By:Sally S. Wright | August 07, 2019
[This article first appeared in the December 1992 issue of Chronicles.]
In the second segment of the several-part BBC documentary on his life, Malcolm Muggeridge smoothed his white feathery hair away from his cherubic face, smiled cryptically, and said in his deep, rolling, gentle English voice, "There's nothing in this world more instinctively abhorrent to me than finding myself in agreement with my fellow humans." And certainly, for 65 years, he prodded, provoked, amused, and altered British consciousness as a journalist, author, and television commentator who mocked the posturings of modern life. From the time he was a little child, he wanted to work with words, and he was best known for his wit and satire, for lines like, "If Hitler had treated dogs the way he treated the Jews, the British people would have clamored for war two years earlier." Yet he was more than a social critic and irreverent humorist who pinpointed the pitfalls of human institutions. By the time he died in November 1990, Malcolm Muggeridge had become the most widely read Christian apologist since C. S. Lewis—much to the disgust of his peers in the press, who had been irritated with him since he first rejected his family faith.
For Malcolm had been raised to be a Socialist activist by a quixotic father he dearly loved. And as a fourteen-year-old boy, in 1917, Malcolm was so taken with the Russian Revolution he decided he would one day move to Russia. In 1932, he was sent there as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, and there he and his wife, Kitty, planned to renounce their British citizenship and to take up residence in the "peoples' paradise."
What he saw of censorship and oppression in Stalin's regime, however, depressed him. And he grew to hate the Soviet system, especially after slipping Moscow security (unlike any other Western correspondent at the time) and traveling by train through the Ukraine and the Caucasus. There, while American and British journalists in and out of Russia wrote about the startling agricultural success of Soviet communism, Muggeridge saw the barren land, the deserted villages, the peasants with hollow eyes and emaciated bodies, "their hands tied behind their backs, being driven into cattle trucks at gun point," as forced collectivization (using the Red Army backed by air cover) slaughtered ten million Ukrainians and destroyed the breadbasket of Russia. There Muggeridge also saw religious persecution (orders disbanded, their possessions stolen, many of their priests shot). He wrote about such things in three articles on the Ukraine and the Caucasus, which he smuggled out in diplomatic pouches. The leftist Guardian reluctantly printed them, though they censored the articles and criticized Muggeridge, prompting him to resign. When he returned to England, he found himself attacked in one periodical after another for "lying" about Stalinist Russia. In the next few years, he could hardly find a publisher for his work.
Adversity is usually the way spiritual lessons are taught, and Muggeridge was paying attention. He had learned in the Soviet Union that heaven will never be built on earth, that no human system can provide justice and peace and plenty, and that mankind will not grow better and finer on its own. Muggeridge saw that it is our values, not our production processes and social arrangements, that make life bearable or worth living. For he had watched his wife on the verge of death by typhoid in the Soviet Union, and he had seen starving peasants in a church in Kiev worshiping with faces "transformed by suffering," which spoke to him of something greater than bread or starvation. He had also seen, by 1936, the inevitability of World War II, and he spent the whole war in intelligence. He was given the Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre, and several British decorations (though he maintained that "the two most ridiculous activities I've ever been engaged in have been war and sex").
In the 1950's, he wrote from all over the world, edited Punch, and took up a career as a radio and television interviewer, becoming England's most widely recognized personality after the Royal Family. He had gotten to know, or to at least interview, Gandhi, Churchill, Montgomery, Macmillan, De Gaulle, Truman, MacArthur, Kim Philby, Nehru, Ben Gurion, Orwell, Wodehouse, Greene, and Waugh (and later Solzhenitsyn)—and was therefore well placed to comment on the 20th century. He could publish wherever he liked. He had a wife and four children he deeply loved. And yet, by the 60's, he was far from happy. He suffered from chronic insomnia, was dabbling in adultery, and was drinking entirely too much.
He then found himself doing a television interview with Mother Teresa (whom no one had ever heard of). He was so impressed by her that he decided to do a documentary on her, as well as a book, and to donate the proceeds to her work. He did another documentary on an Anglican abbey in Scotland, living with the monks for three weeks and sharing their life. For he had always been interested in religion. As a child, he "knew" that worldly things—money and fame and success and sensuality—ultimately "weren't any good," even when he wanted them, and he "knew" (though how, he never understood, since he was raised in an agnostic family) that the New Testament "held the key to how to live," that it was the "only light in a dark world," and that "Jesus was God or he was nothing." While at Cambridge, he had lived in an Anglican residential house for a term, where he enjoyed the simplicity and asceticism. In fact, his closest lifelong friend was a celibate Anglican priest. He was moved by the devotion he had seen in that church in Kiev, as well as among missionaries in India and Africa. His concept of love came not from any sexual event, but from a time when Kitty lay dying after an operation and he lay next to her, his blood being pumped directly into hers, so that as life flowed back into her face, "for the first time" he "truly understood what love meant."
