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Horowitz Reflects On Life And Death By: George Shadroui
The Intellectual Conservative | Friday, August 26, 2005

In his ironic and often comical play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, playwright Tom Stoppard writes: 

Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. It must have been shattering – stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction and time is its only measure.

For all its cleverness, side plots, diversions and word play, Stoppard is dealing with the most powerful of human themes – death. Now comes David Horowitz, who plays a variation on the theme in his revealing memoir, The End of Time.


Unlike the character in Stoppard’s play, Horowitz remembers precisely when he was introduced to the issue of mortality by his father: “We begin to die the day we are born,” the father told his young son. The moment was not shattering, but it was also not the sort of thing a child is likely to forget. And Horowitz didn’t.


But a bit of context before exploring this book further. Horowitz is well known in the world of politics. He is an intellectual street-fighter who learned his political trade in the fire of 1960s activism. In those days, he was a leftist preaching the evils of American capitalism. The aftermath of the Vietnam War and his conviction that the left betrayed its highest ideas pushed him into political seclusion, during which time he co-authored with Peter Collier several renowned histories on great American dynasties.


When he reentered the political arena, he had joined an impressive list of leftist apostates -- Norman Podhoretz, Malcolm Muggeridge, Max Eastman and Whitaker Chambers among them. Podhoretz was a high-brow writer who confined himself to lengthy intellectual essays or books. Muggeridge’s iconoclastic temperament led him to the New Testament more than the American right. Chambers was a reluctant warrior, a man wearied by the intellectual battles of his youth and the Hiss case that made him famous.


Horowitz was different. Of another generation, he joined the right with a combative zeal that led many close friends and admirers not to simply disagree with him, but to despise him. His web site Frontpagemag.com is a cauldron of heated discussion and clashing ideas. Horowitz has blended 1960s tactics with his right-leaning agenda. And the left has not forgiven him.


So it is that The End of Time, though a thoughtful essay, has been ignored in the major press. Such is the fate that often awaits the work of conservatives who have dared to defy the liberal establishment.


All of that acknowledged, pondering this book requires putting aside narrow political agendas and loyalties. Death is the great equalizer and it brings each of us to our knees sooner or later. Most of us prefer to avert our glance. Horowitz chooses to take a sustained, unsentimental look at what awaits each of us.


In this life, they can haul you off without warning. You can step onto the wrong plane, off the wrong curb, or into the wrong conversation and be gone….This is an injustice that no reformer can repair and no court can redress.


It strikes me that Horowitz is wrestling with two personal issues: first, the prospect of his own disappearance; and second, his strained relationship with his father, whose political dreams and subsequent defeats burdened him and his son.


His melancholy taught me the lesson he was unable to learn himself. Don’t bury the life you have been given in this world in fantasies of the next; don’t betray yourself with impossible dreams.


The End of Time provides a platform for Horowitz to examine his own life, including relationships with his parents, his children and his wife from another marriage. He also contemplates the loss of close friends and recounts his own battle with cancer, which brought him face to face with what had been – until then – a mostly abstract concept.


Along the way, he introduces us briefly to the life and work of Saul Bellow, who lived through five marriages and eight decades, and Blaise Pascal, the great philosopher and mathematician, whose own life ended before he turned 40. Horowitz’s journey leaves him somewhere between Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, and Muggeridge, who embraced Christianity as the only sensible end to our life’s journey. Horowitz calls himself an agnostic – he is respectful of faith, but cannot find his own way to belief.


I have no faith in a life hereafter. But I will not be desperate over my own disappearance. If there is nothing further, what of it? Why should I waste my time left in misery over what I cannot change?


Though not a political effort, underlying Horowitz’s book is the notion that true believers – men like those who crashed planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 or embraced the Marxist paradigm – have proven to be the greatest threats to a peaceful world.


Such people try to play God. They seek to destroy an imperfect world and ultimately that means destroying imperfect people. In their manic quest to bring heaven on earth, they create hell instead. They become “lovers of death.”


