Malcolm Muggeridge’s Rejection of the Flesh
Malcolm Muggeridge is principally known for having made a star out of Mother Teresa in the West. This he did 50 years ago, when she became the subject of a television interview he spearheaded in 1968. Following the interview, Muggeridge featured the Albanian missionary in a documentary titled Something Beautiful for God, which later became a book in 1971. There Muggeridge documented in radiant terms Mother Teresa’s humanitarian work in the Kalighat Home of the Dying.
That Muggeridge had the star power to push a then-little known missionary into the limelight speaks volumes to his own clout, as well as his mastery of the television age (a medium that he would come to rebuke later in life).
Since his death in 1990, however, Muggeridge’s influence has waned considerably. To many Catholics in the West, he is no longer a household name. One reason for this is the secularization of the culture at large, which has accelerated in the 28 years since his death. Muggeridge, an uncompromising disciple to tradition, was considered by his detractors outmoded, reactionary, and even anachronistic for his own time. To some, he was a stick in the mud, especially when compared to his modernist alter-ego and fellow Catholic Marshall McLuhan, whom Muggeridge debated on television. Held steady by his traditionalist sensibilities, he proved a stark contrast to McLuhan’s almost naively idealistic modernism.
Still, the halcyon days of the pre-conciliar Church were, to Muggeridge, not worth longing for. Muggeridge was a serious thinker first and foremost and never lowered himself to the petty foibles of nostalgic frivolity. Towards the end of his life, he, along with his wife Kitty, became outright aesthetes. In both thought and lifestyle, he established himself as a paradigmatic model for what really matters in life—those enduring truths that outlast the overwhelming impermanences of the modern world. In this sense, he was both philosopher and prophet. Today, his words—powerfully perspicacious in his own time—are as prescient as ever before.
Muggeridge’s life, which spanned most of the 20th century, bore witness to some of the greatest horrors of human history: Nazism, fascism, Soviet communism, the Holocaust, and atomic weapons, just to name a few. Of British stock, he was born to bohemian parents in the London village of Sanderstead, Surrey. He was the middle child of five brothers and grew up in Croydon. He would later earn a degree from Selwyn College in Cambridge. Thereafter, he proceeded to nourish his fledgling socialist proclivities in Moscow, which had been portrayed by his parents, dedicated to the same utopian dream advocated by George Bernard Shaw, as sort of a paradise. But while during those years he consigned himself to the god of scientific materialism, he never lost sight of his childhood fascination with religion, and Christianity in particular. As a child, Muggeridge routinely snuck the Bible into his family home, out of view from his parents, deriving pleasure from it as though it were some lecherous debauchery. This burgeoning thirst, especially for the New Testament, would never completely dissipate—even as Muggeridge entertained a years-long dalliance with socialism. In due time, he would come to realize—especially after observing the traumatic effects of Stalin’s collectivization of agriculture firsthand—that the caprices of communism promised in his bohemian upbringing had proven fraudulent, shatteringly so.
But all was not barren in this Soviet dystopia. For amongst the horrors of the Stalinist regime was miraculously created a devout community of believers, demonstrating a piety that to many in the West was inconceivable. It certainly was for Muggeridge, who joined these worshippers in the Divine Liturgy and soon recognized the errors of his ways. This began a years-long journey to Christ that would culminate in his joining the Catholic Church in 1982.
Always the itinerant, Muggeridge would soon return to the West with a rejuvenated worldview. He would turn on liberalism, which became the supreme ideology of the post-war world. The problem with modern society was that it had stopped believing in itself, and the only antidote to that, according to Muggeridge, was a renewal of Christianity as the fount of civilization. In restoring the West to an exaltation of God over Man, Muggeridge believed he was protecting the sacredness of human life, and in so doing rescuing society from two of its villains. Said Muggeridge: “Freud and Marx undermined the whole basis of Western European civilization as no avowedly insurrectionary movement ever has or could. By promoting the notion of determinism, in the one case in morals, in the other in history, thereby relieving individual men and women of all responsibility for their personal and collective behavior.”
Muggeridge saw as outgrowths of these perverted ideologies the fanatical scientism that would eventually convert once horrifying evils—namely euthanasia and abortion—into “humanitarian” policies, a sort of doublethink that would have even behooved Orwell. Under the guise of “liberation,” Muggeridge went to the heart of the illness that plagued his time. He said: “It takes just over 30 years in our humane society to transform a war crime into an act of compassion.” This fundamental denial of human dignity would ultimately instigate the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
In inveighing against the hyper-sexuality of the West—a form of materialism of the body—Muggeridge pointed to the ravenous abortion and drug culture that emerged as evidence of its calamitous effects. “Never, it is safe to say, in the history of the world has a country been as sex-ridden as America is today. And the rest of us, all eagerly emulating the American Way of Life, are going the same way,” Muggeridge penned in his famous essay “Down with Sex.” He also said: “Sex has become the religion of the most civilized portions of the earth. The orgasm has replaced the Cross as the focus of longing and the image of fulfillment; the old pagan admonition, Do What Thou Wilt, has superseded the Pauline teaching that, since spirit and flesh lust contrary to one another, Ye Cannot Do the Things That Ye Would Do.”
