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The Last Puritan

Like It Was: The Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge

selected and edited by John Bright-Holmes
William Morrow, 560 pp., $18.00

It is rare to find these days a supralapsarian walking the streets where the intelligentsia live. There are always a few sublapsarians about who accept the mealy-mouthed doctrine put forward in 1618 at the Synod of Dort that man was created naturally good until Adam and Eve disobeyed God; ever since their descendants have been conceived in original sin and the world has been a wicked place. The supralapsarian holds a more heroic and a more logical view of the matter. Being omniscient and omnipotent God must have determined before the Fall of Man which few of his created creatures he would elect to salvation and exactly how great the large majority of the damned would be. Man could never at any moment have been other than evil and degraded.

Malcolm Muggeridge cannot envisage a world in which anything is left to chance. Nearly all of us are irretrievably damned and serve out our days either drunk with power, or drugged by the pursuit of sensual pleasure, or dazed by the delusion that something is of value in politics, in our job, or in our loving. His universe is strictly determinist. Virtually nothing is of value, and nobody stands a chance, except a few humble saints and desperate Bunyan-like pilgrims, such as himself, who have experienced conversion. In this shambles of a world everything is a sham. It needed no temptation in the Garden of Eden to persuade God to punish man. As a great Whig lady told her small grandchild, “Tories were born bad and grow worse.”

Muggeridge was brought up to believe exactly the opposite (except possibly about Tories). His father was a primitive socialist. Man, being naturally good, needed only to change his social and economic relationships to create a better world. Secure in this faith, Malcolm married a niece of Beatrice Webb, got a job on the Manchester Guardian, the epitome of all that was high-minded, progressive, and radical, and went in 1932 as its correspondent to Russia. Within two months the scales fell from his eyes. When he found that not only the Russian censors but his own editor and in general the intelligentsia suppressed and evaded the truth of his reports of conditions in the Soviet Union, he wrote a novel to expose the hypocrisy of his newspaper’s liberal tradition and its so-called fearless exposure of tyranny and oppression. The Guardian then sued him. As usual penniless, he had to settle out of court and found himself a pariah in the best intellectual circles. So he left to work in India on the Statesman and there had an intimation that the collapse of religion was the prefigurement of the collapse of the world.

At this point one can only suppose that he decided to follow Luther’s advice, “Be a sinner and sin strongly,” since on his return to England he agreed to write a gossip column for Beaverbrook, the most shameless of the great whoremasters of Fleet Street. During the war he was a natural recruit for the Secret Service and was sent to Lourenço Marques, which buzzed with the agents of all the combatant countries. He was naturally instructed to recruit some more. After the war he came into his own. He won renown on the conservative organ the Daily Telegraph, and then transformed Punch from the moribund weekly of the aged middle classes into a satirical magazine, losing considerable numbers of its old readers and winning a lot of new ones, until he made it so biting that the proprietors and he decided to part. Then came his greatest hour or his most audacious sin. For over ten years he became one of the most celebrated celebrities on British television, known to so many millions that he received the ultimate accolade. A waxwork was made of him at Madame Tussaud’s.

How did a supralapsarian become a TV celebrity? Muggeridge is a man who can charm birds off trees: he is animated, affable, amusing, and incapable of losing his temper. His two volumes of memoirs up to the end of the war are lessons in how to communicate, and his diaries reproduce his genial, engaging talk. They are also full of gossip, one of the few subjects that he believes is still worth discussing, though for one so keen to spot portentousness in others he oddly enough dignifies gossip by the term “interaction of human beings.” Cheerfulness keeps on breaking through.

So does his sense of the absurd and of the comedy of errors. He chortles over a correspondent back in the Thirties in Moscow cabling his office that Krupskaya had written an article favoring the re-introduction into the schools of the story of Goldilocks—the correspondent thought this “very significant.” He notices the enormous watchchain Lord Birkenhead’s son wore, presumably inherited from his father, which “seemed to symbolize his condition—like a manacle. He has nothing to lose but his father’s watchchain.” His splendid capacity for mockery of himself as much as of the Great and the Good enlivens almost every page of these diaries and memoirs.

Toward the minute circle of his oldest friends, such as the theologian Alec Vidler or the amusing essayist Hugh Kingsmill, his loyalty is unquestionable; but others who might have imagined they were friends would have been in for a shock. “Always rather liked him though he is a complete phoney,” is a characteristic assessment. The truth seems to be that he cannot bear to say to their faces a cold, let alone a harsh, word to people of whom he disapproves. For instance, he despised Somerset Maugham as a homosexual who could know nothing about women and therefore ignored how great a part procreation and affection played in their relations with men. “It is this preoccupation with physical appetite, which he doesn’t feel, that makes Maugham’s work so intensely vulgar—rather like Balzac’s to the rich, or Evelyn Waugh’s to the highly born, or like Graham Greene’s to the good.” Yet twenty years later, hearing of Maugham’s dithers about moving his paintings to Switzerland, he bursts out: ” ‘We don’t care about your pictures or anything. We just want you to be happy and serene!’ I think he was pleased.” Amiable; but sincere?

To some predestination may seem a dispiriting doctrine. To the faithful it is, as the seventeenth article of the Book of Common Prayer puts it, of “sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort.” It abolishes all doubts and answers all questions. The interpretation of events and judgments upon people becomes delightfully simple. All the nuances, the hesitations, the discriminations which some think make life intelligible and give it meaning are ironed out. Whatever human beings do to try to right the wrong is futile. Trying the war criminals at Nuremberg was like “trying a man’s finger for having pulled the trigger of a gun which murdered someone.” Terrorist organizations of right or left or aggressive third world nations are condemned for playing the same game as their one-time imperialist masters. Pacific progressives are damned for their self-indulgent, concupiscent ways. Everyone in authority is assumed to be a power maniac. The encomium that Murray Kempton justly bestowed on Roosevelt (NYR, April 15) would be incomprehensible to Muggeridge.

