The Enigmatic Convert: Will the Real Muggeridge Please Stand Up

As a media figure for more than half a century, Malcolm Muggeridge knew what it was to become an image. His face and name were multiplied and replicated innumerable times, on radio waves, television screens, and in books and newsprint. While this kind of public exposure tends to feed one’s vanity, Muggeridge also knew the darker side of that experience. “There is something very terrible in becoming an image…. You see yourself on a screen, walking, talking, moving about, posturing, and it is not you. Or is it you, and the you looking at you, someone else?… Once, sleeping before a television screen, I woke up to find myself on it. The experience was quite terrifying—like some awful nightmare to which only someone like Edgar Allen Poe or Dostoevsky could do justice.”

In attempting to discover the real Muggeridge, the single greatest challenge is to discriminate among these images in order to discover the man himself. The obstacles are formidable.

It is hard to guess what the literary critics and cultural historians of the future will say of Muggeridge’s place in twentieth-century letters. Will he figure as a major prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness, unloved by his own country but vindicated by time and events? Or will he appear as nothing more than a rather witty but cynical crank, a media creation who inexplicably turned around and bit the hand that fed him for so long? Above all, was Muggeridge nothing more than an incoherent collection of personalities, or was there a continuity and integrity to his ongoing search for truth?

Perceptions about the significance of Muggeridge’s life and work vary widely. In Britain, he is often remembered as “the man on the telly,” the “pop Socrates.” Whether as interviewer, panelist, or documentary host, Muggeridge always had some outrageous opinion to offer or biting question to ask. An older generation can still recall his controversial editorship of the humorous magazine Punch, and the infamous article he wrote on the royal family, “Royal Soap Opera,” which earned him temporary banishment from the BBC. While there are some Britons who are aware of Muggeridge’s books of Christian apologetics, he is still regarded more as a creature of the media than as a religious sage.

In America, where he is less well known, the opposite is true. The Americans who have heard of him know him as the author of Jesus: The Man Who Lives and Confessions of a Twentieth-century Pilgrim. As “St. Mugg,” he is held to be a defender of the Christian faith, second only to C.S. Lewis among modern writers. His papers have been acquired by the Wade Collection at the evangelical Wheaton College in America, where they join those of Lewis himself. His American readers know little or nothing of the man who battled the Fabian socialists and other sympathizers of the Soviet experiment in communism throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Nor do they think of him as a satirist whose acid wit turned against institutional religion as often as it did against the principalities and powers of government.

“The Man on the Telly” or “St. Mugg”? Such is the Atlantic divide over the significance of Malcolm Muggeridge. But this is not the only sense in which aspects of Muggeridge’s career have been separated. If one was to move beyond popular perceptions to the estimates of his life and works among the leading critics on both sides of the Atlantic, one would still find a divided Muggeridge, albeit at a more sophisticated level.

Take, for example, the memoirs of Anthony Powell, Keep the Ball Rolling. One of Britain’s finest novelists, and for many years a close friend of Muggeridge, Powell is known for his close observation of mores and manners. In his memoirs Powell pays tribute to Muggeridge as a brilliant writer, faithful friend, and literary colleague. But towards the end of Keep the Ball Rolling, Powell writes of his growing unease with what he felt to be deep divisions within Muggeridge’s personality, which he somewhat facetiously calls “The Muggeridgean Trinity.” Unlike the Christian notion of the divine Trinity, however, the three dimensions of Muggeridge’s personality, Powell holds, were ultimately at war with each other.

In the beginning… was the sceptical wit mocking all, and the wit was with Muggeridge and the wit was Muggeridge. The First Muggeridge, never wholly exorcised but undergoing long terms of banishment from the Celestial City of his personality, would sometimes support, sometime 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… ending as a mere shadow of his former self.

Powell’s characterization of the Muggeridgean Trinity sparkles with its own brand of wit, but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that it traces a regrettable downward path.

Powell’s affection for First Muggeridge is evident; he is clearly the protagonist of the story. First’s tragedy is that, delightful and coruscating though he is, he cannot avoid the dark alter egos who eventually do him in. Lightness of touch and detachment are replaced by anger, intolerance, and hysteria. One senses that, on a personal level, Powell increasingly felt that Muggeridge was drifting away from him, a sad but inevitable loss.

