Muggeridge, a Century On
When Malcolm Muggeridge died on Nov. 14, 1990—following, as we know now but did not know then, years of Alzheimer’s—his place in literature appeared unassailable. Deferential obituarists (the present writer among them) therefore assumed Muggeridge’s right to rank alongside G.K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis in the rare and excruciatingly difficult genre of best-selling Christian apologetics that actually win over hordes of atheists. In 2003, with the centenary of Muggeridge’s birth just behind us, such enthusiasm is hard to recapture.
Frank Brownlow, Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College curtly dismissed Muggeridge in the March 1997 Chronicles: “He became a participant in the very cultural developments he liked to inveigh against. … Muggeridge’s writing, while praised in his time, does not age well. It suffers from facility and a monotonous, all-too-predictable egotistic point of view. Readable in short doses, it palls at any length.” Twenty years earlier, in Britain’s New Statesman, Clive James had snapped, “He has never raised an issue without leaving it more clouded than it was before. Far from being stimulating even when wrong, he is misleading even when right.” The appeal of a Muggeridge—“Saint Mugg,” as encomiasts and scoffers combined to call him after he junked agnosticism—might well be fully graspable only by those old enough to remember his strenuously iconoclastic lecture tours and TV talking-head role. Perhaps, in that most vexing of clichés, “you just had to be there.”
One who was there, Richard Ingrams, published Muggeridge: The Biography in 1995. Ingrams had founded in 1961, and for years controlled, Private Eye, the Bible of that grunge-satiric London journalism that is Ingrams’s de facto religion. Muggeridge backed Private Eye from the start. So Ingrams predictably regards Muggeridge with unalloyed esteem, interpreting him as grunge-satire’s John the Baptist. (This casting decision bathes in a hideous light Ingrams’s notions of the Messiah, but on that particular blasphemy we need not dwell.) At once quick-witted and humorless—surely the worst possible pair of attributes for any Muggeridge biographer—Ingrams even accepts at face value Muggeridge’s boasts of freedom from personal ambition. Unless we take (as Ingrams takes) “ambition” to denote simply “craving for peerages, chauffeur-driven limousines, etc.,” Muggeridge’s brags in this context carry about as much conviction as those of his hate-object T. E. Lawrence, to whom in every respect but the physical Muggeridge (as tall as Lawrence was short) bore so marked a similitude.
Of Lawrence, cynics quipped that he could never vanish into private life unless a camera was rolling. Muggeridge would have demanded at least ten cameras rolling—and, towards the end, satellite coverage as well—before he condescended to disappear into anonymity. But the same principle underlay both men’s behavior: if you sabotage your own career often enough and noisily enough, some deus ex machina will protect you from your ideas’ dottiest logical consequences. This belief is compatible with great authorial talent of a hectic kind and with (as friends of both Lawrence and Muggeridge have attested) extreme lovability. How it can be compatible with unambitiousness defies conjecture, though it easily coexists with extravagant claims for either man’s merit purely as a thinker, claims made by those with an Ingrams-like determination to maintain their more parochial adolescent crushes until rigor mortis strikes.
Inside Ingrams’s hagiography is a figure of real distinction wildly signaling to be let out. The son of a Fabian activist who eventually became a Labour parliamentarian, Muggeridge married into Fabianism’s royal dynasty: his wife’s aunt being Beatrice Webb, no less. Mrs. Webb resented him and, later, acutely feared him. A smooth-tongued journalist of crapulous indiscipline, raging libido, and periodic incoherent yearnings for the Roman Church was not the kind of in-law she favored. Admittedly it required gifts well above average to shine in a literary generation that included Waugh, Orwell, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, and Roy Campbell. Still, Muggeridge’s dilatoriness continues to astound. By 1950 Waugh, Powell, and Greene had all become leading novelists; Campbell had adorned English verse with quantities of heroic lampooning little (if at all) inferior to Dryden’s; and Orwell lay on his deathbed. What, by 1950, had Muggeridge done? One deed alone warranting general note; his other doings justify Nancy Mitford’s frigid rebuke, “There is no sadder spectacle than that of a lettered beachcomber.”
The deed warranting note was his permanently valuable reportage of Stalin’s Ukrainian famine: reportage immortalized by his book Winter in Moscow and by meditation after meditation in his later years. If Stalin’s exterminationist malice is now conceded by all except the lunatic, it was not thus conceded in 1933, when Walter Duranty’s lying for the New York Times enjoyed the sanction of public trust. Muggeridge compared the images of Ukrainian starvation to stigmata. They at first exhausted his capacity, not just for indignation, but for other strong emotion. His World War II service, briefly in Paris (where André Gide tried unavailingly to interest him in little boys) but mostly in Africa, comprised boozing jags tempered by neurasthenic adultery and aggravated by his Army Intelligence tasks. Alcoholism did him no lasting bodily or cognitive damage. Rather, epic hangovers enabled him to work up a lather of Dostoevskyan self-reproach without the tiresome chore of Dostoevskyan piety.
