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.