book-reviews

Chronicles of Wasted Time

by Malcolm Muggeridge

Rating: ★★★

I picked up Chronicles of Wasted Time after reading Scott Alexander's review of it and becoming immensely intrigued. For the most part, that payed off -- while nothing really staggered or surprised me, the autobiography was a highly engaging read, with dry humour mixed in with a rich taste of the political scenes of Muggeridge's life. I would agree with the assessment that it's hard to read his story and not come out with a certain respect and affection for him, which is all the more puzzling for people who have seen him on television in his later life. To quote the book jacket:

How can this be the same man as the harsh Savonarola of the telly, calling others to righteousness in the name of the man, or god, who insisted that only those without sin could cast the stones? In that paradox lies the heart of St Mugg's mystery. Perhaps it will be explained in the succeeding volumes of this superb book.

Yet there will not be succeeding volumes after The Infernal Grove, so we have to guess based on what we already know. Here is where I feel Scott's review drops the ball a bit. Scott hams up Muggeridge as a person always seeing decay in everything. Yet this is actually quite easy to explain. Aside from being a bit of a prude (notably unable to deal with the forthright nature of his quirky mother-in-law, who cared not one whit what others thought of her), Young Muggeridge is an idealist, a socialist of the first rank, raised by a Labour parliamentarian with tales of the coming revolution. He sees the decay of British society because it is pointed out to him, not to combat it but as a sign of the inevitability of the revolution. Where he does reflect critically on socialism in this early section, it is mostly Old Muggeridge we hear.

So Muggeridge and his wife go to the USSR, burning all but one set of their clothes in their eagerness to be free of this fascist society -- and thus being severely underdressed for the formal parties they go to in Russia. There Muggeridge is disillusioned, heavily and repeatedly. Firstly, the actual status of Moscow and the tight censorial controls he was faced with. Secondly, the great engineered famine of the Ukraine, which he saw in person. Thirdly, the dismissal of his negative reporting by the mainstream leftist press back in England, and the sharp rebuke he got for his attempt to reveal atrocities of the highest order. This in combination shatters Muggeridge's socialist faith. From then on, he sees the socialist movement as ideologically bankrupt, and he is adrift in the world, his wife -- whom he abandons for long periods -- his only professed rudder. From necessity, he attempts to court right-wing publications, but without much success.

Muggeridge wanted to believe. He latched onto military service with such enthusiasm because he hoped it would give purpose to his life -- even as he knew that in the end, the war was being fought between two evils. Being relegated to Intelligence, he found a role where he was objectively useful, even if his self-criticism would not allow him to admit it. In France, he saw again hypocrisy in the denouncements and executions of the Liberation, but now it barely registers with him, he would expect no less. His role in France allowed him to hop back and forth across the Channel, and as part of such, he at one point attempts to pass on Camus' L'Etranger for translation -- a small footnote which I think is of importance for understanding Muggeridge at this point. He has detached, and finds reality absurd. This is Middle Muggeridge, when The Infernal Grove closes on the two atheists being reburied in Westminster, and a Labour Prime Minister declares that "all they had worked for has come to pass", while Stalin destroyed his people and Europe lay desolate.

So how do we explain the shift from this Middle Muggeridge, cynical and detached, to Old Muggeridge, the bitter preacher? I think we have to assume that, political dimensions being ruined for him on the one hand by his upbringing and on the other by his disillusionment, he kept looking for something to believe in, and eventually found religion. If we cannot, as he had initially hoped in socialism, create heaven on earth, then alternative means must be found. Muggeridge had always been somewhat sympathetic to Christian mythos, and so the transition cannot have been too harsh.