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12:00 AM, Jun 17, 1996 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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For roughly twenty years, between the 1950s and the 1970s, Malcolm Muggeridge was perhaps the most amusing writer in the English-speaking world. I do not say the wittiest, or the most humorous, but the most amusing. More efficiently than anyone else, he could set one to musing, chiefly about how absurd was the world in which we live. Muggeridge's knack, his trick, his schtick -- for before long it hardened into schtick -- was not merely to point out that the emperor had no clothes, but to go a decisive step further to note that the poor fellow was quite without kneecaps, a bellybutton, a scrotum.

Muggeridge had mastered the tone of detachment, which allowed him to ask the most fundamental questions as if he were a superior being from another planet where they arranged things like sex, politics, and journalism rather better than we pathetic earthlings do. To master this tone, a writer must be able to distance himself by taking up a sufftciently high view of the spectacle carried on below. From this height, we all appear comic if sedulous apes, with our inchoate ideals, our not-very-secret appetites, our ludicrous pretensions, the grander the more ludicrous.

At his best, Muggeridge read as if he were Gibbon in Rome living right there in the midst of the decline and fully, almost happily, anticipating the fall. Except that Muggeridge played the decline and fall for laughs, the joke being how funny our contemporary agitations are judged by the standard of eternity.

Judged sub specie aeternitatis, of course, everything is a joke, including Winston Churchill, who just might have saved the Western world. "To me," wrote Muggeridge of Churchill, "he has always been a slightly ridiculous figure, mouthing the rhetoric of a past age to sustain the fantasies of the present one. It was precisely this, admittedly, that was required in 1940 to maintain the pretense, while waiting for Russia and America to come into the war, that we English were continuing to wage it. Once they were in, Churchill's role was exhausted."

So it went in the world according to Muggeridge, where we all are little puppets, making our jerky movements, playing our momentary roles, till we are swept off stage.

Here he is again, in a full paragraph from his essay "England, Whose England?":


As in Cervantes'masterpiece, one feels today that things are out of sync. The conductor is working from one score and the orchestra from another, with consequent total confusion in the resultant perfor mance. The players have learned their lines from another play than the one which is being performed; they make false entrances and exits, stumble over unfamiliar scenery, and turn in vain to the prompter for help and guidance. There is no correlation between word and deed, between the aspirations ostensibly entertained and what actually happens, between (to use Blake's dichotomy) what is seen with, and what is seen through, the eye.

Although he taught in India and Egypt as a young man, worked in British intelligence in early middle age, and wrote a few novels in between, Malcolm Muggeridge was for the better part of his life a "mere" journalist, to supply the standard adjective. He began in newspapers, working first for the Manchester Guardian, then going on to work for Lord Beaverbrook on the London Evening Standard, and later for the Daily Telegraph. He also wrote for the English and American intellectual weeklies, and perhaps achieved his greatest fame as a television man of all work: journalist, interviewer, documentary-maker.

He wished to be more than a mere journalist, wanted in fact to be a writer, but journalism seemed to fit his skitterish temperament. Besides, he was pleased by its rewards, not least the seat it afforded on the apron of the circus. Convinced of the transience of all human events, he even seemed to take a mildly perverse delight in the transience of his own work; as the caravan passed, he was content for the better part of his life to be among the barking dogs.