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Apocalyptic Witness and Wit

by M. D. Aeschliman

Time and Eternity: Uncollected Writings, by Malcolm Muggeridge, edited by Nicholas Flynn (Orbis, 237 pp., $24)

In the course of a long, varied life, several of whose chapters were truly a “rake’s progress,” Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–90) managed, alternately and sometimes simultaneously, to amuse, inspire, and offend. Truth, he found out and said, orally and in print, is often in very bad taste. Yet he had a long and enviable line of admirers, including Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, William F. Buckley Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Mother Teresa. He was one of the great English prose writers of the last century.

Historians on both sides of the Atlantic — including A. J. P. Taylor, Paul Johnson, and Richard Pipes — have praised his 1933 dispatches from Stalin’s Russia about the great Ukrainian terror famine engineered by Marxist “Scientific Socialism,” and his subsequent 1934 satirical-documentary novel Winter in Moscow, about the willing credulity of Western fellow-travelers in Russia. His two-volume autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time (1972–73), is one of the great pieces of satirical-confessional literature of the modern period. Overall, “Muggeridge wrote some of the best things in English in [the 20th] century,” the Oxford historian Norman Stone has said: “His account of The Thirties (1940) is one of the wisest and funniest books” ever written about Great Britain.

As a television personality, Muggeridge made a series of documentaries that did something to counteract the avalanche of appalling idiocy that has been a hallmark of television as a medium. He made films on his English Socialist childhood, Russia, India under the British Raj, the life of Jesus, the travels of St. Paul, and the lives and works of Blake, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the latter portraits also published as the 1976 book A Third Testament). His 1969 documentary film Something Beautiful for God, made in India, treated the life and work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and has become a modern devotional classic. Muggeridge’s interviews with figures such as de Gaulle, Solzhenitsyn, Svetlana Stalin, and WFB are works of high distinction and importance — a kind of “saving remnant” in a medium dominated by vulgarity and amnesia.

Muggeridge’s life was restless and peripatetic, a series of kaleidoscopic, global chapters stretching over nearly nine decades and several continents in an apocalyptic century: boyhood as the son of a working-class London Fabian, studies in Natural Science at Cambridge (where he fell under Anglo-Catholic influence), teaching stints in both India and Egypt in the 1920s, editorial writing on the left-wing Manchester Guardian, service in Russia as Guardian correspondent (1932–33), work in the International Labour Organization of the League of Nations in Geneva, editorial work back in India on the imperialist Calcutta Statesman, London journalism, and work during World War II as a British intelligence agent in Mozambique and then Paris (for which he was later decorated by de Gaulle). After the war, he served as deputy editor and Washington correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph; editor of the satirical magazine Punch; and regular editorialist, essayist, and reviewer for The New Statesman and such American journals as Esquire and National Review. All the while he was publishing novels, plays, and literary essays of high distinction; several of the latter are reprinted in this new anthology edited by Nicholas Flynn, Time and Eternity.

To say that Muggeridge’s own personal life was vexed is an understatement. He was a Dostoevskyan character (Dostoevsky indeed was one of his favorite writers), blessed by a beautiful, cultured, loving wife, the favorite niece of the prominent Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, but one to whom until the 1960s he was hardly faithful. Like so many brilliant people raised in the left-wing, avant-garde milieu — then (the 1920s) and now — he was afflicted and disfigured by its celebratory immoralism and experimental promiscuity combined with haughty, self-righteous, public-political moralism: what Michael Polanyi calls “moral inversion,” which Dostoevsky himself had clairvoyantly depicted and mocked in The Devils.

The sense of impending apocalypse intensified his own existential anxiety, throughout his life. He witnessed, after all, the collapse of empire; the collapse of capitalism (1929) but also of British Socialist hopes (the MacDonald government); the collapse of eschatological, utopian hopes in the Soviet Russian nightmare; the collapse of the League of Nations in its inadequacy to halt the onset of World War II; the collapse of humanity in the Nazi Holocaust; the collapse of Eastern Europe to Stalinism; and the treasonous collapse of Western pro-Communist or fellow-travelling intellectuals, especially in Britain and France (he knew the Cambridge spies well).