If television had stayed uninvented, Muggeridge would have remained little more than a footnote to Soviet studies. Yet in British TV production milieux of the 1950s—endearingly haphazard, self-consciously daring, still with a pronounced atmosphere of genteel wartime raffishness—Muggeridge thrived; they were probably the only milieux where he could have thrived. They solved his money problems. (Though in 1957 his jibing at the Royal Family’s expense—jibing anodyne by present standards, but outrageous by 1957’s—temporarily forced him off the air.) And they did wider good, in that the fame they accorded him made his memoirs Chronicles of Wasted Time one of the unlikeliest successes modern British publishing can show. Concerning the Chronicles’s significance, lines from Ruskin remain apt: “This is the best of me … this I saw, and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.” Muggeridge’s need to spare his wife’s and his mistresses’ feelings made him a master at wrapping his less creditable activities in yards of deepest-purple prose, intensifying the dreamlike effect of the whole. The resultant artistic self-discipline, combined with his diligence in meeting all the world’s leading powerbrokers, gave his reminiscences a virtue that many nobler scribes seek in vain: unstoppable readability.
Outside the Chronicles, Muggeridge frequently showed himself on top form when simply throwing off aphorisms like a latter-day Oscar Wilde. Therapeutic servitude has seldom been epitomized in fewer words than Muggeridge’s “I asked for bread and was given a tranquilizer.” Eisenhower’s Secretary of State irked millions by his Pecksniffian bombinating; Muggeridge alone coined the phrase, “Dull, duller, Dulles.” Calling Harold Macmillan “Macmothballs” bespoke, as well as a finely tuned ear, a proper appreciation of that dignitary’s most embarrassing sin: his obsessive belief in fending off the Grim Reaper by one more paroxysm of modishness. Part of such squibs’ charm is in the sheer enjoyment that they obviously brought to their creator as well as their audience. Muggeridge, give him credit, was a great enjoyer. (Bertrand Russell, amid squeaks of indignation about anti-Communist “witch-hunting,” bet Muggeridge £20 that Joe McCarthy would become president. Muggeridge happily accepted the bet, pocketed the money, and relished this additional proof of Russell’s paranoia.)
But mere wisecracks do not a writer make. More sustained invective poured forth when Muggeridge overcame his nausea for long enough to contemplate college students’ moral arrogance. While the last-named is, heaven knows, an easy enough target—anyone who cannot ridicule it should abandon literature altogether and stick to crochet or tiddlywinks—it has seldom inspired such eloquence as the following, from Muggeridge’s farewell address (1968) as Edinburgh University’s Rector:
[In today’s academe] all is prepared for a marvelous release of youthful creativity; we await the great works of art, the high-spirited venturing into new fields of perception and understanding—and what do we get? The resort of any old, slobbering debauchee anywhere in the world at any time—dope and bed. … So, dear Edinburgh students, this is likely to be the last time I address you, and this is what I want to say—and I don’t really care whether it means anything to you or not …
No doubt, long after I am gone someone will be saying, on some indestructible BBC program like Any Questions, a touch more abortion, another year at school, and birth control pills given away with the free morning milk, and all will be well. What are we to do about it, this crazy relapse into moral chaos and dementia? I never met a man made happy by money or worldly success or sensual indulgence, still less by the stupefaction of drugs or alcohol. Yet we all, in one way or another, pursue these ends, as the advertiser well knows.
Each reader must decide for himself whether this prose’s power is seriously compromised by posthumous revelations that in “slobbering debauchee” status, Muggeridge left all but the most erotomaniac sophomore at the starting post.
One instance of Muggeridge’s fundamental philosophic weakness will serve. His 1962 causerie “I Like Dwight” purports to eulogize the miscellaneous journalism of his almost exact contemporary Dwight Macdonald, whose unsuccessful attempt to obtain Encounter’s editorship he had supported. Unfortunately it never confronts the awkward fact that by the polymath Macdonald’s standards of erudition—standards which enabled him to discuss Milton with poets, Eisenstein with cinéastes, and Thelonius Monk with jazz connoisseurs—Muggeridge was barely literate. The latter has good clean fun at Macdonald’s imprudent assertion that from the spirit actuating Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, and T. S. Eliot “has come whatever is alive in our culture today”: “What, one asks oneself, is there ‘alive in our culture today’ (assuming that anything is) that derives from that grisly quartet? Nothing that I know of.” Fair enough, maybe, if you suppose that Eliot wrote nothing after “The Wasteland” and Stravinsky nothing before “Pulcinella.” (Muggeridge’s personal acquaintanceship with either man’s corpus was, shall we say, limited.) But then Muggeridge moves from boisterous abuse to the following bizarre rhetoric:
It is important to recognize that in our time man has not written one word, thought one thought, put two notes or two bricks together, splashed color on to canvas or concrete into space, in a manner which will be of any conceivable imaginative interest to posterity.