How can one love death? This is a question that is incomprehensible to us unless we are overwhelmed by personal defeats. But it is the enigma at the heart of human history.


It is also an all too human trait.


 (Mohammed Atta) appears to have been an ordinary man who was seduced into committing a great crime in the name of a greater good. Is this not the most common theme of the human tragedies of our times?


The political implications aside, it is the personal quest for meaning that makes this book both a riveting and difficult read. Despite the pleadings of his wife that he has been blessed, Horowitz does not see the hand of God at work in his own survival. One imagines he is too self aware to not realize that his survival is a temporary reprieve, or that many others, including millions trampled under by communism and fascism, faced a bleak, almost unimaginable end. Where was God for them? At the same time, such somber reflections do not stop Horowitz from enjoying simple pleasures – ocean vistas, a beloved dog licking his feet or the unconditional love given him by his wife.


Life is celebrated, but also viewed as a temporary moment. Horowitz writes with lyrical beauty; and no easy answers are proffered. Of his own impending death he observes matter of factly: It will happen so fast and so finally that one moment I’ll be here, and the next I’ll be gone.


The book prompts large, even unanswerable questions. How is it that some come to faith while others don’t? It is a mystery. Bill Buckley has it, Horowitz does not – is it all a matter of upbringing. Did Horowitz’s roots in Marxist thought rob him, at a young age, of the capacity to make a leap of faith? Well, how then to explain Muggeridge, whose family was decidedly socialist and atheist?


This much is certain: doubt need not be an obstacle to faith. Muggeridge felt doubt was integral to faith. Wordsworth sought a faith that looks through death. The novelist and critic Reynolds Price, who battled a spinal cancer that left him crippled, addresses the issue with subtlety and hope in A Letter to a Man in the Fire:


Beyond the assertion of private faith, I can offer no other person any evidence more convincing than the patterns that I think I’ve detected in my own history, in certain private intensities which I’ll describe, and in the final fact that – repeating the words of an old philosophy professor of mine – `A belief in God, and in the immortality of the soul, has tended to be the opinion of the vast majority of the human race.’


Price finds the weight of human history compelling, if not determinative. We return to Stoppard and Horowitz’s father: if we are born to die, why is it that each human being yearns to survive? Is the desire for eternal life evidence that its existence? From where comes the need for God and might such yearnings suggest that nature alone is not the final author of our destiny?


For me, Jesus’ example remains a useful guide. He preached that those who follow him must shoulder the sins of the world. They are not at liberty to take up the sword in God’s name or to impose God’s judgment on others. This is not a counsel to passivism, but rather a caution against invoking God as a defense of human actions, however justified or necessary. His ways are not ours.


Unlike the Islamic fascists who are wreaking havoc, Jesus had no trouble reconciling his love of God with the existence of sinful human beings who were, after all, made in the image of God. He enjoyed food, wine and companionship even as he anticipated the suffering he was destined to endure. Life is full of inexplicable ironies – Stalin dying in bed an old man, while the innocent die at the hands of tyrants and even – unintentionally – their liberators. None of this robbed Jesus of his capacity to love life or fellow human beings. Not a sparrow falls to the earth without it being noted in heaven, he observed, so be not afraid.


The week I first read The End of Time, the sermon in my church dealt precisely with death and the uncertainty we confront when we try to make sense of our existence in relationship to God. The scripture reading was from the book of Kings.


And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.


Horowitz is a man of faith. He just dare not name it for fear of being presumptuous. Intellectual honesty requires him to concede that the door to faith has not yet opened to him, but within him and through him a still small voice whispers:


In my heart are memories of my mother and father, the home I once had in theirs, the knowledge that they have gone before me and that I soon I will join them…. I do not have the faith of Pascal, but I know its feeling. While reason tells me the pictures will stop, I will be unafraid when death comes. I will feel my way toward the horizon in front of me, and my heart will take me home.


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