Irving Louis Horowitz died a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to honor him as he deserves. He was a force of nature, and you got it all from him, right in your face. Passionate affection, unbreakable loyalty, great intellectual brilliance, surprising physical strength and dexterity, lots of good humor. Or else you got derision and contempt, unrestrained criticism—well, you got that always, which was most welcome to me–and, in his younger years, direct confrontation of the sort he knew from the streets.
He never did things by halves. And if you were going to be his friend, you couldn’t get away with half measures. It was all or nothing. So when he left us—after his umpteenth heart attack and emergency surgery—it was a tremendous blow. One of the basic drivers of our lives has been removed.
His contributions to our understanding of the world are legion, from Renaissance philosophy to Cuban Communism, from totalitarianism to a brilliant discussion of C. Wright Mills, and seemingly countless and invariably significant issues.
I always told him that he wasn’t a sociologist at all, but rather an historian, one of the best. Few so well understood the passionate irrationality of the modern world as Irving did, and his great work on “radicalism and the revolt against reason” will last a very long time. He well understood the menace of myth in politics, and dreaded its consequences in our age of mass movements and totalitarians who perfected mob rule. Those same insights were brought to bear on Castro’s Cuba, on the celebrated but wrong-headed work of C. Wright Mills, and on the often controversial and internally contradictory writings of Hannah Arendt, after whom Irving’s chair at Rutgers was named.
Some of his critics called him a “neoconservative,” and in at least one sense it was true: he came from the political left (when I first met him, at Washington University in the late seventies, he was a member of perhaps the most radical collection of intellectuals since the days of the Frankfurt School) and migrated to become what I’d call a thoughtful maverick. He was a leftist “mugged by reality,” as Irving Kristol put the genesis of neoconservatism. Future intellectuals will delight in his rough-and-tumble treatment of his old comrades, as with his thoughtful discussions of vitally important issues—alas, so often reduced to slogans and stereotypes—like genocide.
Like many major artists and intellectuals, Irving suffered a lot before he became a maestro of his craft. Born with cleft lip and palate, he underwent many painful surgeries, at a time when anesthesia was in its infancy, before he became a powerful speaker. I once heard a psychologist who specialized in such miseries claim that more than ninety percent of children born with such defects failed in life, falling back on self-pity and, ultimately, dependency. Irving was one of the few who fought his way out of it, which gave him a rare mental toughness. That was some years back, and I hope that the numbers have improved since. But in Irving’s time, he was close to being one of a kind.
Finally, he was the founder and czar of Transaction, Inc., the world’s leading social science publishing house. I have benefited enormously from Transaction, as have many of my friends and colleagues. Writing books is a lousy way to make a living for most of us, since “serious” books don’t sell well, and the big houses don’t like losing money. But the serious books are important, and only someone like Irving had the drive and the brilliance to publish them and somehow make a profit. In recent years, I was delighted and honored to be able to work with him, with his wife Mary, and with several other old friends from St. Louis days, and now that he’s gone I’m particularly pleased that the last thing I wrote for him was an introduction to a wonderful old book on the Italian Renaissance .
After all, that’s where his own published work began. With an article on Plato.
Oh, and one other thing. He loved dogs. His home was full of them. They flocked to him, not just one at a time, but en masse. Quite predictably, our dogs were crazy about him, and airedales are very picky creatures.
His publishing work will now be carried on by Mary, a fine, sensitive, brilliant woman who shared his passions, his commitment to serious scholarly enterprise, and to what we used to call the life of the mind. Blessings be upon her. And upon the dogs. I know it’s been tough on them.