196 Malcolm Muggeridge

Few autobiographies outlive their subjects.  Nor do journalists generally write literary classics.  So when a journalist’s autobiography rewards the re-reading, subsequent to his death, it may well be regarded a classic.  And I contend that Malcolm Muggeridge’s two-volume Chronicles of Wasted Time provides not only an intriguing life-story but a clarifying wide-angle lens whereby one sees enduring truth regarding his century, the 20th.   

The first volume, entitled The Green Stick, details his life from 1903, when he was born, until 1933, when he returned from a journalistic stint in the Soviet Union.   As early as he learned to read and write he never wanted to do anything else than use them; both temperament and talent charted his vocation as a writer.  He wrote for the same reason he breathed—it was necessary to sustain his life.  Consequently he wrote copiously.  However, “Surveying now this monstrous Niagara of words so urgently called for and delivered, I confess they signify to me a lost life” (p. 14).  His journalistic success, momentarily satisfying, seemed only to highlight the fact “that I was born into a dying, if not already dead civilization, whose literature was part of the general decomposition; a heap of rubble scavenged by scrawny Eng.Lit. vultures, and echoing with the hyena cries of Freudians looking for their Marx and Marxists looking for their Freud” (p. 15).  Vanity of vanity!   “All I can claim to have learnt from the years I have spent in this world,” Muggeridge says, “is that the only happiness is love, which is attained by giving, not receiving, and that the world itself only becomes the dear and habitable dwelling place it is when we who inhabit it know we are migrants due when the time comes to fly away to other more commodious skies” (p. 18).   

Such heavenly hope was not part of his early life, for he was reared by a staunchly Fabian father who devoted himself to “abolishing poverty, illiteracy, war, inequality” and “ushering in the glorious era of everlasting peace, prosperity and happiness” (p. 30).  In due time he became a Member of Parliament, supporting the party agenda, a loyal infantryman in the great war for social justice.  Devoted to the Labour Party and the welfare of the working man (ironically “a notable absentee” at the local political gatherings of the party), his father believed, in the words of Winwood Reade:  “The world will become a heavenly commune” wherein with “one faith, with one desire” men “will labour together in the sacred cause—the extinction of disease, the extinction of sin, the perfection of genius, the perfection of love, the invention of immortality, the exploration of the infinite, and the conquest of creation” (p. 23).    Unfettered utopianism marked the Muggeridge home and young Malcolm embraced it for a time.

His university years at Cambridge (where he studied chemistry, physics and zoology) had little value; he “managed to scrape up a pass degree, but have never opened a book or thought about any of my three subjects from that day to this” (p. 75).    He carefully observed his surroundings, however, noticing how “upper class boys copy the poor ones, decking themselves out in a weird kind of proletarian fancy dress, and speaking in an accent which sounds like a badly rehearsed number in a satire show.  They are the social descenders, who display, in reverse, all the absurdities, and more, of social climbers” (p. 77).   He also noted how “a half-baked” Marxism shaped much collegiate conversation.  Serendipitously, he also discovered, through the mandatory religious observances of the university and by spending his final year in the Oratory House, something of the Christian tradition.  “Perhaps the only good thing I got out of Cambridge was a certain familiarity with the incomparable Book of Common Prayer” (p. 80).   “Despite the agnosticism of my home and upbringing, I cannot recall a time when the notion of Christ and Christianity was not enormously appealing to me” (p. 81).   Jesus is the Answer!  “And this bridge, this reconciliation between the black despair of lying bound and gagged in the tiny dungeon of the ego, and soaring upwards into the white radiance of God’s universal love—this bridge was the Incarnation, whose truth expresses that of the desperate need it meets.  Because of our physical hunger we know there is bread; because of our spiritual hunger we know there is Christ” (p. 82).      

Taking the first opportunity for employment that presented itself, Muggeridge sailed off to India and taught school in Union Christian College, observing the British Empire in its death throes while teaching English literature to docile youngsters eager to get into government service.  Soon back in England he met and married Kitty Dobbs, who proved to be one of the great blessings of his life.  She was one of Beatrice Webb’s nieces, and Malcolm easily flourished in the staunchly pro-Bolshevik circle commanded by Beatrice and her husband, Stanley.   Inhabiting this realm were notables such as George Bernard Shaw.  Wealthy aristocrats, celebrated intellectuals, utopian socialists, the Webbs were “planning our future, and along lines that actually came to pass in a matter of a very few years” (p. 150). 

