THE MAN WHO WAS MUGGERIDGED BY REALITY
12:00 AM, Jun 17, 1996 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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?":
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.
In collecting some of his stronger magazine pieces for The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge in 1966, when he was himself 63, Muggeridge took the occasion to note the staggering output of words any working journalist looses on the world: "a vast verbal outpouring, dealing for the most part with topics of no present relevance -- notices of books and plays whose authors have long been forgotten, editorials on once burning controversies which now matter to no one, obituaries already out of date when their subjects died." Striking the characteristic Muggeridgean note of the utter, comic uselessness of it all, he continues: "Appeals, exhortations, solemn warnings, tributes; massive features and tiny gossip paragraphs, turnovers and middles; every variety of shape, size and substancesfrom pulp to pulp. Oh! printed word, where is they sting?"
Muggeridge's own prose, in its day, could have a devastating sting. As the Moscow correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, he was the first Western journalist to report that Stalin was systematically starving his own people in the early 1930s under the aegis of collectivization, for which he, Muggeridge, was roundly denounced, in the Soviet and Western press alike, as a reactionary and a liar. This took courage, physical and intellectual, and not least spiritual. I say spiritual because, though Muggeridge had gone to the Soviet Union under the auspices of the Guardian, he initially intended, along with his wife, to settle there, thinking it a "new kind of civilization."
But it did not take him long to see through it. "I've seen," he wrote to Beatrice Webb, his wife's aunt and one of those great Western boosters of the Soviet Union called "useful idiots" by Lenin, "I know I've seen the essence of the thing, its spirit, the mood it engenders, the kind of person in whom it invests power, the set of values -- moral, aesthetic, spiritual -- it encourages. And I'm more sure than I've ever been sure of anything in my life that this is bad, and that it is based on the most evil and most cruel elements in human nature." Others saw it, too, and knew very well what they saw, but hadn't the intellectual honesty that Muggeidge had to announce that they had found yet another heart of darkness, this time in a cold climate.
The habit of expose, begun early in Muggeridge, was to stay with him through his life. Nothing was as it appeared; everything was much worse. Nothing, certainly, was safe from his satirical treatment. In his early years, his fiction tended usually to be about the job he had most recently left (Picture Palace is about life on the Manchester Guardian) or about recent experience (Winter in Moscow); these books, romans with feet of litigious clay, were nicely loaded up with characters drawn directly from life, tempting many among them to sue for libel.
Later Muggeridge would settle for the almost systematic slaughter of sacred cows. He was early to mock the British monarchy; he accused Winston Churchill of being too old, if not gaga, to govern; he averred that Eisenhower would make a better king than president and proposed him to Americans as such; and he was the first to mock -- quite rightly -- the apotheosis of the then- recently dead President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in an essay titled, after Evelyn Waugh's comic-grotesque novel about funerary rites in Los Angeles, " The Loved One."
Between 1952 and 1957, Muggeridge was editor of Punch, the famous English humor magazine -- famous, I should say, for never being all that humorous. From the middle of the 19th century, people had begun to say about Punch that "it used to be better." They kept on saying it till Muggeridge took over, when they began saying that it was outrageous and ought to be banned. Before him the magazine, in the words of one of its contributors, was composed of "well-written articles about nothing in particular"; and many of the senior staff, such was the general air of complacency, sent their articles directly to the printer without showing them to any editor. Muggeridge, by running features attacking the monarchy and the Church of England, put paid to this kind of complacency.
Muggeridge was no less iconoclastic as a television performer, functioning here chiefly as a provocateur-interviewer. In this role, he would cheerfully spur on a perfectly drunk Brendan Behan, ask Salvador Dali what happens to his mustaches at night ("They droop," was the answer), or lightly mock Billy Graham. In some ways, Muggeridge, in his irreverent mode, helped make possible the strain of English satire that emerged with the comedy review Beyond the Fringe and the television program That Was The Week That Was.
I saw an example of Muggeridge's television handiwork one day in 1970 on Michigan Avenue in Chicago in front of the Chicago Tribune Building, where he was stopping Chicagoans on their lunch hour to ask how they thought Wilson would do in the general election. The chief replies were "Wilson who?" and " What election?" The answer was Harold Wilson, and the election was the British one forthcoming. This was Muggeridge's little way of making plain to his countrymen that they were now quite nicely out of it, thank you very much.
What sort of man found delight in such occupations? In his two-volume autobiography, Muggeridge doesn't give us much help with this question. Chronicles of Wasted Time is the title he gave to the first volume; and he retained it as the subtitle to his second. In these books he recounted his socialist upbringing, his education, his travels, his life in journalism, but, smooth as the overall performance is, something is missing at the center. The first volume begins with a chapter titled "A Part in Search of a Play" and the second volume closes with the interment of the ashes of the Webbs in Westminster Abbey, which, in Muggeridge's reading, meant the end of the empty dream of socialism as heaven here on earth. The second volume was published in 1974; its author had 17 years yet to live. The autobiography ends on the words: "Another way had to be found and explored."
Richard Ingrams's biography Muggeridge (HarperCollins, $ 27.50) takes up the meaning of those words. It is an excellent book, a model of the kind of biographical study that is less and less nowadays written but to which biography needs to return. At a perfect length of 264 pages, it seeks portraiture through understanding, not, as biographies in our day increasingly do, definitiveness through exhausting detail. Ingrams knew and admired Muggeridge, but admired him with full knowledge of his weaknesses and flaws. He deals in revelation without being interested in scandal. His selection of details seems proportionate and artistically correct. Finishing his book, one feels that one doesn't need to know more than he has chosen to tell.
