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Malcolm Muggeridge’s Chronicles of Wasted Time as an Apology of Love
by David Mills
“You to me are like Nicodemus,” Mother Teresa once wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, “and I am sure the answer is the same—‘unless you become like a little child.’ I am sure you will understand beautifully everything if you would only ‘become’ a little child in God’s hands. Your longing for God is so deep. . . . Christ is longing to be your Food. Surrounded with fullness of living food, you allow yourself to starve.”1
Though it tells the story of his life long before his conversion, in his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time, Muggeridge speaks to those who have happily stuffed themselves with the world’s delicacies and finally seen that they are starving nonetheless. He can move those spiritually alert people who see that the world, even at its most generous, is not enough—not only those who find that the world cannot satisfy them, but those who sense, as Muggeridge did from an early age, that we are made for something encompassing and transcending this world, something to which the good things we know are pointers, though (as Muggeridge found) we make them idols. He is the great apologist for those suffering mid-life crises.
He wrote the book in his late sixties, and it may be a book best understood by someone grown old enough to know failure and loss. I thought him wonderfully cynical when I went through a Muggeridge phase in my early twenties, when being world-weary was a juvenile form of worldliness and claiming to see through everything was a juvenile form of stupidity. I read him differently now.
I think this explains Muggeridge’s strengths and limits as an apologist: as an advocate and defender of the Christian faith and a scourge of the alternatives. (He was a great scourge.) The traditional apologist argues for the faith, but the literary apologist—a type not often enough recognized—shows what the cosmos is really like by telling stories. The stories may be real or invented, or the mixture of reality and invention that most people, including Muggeridge, manage when they try to write their own story.
Of the two types of apologist, I think the second is actually the more useful: He helps people fall in love, while the first can only help the lover get to the wedding. Most unbelievers need not arguments for something they do not believe, but a vision of something they do not see. Only when they see the thing do they need to argue about it.
Muggeridge was the second type of apologist. By the time he wrote his own story, he had a faith to share, and he shared it in the vision of life he offered: a vision in which human attempts to find happiness through the exercise of the will end in folly and squalor—the book is full of examples, his own and others—and salvation is found only through submitting the will to God.
“To accept this world as a destination rather than a staging-post, and the experience of living in it as expressing life’s full significance, would seem to me to reduce life to something too banal and trivial to be taken seriously or held in esteem,” he wrote at the beginning of the first volume. Speaking of all the “prospectuses for an earthly paradise,” communist or capitalist, he wrote that
[t]o attempt to expose and ridicule the fraudulence of such prospectuses is no more life-denying than exposing the fraudulence of one for building a housing estate on the slopes of Etna would be shelter-denying. . . . In other words, the Christian proposition that he that loves his life in this world shall lose it, and he that hates his life in this world shall see it projected and glorified into eternity, is for living, not for dying. . . . It is misers and Don Juans who moan; spendthrifts and saints are always laughing. . . . All I can claim to have learnt from the years I have spent in this world is that the only happiness is love, which is attained by giving, not receiving; and that the world itself only becomes the dear and habitable dwelling place it is when we who inhabit it know we are migrants, due when the time comes to fly away to other more commodious skies.2
The Two Volumes
Chronicles of Wasted Time appeared in two volumes (of roughly 300,000 words), The Green Stick in 1972 and The Infernal Grove in 1973.3 A promised third volume never appeared. The book was praised by some of the leading figures of the secular world (the Sunday Times called it in an editorial comment “one of the greatest autobiographies of our time”) and criticized by others (Muggeridge’s friend Graham Greene privately called it “a mélange of knowingness, melodrama and self-praise”).4
Muggeridge seems to have known almost every famous person of the twentieth century, and he tells entertaining, and usually critical, stories of many of them. Among them were writers like Greene, George Orwell, and P. G. Wodehouse, the Soviet agent Kim Philby, the perfumer Coco Chanel, Field Marshall Montgomery, even, in his first teacher, an intimate friend of D. H. Lawrence’s, and a great many people (the socialist gurus Sidney and Beatrice Webb, for example) then important but now forgotten by almost everyone.
The Green Stick covers his life from his childhood as the son of a secular, socialist father, through his time at Cambridge University, his years teaching in India and Egypt, his job writing editorials for the Manchester Guardian (the leading paper of the progressive and enlightened), and then his move as a correspondent to the Soviet Union, which he thought the earthly paradise. From there he returned, famously disillusioned not only with the Communist government but also with the Western left that adored it and refused to face the truth about it.5
While there, Muggeridge made a brave trip into Ukraine—he could have been shot for it—and discovered that Stalin was starving his people to death to bring them to heel. The Western left did not want to hear about it, and he effectively gave up hope of success among them by insisting on telling the truth about it. He has not been sufficiently honored for this.