Now married, Muggeridge needed to find work and found another teaching opportunity, this time in Egypt, teaching in a British school in Cairo.  As in India, he found little challenge in the classroom, but he did write a story about the country that was published by the Manchester Guardian.  This led to an invitation to return to England and begin a career in journalism in 1932.   He quickly found that Guardian writers were to promote the paper’s progressive positions.  Rather than tell the truth they were to push an agenda; “The Guardian was no place for mental honesty” (p. 199).   “It is painful to me now to reflect,” he laments, “the ease with which I got into the way of using this non-language; these drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes.  Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed.  I am more penitent for my false words—for the most part, mercifully lost for ever in the Media’s great slag-heaps—than for false deeds” (p. 171).  When Muggeridge wrote a novel depicting The Guardian’s inner workings, the paper “got an injunction and threatened proceedings, in consequence of which it was withdrawn and suppressed” (p. 201).  Ironically, “The Guardian’s passionate advocacy of freedom of publication did not extend to books about itself” (p. 201).  

Leaping at an opportunity to report on developments in Russia as a freelance journalist, Muggeridge and family set sail for the promised land in 1932.  Given the fact that Lenin himself had translated one of Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s books, given that Muggeridge fully intended to become a Soviet citizen and live out the Marxist dream, the rapidity with which he saw clearly the nature of the USSR is amazing.   Almost as soon as he arrived in Moscow and wandered about he separated himself from the “progressive elite,” the “political pilgrims” from the west who mindlessly believed everything they were told.   (In a recent “Reedings” {#194}, I reviewed Muggeridge’s Winter in Moscow and noted the significance of his disillusioning time in Stalin’s workers’ paradise, so I’ll not repeat similar material found in his autobiography).  In brief:  “In the beginning was the Lie, and the Lie was made news and dwelt among us, graceless and false” (p. 216).  As soon as possible, he fled the USSR, joining fellow passengers on the train when it crossed the border into Latvia when they “began spontaneously to laugh and shout and shake our fists at the sentries.  We were out, we were free” (p. 267).  “How strange, I have often reflected, that a regime which needs thus to pen up its citizens should nonetheless be able to make itself seem desirable to admirers outside.  As though the purpose in taking the Bastille should have been to gain admission there and do a stretch” (p. 267).  

In The Infernal Grove (New York:  William Morrow & Company, Inc., c. 1974) Muggeridge gives us the second volume of Chronicles of Wasted Time.  Freed, both physically and intellectually, from Stalinist Russia in 1933, he found himself in Geneva, briefly working for an agency in the League of Nations.  “Yet, just as, pounding round the red Square, I endlessly asked myself how it came about that the choisest spirits of the age—all the gurus and dancing dervishes of enlightenment—prostrated themselves before a brutish tyrant like Stalin, so, pounding along the Quai Woodrow Wilson, I kept wondering what Pied Piper had been able to lead them to the shores of this sullen Lake, confidently expecting to find there Tennyson’s Parliament of Man and Federation of the World.  In both cases, as it seemed to me, the significant thing was the ready acceptance of fantasy as reality; even a predilection in favour of fantasy, and a corresponding abhorrence of reality.  Why?”  (p. 16).  

Why fantasize of perfecting the world?  “It was the questions of questions” (p. 16), the question that, throughout his life, prodded Muggeridge to marvel at the endless follies of the world’s elites who imagined they could do so.  In fact, “sentimentally virtuous people like Lord Halifax and Mrs Roosevelt do far more harm in the world than recognizable villains.  Solzhenitsyn has provided the perfect parable on this theme with his description of Mrs Roosevelt’s conducted visit to a labour camp where he was doing time.  The estimable lady, who spawned the moral platitudes of the contemporary liberal wisdom as effortlessly and plenteously as the most prolific salmon, was easily persuaded that the camp in question was a humanely conducted institution for curing the criminally inclined.  A truly wicked woman would have been ashamed to be so callous and so gullible” (p. 45).  