Ingrams writes, really, as a friend. He has written about Malcolm Muggeridge before in God's Apology, a charming little volume about three friends: Muggeridge, the journalist Hugh Kingsmill, and the popular biographer Hesketh Pearson. (The title comes from a remark of Kingsmill's: " Friends are God's apology for relations," or relatives.) In that book, Ingrams notes that "there is a fourth friend involved, too -- myself." He goes on to explain that through his friendship with Malcolm Muggeridge "I have been able to enjoy a kind of posthumous friendship with Kingsmill and Pearson and from talking to him come to cherish certain books which, had I not known him, would perhaps have meant little to me."
Ingrams had first met Muggeridge in 1963, when the former was one of the editors of Private Eye, a magazine of no-holds-barred English satire of which Muggeridge was one of the guiding saints. In the introduction to God's Apology, he says Muggeridge "is the only person I know in whose company I have never experienced one moment of boredom. At the same time I owe to him several insights into the nature of power and ambition which have influenced my feelings about the political world in a profound way." As for the three friends -- Muggeridge, Kingsmill, Pearson -- Ingrams writes that all three had "in common a number of admirable and to me endearing characteristics -- a love of England and English literature; a dislike of intellectuals; a deep suspicion of all institutions and any form of collective activity; and a shared sense of humor with no traces in it of snobbery, nor any of the class consciousness which has vitiated so much modern writing."
From Ingrams's lucid account one is able to make out without any great difficulty the figure in Muggeridge's carpet. Muggeridge's father, whom he greatly loved, was a Fabian socialist. Religion was no part of the young Malcolm's upbringing. He was pleased to have avoided public schools -- and hence many of the snobberies and rich sexual complications that pop up in all those English memoirs about Eton and Winchester days -- and when he went to Cambridge it was to read for a natural sciences degree. He was brought up oddly detached and remained that way through much of his life. Ingrams remarks on Muggeridge never having had any real interest in possessions, nor being an altogether happy hedonist -- though on this score he was an ardent skirt chaser and a fairly heavy boozer. As a young man, his pattern was to be one in which the fires of initial enthusiasm were quickly banked by boredom and disillusionment.
Muggeridge was quite without ambition: money, power, acceptance in the highest social circles never seemed much to stir him. Even among men who should have been his political enemies -- the old Stalinist Claud Cockburn is a notable example -- he could show great and genuine friendliness. He was, in Ingrams's words, "incapable of a grudge against anyone," and that included Hesketh Pearson, who had a brief affair with his wife.
Nothing Muggeridge ever did, Ingrams claims, was based on calculation. He seemed not to give a damn about career. Certainly, he was ready to pitch everything away at any time for an amusing line. Even though he knew he was on thin ice at the BBC, he didn't in the least mind, after a discussion about Orwell's 1984, remarking before turning over the microphone, "And now back to Big Brother." Once, when meeting Khrushchev on a journalistic trip to Russia, the then-Soviet leader told him to write the truth. "Such," replied Muggeridge, "is my constant endeavor." He was undauntable.
Yet despite all the success that came his way -- by his 50s, a high income and international fame were his -- -he was never satisfied for long. All his days he suffered stomach troubles, becoming toward the end of his life a vegetarian. All his days, too, beginning with his years at Cambridge, he felt a pull toward religion. As early as 1934, the writer Lettice Cooper predicted he would become a Roman Catholic, which he did -- but in 1982, fully 48 years later. Ingrams speculates that Muggeridge's encounter with Mother Teresa, whose work he did so much to publicize in a BBC documentary and whose simplicity and dignity and devotion humbled him, brought him over to the church, under whose last rites he died.
A great many people were put off by the spectacle of the publicly devout Malcolm Muggeridge. "St. Mugg" was the way he was often referred to. Before his religious phase, he believed men were fools for not understanding the silly irrelevance of their lives; now he thought men fools for not understanding a being greater than they. Preaching, in his last years, seemed to come very naturally to him. It wasn't all that easy to take from such an old sinner. Hypocrisy was the common charge. In other words, Muggeridge had had very good innings as a general catouser; but now that he could no longer hold up the bat, the rest of us were to retire along with him to contemplate the magnificence of the Lord. La Rochefoucauld was called in as a witness for the prosecution: "We do not so much desert our appetites as they desert us."
Yet what Richard Ingrams's excellent book makes altogether persuasive is that Malcolm Muggeridge's conversion was no last-minute inspiration, an effort to pull his own badly singed chestnuts out of the fire. Everything in his life the early socialism, the boredom, the disillusionment, the rather squalid pleasures, the lifelong detachment -- was building up to his religious conversion. This biography turns out in the end to be a much more amusing Pilgrim's Progress. As for the Pilgrim himself, our man Muggeridge, he gave much delight to his readers while he lived, and there is much to be thankful for in that. Whether the trajectory described by his life -- from socialism to religion, in by no means easy steps -- provides the edification he hoped it might is another, much murkier, yet finally quite serious question.
Joseph Epstein, author of our June 3 cover story on American arts policy, is editor of the American Scholar.
By Joseph Epstein