What Powell describes in friendly and even elegiac tones, many leading critics, without personal ties to inhibit them, have put in a harsher and less forgiving manner. For such critics, the divisions in Muggeridge are clear and, ultimately, damning. After a long career as a cynical gadfly, by his own admission a sensualist and a mocker of all commitments, Muggeridge in old age suddenly gets religion and become a Grand Inquisitor bent on burning heretics. Whether the words hypocrite or opportunist are stated explicitly or not, they often seem to hover behind such critiques. Then to become a Roman Catholic at the end of his life—to join a church which has an authoritarian structure, and which throughout most of its history has been as entangled with politics and corruption as it is possible to be—this is a total reversal. From reveling in uncertainty to a craven hunger for absolute certainties, First Muggeridge has indeed become less than a shadow. A Muggeridge divided against himself cannot stand.

It would be wrong to deny these charges categorically, since they contain insights into the complexities of Muggeridge’s personality, as we shall see. But in one sense the process described by Powell is an archetypal one: the radicalism of youth, followed by the ambitions and antagonisms of middle age, concluded by the crotchets and prejudices of old age. Robert Browning’s poem, “The Lost Leader,” is a bitter lament that William Wordsworth, the spokesman for the rebellious Romantic poets and a champion of the French Revolution, had, in his later years, renounced his radicalism and reserved his praise for the arch-conservative Edmund Burke. In the twentieth century, the same lament has been made for William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden.

But in our efforts to understand Malcolm Muggeridge, it is well to remember a saying of that lost leader, Wordsworth: “We murder to dissect.” Analysis, even witty analysis of the kind practiced by Anthony Powell, breaks things down into component elements. To dissect a living creature is to kill it. What may appear on the surface to be a flat contradiction may turn out, at a deeper level of the human psyche, to be a paradox.

No true estimate of Malcolm Muggeridge’s role in twentieth-century letters can be achieved so long as the focus remains on a very partial view of his career or convictions. A close observer like Powell may see the parts clearly but be unable to understand how they come together to form a whole. Thirty years before Muggeridge “rediscovered” Jesus, during the so-called First Muggeridge phase, he was in fact publishing essays that upheld the Christian worldview as the only alternative to the collectivist utopias of the modern era. And late into the hot-gospelling Third Muggeridge epoch, the iconoclast in him continued to pillory the absurdities of church and state without any dulling of the edge of his wit.

The paradoxes that characterize Muggeridge’s personality closely parallel those of St. Augustine, with whom he felt a great affinity. Like Augustine, Muggeridge was a sensualist, one who could pray: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.” Both men were, to use Augustine’s phrase, “vendors of words,” Augustine as a rhetorician teaching young men to make clever speeches and advance their careers, and Muggeridge as an editorialist for progressive publications. Skeptical by temperament, they spent many years avoiding any personal commitment of faith. They shared a tremendous capacity for friendship. And yet both Augustine and Muggeridge were lonely, restless souls. They knew that unbridled sexual appetite left the taste of ashes in the mouth. They were dazzling wordsmiths who came to realize that words could be used to construct fantasies that were fraudulent and inhuman. Haunted by a God they tried to escape, their conversions were slow and agonizing.

Above all, Muggeridge, like Augustine, had a tremendous hunger for truth. Both men wrote confessions that confronted the worst in themselves. If they tended in later years toward asceticism, it was not because they disdained the flesh, but because they knew how corrosive lust could be. Once converted, they turned their formidable skill with language to dialectics with those they thought were regressing into the barbarism of paganism. They could be pessimistic about human nature and the constant decay of human institutions, while at the same time aware that times of crisis opened the doors to spiritual regeneration.

Two Cities

Throughout his life Muggeridge was drawn to Augustine’s concept of the “two cities.” The world we inhabit is the City of Man, at times noble and just, but always fallen and subject to sin and folly. The City of Man is not our final destination; rather, it is our temporary shelter as we progress on our individual pilgrimage toward the City of God, which lies beyond this life. Though we are under an obligation to make the City of Man approximate the perfection and order of the City of God, there can be no question of perfecting the human sphere. Our allegiance cannot be divided. The temptation to perfect the City of Man, to be “at home” there and self-sufficient, is the temptation of the Tower of Babel, of Utopia. Such efforts are doomed to failure. Our true home is the City of God; in this life we are literally passing through.

The idea of the two cities appealed so strongly to Muggeridge because the overwhelming feeling, running from his childhood to his death, was that of being a “stranger in a strange land.” This sense of being an “outsider” prevented Muggeridge from being able to be unquestioningly loyal to any human institution or form of authority. It made him, as he put it, a non-conformist. “The basic failure of our time, future historians may well decide, has lain in the too ready acceptance of enforced orthodoxies, whether through fear of being suspected of rebelliousness and consequently punished, or just as a result of succumbing to mass persuasion.” Early in his career he came to realize the liabilities of the non-conforming stance: “Such a disposition made one ostensibly irreverent, pessimistic, disloyal, and—the commonest accusation—destructive in attitude of mind.”