Prophecies of doom, the destruction of civilization, the well-merited collapse of Britain abound, but the examples taken are so bizarre and the commination so blistering that one wonders whether in him Muggleton has risen again. The Muggletonians, that Puritan sect in the seventeenth century so beloved by Lytton Strachey, lived for denunciation and divination. The collapse of the English upper classes is prefigured in the marked absence of boys (as distinct from old boys) in the Eton and Harrow cricket match. A description by Philip Toynbee of a tipsy party in which young men sang revolutionary songs makes Muggeridge “see the point of Senator McCarthy and of Communists and to long for the total destruction of a society no longer entitled to exist. This longing likely to be satisfied.” Confidence in the Second Coming and the avenging of God’s saints could be scarcely more confidently predicted.

There is, of course, another possibility. It may be that Muggeridge has suffered a particularly severe attack of the occupational disease of journalists. Reporters are asked to do the impossible: to make judgments upon events in the making when such judgments are usually impossible; and to reveal what politicians and all those in the state or in business are trying to achieve when they are doing all they can to conceal their true plans. (If politicians were entirely frank about their intentions they would, of course, expose their hand, and the consensus and support in their party and the country, on which their power rests, would collapse.)

Journalists in their prime, when faced with these deceptions, believe they can penetrate the evasions, flush out the crooks and charlatans, and expose scandals and iniquity. But often the reporter’s “story” turns out to be barely half the truth and the story he files is edited out of recognition by his office. So the next stage follows: the whiskey bottle is kept in the bottom drawer of the desk; or routine stories are whipped out and the dates and the places filled in; or the reporter languidly inquires what the paper’s line is on a particular issue and slants his story accordingly. Moreover, as the British satirical magazine Private Eye suggests, are not the hacks and hackettes of Fleet Street, the Street of Shame, themselves a party to the iniquities of our times? In 1961 Muggeridge visited a disco in Hamburg and saw four English boys stomping about. They knew his face from TV.

One of them asked me: “It is true that you’re a Communist?” No, I said; just in opposition. He nodded understandingly; in opposition himself in a way. “You make money out of it?” he went on. I admitted this was so.

The Beatles had sussed him.

One should not give up things because they are pleasant (which is Puritanism) but because, by giving them up, other things are pleasanter.” That was Christian’s reason for hurrying from Vanity Fair. But Muggeridge is a genuine puritan. Everything is done under the Great Taskmaster’s eye. “Everything we do, say, wear, think: set of a hat, drop of a trouser-leg, expresses us.” To wear peep-toe shoes reveals a trivial and corrupt heart. But it was not his puritanism as such but his supralapsarianism, his assumption that all worldly endeavor is valueless, that disquieted some of those he has fallen in with. Much to his credit he relates how the senior officer in the mess, to which he had been assigned in the army corps Montgomery commanded in 1942, took him aside and asked him to find another mess. “It was my talk, he said, which had caused the trouble…. People couldn’t stand it…. I have never found any difficulty in understanding how irritating I can be to other people; perhaps because I so often irritate myself.” One guesses that what the other officers could not stand was his smiling ridicule of those military routines which, it was said, were necessary to an efficient army; and perhaps he belittled the generals and politicians who were trying to win the war and in whom—however wrong they may have been—they needed to believe. Evelyn Waugh was similarly annihilating in wartime, and met a similar fate at the hands of his commanding officer. Did Muggeridge say only to his diary that while the defeat of the French “is at least outward and visible,” his own country’s defeat, no less inevitable, would be “inward and invisible”?

Foolish people, the media people whose ways he knows so well, have sneered at his religion and dubbed him St. Mugg. They are foolish because at a time when the churches are loud in their denunciations of wicked governments and consider their first duty to form part of the welfare state, they seem to have forgotten what the first and great commandment of their faith was. What distinguished Christianity from humanism was that Christians were commanded first to love God and discover their relation to him, and only second to love their neighbor. Nor do the media men understand Muggeridge’s Augustinian belief that one is justified by faith not works. He complains that they are “caught up in the almost universal fallacy that the good Christian is one who tries to behave in what he supposes to be a Christian way, and not the ‘changed’ man, the man who’s put away the old Adam and tried in the flesh to be reborn in the spirit.” Anyone of sensibility will penetrate in the pages of these books through the badinage and despair and recognize the voice of the genuine convert who knows his weaknesses, deplores them, cannot get rid of their burden, but is determined to try to live a new life, being entirely certain what that new life should be.

There is no self-hatred here. Only hatred of the kind of life men should not lead. There are moving pages in which he records sudden moments of spiritual grace in which he sees exactly what he should do and how he should live. And then the shadows close in again. But every time he gets a bit nearer to the new life. These passages are not profound. But they exhibit to perfection an agonizing, though not crippling, sense of personal failing, yet a conviction that the writer has found a key to redemption. Throughout the book Muggeridge’s love for his long-enduring wife comes across without embarrassment or falsity. Few people can depict more deftly the horror of the world of falsity and lies, of publicity and pomposity, of celebrities and their self-satisfaction.

As one who believes in original sin (though not quite in the sense that Muggeridge does) I enjoy seeing the exposure of vice masquerading as virtue. But virtue can also be found in this world. One is left wondering whether he acknowledges—to use the terminology that must first naturally rise to his lips—the existence of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost (wisdom, fortitude, etc.). Or does he think the Holy Ghost has been somewhat stingy in distributing them?

Letters

Dangerous Topic November 18, 1982

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