No serious person is without contradictions. The test lies in the willingness or ability to recognize and confront them.” So wrote the late Christopher Hitchens in 2003, on the centennial of the birth of his fellow countryman Malcolm Muggeridge. The two had much in common. Both were middle class products of the English public school system and elite universities; both were journalist-adventurers, disillusioned socialists, contrarians, and iconoclasts. They were not quite contemporaries—Muggeridge died in 1990, just over forty years after Hitchens was born—but Muggeridge’s life offers a lens through which to remember Hitchens, who died two years ago this December.
Hitchens was intensely critical of Muggeridge’s contradictions, referring to him as “a ringmaster at the circus of his own self-promotion.” Hitchens acknowledged that Muggeridge was a “brilliant journalist,” though he attributes this to an ability to turn up “in the right place at the right time.” He regarded Muggeridge as a “failed novelist,” whose foray into intelligence work during the war permitted him to escape the unhappiness of family life for a life “where things were deceptive and dishonest by definition.” Of Muggeridge’s suicide attempt, Hitchens wrote that he “could not quite achieve authenticity” even in this “grave matter.” As television became preeminent in Hitchens’ youth, Muggeridge was ubiquitous—“drawn compulsively to that which he found loathsome,” he “wallowed exuberantly into its corruption.” Hitchens himself would come to master that medium, as entertainer and evangelist, albeit proffering a very different gospel.
Hitchens is best remembered for his final (and most lucrative) foray into America’s public consciousness as an outspoken atheist—or rather, as he insisted, anti-theist. For his part, Muggeridge found religion, which had earned him the epithet “Saint Muggs” in the English press. Hitchens never found religion but did evolve beyond his youthful devotion to Trotsky, though he retained a dogmatism that made him seem an ideologue without an ideology. Despite differing convictions, they had political similarities. Muggeridge described himself as a “man of the left,” which, as he once told William F. Buckley, consisted largely of a tendency to be on “the weaker side.” This description would fit Hitchens as well.
Hitchens, like Muggeridge, was unafraid to break ranks. This was perhaps best exemplified in Hitchens’ criticism of then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, who had traveled back to Arkansas during the 1992 Democratic primaries to witness the execution of a mentally impaired African-American man, Rickey Ray Rector. At a time when America was gripped with fear of violent crime, this macabre event established Clinton’s tough-on-crime bona fides—and diverted talk from a nascent sex scandal. Hitchens regarded it as an act of consummate political cynicism, a sacrificial death to propel the ambitious Clinton to the White House. He never forgave Clinton—and many on the left never forgave Hitchens. Like Muggeridge, who had been banned by the BBC in 1955 for criticizing “the soap-opera culture of the British royal family,” Hitchens would become well known as an iconoclast.
Muggeridge, however, would find meaning beyond disillusionment. More than any other person, Muggeridge was responsible for making Mother Theresa known to the world, through Something Beautiful for God and subsequent works. The inspiration of Mother Theresa would lead Muggeridge to commit much of his time and money to organizations “serving the weakest and most vulnerable members of society,” as Muggeridge’s biographer, Gregory Wolfe, observed. By 1968, Muggeridge the iconoclast had become Muggeridge the iconographer. That year would define the ethos of a generation of iconoclasts, Hitchens among them. Perhaps it is not surprising that Hitchens, like a rebellious protégé, would devote so much of his energy to desecrating the icon Muggeridge gave to the world.
The iconoclast identifies the dominant symbols of an ethos, and then seeks to discredit or destroy them. In Mother Theresa, Hitchens recognized perhaps the greatest living icon of Christianity, charity personified—a sacred symbol he sought to profane. In 1994, a quarter century after Muggeridge’s conversion to Christianity, Hitchens published Missionary Position , an attack on Mother Theresa. Had the defender of the weak become a bully? Not quite. Hitchens appears to have recognized a fact he would never admit, perhaps even to himself: Mother Theresa was impervious to any assault he or anyone might make against her.
In a debate moderated by Ben Stein, Hitchens ventured off on his staple attack against any religions—here, the Abrahamic faiths—that would demand the sacrifice of a child. Stein interjected to ask whether Hitchens, in consequence, regarded himself as “a member of the pro-life movement.” As Hitchens collected his thoughts, chuckles could be heard. To the surprise of the audience, Hitchens responded in the affirmative. “I’ve had many quarrels with my fellow materialists and secularists on this point,” he said, adding that if the concept of a child had any meaning, then so did “unborn child.” “All the discoveries of embryology,” he continued, “which have been very considerable in the last generation or so, and of viability, appear to confirm that opinion—which is, I think, should be innate in everybody, is innate in the Hippocratic Oath, is instinct in anyone who has ever watched a sonogram. And so, yes, is my answer.” Here again Hitchens was man of the left, champion of the weak, and contrarian.
Muggeridge had encountered Christianity and found in it an answer to alienation and suffering. Hitchens, too, had encountered religion, but found that it was “not for the weak” but, on the contrary, a religion whose god subjected its adherents to “permanent, unending, round-the-clock surveillance,” a “celestial North Korea.”
One senses that in lashing out at Muggeridge, Hitchens was not lashing out at the flawed journalist turned mock saint with whom he shared many vices and virtues; rather, he was striking beyond Muggeridge at the ineffable—the Cosmic Malevolence that lay beyond the icons he sought to destroy. Mother Theresa’s words in a letter to Muggeridge could have been addressed to Hitchens: “I know what you feel—terrible longing with dark emptiness. And yet He is the one in love with you.” Hitchens apparently never experienced this love.
After being diagnosed with cancer in 2010, Hitchens would remark, “No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind—but I like surprises.” He died the following year, on December 18. In his last years, he had become, like Muggeridge, at once entertainer and public intellectual—like Muggeridge, the “ringmaster at the circus of his own self-promotion.” The circus of the public square is emptier without him.
Andrew Doran lives in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife.
Photo by José Ramírez via Creative Commons. Image cropped.