The Infernal Grove covers his life through World War II, as he began to make his way as a journalist and writer, in England, the United States, and India again. He spent much of the war serving as a secret agent, and apparently a good one, in east Africa.
The power of the book as an apologetic does not depend upon the accuracy of its account of Muggeridge’s life or thoughts, but on the vision or imagination it conveys. It conceals as well as reveals, and conceals even in its revelations. He tells the reader that he was an adulterer, for example, but not that he was the insatiable adulterer he was, and leaves out completely his wife’s adulteries. He shaped many of the stories to his own advantage. They are a little too neat, the morals too nicely drawn, the victory too regularly his, the evidence too perfectly illustrating his theories.6 It was a danger he admitted in the first chapter.
The hazards in the way of telling the truth are, indeed, very great. . . . Every man the centre of his own universe; insensibly, we sub-edit as we go along, to produce headlines, cross-heads, a story line most favourable to our egos. How indestructible, alas, is that ego!7
But this does not affect (much) the power of the story he tells. If he was more addicted to certain pleasures of the flesh than he admitted (understandably enough), he admits that he knew the addiction and found it not only damning but unsatisfying. If he was unfair to many of his subjects, he described a reality partly true of his subjects and perfectly true of others. If the morals seem too nicely drawn and the evidence too perfect, still, almost everything in the world illustrates his insight into the vanity of human desires. In Chronicles, Muggeridge told the truth even when he got the facts wrong.
Muggeridge wrote beautifully but perhaps too easily, and from time to time his words, usually critical, flow on unrelated to any argument or evidence. He sometimes finds vanity and corruption in things serious and good and can attack a subject with a series of metaphors, images, and aphorisms the exact meaning of which one cannot discern. “The Great Liberal Death Wish,” which Russell Kirk included in The Conservative Reader, seems to me a good example, as is his remark about Ernest Hemingway: “. . . and Ernest with a self-made hole in his head; the only shot he ever fired that found its target!”8
The book’s power does not come from these passages, though they enliven the story. They have the effect of caricatures stuck here and there in a landscape painting by one of the masters: annoying, and harming the effect, but not changing the beauty or truth of the rest.
I found only two apologetic arguments in Chronicles of Wasted Time, one in each volume, and those he shared rather than argued. The one in The Infernal Grove barely qualifies as an argument, being mostly a quote from Simone Weil.9 But in The Green Stick, he wrote:
Surveying the abysmal chasm between my certainty that everything human beings tried to achieve was inadequate to the point of being farcical, that mortality itself was a kind of gargoyle joke, and my equal certainty that every moment of every day was full of enchantment and infinitely precious; that human love was the image vouchsafed us of God’s love irradiating the whole universe; that, indeed, embedded in each grain of sand was eternity, to be found and explored, as geologists explored the antiquity of fossils through their markings—surveying this chasm, yawning in its vastness to the point of inducing total insanity, tearing us into schizophrenic pieces, I grasped that over it lay, as it were, a cable-bridge, frail, swaying, but passable. And the bridge, this reconciliation between the black despair of lying bound and gagged in the tiny dungeon of the ego, and soaring upwards into the white radiance of God’s universal love—this bridge was the Incarnation, whose truth expresses that of the desperate need it meets. Because of our physical hunger we know there is bread; because of our spiritual hunger we know there is Christ.10
In this passage, to the Christian quite a beautiful one, Muggeridge offers an argument from desire, but as I said, one not argued but shared. He tells the reader what he saw. The reader either sees it, or he doesn’t, and Muggeridge makes no effort to convince the skeptic. The man who lies bound and gagged in the dungeon of his ego but feels himself to be free—the natural and usual position of fallen man—will have no idea what this man Muggeridge is going on about.
He wrote like this mostly as a matter of disposition, I think, but also because he seems to have felt that man can only choose what he sees, and that argument did little or nothing to help him see. He sees what his heart lets him see. In The Infernal Grove he tells of kneeling in a convent chapel in Paris at the end of the war with an old French colonel, whom he has described somewhat comically. Yet
when I looked sidelong at him, his old, worldly, weather-beaten face wearing so serene and joyful an expression, I found myself envying him, and staring, as I so often have, at the altar, as though I hoped that enlightenment would come visibly out of it to me; maybe as a voice, or a dove descending from Heaven. This, as I well know, can never be. The process is the other way round; a purified heart has to be offered to the altar, rather than the altar dispensing purification.11
Similarly, as he wrote of returning to London from the Soviet Union, now cured of the utopian fantasy by which he had lived his life until then: “The essential quality of our lives . . . was a factor, not so much of how we lived, but of why we lived. It was our values, not our production processes, or our laws, or our social relationships, that governed our existence.”12
The Indirect Apologist
I want to suggest three reasons why Muggeridge was, in the apparently unapologetic work Chronicles of Wasted Time, an effective though indirect apologist for the Christian faith. He can help the reader leave his old life behind and fall in love with Christ, though he leaves it to the reader to make his way to the wedding.
