The Big Subjects, Brilliantly Pondered: David Horowitz isn’t just a repository of political wisdom
By Bruce Bawer
Although I was delighted when David Horowitz’s savvy treatise on Donald Trump, Big Agenda, became a top bestseller during the first days of the Trump presidency, I vividly recall wishing at the time that as many readers were acquainted with the other, equally invaluable side of Horowitz – the side that has produced, among other things, a trio of short, remarkable autobiographical works, The End of Time (2005), A Point in Time (2011), and You’re Going to Be Dead One Day (2015). Reviewing the last of these books – using words that apply equally well to the other two – I described it as “a poignant, bittersweet, captivating” volume that “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 at once capable of conveying “profound thoughts in restrained, unadorned, and unpretentious language” and of communicating “intense emotions while utterly eluding sentimentality or mawkishness.”
In Mortality and Faith: Reflections on a Journey through Time, Horowitz – an always fecund writer who, as he eases into his ninth decade, seems to be more prolific than ever – has brought together those three memoirs and capped them off with a fourth section, “Staying Alive,” that brings us up to (nearly) the present day. The result is a magnum opus that is nothing less than a masterpiece of autobiography, although a bookstore manager might be tempted to shelve it under “spiritual meditation” or “inspirational” – quite an accomplishment for a man who, while deeply respecting religion of the benign, non-jihadist sort (see his other recent book, Dark Agenda: The War to Destroy Christian America), calls himself an agnostic and, at one point in Mortality and Faith, sharply rejects the “saccharine bromides” offered by some popular rabbi’s vapid self-help tome.
Rest assured, there’s nothing saccharine or bromidic here – and, for that matter, to look at the whole thing from the other direction, nothing cynical or obscurantist, either. What there is, is an abundance of penetrating observations, expressed in a prose that is consistently pithy and poetic without ever becoming precious or purple. Horowitz’s late friend Christopher Hitchens spent his last years debating any and all comers about whether God exists; Horowitz, by contrast, doesn’t see mortality and faith as matters for debate but as subjects for private meditation and pensive tête-à-têtes. Mortality and Faith, which contains some of the wisest things I’ve ever read about either of the topics named in its title, is the product at once of a formidable mind that has never tired of the big questions and of a resilient heart that, despite decades of setbacks and brickbats, has, quite remarkably, never grown embittered.
Astutely and with exquisite delicacy, Horowitz weaves together insights from Pascal, Proust, Plato, and Paul, not to mention Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens. He returns more than once to Saul Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein (which haunts him, as it does me, for its searing ruminations on mortality). He contemplates the quasi-religious appeal of Marx, Freud, Hitler, and Stalin, and ponders the lives and beliefs of his Communist parents as well as – rather surprisingly – those of the 9/11 terrorist Mohammed Atta. On some pages, virtually every sentence reads like an apothegm, a cogent statement of hard-won wisdom about the human condition.
To be sure, it may be that this is a book primarily for readers who, like Horowitz, have reached a certain age and have done more than their share of musing about life and death. I would be curious, however, to know how a smart, thoughtful twenty-something would respond to it. After all, the young, with rare exceptions, don’t think about such matters, and aren’t equipped to. They’re wired to feel immortal; time moves slowly for them; youth can feel like a permanent status, indeed like some kind of accomplishment. To be young is to know that, barring an untimely demise, you’ll eventually grow old and die, but the prospect seems impossibly distant, and on some level, in any case, you don’t really believe it anyway. You may even look down on the elderly, as if you possess some secret they don’t.
In fact, as Mortality and Faith repeatedly reminds us, it is the elderly who know things that the young don’t know – things that they can’t know, because the old know what it is to be young, whereas the young have no idea what it is to be old. “In age,” writes Horowitz – underscoring one melancholy fact that becomes a daily reality for all of us as the years pass – “we accumulate goodbyes and become accustomed to their permanence.” To read this poignantly beautiful testament is to be reminded that a young person may have a stratospheric I.Q. and may have learned an enormous amount about a wide range of subjects, but if he’s never suffered real losses – the kind of losses that leave an everlasting hole in one’s heart – and has yet to hear time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near, he can’t really be said, in the final analysis, to know about life. For such a reader – who knows? – perusing a text as powerful as Horowitz’s may well mark a first step away from innocence. Or perhaps only time can do the job.