But it is precisely from this attitude that the whole of Muggeridge’s life and thought springs. Here Muggeridge One, Two, and Three meet. Here, too, the three great aspects of his achievement as a writer can be seen.

Muggeridge One is the satirist, “the sceptical wit mocking all.” The most common weapon of the satirist is humor, which can be painful or farcical and hilarious. “Non-conforming is the basis, the very fount, of all humour. A totally conformist society never laughs—laughter itself being a kind of criticism, as expression of the immense disparity between human aspiration and human performance.” The comic writer is like a clown, “made to look different from his fellow-performers. He falls over, he stands on his head, he grimaces and rides absurd bicycles.”

For Muggeridge, however, there came a point of realization that “in the end clowning does not suffice.” Hence Muggeridge Two, the moralist, “serious” and full of “animosities.” When the satirist also becomes a moralist, he feels constrained not merely to make jokes about the disparity between human aspiration and human performance, but to call men to terms for that very disparity. The Seven Deadly Sins can be made to look absurd, but they are nonetheless dangerous: they are mortal; they can kill. Of course, the moralist may lose the lightness of touch of the clowning satirist, but there is also a harsher and more stringent tradition of satire in the West, exemplified by writers such as Juvenal, Swift, and Evelyn Waugh.

The moralist pointing out the deadly sins of the City of Man may come increasingly to explore the source of the moral standards he takes for granted. Muggeridge was never a man to be satisfied with tradition or social forms for their own sake; indeed, the man who could mock everything was something of an anarchist by temperament. Despite—or perhaps because of—his anarchic and skeptical way of viewing the world, his tendency was to seek for transcendent meaning to make sense of the “worldwide soap opera.” So enters Muggeridge Three, the Christian apologist, who comes to the realization that the City of God provides the only measure by which sin and folly can be understood.

Muggeridge Three, in Powell’s portrait, is something like the bearded fanatic who paces up and down city streets with a sign which reads: “Repent! The End Is at Hand!” Of course, most of the great prophetic figures down the ages have issued the same cosmic ultimatum. Presumably there were commentators who depicted Isaiah, Ezekiel, Augustine, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche as ridiculous doom-sayers. Whether one sees Muggeridge as a cartoon figure out of the New Yorker, or as a figure with some prophetic stature, depends greatly on one’s judgments about the health of Western civilization in our time. Muggeridge himself was quick to point out that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once lionized as a “dissident” and literary giant by liberals in the West, suddenly became persona non grata when he proclaimed his Christian faith and condemned Western materialism and Soviet communism as twin evils.

Muggeridge the Christian apologist, for all his apocalyptic fervor, is still very much the satirist and moralist. With the sole exception of the Christian faith (but not the Christian churches), Muggeridge continued, in the last 20 years of his life, to mock everything. He is the inheritor of the tradition of Christian satire, rooted in the doctrine of Original Sin, which includes such savage writers as Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh. Samuel Johnson, G.K. Chesterton, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis, though milder in their satirical styles, also represent the same Christian vision of human vanity and pretension. Like Johnson and Chesterton, Muggeridge spent most of his life as a knockabout journalist, doing assignments large and small, meeting deadlines, and yet achieving a high level of literary style.

With all of these writers, he shared a comic vision that relished the absurdities of life but which nevertheless could move from the ridiculous to the sublime, placing man in the larger scheme of the Divine Comedy. It is precisely this awareness of redemption, of man’s Fall and the very-present reality of grace, that balances Muggeridge’s sense of the decadence of Western culture. In the light of eternity, Muggeridge believed, even the magnificent edifice of our civilization is a passing thing. Thus the paradox that as he pronounces doom, Muggeridge could at the same time speak of hope, that out of suffering comes wisdom, that we may be witnessing the end of Christendom, but not of Christ. He could say, with the medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar: “Man, please thy Maker and be merry,/ And give not for this world a cherry.”

There is, then, but one Malcolm Muggeridge. However different he may have looked to the casual observer during the stages of his metamorphosis, his search for truth persisted. One of Malcolm Muggeridge’s favorite quotations is Blake’s notion of the golden string, which if followed throughout one’s life will lead eventually to the gates of the New Jerusalem. Such a thread can be found in Muggeridge’s own life and ideas.


  • Gregory Wolfe

    Gregory Wolfe is a writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. Both as a thinker and institution-builder, he has been a pioneer in the resurgence of interest in the relationship between art and religion—a resurgence that has had widespread impact both on religious communities and the public square. As an advocate for and exemplar of the tradition of Christian Humanism, Wolfe has established a reputation as an independent, non-ideological thinker—part gadfly, part peacemaker.

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