In the course of a very long life, Malcolm Muggeridge made many enemies, but he surely made more friends, among whom it is one of the great pleasures of my life to have been included. His enemies could be found both to the left and to the right. Those on the left are easy to account for: by temperament, upbringing, family connections, and early employment a man of the left, he was a renegade and dogged critic of the left after his own journalistic experiences in the Soviet workers’ paradise lost in 1932-33. Yet enemies or antagonists to his right, both in England and America, were also never hard to find. He thought the English monarchy and aristocracy a sorry, self-serving farce, and though he considered American capitalism the lesser of available evils in the world, he never thought very highly of what he called the “first Church of Christ capitalist.”
In fact Malcolm was the archetypal outsider, a peripatetic and restless individualist one of whose favorite sayings was rien n’est beau que le vrai —nothing is beautiful but the true. This creed is not designed to win friends in positions of power, and Malcolm’s caustic, witty tongue and pen commanded an irony that will always make potentates aware of just how threadbare their garments of intelligence and integrity really are. “Honesty is praised, and left to shiver,” wrote Juvenal long ago, and Malcolm knew to his pain and loss what this could mean, suffering periods of poverty and enforced separation from his beloved family in search of employment adequate to his gifts.
Yet it is the universal testimony of his friends and acquaintances that he was never, or very rarely, the gloomy, outcast prophet. None of my acquaintances has had more gaiety or good cheer or a sharper or more bracing sense of humor. Walks with Malcolm—and he loved to walk, around London, around the East Sussex countryside near his home—were always a feast of wit and laughter. I have never met a better, or a wiser, talker. His sense of the absurd was sharp, intense, and immediate, carried on a conversational wave of hilarious exuberance. Yet it was never demoralizing or cynical; the burden of Malcolm’s wit, like that of the medieval and Renaissance Christian fools about whom he loved to discourse, as in Erasmus’ Praise of Folly or Shakespeare’s King Lear, was always, implicitly or explicitly, that we were all fools in need of laughter, forgiveness, and grace. He was no gloomy “absurdist,” and thought Beckett, Pinter, and Plath derisory and degenerate.
I vividly remember that on one occasion in the late 1970s when I was walking with Malcolm in the East Sussex countryside, he started talking about the emergence of aesthetic nihilism in modern life and literature, a phenomenon that he identified with the Bloomsbury writers, whom (except for Leonard Woolf) he particularly loathed. He described a conversation he had had after George Orwell’s death with Cyril Connolly, the writer-editor-aesthete who had been with Orwell at prep school and then at Eton. Why, Malcolm asked Connolly, had their mutual friend Orwell become such a passionate and sincere, even puritanical, moralist, when so many of his contemporaries at school had become aesthetes, homosexuals, Communists, or all three at once? “Well, you see,” Connolly replied laconically, “George was not a pretty boy.” The fecklessness of this, especially coming from the overweight and unattractive Connolly, Malcolm took to be characteristic of a civilization in complete collapse, which he supposed his to be, however eagerly he kept on the lookout for signs to the contrary.
Malcolm insisted that he always loved truth—rien n’est beau que le vrai—but he decided that “truth itself . . . is in decidedly bad taste.” Thus a tremendous appeal was exercised on him by the great Christian outsiders—Pascal, Bunyan, Blake, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Simone Weil. Though he became a Catholic late in life, he was, I think, in theological terms what one would call a “skeptical fideist”: temperamentally and through wide experience a skeptic, his skepticism took the form of an incapacity to believe in all merely human authority or power. Yet the criterion by which he found earthly authorities almost always ludicrous, fraudulent, or corrupt was the criterion by which he found “the string from the golden ball, which led to Jerusalem’s wall.” He did not find Mother Teresa derisory or deficient.
Far from being the “agile nihilist” that an irritated and irreligious critic once called him, Malcolm was the witness as wit. If sanity survives our outrageous century, his courageous and antiseptic pen will deserve some of the credit. To use a phrase he loved from that fifth Gospel, King Lear, he “took upon himself the mystery of things, and served as God’s spy.”
M. D. Aeschliman teaches English at the University of Virginia. He is the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism.