Chronicles of a 20th Century Prophet

Malcolm Muggeridge, in his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time (Regent College, 2006), makes the following observation about D.H. Lawrence: “He was one of those men, tragic and gifted, who work out in themselves the conflicts and dilemmas of their time; who are themselves our own fever and pain” (66). We are not sure, reading Muggeridge’s ambiguous assessment of Lawrence, whether he means this as a compliment, a jibe, or both. One thing, however, is certain: it is a description that matches Muggeridge’s own life with ironic clarity. This double-edged, almost backhanded compliment is a shining example of the wit and life of this compelling Christian prophet.

Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist who lived from 1903 to 1990. He was raised in a staunchly socialist home, moved with his wife to Soviet Russia in the 1930s in order to be part of the great new world that Stalin was supposedly spearheading, but left disaffected. He served in the British Intelligence services during World War II, later became editor of Punch magazine, and even later, in his mid-sixties, converted to Christianity. In Chronicles of Wasted Time Muggeridge works out in his own body the conflicts and dilemmas of his era, providing a personal snapshot of the 20th century’s struggles with socialism, with government, with sex, and with media. To all these he preaches a message of prophetic denunciation. Each thing, after all, is a promise of heaven on earth, and Muggeridge’s message is imbued with authority because he has tried and experienced first-hand the best that the 20th century had to offer in terms of answers to the ills of man. “The really terrible thing about life,” he observes, “is not that our dreams are unrealised but that they come true” (50). Having witnessed the great dreams of the 20th century, Muggeridge testifies that their realization was, far from the promised utopia, a horror. Rejecting, then, the false anesthetics of the 20th century, he asserts instead that the answer to the ills of humankind is the one given in the 1st century, God alone in Christ.

Chronicles of Wasted Time was originally two separate volumes. The Green Stick documents Muggeridge’s early life and his journey out from the illusion of socialism. For a variety of reasons it is the stronger half of the book; Muggeridge inhabits a literary world there are many figures with whom the reader will be familiar (D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, and others). Furthermore it has a special cohesion because it is the self-contained story of Muggeridge’s ideological journey. The second volume, The Infernal Grove, covers Muggeridge’s war years, but lacks the cohesion of the first volume and is, on the whole, a darker book. A third volume was planned but left unfinished, and might have framed the second volume differently (as the third act gives redemption to the dark second act in a play). Consequently, The Infernal Grove lacks some of the depth and energy of The Green Stick.

Still, Muggeridge’s autobiography is a pleasure to read for a variety of reasons. His many anecdotes on important and famous personages are humorous, eye-opening, and insightful. His self-deprecating style is endearing. As a witness to numerous historical events his testimony is important. But above, perhaps, even these, it is his incisive commentary (offered in his uniquely Muggeridge-ian style) on the particular issues of the 20th century—issues that maintain their relevance today—that makes his book valuable reading. Throughout all of these runs a pervasive sense of the fallenness of mankind, especially as it is exhibited and magnified in media.

Consider the following passage, which is a brilliant example of Muggeridge’s unique style, where he comments on his first forays into the movie theater:

“The reign of the camera had begun. I cannot pretend that I was aware of the implications of my protracted Saturday afternoon communings with shadows flickering across a screen, but it is certainly true that, increasingly, when I emerged, what was outside took on the character of the pictures I had been looking at, rather than the other way round. All the world in a picture palace.” (69)

In these subtle sentences Muggeridge has done several things. First, he speaks of the ‘reign’ of the camera, which points to the increasing dominance he (accurately) perceives media will attain in our lives. Second, the idea of ‘communings’ evokes a religious aspect of the cinema—here we go to find our spiritual experiences, to find enlightenment for our world. Third, he notes the power of cinema to begin to edit our world, rather than our world interpreting cinema—identifying the chief danger of an escape from reality into the pipe-dream promised by a false reality. Those are Muggeridge’s obvious points, but beneath them, by citing the “shadows flickering across the screen,” he has colored his criticism with a reference to Plato’s famous Cave, where chained intellects were bound to ignorance, their only knowledge attained through the projection of shadowy figures on a wall. In Plato’s story, one figure is freed from the cave, enlightened by the sun, and returns to bring the news to those still in the cave. The new depth, then, of Muggeridge’s criticism is that he asserts we have, in allowing the cinema to have its reign, capitulated to a stupefying of our intelligence. We have abdicated our enlightenment, choosing, in 20th century media, shadows over reality.