The first reason the book is so effective is that Muggeridge does not try to argue but simply tells his own story, and it is a story in which readers (older ones, anyway) can find their own stories reflected and clarified. He makes no claim to be a good man, but he does claim to have sampled all the world has to offer and found it wanting: wealth, power, fame, wine, women, song, he had them all and they did not make him happy.
And he removes any hope the reader may have in dreams of this-worldly progress, social or personal, which inevitably fail because man remains fallen man. For him, the first were mostly leftist dreams of collective utopia; for us, they are promises of free markets and democracy bringing global harmony. For him, the second, the personal dreams, were the same that affect us now and probably affect all men at all times: the fantasy that another romance, another body, another home, another job will make us happy. The book offers story after story after story in illustration.
Muggeridge also knew that even when we were successful in getting what we wanted, we did not get what we really wanted. “What hurts most,” he wrote in The Infernal Grove,
is the preference I have so often shown for what is inferior, tenth rate, when the first rate was there for the having. Like a man who goes shopping, and comes back with cardboard shoes when he might have had leather, with dried fruit when he might have had fresh, with processed cheese when he might have had cheddar, with paper flowers when the primroses were out. . . . Alas, so much of my life has been spent pursuing this fictional good, and forgetful of the other, the real good, that is ever inspiring, ever renewed, making us, again quoting Simone Weil, “grow wings to overcome gravity.”13
Chronicles of Wasted Time shows that man is a dreamer and that the dreams he dreams do not satisfy but instead destroy. We are like people racing cars very fast down a twisting mountain road, but steering by a movie we are watching on television.
A second reason for his effectiveness in speaking to those seeking something beyond this world is his obvious sympathy for the religious alternatives. He is never cynical about those who take their religion seriously. He seems, even as an unbeliever, to have recognized and even venerated holiness and the attempt to subject the will and ego to God. He writes of Hinduism in The Green Stick that it is
something in its top flights, very beautiful; all embracing, subtle, gentle, static—above all, static. Making few demands, but few concessions too; circular, not angular; going on and on, without any drama to break the even flow. No darkening of the sun or rending of a curtain; no finishing to begin and dying to be born.14
But notice how, in speaking of the beauty of Hinduism “in its top flights,” he also suggests what it lacks and what Christianity offers. He does not argue, he does not compare worldviews and presuppositions, but in about 100 words he conveys the difference between something very beautiful and something not only very beautiful but also dramatic. (It is interesting that he assumed his readers would know the biblical allusions.)
The third reason for Chronicles’ effectiveness as an apologetic, and I think the most important, is Muggeridge’s often caricatured and derided world-weariness. In this book, at least, though he seems to write cynically, he is not exactly a cynic. A Christian would say that he is a realist, if one who described the battle of the flesh against God more starkly than we are used to.
For one thing, he gives the world its due. He is never weary of goodness and he speaks with almost mystic gratitude of the good things he has known. He speaks movingly of his father and his wife Kitty, for example, and also of his friends. He writes movingly of nature as well. He seems always looking out for holiness. The reader grows to love a man who loves so well.