Suitably cynical of all things political, Muggeridge spent the ‘30s writing book reviews, novels, and plays as well as doing free lance journalism.  When World War II began, however, despite his age and family, he volunteered to serve his country.  Reflecting on the fact that he was constantly leaving his wife Kitty and the children, he admits to being ever “restless and nomadic.”  However precious his family, he continually dashed off to follow “vainglorious, if not squalid, preoccupations of the moment.  The saddest thing to me, in looking back on my life, has been to recall, not so much the wickedness I have been involved in, the cruel and selfish and egotistic things I have done, the hurt I have inflicted on those I loved—although all that’s painful enough.  What hurts most is the preference I have so often shown for what is inferior, tenth-rate, when the first-rate was there for the having” (p. 133).  

His military service involved various desultory assignments in England and ultimately to positions first in Mozambique and later in France, working in the Secret Service.  He saw, first-hand, that “Diplomats and Intelligence agents, in my experience, are even bigger liars than journalists, and the historians who try to reconstruct the past out of their records are, for the most part, dealing in fantasy” (p. 149).  His account of his military adventures is amusing, though he personally reached an emotional low point and actually attempted suicide while in Africa.  He swam into the ocean off Mozambique, planning to drown.  But he aborted the endeavor and returned to shore, filled with joy at a miraculous sense of light and goodness that deserved his devotion.  While he didn’t understand it fully, “this episode represented for me one of those deep changes which take place in our lives,” a moment for him when he turned “from the carnal to the spiritual, from the immediate, the now, towards the everlasting, the eternal” (p. 185).  

Joining the victorious troops in Paris, in 1944, Muggeridge witnessed the truth of Simone Weil’s phrase, “Justice, that fugitive from the Victor’s camp.”  Working within the intelligence service, he marveled at how many Frenchmen claimed to have worked with the anti-Nazi underground, how many accusations were hurled against alleged “collaborators,” how easily military triumph generates lawless vendettas.  “It was, all things considered, one of the more squalid episodes in France’s history, with, as it sometimes seemed, everyone informing on everyone else” (p. 224).  Inasmuch as he was able to help free some of the falsely-accused, Muggeridge considered this his finest war-time endeavor.  “Looking back on it, I cannot join the chorus of regrets at five years lost; they were just lost years in a lost life, indistinguishable, essentially, from the five preceding and the five succeeding ones” (p. 257).  

The war over, Muggeridge returned to England and his journalistic career, several decades not covered in this volume (nor in a never published though promised third volume).  

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

The closest Muggeridge came to giving us a final volume of his autobiography is found in Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim (San Francisco:  Harper & Row, c. 1988), an overview of his life-long spiritual journey, published two years before his 1990 death.  His final message, inscribed on the books’ flyleaf, is a prayer:  “God, humble my pride, extinguish the last stirrings of my ego, obliterate whatever remains of worldly ambition and carnality, and in these last days of a mortal existence, help me to serve only Thy purposes, to speak and writ only thy words, to think only Thy thoughts, to have no other prayer than:  ‘Thy will be done.’  In other words to be a true Convert” (p. 8).  Life’s purpose, the end toward which we must move, is God alone.  “Our business is to find God, the dramatist behind the drama, and, having found Him, to follow Him in the light of the revelation vouchsafed us in the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (p. 78).  

He begins the book with a description of his 1982 entry into the Roman Catholic Church, describing it as:  “A sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that had long been ringing, of taking a place at a table that had long been vacant” (p. 13).  Though many factors played a role in his conversion, Mother Teresa of Calcutta looms large in his story.  She appeared on a BBC program he hosted, and he followed up that interview with a film entitled Something Beautiful for God.   Some of the inside shots, taken in near darkness, were “bathed in a wonderful soft light” when processed.  “I have no doubt whatever,” Muggeridge says, “as to what the explanation is:  holiness, an expression of love, is luminous; hence the haloes in medieval portraits of saints” (p. 15).  