But it was not until 1967, when he was working on a documentary in the Holy Land, that he began to call himself a Christian. He was in Bethlehem in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity, waiting for the public to leave so that he could begin to shoot, and he was sitting on a stone ledge, in a shadow cast by candles, thinking how ridiculous the so-called shrines of the Holy Land were. The commercialism was positively repulsive, and he could not help asking himself what kind of idiot could really believe that this place marked with a silver star was the precise spot where Jesus had been born. The Holy Land, in his opinion, had been turned into a kind of Jesusland with a string of "ecclesiastical junk shops." Malcolm then noticed the visitors coming into the crypt. Some of them crossed themselves and others knelt, but most of them seemed to see the Church of the Nativity as one more stop on a sightseeing tour like Madame Tussaud's Waxworks.
Yet as Malcolm watched, each face was "transfigured" by the experience of beholding what was supposedly the place of Jesus' birth. The boredom and the idle curiosity fell away. Watching those faces, Malcolm Muggeridge suddenly "became aware that there really had been a man, Jesus, who was also God." And then he "became conscious of His presence."
In Jesus Rediscovered (which has sold hundreds of thousands of copies) Muggeridge wrote:
I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets—that's fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue—that's success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions—that's pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time—that's fulfillment. Yet I say to you—and I beg you to believe me—multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing—less than nothing, a positive impediment—measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.
For the rest of his life, Malcolm Muggeridge would write about little else besides Christianity, though he also began fighting abortion (which he saw as the thin edge of the wedge that would lead to euthanasia and the liquidation of the elderly as soon as they became inconvenient), thereby infuriating journalists and intellectuals across the globe.
In the 1930's, they called him a liar. In the 70's, they said he was senile, a wit who had turned witless overnight. Malcolm Muggeridge was many things, but witless was not one of them. This was a man, who, in casual conversation or when questioned live on TV, would say things like: "Americans are the only people who've become decadent without ever being civilized." "The only candidate I ever wanted to vote for was a man who based his appeal on the fact that, having been confined in a lunatic asylum, he had a certificate of sanity." "In my lifetime, Britain has given away India, Australia and everything we had in Africa—and there we gave it to one tin pot dictator after another whose motto was always 'One man, one vote, once!' And now we've gone to war over two rock outcroppings [the Falkland Islands] off the coast of Venezuela!" "I've had my aerials removed. It's the moral equivalent of having a prostate operation . . . I'm willing to appear on TV, but not to own one."
Malcolm once said that real humor comes from the difference between what humans aspire to and what they achieve and that this is why most jokes are about sex. He, of course, never told jokes. He ordered his life with wit, choosing to see the humor in whatever circumstances he faced. When he was rector of the University of Edinburgh and a Catholic chaplain said it was "monstrous" of Muggeridge to oppose the university's decision to give in to student demands and provide free contraceptives "because he was assuming they intended to be promiscuous," Malcolm wrote and asked "What the Reverend Father thought they wanted the contraceptives for—to save up for their wedding day?"
What people seem to remember most about Muggeridge is laughing uncontrollably when they were with him. Several of his friends say they actually used to laugh so hard they had to grab a tree, or a fence post, or a chair to hold themselves upright. Yet, his most important trait was that he really wanted to know the truth and that he said and wrote what he believed it to be regardless of whether it was popular. The fact that he was a freelance writer all his life, with no Social Security or pension, made that even more remarkable, because the danger of freelancing is that you are a hired pen and can be pressured to write what the check-signer wants to hear. Malcolm never did that. He regularly bit the hand that fed him. He expressed his opinions calmly and politely, and no form of adulation or criticism deterred him. In the 1960's he asked Dr. Christiaan Barnard, for example, on a live TV show, if the first heart transplant was done in South Africa "because the equipment and the surgeons were better than anywhere else in the world, or because after many years of the vile doctrine of apartheid, you've come to think of people as something other than human beings with souls?" He thereby became the only person known to have his passport revoked by both the Soviet Union and South Africa. He also earned a death sentence from the Anti-Jewish Pogrom Committee of the People's Liberation Army—which he totally ignored—for his criticism of anti-Semitism.
