A Hundred Years of Muggery
The life and times of Malcolm Muggeridge.
May 5, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
THERE ARE NUMBERLESS WAYS in which the faithful may taunt, or perhaps I should better say tease, the unbeliever. One such tactic--and for my money the most irritating--is to say that God believes in you, even if you can't return the compliment. Another is to contrast the modest simplicity of belief with the contortions of the malcontent intellectual. "Don't mind me," says the humble friar or devoted nun, brushing past on some modest errand of altruism. "I'm just doing the Lord's work."
Those of us who experience difficulty in recognizing this as genuine humility always used to have a fine old time at the expense of Malcolm Muggeridge, the centennial of whose birth in 1903 has caused a small flurry of notice this year, thirteen years after his death in 1990. Here was a man ever-ready to uncork a sermon about the fallen state of the species and the pathetic vanity of our earthly desires--all while he was notorious as an apostle of carnality and a ringmaster at the circus of his own self-promotion. Every personality type in the eternal argument over divinity is to be discerned in John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress," that founding text of Protestant fundamentalism. And it was there in "Pilgrim's Progress"--winding between Vanity Fair and Doubting Castle, encountering the likes of "Great-Heart," "Mr. Standfast," and "Little-Faith"--that one seemed to have the best chance to catch the lineaments of Muggeridge. He was Mr. Worldly Wiseman.
A difference between American and British audiences is that Americans tend to know Muggeridge by his writing, while the British associate him with the early days of television celebrity. When I was young in the 1960s, Muggeridge seemed to be ubiquitous, on game shows and quiz-marathons no less than on brow-furrowing panels about serious matters. The man appeared to have no unaired thoughts.
An excellent mimic would be required to do an impression of his face, which resembled that of a vain old turtle. But almost anyone could have a shot at imitating his voice, with its commingled bray and bleat. My own first appearance on the tube was to debate apartheid as a guest on his Sunday-evening chat-show, portentously called "The Question Why." (I forget if it had a question mark or not. Perhaps it was like the title of Sidney and Beatrice Webb's apologia for Stalinism: "Soviet Communism--A New Civilization," which had a question mark for its first edition and none for the second.)
Muggeridge was married to Beatrice Webb's niece, Kitty, and had been brought up in that area of the British Left that was bounded by the Fabian Society, the New Statesman, the London School of Economics, and Bloomsbury more generally. The tone-setters of this melioristic and high-minded environment placed a lot of faith in social action for the improvement of health, housing, and the rights of labor. But they also stressed the improveability of human nature, this last to be attained by more sexual and educational freedom. In those days, the word "crusade" was still acceptable, and the great anthem of the movement was William Blake's "Jerusalem": I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England's green & pleasant Land.
IT'S EASY TO MOCK this tradition, though it has some great achievements still standing to its credit. But one would not wish to sneer at a man like Henry Thomas Muggeridge, Malcolm's father, who devoted a good life to the socialist cause. One of the several merits of the recently reprinted biography "Malcolm Muggeridge" is that its author--Gregory Wolfe, the editor of the American art magazine Image and author of such previous books as "The New Religious Humanists"--understands the duality of motive. He shows us a young Muggeridge who became impatient with his father's do-good schemes and with the heresy of the perfectibility of man. Yet Wolfe also describes a rather selfish and unappealing figure, embarrassed by his family's dowdiness and desiring to be more dashing and fashionable and renowned.
No serious person is without contradictions. The test lies in the willingness or ability to recognize and confront them. Wolfe's biography suggests that Muggeridge was sometimes opaque to himself and sometimes not. But the book is clear on one thing. Those of us who had thought that the man came to religion only late in life, after years of exhausting debauchery, were quite mistaken. I once contributed some doggerel to the New Statesman, expressing the received opinion about Muggeridge: In my youth, quoth the sage, as he tossed his grey locks, / I behaved just as any young pup. / But now I am old I appear on the box-- / And tell others to give it all up.
The time has come to take back those lines. Wolfe establishes that Muggeridge had a sort of epiphany as a very young man, being overwhelmed by a rural sunset which "in its all-embracing beauty conveyed a oneness" and deciding "that to identify oneself with the spirit animating it and giving it meaning, contained the promise of ecstasy." This trope recurs in an undergraduate study that Muggeridge did at Cambridge, based on the "Evidences of Christianity" by the early-nineteenth-century natural philosopher William Paley. The result may be no more than the Argument from Design writ large, but there's no reason to doubt Muggeridge's sincerity about it.