Long before meeting Mother Teresa, however, Muggeridge sensed an inner hunger for God.  Things eternal and spiritual ever allured him, though he actually lived a very temporal and carnal life.  Under his father’s socialistic influence, he was “stirred by the prospect of bringing heaven down to earth, and creating here and now a brotherly, peaceful and prosperous society:  to each according to his needs, from each according to his capacity” (p. 26).  But even as a boy he sensed there was something more profound in the New Testament, with its message of a heavenly city, an eternal world, beyond man’s orchestration.  In the Gospels and Epistles one sees, “underlying the chaos of the world and of a spectator’s own mind, God’s order.  Nature itself is speaking to us, if we can only hear it, of His purposes for His creatures and creation” (p. 31).  

As a Cambridge undergraduate, “for the first time” he encountered clergymen,  and attended compulsory chapel services.  While hardly a believer, he was deeply drawn to the beauty and integrity of the Christian way, sensing that “Faith provides a special insight into the mystery that lies at the heart of our earthly existence” (p. 35).  As a teacher in India, he realized that his father and his Fabian cohorts were (while allegedly working for the working man) actually seeking power, the great intoxicant of our day.  He realized that one must either live for power or love and he knew that love was the truly right way.   In marriage he discovered that true happiness “lies in forgetfulness, not indulgence, of the self; in escape from carnal appetites, not in their satisfaction” (p. 55).  He further discerned evil that marks “the separation of the procreative impulse from procreation, the down-grading of motherhood and the up-grading of spinsterhood, and the acceptance of sterile perversions as the equivalent of fruitful lust; finally the grisly holocaust of millions of aborted babies, ironically in the name of the quality of life” (p. 57).  

Becoming a journalist meant, as St Augustine noted of teachers, becoming a “vendor of words.”  To Muggeridge, “both professions are exercises in fantasy; the instruction that teachers pass on to their classes is as dubious as the news and comment that journalists pass on to their readers” (p. 59).   But he was a writer and journalism became his profession.  In that role he observed the development of a death wish, “in the guise of liberalism,” that was slowly destroying Western Civilization.  “Systematically, stage by stage, dismantling our Western way of life, depreciating and deprecating all its values so that the whole social structure is now jumbling down, dethroning its God, undermining all its certainties.  And all this, wonderfully enough, in the name of the health, wealth and happiness of all mankind.  Previous civilizations have been overthrown from without by the incursion of barbarian hordes; ours has dreamed up its own dissolution in the minds of its own intellectual elite” (p. 61).   Thus Liberalism, not  Nazism or Bolshevism, “was responsible for bringing down the darkness on our civilization.”  It was a “solvent rather than a precipitate, a sedative rather than a stimulant, a slough rather than a precipice; blurring the edges of truth, the definition of virtue, the shape of beauty; a cracked bell, a mist, a death wish” (p. 61).  Ironically, though Christians should have fought against it, legions of them embraced and supported Liberal agenda, determined to do good and make the world good, denying old-fashioned doctrines such as the Incarnation and Resurrection, scoffing at “pie-in-the-sky by-and-by.”  

In the end, Muggeridge (as did John Henry Newman a century earlier) found himself joining the one institution that seemed to have resisted Liberalism’s solvent, finding “a resting place in the Catholic Church from where I can see the Heavenly Gates built into Jerusalem’s Wall more clearly than from anywhere else, albeit if only through a glass darkly” (p. 134).  Thus he rested his faith in creedal affirmations, such as the Incarnation, believing “that God did lean down and become Man in order that we could reach up to Him” (p. 140).  Still more, he found the Catholic commitment to moral standards quite valuable.  Indeed:  “It was the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion which finally made me decide to become a Catholic” (p. 140).  These two evils “have made havoc both for the young and the old” (p. 140), for by “making eroticism an end and not a means” (p. 141) they violate the natural law and harm human beings.  

Despite his oft-despairing evaluation of the world and its nihilistic bent, Muggeridge ended his life filled with love and hope—love for God and his family, hope for life everlasting.  In his 84th year, he testified:  “And so I live, just for each day, knowing my life will soon be over, and that I, like Michelangelo at the end of his life ‘. . . have loved my friends and family.  I have loved God and all his creation.  I have loved life and now I love death as its natural termination . . .’, knowing that although Christendom may be over—Christ lives1” (p. 150).  

Few  20th century writers merit more attention and gratitude than Malcolm Muggeridge.  My words to you are the words one of his mentor’s, St Augustine, heard:  Tolle lege.  Take up and read! 

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