With regard to the Soviet threat, he mocked the frequent obtuseness of the leaders of the Western anti-Communist cause, to which he was doggedly loyal from the early 1930s onward: In a brilliant satirical essay, “Senator McCarthy McCarthyised, or The Biter Bit,” he put Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the dock for actually aiding the worldwide Communist cause (a point also famously made by Whittaker Chambers to WFB).

Underlying all of his concerns was a sense that Christianity and the churches were collapsing: a fear that Muggeridge’s friend George Orwell shrewdly noted as obsessing him early on in their friendship. People who knew him well came to realize what his published diaries (1981) later showed in detail, that he was — from his time at Cambridge in the early 1920s onward — a God-haunted soul, a skeptical fideist who increasingly saw modern smugness about secular “progress” as utterly derisory, and completely disconfirmed by the facts of 20th-century history: the destruction of traditions, the breaking of nations, the massacre of peoples, the dissipation and disorientation of the individual conscience. Finding the hero-worship of secular saints — Marx, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Che — ludicrous, he increasingly valued examples of what he took to be real honor and decency: Gandhi and de Gaulle; the writers Orwell, Waugh, and Solzhenitsyn; Mother Teresa, pro-life activists, and obscure priests working with Down-syndrome children.

Unlike many members of the British upper classes and intelligentsia, on the left and the right, Muggeridge was never snobbishly anti-American. On the Kennedy glamour cult promoted by the American media, reaching its apotheosis in the toadying literary servility of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Theodore Sorensen (author of texts that he praised as John F. Kennedy’s), Muggeridge wrote in the mid-1960s: “To an American well-wisher like myself it is deeply distressing and disturbing to find the worst kind of fatuity dredged up by upholders of our Monarchy applied now to a President of the United States. One longs for some authentic American voice — a Mark Twain, an H. L. Mencken, even a Will Rogers — to send the whole ghastly performance up, [at least] in the interest of a great American tradition of human equality and the self-respect that goes therewith.”

Muggeridge’s relation by marriage Beatrice Webb, who with her husband Sidney was at the center of the British Socialist-utilitarian project, had become by the mid-1920s an uncritical admirer of Soviet Communism. Fascinated by Malcolm but increasingly worried by his apostasy from the Socialist-utilitarian line, she wrote in her diary even before he went to Russia, “I think Malcolm is a mystic and even a puritan in his awareness of loyalties and human relationships” (Jan. 19, 1931). What would sustain Malcolm and make him better, wiser, and happier during the next 60 years was a growing faith in God, Christ, and Christianity that would enable him to apply his friend Hugh Kingsmill’s critique of utopian “Dawnism” to all projects of secular salvation: Leninist-Stalinist, Fascist-Nazi, Labour-Socialist, Maoist, Castroite, capitalist-consumerist, or American Hippie-Yippie-egalitarian-eroticist. (Regarding this last, he wrote in 1971: “The liberated Yippies . . . have reversed the Fall, sicked up the forbidden apple, and returned to the Garden of Eden, where they summon us all to live.”) “Dawnism” is what Eric Voegelin called “immanentizing the eschaton.” Cynical, libertine atheism, meanwhile, denies any ennobling transcendental hope or idealism whatsoever.

Though poorly proofread and naïvely introduced, Nicholas Flynn’s new anthology is an excellent introduction to Muggeridge’s work. It contains his 1933 Guardian dispatches on the Ukrainian terror famine; his great satirical attack on Bertrand Russell (which first appeared in The New Republic); wonderful, appreciative essays on Tolstoy, Leonard Woolf, W. Somerset Maugham, and Solzhenitsyn; and much else of value by the man Paul Johnson rightly called “a great scribe.”

– Mr. Aeschliman is a professor at Boston University and the University of Italian Switzerland. A friend of Malcolm Muggeridge, he edited a paperback edition of Muggeridge’s 1934 novel Winter in Moscow.

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