Memento Mori

David Horowitz’s new memoir offers a firm and fervent appreciation of the good and precious things.

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He's known to both friend and foe as a polemicist of the first order, a tireless adversary of political orthodoxies who's never afraid to meet the enemy and do battle. He's Daniel in the lion's den, Job enduring abuse after abuse but holding fast to his convictions, and (yes) David facing off against the establishment Goliath. His political writings, now collected in The Black Book of the American Left, are deeply informed and masterly in their argumentation.

But there's another side to David Horowitz, man and writer. In three short works published in recent years, this very public man has vouchsafed us glimpses of his most private experiences, thoughts, and feelings as he makes his way through his eighth decade. A fourth book in this series has just been published.

At the outset perhaps a few words should be said about its title, You're Going to Be Dead One Day: A Love Story. Obviously, it's not the cheeriest title on record. Surely some people will give the book a pass precisely for this reason. Then again, those same people probably wouldn't get very far into, say, Pascal's Pensées, Goethe's Sufferings of Young Werther, Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, Tennyson's In Memoriam, or C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, either, before tossing them aside and picking up Fifty Shades of Grey.

Why? T.S. Eliot understood. “Human kind,” he wrote, “[c]annot bear very much reality.” Most people just don't want to dwell on their own mortality – or, for that matter, to think very deeply about their own lives. Of course, that's a distinction without a difference: it's impossible to think deeply about life without thinking about mortality. Today's Western culture and technology, however, encourage and train us to do the opposite – to be ignorant of history, preoccupied with the headline trivialities of the day, and endlessly distracted by Twitter and Itunes, all the while pretending we'll be here forever. Once, years ago, I wrote an article in which I quoted a line from the Book of Common Prayer: “In the midst of life we are in death.” After I turned it in, an editor queried me about this sentence. What, she asked, did it mean? She was young.

Horowitz's new book, like its three predecessors, is a rebuke to the Zeitgeist that produces such innocence. But it's a soft-spoken rebuke – not a scrappy polemic but a low-key work of reflection. In paraphrase, its contents sound quotidian: over a five-month period, during which Horowitz slowly recovers from an ailment, he ponders his love for his wife, April, and for his three surviving children, all of them gifted and successful, and for his late daughter, who died tragically at forty-four in 2008. He recounts home improvements he and his wife have made. They throw a party; they walk their dogs, whose names and histories we learn. He tells us at length about April's affection for horses. Occasionally, he flashes back to earlier days – his first marriage, his children's childhoods, his beloved dogs who have crossed the bar.

But what Horowitz does with this seemingly ordinary material is extraordinary. This book mesmerizes from beginning to end, capturing with rare artistry the day-to-day musings of a man who is at once an intellectual and a poet, and who is interested neither in impressing nor dazzling us but only in sharing with us what Virginia Woolf would have called his “moments of being” – moments, that is (some might use the word existential somewhere in here), in which he's in particularly urgent contact with his moment-to-moment experience. Exploring material that lesser writers could not handle without becoming affected or lachrymose, Horowitz manages throughout – in a prose whose beauty is a function of its classical simplicity, clinical precision, and magisterial control – to communicate profound thoughts in restrained, unadorned, and unpretentious language and to capture intense emotions while utterly eluding sentimentality or mawkishness.

There is great wisdom here, which from time to time leads one to put the book down just to think for a minute or two; and there are also moments of remarkable feeling, when one pauses to wipe away a tear. Especially touching are the anecdotes that convey the Horowitzes' tenderness toward animals and concern for their welfare – most notably, April's heroic, hands-on efforts to help horses that have been subject to cruel abuse and neglect. For some of us, the ultimate test of one of our fellow homo sapiens is how they treat our helpless fellow creatures; Horowitz and his wife pass this test with flying colors. The very way in which he writes about animals, indeed, is a lesson in humaneness, in humanity at its noblest. It goes without saying that the overwhelming majority of those on the left who have routinely and reflexively savaged him in the media don't begin to measure up to him in knowledge or sagacity; I suspect that, for all their pharisaical sloganeering about saving the world, few if any of them come near him in active, real-world benevolence, either.

Needless to say, this poignant, bittersweet, captivating little volume is light-years removed from Horowitz's political writings in both topic and tone. But philosophically it's thoroughly consistent with them. It limns a life lived not (as Horowitz's parents, tragically, lived) in the grip of some utopian ideology that demands contempt for this imperfect world and its less enlightened denizens, but lived, rather, with a humble and realistic acceptance of the limitations, temporal and otherwise, of human existence – and a firm and fervent appreciation of the good and precious things, great and small, that life, while it lasts, can afford.