He had enemies on the left because he refused to overlook the way our Western intelligentsia has admired and whitewashed every communist regime from Russia to Nicaragua, but he also had enemies on the right because he was not enamored of capitalism. He saw it as the least dangerous form of economic order but ridiculous in many of its manifestations. He thought that the English monarchy and aristocracy were silly and self-serving and that the pomposity of the British was extraordinary. He therefore made fun of them, just as he made fun of the culturelessness of Americans, ruffling feathers and inflaming tempers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Perhaps the only issue his admirers and critics have ever agreed upon is that his two-volume autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, is among the finest ever written in the English language. Here, as in all his writing, he mocked the absurdities of modern life, but in doing so he was putting this century in perspective, showing us that ours is an age like any age, with blind spots and stupidities and horrors.
Yet to look at Malcolm Muggeridge in the last twenty years of his life (when he and Kitty lived in the gentle hills of East Sussex in a steep tile-roofed, white stone farm cottage that. looked like it had grown out of the ground on its own), no one would have suspected him of being controversial. He had a kindly, serene, wisely childlike face that was remarkably fluid, flexible, and expressive.
Malcolm's lifelong favorite pastime was walking, and even in his 80's he would start off past his chicken house and his bee hives and walk for hours through pine woods and apple orchards and soft green hills, salted with sheep. He wore the same split-pea-soup-colored corduroy jacket virtually every day of his life. He and Kitty always ate homemade bread with eggs and cheese and fruit, sitting in the kitchen at their comfortably worn wooden table. All their furniture was old and well-used. For in spite of the traveling and the fame, Malcolm never cared about material things. He and Kitty raised four children in very straitened circumstances, yet he still gave what he could not afford to give to friends he saw in need. When he read in the paper that his first girlfriend (who was then far from young and completely on her own) had been swindled out of her savings, Malcolm anonymously arranged for her to receive the same amount. When an anti-abortion group in Canada invited him to speak at a rally but then found they could not pay his travel expenses or rent the hall, Malcolm paid for it all himself. He gave the proceeds from his Christian books to Christian charities and gave away everything else before he died. For Malcolm became more charitable, in every sense of the word, after he became a Christian. He had come to see that "humility is not just the most important virtue, but the condition of all virtue" and had begun to expect more from himself.
In his last years, he could not bear to watch his early television appearances because he saw his own arrogance so clearly, and when strangers stopped him on the street, he went out of his way to be kind. When various "disciples" appeared at his door, just as they had at Tolstoy's, Malcolm would give them tea and a surprising amount of his time. Even when an inmate from a mental institution, who claimed to be Jesus Christ, walked sixty miles to see Muggeridge, Malcolm took him in—later explaining to Ian Hunter, his long-time friend and biographer, that he had thought to himself, "'What if he is Jesus Christ?' I would have missed Jesus the first time. I wouldn't have been watching at the cross. I would've been covering Pilate, asking who he was sleeping with, or something else equally absurd. And I didn't want to miss Him again."
Malcolm wanted to be on good terms with everyone he knew before he died, and he set out to smooth whatever hard feelings he might have caused. When faced with the choice of seeing Niagara Falls with friends or going to lunch at Wendy's at the invitation of his grandsons, Malcolm chose Wendy's (even though he was a vegetarian and there was little he disliked more than the commercial tackiness of the modern world).
Still, as Malcolm grew older, it became important to him to decide whether he would die inside or outside the Church. He had never attached himself to any institution before, and he had attacked them all from afar. Although he remained convinced to the end that the organizations and structures of the Christian church are doomed (along with the civilization Christianity created), he and Kitty became Roman Catholics in 1982.
Malcolm had several small strokes in his last two years, though he did not seem to be suffering. Actually, suffering did not bother Malcolm. He said many times throughout his life that suffering was the only thing that had ever taught him anything, that no catastrophe occurs that is not also an illumination, and that we never would have even heard of Christ if it had not been for the Cross. Nor was he afraid of death. He had joked about it for years and often said he was looking forward to crawling out of his decaying husk and making off into eternity. But the one fear he did have was that Kitty would die first and that he would not be able to bear it. Fortunately for him, he was spared the experience.
In 1990, at the age of 87, Malcolm suffered the frustration and indignity of a terrible stroke. But even that did not keep him from resisting authority. He absolutely refused to take any medication, and no nurse, or combination of nurses, was able to force any into him. His son John was with him near the end. He and Kitty brought a priest to see him, though they did so with trepidation. They were afraid he would refuse to take Communion, thinking it was another ruse to get him to swallow his pills. But after examining the priest with extremely suspicious eyes, and inspecting the wafer with great punctiliousness from every conceivable angle, Malcolm Muggeridge opened his mouth and smiled.