David Horowitz has spent a half-century in the battle of ideas that defines our age. A red-diaper baby who helped found the New Left and promote its ideology, Horowitz was awakened from those dogmatic slumbers by events both personal and geopolitical, including the murder of a friend by the Black Panthers. From then on he became the left’s most feared and reviled enemy, battling their ideology with writings marked by solid argument, relentless logic, and fierce passion.
Now in his late seventies, Horowitz has become more reflective, publishing a series of philosophical memoirs — The End of Time, A Cracking of the Heart, and A Point in Time — now joined by You’re Going to be Dead One Day. As in those earlier volumes, in the new one Horowitz reflects on his life to find the refutation of leftist ideology in the permanent, non-negotiable conditions of being human, with all the loss, failure, and suffering he has experienced in his own. But as the subtitle “A Love Story” suggests, Horowitz also discovers in his painful experiences the possibilities of redemption and the peace that come from accepting that in a world where we all “facing a death sentence,” as he writes, our highest aim in life should be to “only connect,” as E. M. Forster has it, to love unconditionally and allow oneself to be loved in turn, accepting all the risk of pain and loss that defines all human relationships.
While acknowledging, and at time envying, the certainties of religious faith, Horowitz searches for the answers to these “questions at the heart of our existence” in his attempts to make sense out of the tragic vicissitudes and sustaining relationships of his own life. The current book begins with a bungled hip operation that left Horowitz’s foot paralyzed and wracked with intense pain. This mishap followed his wife April’s near-fatal auto accident. Both disasters demanded answers, some meaningful account of why such random suffering should occur.
But as his memoir proceeds, Horowitz acknowledges that the answers to life’s mysteries, especially the pain and suffering both he and his wife experienced, may never be found. But he also realizes that the search for meaning can itself still be productive: “I am not ashamed to admit that I don’t know the answers to life’s most important questions. There is even an advantage to a perspective that accepts the insoluble contradictions at the center of our being. It allows one to keep one’s mind open and that in turn can open new worlds.”
Horowitz’s “negative capability,” as Keats put it, is a subtle challenge to the misplaced certainty, the “destructive folly,” as Horowitz calls it, of the leftist faith that there is one and only one revealed truth that inexorably leads to the utopia in which the tragic constants of human existence will disappear.
This theme persists throughout Horowitz’s accounts of his family and what they have meant to him. Like all parents, Horowitz must confront the fact that once his children are grown and have entered the world, they become, in Francis Bacon’s memorable phrase, “hostages to fortune,” beyond our ability to guide and protect. He had to accept that he was now “a helpmate with experience to share. There was satisfaction in that, but it was also a diminishment.”
Horowitz’s recognition that his grown children cannot be controlled or protected from the risks of life is a melancholy truth ordinary people have learned for centuries, and the type of wisdom that comes from lived life and challenges the totalitarian impulses of the left, whose imagined utopia depends precisely upon reducing people to children they can control and manipulate.
But there are also consolations in watching your children slip from your grasp and make their own way in the world along paths different from one’s own. Horowitz writes, his children “are a mirror that shows me my own limitations and makes me wonder about the different paths I might have taken … Parenthood, it turns out, teaches you about yourself, and not always in a reassuring way. Your see your failings starkly, and hardest of all you have to accept the distances that the dance of life creates.”
Later he ends his reflections about his son Ben with the observation that his son’s success as a businessman reminded him how he had been “driven — one might say obsessively — by a mission that blinded me to many things at the periphery of my sight … I was so absorbed in pursuing these wars that I didn’t pay proper attention to things I should have. As a result I didn’t have the breadth of vision of either of my sons, and consequently, unlike them, did repeat my mistakes and paid the price.”
Surveying the various other relationships in his life, Horowitz affirms the great truth that respect for humanity with all its flaws and failings should never be trumped by allegiance to ideology. The death of his old friend Florence, a committed leftist to the end, elicits from Horowitz a generous appraisal despite her “capacity for righteous anger, which in my experience is generally shared by people convinced that they can make a better world.” Nonetheless, Horowitz writes, “While her political activities involved a constant war against the enemies of the left, in her daily routines she had dedicated herself to helping the poor and outcast.”
Would that such generosity could be found on the other side these days, when conservatives, the rich, and people of faith are reduced to hateful caricatures no matter how much good they may do.
For the last two decades Horowitz’s wife April has been by example a constant reminder to him that those we love can be our greatest teachers. Apart from her constant love and support, her rescue of neglected and abused horses has been a lesson in the power of kindness and sympathy, for “a spiritual heart breeds compassion for the vulnerable,” as Horowitz observes, a “habit of the heart” that can check the abstract theorizing of what Jacob Burckhardt called the “terrible simplifiers,” those willing to create mounds of corpses to realize their utopian dreams. Yet as he tells the tale of April’s rescue of a particularly brutalized horse she names Lazarus, Horowitz is no sentimentalist about the power of a good heart. He is too aware of “the cruelty of men toward any creature they consider weaker or unable to retaliate” and of “the irredeemable aspect of the human condition, the casual cruelty and normal deceitfulness of human beings, which will always frustrate hopes for a better world.”
But again, Horowitz’s respect for the “irreducible complexity” of human nature draws another lesson from the rescue of Lazarus: “the possibility of redemption for an individual life. Each time you bring someone back from the doors of death, each time you restore them to health, you see how fragile life is and how glorious it can be.” Refuting the grand utopians and their revealed world-historical truths, Horowitz instead champions “creative faith,” one “born of humility and love; their adherents do not presume to act like gods and try to recreate the world.”
Brushing aside the question of whether a providential God is the author of such redemption, he writes, “What matters is a heart that is open, that connects your to the voiceless; what is important is a faith that inspires you to see to their care and revival.” Do not attempt to save all humanity and in the process neglect to respect the individual human. Instead bring love and succor to those nearest to you and those you can personally help. For as the Talmud has it, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
You’re Going to be Dead One Day is a lyrical and beautifully written meditation on how one man’s life — and by implication any man’s life — offers the most profound refutation of the destructive dreams of the utopian left: the complex mystery of human life, human love, and human loss and suffering, a mystery that makes each one of us invaluable and worthy of respect.
In his final reflection on his life and work, David Horowitz confronts with equanimity the possibility that the latter may someday vanish: “What matters to me,” he ends, “is this: I have lived as fully as I was able, I have produced wonderful children and am married to a woman with a zest for living and the heart of an angel, and I am looking forward to my next walk.” As this wise book teaches, those we love and the simple pleasures of life comprise the only utopia any of us need or deserve.
Full disclosure: Thornton is a Sillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.