Let us overlook the incongruity of a 20th-century writer who writes that 20th-century writers cannot write. Let us also refrain from invoking Rilke’s poetry, Ravel’s music, Rouault’s painting, and other achievements that suggest (even if we examine only one letter of the alphabet) that the 20th century, however vile, cannot have been wholly irredeemable. Let us bring, instead, to Muggeridge’s outburst a sense of political history. Muggeridge, far from suppressing that sentence as a hasty indiscretion, solemnly republished it between hard covers in 1966. Within little more than a decade his view of what to do with modern Western culture had been forcibly enacted, by a certain Pol Pot, at the cost of a mere three million corpses. This news should itself have taught Muggeridge anti-intellectualism’s fundamentally totalitarian nature. It did nothing
of the sort. At least Yeats, rendered squeamish by his own responsibilities as blood-drenched Dublin’s bard, had the courage to ask, “What if words of mine sent out / Certain men the English shot?” If Muggeridge felt the slightest remorse over the logical continuum between his own demands for a cultural tabula rasa and the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero, he kept such remorse a secret.
Ultimately it is Muggeridge’s mental laziness, whether in his homilies (Jesus Rediscovered, Something Beautiful for God) or in much of his secular oeuvre, that shocks most. Reason, dogma, first principles, deductive logic he found too hard and time-consuming to tackle. Emoting was far easier—and, most important, looked far better on-screen. Given the choice between citing a hard fact and citing a mawkish feeling, he infallibly chose the mawkish feeling. He opposed contraception not on doctrinal, biological or demographic grounds but because—wait for it—women taking the Pill “have dead eyes.” (Clive James retorted with forgivable asperity that numerous 19th-century women after annual childbirths had fairly dead eyes too.) The characteristic Muggeridge theological disquisition amounted to no more than compiling a list of pin-up idols: ranging from the irrefutably noble (Dr. Johnson, Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa) via the dubiously sane (Tolstoy, Kierkegaard) to … um, Hugh Kingsmill, anyone? (Hugh Kingsmill, since you ask, was an obscure epigrammatist and layabout in whom Muggeridge managed, uniquely, to discern “a combination of Bismarck, Talleyrand, Metternich, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lincoln, and Cromwell.” The words are Muggeridge’s own, describing Arthur Schlesinger’s and Theodore Sorensen’s view of JFK.)
Eliot described his own battle towards religious conviction as “costing not less than everything.” Muggeridge’s cost less than nothing. Small matters like the Christian’s duty to believe in Christ’s Incarnation and Virgin Birth escaped Muggeridge’s notice even after 1982, the year he converted to what he imagined was Catholicism. (His refusal to confess his sins, on the eccentric grounds that his published—and bowdlerized—diaries had already been read by the padre concerned, raises the question of whether he ever meant his Catholicism as more than one last Fourth-Estate publicity-stunt.) He flabbergasted American theologian Francis Schaeffer by blurting out this:
[Believing in Mary’s perpetual virginity is] entirely different from saying that I believe that a particular female, without anything else happening, conceived and bore a child and that that child was Jesus. In other words, I see it as an artistic truth rather than an historical truth.
So now we know. This is Christendom. This is the creed for which Peter suffered crucifixion upside-down; this is what underpinned Augustine, Aquinas, medieval scholasticism, and Gothic architecture; this is what gave us Palestrina’s, Handel’s, and Bach’s sacred masterpieces; this is what sustained Solzhenitsyn, Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, Cardinal Mindszenty, and the gulag’s gibbering zeks. It turns out to be an artistic truth, if you please: a glorified Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In this respect, Muggeridge might have benefited from further study of Wilde, who did, after all, pertinently observe, “A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
Alas for Muggeridge’s long-term repute, his output’s high levels of affectation and sheer wind had been predicted almost two millennia ago by a rather more perceptive proselyte named Saint Paul:
For the time will come when men will not endure sound doctrine, but, following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who tickle their ears. They will stop listening to the truth and wander off to fables.
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia and contributes regularly to the New Criterion and Chronicles. He is the author of The Unsleeping Eye: Secret Police and their Victims