For another thing, he clearly knows how the world works and tells the reader in enough detail to prove that he is not easily or ignorantly critical. He is not a “pox on all their houses” bore. He is especially insightful on how institutions kill the truth even when they believe themselves to be its servants. In the Ministry of Information at the beginning of World War II, in a department “responsible for producing, for use all over the world, feature articles calculated to raise enthusiasm for the Allied cause,” the writers were told to take a
judicial attitude in our articles, eschewing bellicosity, and appealing rather to reason and enlightened self-interest. . . . Towards putative allies of Germany whom we wished to coax over to our side, we were likewise supple and conciliatory. The Turkey of Kemal Ataturk might not be, in the technical sense, a one-man-one-vote democracy, but it was unquestionably progressive, and responsive to majority opinion; and even the USSR, despite having carved up Poland with Hitler, and mounted an unprovoked attack on Finland, might be considered as forward-looking, and so on the side of peace and freedom.15
He knew the dangers firsthand and had committed the sin himself. When he was living in Egypt and writing articles for the Manchester Guardian,
I found I had a lamentable facility for translating a particular political situation into a morality play or western, with an appropriate denouement in which the Good Guy . . . triumphs, and the Bad Guy . . . is cast into outer darkness. . . . Once this technique is mastered—and God knows, it’s easy enough—it is possible to be a successful commentator in any medium, written, spoken, visual, on any situation in any part of the world. The style—studiously reasonable, and working up to occasional bursts of idealistic fervour and satirical spleen—comes almost of itself.16
One result of this knowledge of the real world is that he helps the reader see that the Fall is a condition of human life that no amount of reform, no earnest good intentions, no promises to do better, will remove. It is not a matter of bad people doing bad things, a problem we might fix by making bad people good, but a vast system of wickedness, in which everyone participates and that only God can overcome.
His critics have claimed that Muggeridge turned to religion in reaction, that he was an idealist who suffered such a traumatic disillusionment with Communism that he turned in desperation to a blind hope in the next world, to his critics of course an entirely imaginary world. I think Muggeridge was a man who, through an intense and trusting engagement with the world, came to a cold-bloodedly rational appraisal of the world. And this rational appraisal led him to discount the world’s ability to provide salvation.
The Only True Hope
In the non-apologetic work Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote an effective apologetic for those who find their hopes and dreams failing. He clears away their illusions. He helps the average sensual, slothful man give up his hopes for worldly satisfaction. That is what he is famous for doing, whether one thinks it cynicism or realism. But he also shows these readers where the only true hope is to be found. “Because of our physical hunger we know there is bread; because of our spiritual hunger we know there is Christ.”
Muggeridge saw all this in the middle of his own life, when he saw what a mess he had made of it and chose despair, or tried to. While in East Africa during World War II, he tried to kill himself by swimming out to sea. Far from shore and almost exhausted, he turned for a second and saw the lights of familiar places, and suddenly began swimming back. He had decided to live.
There followed an overwhelming joy such as I had never experienced before; an ecstasy. In some mysterious way it became clear to me that there was no darkness, only the possibility of losing sight of a light which shone eternally; that our clumsy appetites are no more than the blind reaching of a newly born child after the teat through which to suck the milk of life; that our sufferings, our affliction, are part of a drama—an essential, even an ecstatic, part—endlessly revolving round the two great propositions of good and evil, of light and darkness.
He finally gets close enough to shore to walk, and has to “flounder” a long way through deep mud to get to his car. He arrives as day dawns. “This floundering was a sort of parable,” he wrote.
Plodding and floundering on through the black deep mud, but never again without hope; thenceforth always knowing, deep in my heart, remembering even when I forgot, that it was not by chance or for nothing that the lights of Peter’s Café and Costa da Sol had called me back. That I, too, had something I must try to say and be, until the time came for God to put me to sleep, as I had tried, in my own fatuous and sinful willfulness, to put myself to sleep in the sea off Lourenço Marques.17
Even then, Muggeridge did not come to a real faith for almost 25 years. He had turned, but he had not converted. He was not ready to offer a purified heart upon the altar. In Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge shows how a man may turn from despair, and it is a pity he did not finish the third volume, in which he might have showed how a man may turn from his wickedness and live, as he finally did.
1. Quoted in Richard Ingrams, Muggeridge: The Biography (HarperCollins, 1995), pp. 234–235.
2. The Green Stick (Collins, 1972), p. 18.
3. The Infernal Grove (Collins, 1973).
4. The Times’ comment taken from the dust jacket of The Infernal Grove, Greene’s from Ingram’s Muggeridge, p. 229. For the response to the book, see Gregory Wolfe, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography (ISI Books, 2003), pp. 373–378.
5. See The Green Stick, pp. 242–251 for examples of credulity.
6. For examples, see ibid., pp. 219–221.
7. The Green Stick, p. 19.
8. Ibid., p. 16.
9. The Infernal Grove, p. 142.
10. The Green Stick, pp. 81–82.
11. The Infernal Grove, p. 245.
12. Ibid., p. 17.
13. The Infernal Grove, pp. 133–134.
14. The Green Stick, p. 128.
15. The Infernal Grove, pp. 78, 82.
16. The Green Stick, p. 160.
17. The Infernal Grove, pp. 184–185.
A short version of this article was presented at Muggeridge Rediscovered: The Malcolm Muggeridge Centenary Conference, held at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, on May 22–23, 2003.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.