Death is every life’s inevitable denouement, but La Rochefoucauld told us that we can no more stare it in the face than we can stare at the sun. For the most part, we continue our daily round in a state of presumed immortality, and because we are so unfamiliar nowadays with death—it having been carefully put out of our sight by a host of professionals—we treat it as an unwarranted intrusion into our affairs rather than as an existential limit to our brief earthly sojourn. For many, death has become anomalous rather than inevitable, something to protest against rather than accept. For them, the concept of a good death is entirely alien or antipathetic.
David Horowitz tries to stare his own death in the face. Now 71, he has had cancer of the prostate, and he has diabetes and angina; his diplomatic immunity from death, which we all grant ourselves, has been unmistakably withdrawn. His short new book, which it is both necessary and a pleasure to read in one sitting, is a meditation on the meaning of life, sub specie aeternitatis.
Horowitz begins by reflecting on the nature and character of his dogs, whom he takes for regular walks. Perhaps those who don’t love dogs will think this an odd way to begin a book on the meaning of life, but it seems entirely natural and fitting. Indeed, I was struck by how Horowitz’s meditations paralleled mine, occasioned by my relationship, and walks, with my own dog—a relationship intense and happy, at least on my side and, if I don’t delude myself, on his also. The dog, of course, has no intimation of his own mortality, while the owner’s pleasure in the animal’s company is increasingly tinged with a melancholy awareness of his swiftly approaching dissolution. Yet the dog maintains his passionate interest in the little world around him, his small-scale curiosity in his immediate environment. In the face of the physical immensity of the universe and the temporal vastness that both preceded and will follow his oblivion, is a man in any fundamentally different situation?
As far as we know, we are the only creatures to demand of their existence a transcendent meaning. This can be supplied by various means, most commonly religious belief. Horowitz is unable to accept belief in a personal God, but wishes he could and, unlike many in his position, does not scorn those who do. He is decidedly not the village atheist.
More than most, however, he has reason to know that politics can also give, or at any rate appear to give, transcendent meaning to life. The secular religion of Marxism was particularly adept at supplying this meaning, though nationalist struggles could do the same. To believe that one was a soldier in history’s army, marching toward the predestined final victory when mankind would become terminally happy, and that one’s participation would help bring forward that consummation, was to know that one did not live in vain. Even personal suffering can be lessened by adherence to a political cause: either such suffering is experienced as a consequence of the struggle, or it is at least ameliorated by an acceptance of its pettiness by comparison with the greater goal.
Horowitz offers brief but moving glimpses of his father, a true believer in the ability of Marxism (in what he considered its indubitably correct form) not only to interpret the world but to change it. The preposterous intellectual grandiosity of this belief contrasted comically, and sadly, with Horowitz senior’s position in the world. His son’s depiction has an elegiac quality, portraying the tragicomedy of a man who thought he had penetrated to the heart of existence’s mystery but was really quite weak. Though he embraced a doctrine that had done untold evil in the world, he himself was a gentle soul. His son writes in sorrow, not anger.
The author has reason to know better than most the religious nature of the revolutionary creed. In 1971, when still under the influence of leftism, he edited a book of essays dedicated to the life and work of the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher. Like Horowitz’s father, Deutscher kept his faith in the immaculate conception of the October Revolution, a revolution that was, alas, subsequently to be corrupted—just as Rousseau thought naturally innocent mankind was corrupted by society. One of the essays in this book, by the Economist’s former Paris correspondent, Daniel Singer, contains the following passage:
Could one trust the statement of a Komintern ready to distort in such a fashion? Isaac was driven to question all authorized versions, to go back to the October revolution, to study the conflicts that followed Lenin’s death. The German heresy thus led him logically to an understanding and rejection of the Stalinist system.
The religious nature of Deutscher’s belief in revolutionary Marxism could hardly have been clearer. Authorized versions give rise to, or at least are the precondition of, heresies. Deutscher went back to the October Revolution, and to Lenin’s words, as Muslim fundamentalists go back to the Koran, for a source of undoubted and indisputable truth. Inside every heretic, it seems, a dogmatist is trying to get out.
Horowitz has put the pseudo-transcendence of a purpose immanent in history completely behind him so completely that he can now write about it calmly and without rancor. His masters are now Marcus Aurelius, the stoic Roman emperor, whom he likes to quote, and Dostoyevsky, who was among the first to grasp the significance of the perverted religious longings of the revolutionary intelligentsia, and the hell on earth to which they would inevitably lead. But the temptations of ideology are always present: Dostoyevsky, so aware of the dangers of the revolutionary intelligentsia, himself subscribed in entries in A Writer’s Diary to an ideology at least as absurd: that of Slavophile millenarianism. It is wrong to oppose one ideology with another, but it is by no means easy to escape the trap of doing so.
If neither formal religious belief nor secular religions like Marxism gives meaning to Horowitz’s life, what does? In large measure, it is his work: a lifetime spent in the crucible of political thought and struggle, first on the left, and then, over the last quarter century or so, as a devout conservative. It is vain to suppose, of course, that any human achievement, even the highest, could possibly be of a duration that would entitle it to the word “eternal.” No literary fame, for example, has so far lasted longer than 3,000 years—not even the blinking of the universe’s eyelid. But we humans must live on a human scale and measure things accordingly. The journalist, while he writes his latest article, thinks it of the greatest significance, though he knows perfectly well that it will be forgotten the day after tomorrow, if indeed it is read or noticed at all. Often I have thought to myself, as I write articles, “If only I can be spared until I have finished it,” though I am aware that even I will have forgotten its content by the week after next.
Significance and importance, however, are not natural qualities found inhering in objects or events. Only the appraising mind can impart such meaning. That is why, in my view, the neurosciences are doomed to failure, at least in their more ambitious claims. A mysterious metaphysical realm exists beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated of scanners, even if we cannot specify exactly where that realm is or how it came to be. The physiologist Moleschott, in the nineteenth century, declared that the brain secreted thought like the liver secreted bile; those neuroscientists who tell us that we are about to empty life of its mystery will come to seem as ridiculous, as absurdly presumptuous, as Moleschott seems to us now.
Horowitz tackles these problems in an indirect and gentle fashion. When he talks of the meaning that his work gives to his life, he is not saying to all his readers “Go and do likewise,” because it is clearly not given to everyone to do so (and thank goodness—a world composed of only one kind of person would be unbearable). The satisfaction of work is not, or at least should not be, proportional to the amount of notice it receives in the world. Perhaps the worst effect of celebrity culture is that it makes fame the measure of all things, and thus devalues or renders impossible not only satisfaction from useful but unglamorous labour, but precisely the kinds of pleasures and deep consolations that are to be had from walking a dog.
David Horowitz’s book is a small but important contribution to the revival of the art of dying well, an art from which most of us, both the living and the dying, would benefit. And to die well, we must know first what we have lived for.
First published in City Journal.