Continuing this rather soft-centered, impressionable attitude to the Numinous, Muggeridge made the voyage to India that so many progressive-minded young Englishmen undertook in those days, and he was duly impressed with the saintliness and simplicity of Gandhi. But paradox intrudes itself here at once. When Muggeridge was not being awed by spiritual simplicity, he was being attracted by religious complexity. He wrote about his "love" for "the inconsistencies of Christianity" and his belief that "faith must be based on doubt." He was still a long way from Roman Catholicism, but his quest for the "inclusive"--for a reconciliation between the sacred and the profane, as well as between the simple and the difficult--already involved catholicity.
PERHAPS, like St. Augustine, he didn't want full acceptance quite yet or, knowing himself pursued by the Hound of Heaven, was prepared to give it time to catch him. Meanwhile he had a certain toughness and curiosity to keep him going. He saw plainly that the British day in India was waning (he was ahead of his time in this respect), and he was soon to see through communism, the grand illusion of the twentieth century. Enlisting at the Manchester Guardian, another flagship of the English bien-pensant class, he was quick to realize that its lofty policies masked an institutional hypocrisy about, among other things, the true source of the newspaper's income. Satirizing this in his first novel, Picture Palace, he made the valuable discovery that there is no intolerance like liberal intolerance. (The paper's owners took harsh legal steps to ensure that the novel was suppressed.) Thus, when he became the Guardian's correspondent in Moscow in 1932, he was riper than perhaps he understood for a crisis of belief.
A.J.P. Taylor told him as he was embarking, "If the Russians do not come up to your expectations, don't take it out on them." Muggeridge's reply is worth quoting: "No, no. It will be Utopia. I must see the Ideal even if I am unworthy of it." This Mosaic echo is evidence that Muggeridge already had a religious cast of mind. Of course, it was not only the Left in those days that believed in the virtues of a planned economy and hungered for an alternative to post-Versailles chaos and misery. But the disillusionment in Muggeridge's case was on a scale commensurate to the original fantasy. Stalin's Russia hadn't just fallen short of the ideal; it had become a plain Hell for the body and the mind. His reports from the Ukraine in the year of the famine stand comparison with André Gide's "Retour de l'URSS" and Eugene Lyons's "Assignment in Utopia" as irrefutable evidence of a new barbarism. The ancillary lesson he drew, about the gullibility and credulity of Western intellectuals, was to last Muggeridge the rest of his life.
Muggeridge's sheet isn't as snow-white, however, as some of his admirers like to believe. A previous and more hagiographic biography, written by Richard Ingrams, mentions that in his dotage Muggeridge became prey to anti-Semitic outbursts and paranoid suspicions. I had thought that this late lapse was the extent of it, but Wolfe bluntly points out Muggeridge's lifelong susceptibility to this most toxic of all prejudices. And in "Winter in Moscow," a 1934 novel that dwells on the most lurid aspects of Judeo-Bolshevism, he gave full vent to his dislike. Some subsequent exposure to Nazi ideology and practice qualified, but did not entirely dispel, this disfiguring element.
WHILE HE WAS THUS engaged in becoming a failed novelist and a brilliant journalist (his book "The Thirties" remains a classic snapshot of what his friend Claud Cockburn called "The Devil's Decade") and managing to turn up always in the right place at the right time, his private life was a cauldron of adultery, misery, and penury. He fought incessantly with Kitty, whom he may not have forgiven for his repeated betrayals of her, and she requited this by openly bearing another man's son. (The boy was to become in some ways Muggeridge's favorite child.)
All the while, Muggeridge could not shed the fear that he was a phony and a failure. Enlisting in British Intelligence in World War II was a near-faultless decision on his part, because it gave him the excuse to leave home and it caught him up in a world where things were deceptive and dishonest by definition. From this came his long friendship with Graham Greene. From this, also, came the moment of despair in which he attempted suicide.
Muggeridge had actually been rather a good British agent in the Portuguese African port of Lourenço Marques, hampering the German spies at every turn and even helping to trap and capture a U-boat. But he felt himself a hollow poseur and one night swam out to sea with the intention of drowning. He changed his mind only at the very last minute. Even on this grave matter, he could not quite achieve authenticity. At the time, he passed off the fiasco as an attempt to baffle the local Nazis, and he stuck to this version for many years before confessing in his autobiography that he had sincerely meant to take his own life but had undergone yet another epiphany when he saw the lights of the shore. (I cannot resist adding that he was challenged to come up with a true account only because David Irving had unearthed the cover story while making one of his dark trawls through the German archives.)