It's an interesting tale about T.S. Eliot.

No doubt because of his profession, media, journalism, and socialism are linked ideas for Muggeridge, and they become his lens into human sinfulness, especially (in concert with his assessment of the cinema) our willingness to twist reality to our own desires. “People, after all,” he writes, “believe lies, not because they are plausibly presented, but because they want to believe them. So, their credulity is unshakeable” (274). While living as a journalist in Soviet Russia he traveled on a train through the countryside, aware through his sources (and later through personal observation) of the mass starvation occurring outside the cities. However, against these realities, he noted that “These fellow passengers provided my first experience of the progressive elite from all over the world who attached themselves to the Soviet régime, resolved to believe anything they were told by its spokesmen” (212). Those who dared to be critical of the regime—even in Britain—were silenced. Muggeridge writes that “Even Animal Farm, one of the few undoubted works of genius of our time, was rejected by fourteen publishers on the ground that it was too hostile to the Soviet régime, before being accepted. One of the rejectors was T.S. Eliot on behalf of Faber & Faber” (272). The book is replete with examples such as this, many more terrifying in aspect. Despite this, throughout the book Muggeridge doesn’t overstate his ironies; he merely presents them for the absurdities that they are. His ultimate assessment of the era was that a whole host of people,

…all resolved, come what might, to believe anything, however preposterous, to overlook anything, however villainous, to approve anything, however obscurantist and brutally authoritarian, in order to be able to preserve intact the confident expectation that one of the most thorough-going, ruthless and bloody tyrannies ever to exist on earth could be relied on to champion human freedom, the brotherhood of man, and all the other good causes to which they had dedicated their lives. (275-6)

Hence, Muggeridge’s distrust of humanity—of human reasoning, human spirituality, and human optimism—is based on his personal experience of human mendacity. The 20th century is a century of lies, willingly embraced.

“Learning from experience,” Muggeridge writes, “means, in practice, learning from suffering; the only schoolmaster” (19). Muggeridge’s life lesson, shared with us, learned through his own personal suffering, is that earthly justice, earthly efforts, and all the works of man are utter and unredeemable suffering apart from the grace of God. His voice, then, speaks to us from the ‘inside’ of the 20th century—not as someone who merely lived in his century, but as one who has both acted on the stage and looked behind the scenes. And the insider’s view that he offers us—the personal appraisal and rejection of the siren calls of our world—is precisely the strength of Muggeridge’s prose. If you will, he is a Christian cynic—not a pessimist, just someone vastly more realistic than everyone else and consequently suspicious of everything in the world that isn’t God. He is a man who refused to be taken in by any ideology, any false promises (whether of marketing or propaganda), any movements or governments. Reading his autobiography one gets a clear sense of Muggeridge’s awareness and insight into a fallible world and its desperate need for God. As a result it is Muggeridge’s personal experiences, here on display and under self-criticism, that generate the potent perspective of the prophet; in the name of Christ he denounces all things for the sake of Christ. And if he is a grouchy prophet of doom, it is because he has seen the glory to which we are called and wants us to seek it, rather than settle for the cheap, distracting thrills of our time.

A few mullable Muggeridge Quotes:

About sex:

“Sex is the only mysticism offered by materialism…. Sex pure and undefiled; without the burden of procreation, or even, ultimately, of love or identity. Just sex; jointly attained, or solitary—derived from visions, drug-infused; from spectacles, on film or glossy paper.” (142)

About news:

“News [is] an expression of the hypochondria of a sick society—like endlessly sucking at a thermometer, standing on the bathroom scales… In a civilisation dropping to pieces, news takes some of the sting out of happenings. So, more and more of it; all day long, and often all night long, too. A sort of Newzak, corresponding to Muzak; instead of a melange of drooling tunes endlessly played, a melange of drooling news endlessly heard.”  (179)

About spirituality:

“After Miss Corke [a friend] had retired to bed, I stayed awake a long time thinking of the chasm which divides those who believe in a mortal destiny, however glorious, and those who cannot find the heart to live at all, to go on from day to day, except on the basis of an immortal one. Belonging, as I do, so strongly to the latter category, the former seem to me fated, either to suppose themselves to be gods and, like Icarus, fly into the sun, there to perish, or to fall back upon their animal natures, and the Sisyphus task of maintaining a condition of permanent rut.” (65)

One comment on “Chronicles of a 20th Century Prophet

  1. Jeff Fuller says:

    Thanks for adding yet another book to my reading list. haha

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