Horowitz moves to a theme which recurs throughout the book, and which was also prominent in Radical Son: the sad waste of his father’s gifts on an unworthy object, the dream of a communist utopia. Perhaps even more than in the earlier book he focuses on the hopelessness of this dream, though now more in sadness than anger, and maybe more sympathetic to the longing that produces the delusion: the longing to find a meaning in history, and to see the fulfillment of its apparent movement. He might have added the word “futile” before “search” in his subtitle, with no redemption in the next life, and the quest for it in this life not only hopeless, but often the engine of enormous evil.
The creed of the revolutionary divides the world into forces of good and evil—on the one side enemies of the people, on the other the social redeemers. The passion to create a new world is really a passion to destroy the old one, transforming the love of humanity into a hatred of the human beings who stand in its way.
I think this is the reason why the Church’s zeal for purging heresy when it was the dominant cultural influence did not generally result in the same level of carnage that the revolutions of the 20th century did. I don’t think the effectiveness of modern technology accounts entirely for the difference. The Church insisted that every Christian affirm its theological and moral teachings, and was often intolerant of non-Christians, but it never believed that it could or should create a perfect world on earth, and destroy those who could not or would not be perfected, or who stood in the way of the program of perfection.
In this context Horowitz refers often to Dostoevsky, to that writer’s experience of the revolutionary dream and witness to the demonic turn it took. He looks closely at the famous Grand Inquisitor passage from The Brothers Karamazov, and its description of the potency of the human longing for a fulfillment of history. But Dostoevsky—and I didn’t know this about him—apparently succumbed to a dream which was at least semi-utopian: that of a Russian-led Christendom which would be “the fulfillment of the destinies of humans on earth.” Even for a Christian whose theology more or less explicitly denies the possibility, it is difficult to resist the temptation to believe that the fulfillment of history will arrive within history.
Similarly, Horowitz spends a good bit of time with Marcus Aurelius: “Be not troubled, for all things are according to nature and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere.” But—and this also I did not know, having read Marcus Aurelius only in brief excerpts—the great Stoic also succumbed to the difficulty of living without purpose, and toward the end of his meditations declares his belief in a kind of God.
If even Marcus Aurelius was, in the end, unable to face the idea that life has no meaning, and if Dostoevsky couldn’t resist the idea that Russia would bring about the nearest thing possible to a perfect Christian society, what is to be expected of the rest of us, who generally have not explored the questions at hand as deeply as they did?
I have some doubt as to whether anyone can truly dispose of the belief that life has no purpose. Even one who comes to that conclusion can’t leave it alone. This book is witness to that fact, an attempt to find out and confront the meaning of non-meaning. I suspect that only someone well on his way to being damned could truly leave it alone—that is, truly ignore it, not even think about it, not be aware of the problem it poses—because doing so would entail an almost complete insensibility not just to the idea of God but to good and evil, truth and falsehood. I have known any number of people who professed to believe that life has no meaning, but not one who was genuinely indifferent to the idea. They betray themselves by their strenuous insistence upon it, clearly driven by strong emotion, which would not exist if they were truly reconciled.
For me, at least, there is a greater obstacle to the belief that life has a meaning than the absence of proof that it does: the question of evil. Horowitz uses a couple of horrifying stories to bring this home; no more are needed.
I mentioned earlier that I did not find this book challenging in the sense that I took Horowitz to mean it, that is, in the sense that it challenged my convictions as a Catholic. That’s not because it isn’t in fact a challenge, but because it is one to which I am accustomed. I deal with these questions every day. Whatever my faith is, it is not knowledge that was given to me, as it was given to St. Paul—not knowledge of a fact. And it is not a sense of God’s presence, or a consciousness of his love. And it is definitely not a certainty; I am never without some awareness of the possibility that I may be wrong. And I never see a news story about a murder or a war or a natural catastrophe, or even pass by a dead dog on the road, dead only because it was too innocent to fear properly an oncoming automobile, without wondering why the God in whom I place my trust permits such things to happen. My faith is a conscious decision, renewed every day, to accept the Christian revelation and to order my life according to it, or at least make a persistent effort to do so.
The intellect cannot make this decision for me, cannot force it upon me as an indubitable certainty. The heart wants it, but the heart often wants what it should not have. Does it want what it cannot have, not just practically but in the very nature of things? Of course it can and does in the immediate course of life, but can its ultimate longing be for something that does not exist? The idea that it can is a deeper puzzle than is generally recognized.
Is the longing for heaven like a dog dreaming of a bowl which is never empty of hamburger? Well, suppose it is; suppose that is the best a dog might think to ask of heaven. It doesn’t matter. The important question is not what sort of heaven the dog might want, but whether he can want it at all, whether he can have the self-awareness and the ability to step outside the moment necessary for him to have the dream, and to know he is having it. And, after all, hamburger does exist; we assume the dog can't long for something that he can’t imagine. And I’m not convinced that we can, either, though the intensity of our longing and our difficulty in naming its object leads us to use words like sehnsucht. Like the dog with his hamburger, we have tasted it, if only briefly. We have imagined that there is something better than we can imagine.
But back to the book. I don’t think I’ve conveyed just how enjoyable it is: its graceful writing, its contemplative tone, its recourse to the inconceivably precious texture—and, one must say, the meaning—of ordinary life. In spite of the fact that the conclusion it draws are the opposite of my own, I’ll return to it, for the way it faces the problems it raises.
I have sometimes distinguished between deep and shallow atheism: the former understands the seriousness of the question, the latter does not, and thinks a shallow materialism answers all. I don’t think Horowitz describes himself as an atheist—if I’m not mistaken he uses the word agnostic a few times—but like most agnostics he takes the assumption of the absence of God as the outcome of his doubt. At any rate, his unbelief is definitely of the deep variety. And I always suspect that those who hold it are closer to the Kingdom than they realize, or is apparent to us.
Horowitz blames his own people for helping to fuel the expectation that history will arrive somewhere:
Deep in the millenial past, Jews were the original progressives and invented the idea that we are on our way toward a brighter future, which perhaps is why our history is so filled with tragedy and defeat.
I can't help seeing a trace of ironical Jewish humor here: in other words, the Jews invented a system for making themselves miserable for all time. But did they invent it? Or was it given to them?
I neglected to mark the passage, and may not be quoting it perfectly, but Horowitz says something to the effect that we comfort ourselves by imagining that we inhabit stories that have no end. After I had written most of this review, I ran across the last lines of the last book of The Chronicles of Narnia:
All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no man on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.
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