The Magazine

A Hundred Years of Muggery

The life and times of Malcolm Muggeridge.

May 5, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
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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."