All this invites the question: Was Muggeridge a "fool for God," or just a fool? For the first four or even five decades of his life, he could scarcely tell his alienation from his anomie. Despite the steadying influence of his old Cambridge companion Alec Vidler, an unassuming priest who really did have a vocation, Muggeridge rolled and pitched from job to job, home to home, and mistress to mistress. Claud Cockburn, who despite their vast quarrel over communism really admired Muggeridge for his qualities as a friend, made an excellent diagnosis when he told him, "With you, the tendency to become bored has the quality of a vice." Kingsley Amis once told me of a night of impossible squalor and depression, when a drunken Muggeridge proposed that both men try and take advantage, seriatim, of an equally sozzled Sonia Orwell. This joyless, wretched orgy was proposed merely in order that an already dispirited evening should not end.
IT SEEMED at one stage that his appointment to the editorial chair at Punch would give Muggeridge something solid to do. The venerable Victorian weekly had a big circulation but a flickering pulse; it urgently required what P.G. Wodehouse would have called snap and vim. The appointment of Anthony Powell as literary editor and Claud Cockburn as roving scribbler at the magazine resulted in two excellent pen-portraits of Muggeridge, who might have become the English Harold Ross.
Cockburn wrote, "I began to have the feeling that with this fiercely gentle, chivalrously ungentlemanly man on the far side of the grandiose editorial desk, jerking and flashing his eyes, from time to time cackling out a cacophony of furiously raucous expressions like a sailor's parrot loose in the Mission Hall, something new and special in the way of clowning and satire might yet be made of this ancient publication."
Powell, not atypically somewhat more circuitous, added:
In the beginning . . . was the sceptical wit mocking all, and the wit was with Muggeridge and the wit was Muggeridge. This first Muggeridge--never wholly exorcised but undergoing long terms of banishment from the Celestial City of his personality--would sometimes support, sometimes obstruct, what then seemed his sole fellow, Second Muggeridge.
Second Muggeridge, serious, ambitious, domestic, . . . with a strain of Lawrentian mysticism, . . . had a spell-weaving strain and violent political or moral animosities (animosity rather than allegiance being essential expression of Second Muggeridge's teachings), both forms of vituperation in the main aimed at winning a preponderant influence in public affairs. . . .
In due course, . . . Third Muggeridge became manifest at full strength, hot-gospelling, near-messianic, promulgating an ineluctable choice between Salvation and Perdition. He who was not with Third Muggeridge was against him, including First and Second Muggeridge. In this conflict without quarter First Muggeridge, who treated life as a jest--now so to speak a thief crucified between two Christs--came off worst.
That last arresting image, of a uniquely Muggeridgian Golgotha, illuminates the way in which Cockburn and Powell both naturally employed the image of the clown or the jester. As it happens, this was Muggeridge's own favorite point of comparison between religion and Shakespeare--for both afforded special roles to the "rough and tumble acrobat, horseplay jester for God": religion with St. Francis of Assisi and Shakespeare with King Lear's only sincere and simple friend. Occasionally, and despite his reputation for hard-headedness about totalitarianism, Muggeridge would enact the role of the naif without apparently volunteering for it. He described the KGB's most ruthless agent, his former acquaintance Kim Philby, as "a boy scout who had lost his way." And, during much of World War II, he preferred to think of the Nazis as absurd and pitiable rather than wicked.
Having briefly been banned by the BBC for a 1955 New Statesman attack he wrote on the soap-opera culture of the British royal family--a polemic that now seems astonishingly mild--and having drifted morosely away from the Punch editorial chair as if to vindicate Cockburn's judgment, Muggeridge was at last to find his milieu.
AGAIN, he was drawn compulsively to that which he found loathsome. Television, he could plainly see, would be the death of literacy and the handmaid of instant gratification. It would instill cheap and commercial values and incite the nastiest forms of populism. He fell for it like a ton of bricks. He wallowed exuberantly in its corruption. He was a natural. He was perfectly well aware, as his diaries show, that he was expending his spirit in a waste of shame. But he enjoyed it and excelled at it, and he may have hoped to turn the greatest weapon of crass modernity against itself.