Drawing from his past licentious lifestyle—Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge had established an open relationship early on as a result of their shared commitment to socialism—he knew firsthand the havoc wrought by infidelity. He also observed the sickness he’d experienced in his broken marriage in modern society, viewing the former as a microcosm of the latter. “Even the most ardent advocates of the sexual revolution are inclined to feel that it is not working out quite as it should,” he wrote. “Instead of sex-happy citizens of all ages blissfully coupling, psychiatrists and sexologists are besieged by patients eager to pour out their sexual woes. Orgasms have been too little and too late; despite bodies duly sealed and pasteurized, and recommended positions duly taken, the promised delight has failed to materialize.”
In rebuking his past sins, Muggeridge viewed himself as a sort of contemporary St. Augustine, one of his favorite saints who similarly journeyed from lechery to Christ over the course of his consecrated life. In his time, Augustine had to contend with his own personal transgressions as well as Manichaeism, which threatened Christianity in the third and fourth centuries. Much like Augustine, Muggeridge had his own demons to fight, along with liberalism. Fittingly, Muggeridge would later include Augustine, alongside five other religious figures, in his acclaimed documentary series A Third Testament.
Having finally reconciled himself to Christianity, Muggeridge still could not completely forgo that deep-seated skepticism that was woven into his person. And though he would belabor the decision to finally become a Catholic, having never experienced a Damascene conversion, he nevertheless felt profoundly indebted to Mother Teresa, whose life, he said, manifested her abandonment of self in devotion to Christ. Muggeridge’s own skepticism was echoed in Mother Teresa’s most intimate bouts of spiritual emptiness, emulating that desperation experienced by Christ himself on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This feeling of abandonment was also powerfully described by G.K. Chesterton, one of Muggeridge’s idols, who challenged his atheist critics to “find another god who has himself been in revolt.” This becomes impossible, for there is “only one religion which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” That religion was Christianity.
A Catholic Muggeridge was, if not officially then in every other way. However, his acerbic, provocatively revealing wit would never cease, even in his old age. A political author who asked if he was considering becoming Catholic drew the retort: “Have you ever seen a rat joining a sinking ship?” It was indeed true that Muggeridge had significant reservations about joining a church that appeared to be on its way out, committing the same fallacy in its perceived capitulation to liberalism that had earlier foredoomed its Protestant rivals. On the compromised state of the post-conciliar Church, Muggeridge lamented, “Luther escapes from John Osborne’s hands into—of all places—the Vatican. The Church’s profound pessimism about human life, miraculously preserved through the long false dawn of science, is about to be shed at the precise historical moment that it is most relevant and most urgently needed to save men’s reason, if not their souls.” His criticism of the Church, unlike so many criticisms made today, was founded not on a deep-seated antipathy for the Church or her magisterium, but on an enormous love for her teachings and traditions, which he feared could be lost.
Following a career in television, Muggeridge lived out the final years of his life effectively divorced from the stultifying materialism of mass society. He abandoned television, meat, and sex, preferring to live the remainder of his days ascetically, in quiet, prayerful contemplation alongside his wife of over 60 years. He made several appearances on Firing Line throughout the 1980s, and occasionally made statements about his preparation for life eternal. He became something of a spiritual mentor to William F. Buckley later in life, who accredited his personal experiences with Muggeridge as having reinforced his own religious convictions in his faith-based memoir Nearer My God.
Though Muggeridge is no longer with us, we at least can relish in all that he left behind—his abundance of writings and videos, the latter of which are now available on YouTube. In his final years, Muggeridge did not hold back his derisive condemnation of the modern world, denouncing an obsession with the flesh unreservedly. This was manifested, he claimed, in a general obliviousness to death and a histrionic infatuation with the superficial and the fleeting, instead of the permanent and the divine. He called our society’s “ultra consciousness” with one’s physical existence as “one of the many ills” of the modern age. He described our insatiable obsession for what we eat, how much we sleep, and our bodily fitness, as things that, paradoxically, “inculcate” rather than forestall real pathologies of the flesh. He appeared to invoke Dostoyevsky in proclaiming that death is much like the final hours of daylight, where all the beauty and splendidness of the day’s events become manifested in their most conscionable form.
Resoundingly convinced of the afterlife, though unsure of what precisely it would entail, Muggeridge could, in his final days, take consolation in having lived a full life. Certain of God’s loving process for his creation, Malcolm Muggeridge departed from this earthly realm not with fear, but with an abiding love for God and his creation. His life, perhaps more than ever, should be a model for us to follow.
Paul Ingrassia is a graduate of Fordham University, a former White House intern, and a contributor to National Review Online.