Sex was the selling point, overtly and subliminally, of the television "mass-cult." (Did Muggeridge ever read or encounter Dwight Macdonald?) Very well, then, a guru would appear on the seductive screen and warn that sex was ultimately a disappointment. Ridicule was the predictable harvest for this, of course, and Muggeridge reaped it in heaping measure. I think it's clear that he enjoyed the obloquy and felt that he was earning it, so to speak, vicariously. He plodded on with a series of well-made television documentaries, which I personally find intolerably mawkish but which gradually won him a sort of underdog's respect. Gnarled pilgrims at Lourdes, simple fisherfolk on the shores of Galilee, mitered bishops with the common touch. . . . And then the jewel in the crown. In a 1969 film entitled "Something Beautiful for God," he launched the persona that we all came to know as Mother Teresa.
In a near-perfect return-serve to the hedonism of the day, he made a star out of a woman who scorned pelf and pleasure. Wolfe's book gives this chapter fairly straight. I have a minor quarrel to register with a biographer who is in general punctiliously honest. Wolfe has obviously read the testimony of Ken Macmillan, Muggeridge's ultra-professional cameraman, but he chooses to elide it, and thus lets stand the claim, directly rebutted by Macmillan, that the filming of the documentary involved a miracle, manifesting allegedly divine light around the figure of Mother Teresa. The simple explanation involves a Kodak film especially designed for crepuscular scenes. (Simplicity isn't always to be despised, as I may have hinted.)
Wolfe's "Malcolm Muggeridge" begins with a pledge. "The temptation," the biographer writes, "is to play Boswell to Malcolm's Johnson, concentrating on his innumerable witty retorts, bons mots, and other examples of his dazzling sense of humor. This is a temptation that I have resisted." He keeps that rather forbidding promise throughout, and I'd say that the world of the devastating riposte was not Wolfe's natural territory in any case. "Urbane and witty," he writes about the magazine Night and Day, which was brought low by a lawsuit from Shirley Temple against Graham Greene, "it could also be acerbic and satirical. Ironically, this satirical sharpness was to hasten its downfall." The contrasts here are non-contrasting, and the irony is no irony at all. Having met the Muggeridges in Canada, Wolfe records in a deadpan fashion that "after partaking of the simple dinner that was their regular fare . . . ," and one wants to say, yes, well, that's quite enough about that.
Wolfe makes some errors that may be simple clumsiness: George Orwell underwent no "disillusionment" with communism, in which he had never believed. But other errors are not stylistic. I'll eat my shoes if Claud Cockburn was ever even for a moment a religious "seeker." Still, the cumulative effect of Wolfe's narrative in "Malcolm Muggeridge" is so serious and so genuine that the biography ultimately forces a reconsideration of its subject.
Muggeridge was not the C.S. Lewis of his time, any more than he was the Samuel Johnson. Just as his actual witticisms were few (is there really a Muggeridge epigram or aphorism for the ages?), so his grasp of theology was slight. But he was the first to admit the latter deficiency, and not even Wolfe will defend his "Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim." One respects Muggeridge, rather, for his imperfections and contradictions and shortcomings, and for his readiness to be boring rather than fascinating on questions that he believed to be important.
In his later years, Muggeridge formed alliances with moralistic authoritarians like Mary Whitehouse of Moral Re-Armament, who were not so much foolish as plain sinister. (His other colleague, the late Lord Longford, was a fool for God, all right, and a tremendous fool in his own right, but would never have harmed so much as a fly.) And these alliances--together with his own behavior--left Muggeridge easy to make sport of, as long as you could be convinced that there was nothing meretricious about the various shallow theories of "liberation" that were near-regnant at the time.
Most impressive to me is the anti-climax of his reception into the Church of Rome very late in life. This did not give Muggeridge the peace that he had expected (Ingrams's biography is better on this than Wolfe's), and he may have vaguely understood that it wasn't really peace he had been desiring. He was a fair example of restlessness and unease--of what has been called divine discontent. There certainly remain moments when Muggeridge was entirely Mr. Worldly Wiseman. But to read his biography is to see there are other moments in his turbulent life when he was temporarily promoted in Bunyan's cast of characters and could stand in for Mr. Valiant-For-Truth.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is "Why Orwell Matters."