“The Catholic faith is, I believe, a right faith in essentials but it must grow up inside one. Evolve through suffering to have values.” -Malcolm Muggeridge to Alec Vidler (43)
Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography by Gregory Wolfe (1995) ISI Books: Irvington, Delaware.
When one asks the average modern person their thoughts on Malcolm Muggeridge, their response will likely be mild bewilderment. For all intents and purposes, Muggeridge has been forgotten by our generation. Given that the man was a prominent and pioneering journalist, author, radio and television personality, and satirist for the vast majority of his life, this is a strange state of affairs.
Malcolm Muggeridge was born in 1903 and died in 1990, making his life essentially a catalog of the twentieth century. Gregory Wolfe’s 1995 biography of Muggeridge depicts a man who consistently stood at the center of numerous intersecting paths, much like a real-life Forrest Gump. This work is as much a biography as it is a vindication of a man whom Wolfe respects and holds in high esteem. Muggeridge’s appeal to Wolfe and his enduring legacy consists, in part, of his friendship with a wide variety of literary greats like George Orwell and Graham Greene, his work in exposing Soviet Communism as a bloody machination, and, above all, his role in making Mother Teresa famous.
He struggled with Christianity throughout his life, and he maintained an inexplicable sense of existing as an outsider and a loner, doomed to spectate without participation. This sense of existing as an outsider couples with his sense of irony, humorous paradox, and a hatred of hypocrisy to fuel his acidic yet apt critiques of society and political regimes. The man traveled extensively, acting as a British spy, a lecturer, a reporter, and a teacher at various points in his life. He resided in locales as diverse as Egypt, India, America, East Africa, and Russia, among others; according to Wolfe, he moved at least twenty-two times. Muggeridge’s physical restlessness primarily reflected his spiritual restlessness. His frequent transitions add a particular gravitas to his statement that the Roman Catholic Church brought him a “sense of homecoming”. His search was over. He was found and no longer an outsider to the 2,000-year-old tradition that permeates Western society.
Ultimately, Malcolm Muggeridge’s life is a testament to the fact that all things by faith are delicately interconnected, a theme that Wolfe emphasizes throughout the book. Wolfe demonstrates that there is a particular theological dynamism to Muggeridge’s life that is inherently connected to historical events and his extensive scope of personal experience. His objective is to trace the flow of Muggeridge’s thought, which changed enormously throughout his life; Muggeridge went from being a Fabian socialist and communist sympathiser in his youth to a Roman Catholic conservative in his twilight.
Throughout the biography, Wolfe traces Muggeridge’s faith through his decisions and the works that he read. Wolfe indicates that Muggeridge’s “favorite religious thinkers” were primarily Christian existentialists, stating that Muggeridge’s “personal pantheon” consisted of individuals like “St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Søren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (382-383). Wolfe suggests that their magnetic appeal was due to the fact that they were “men and women who not only possessed keen intellects but who also struggled through intense suffering and even rebellion against God, achieving in the end a mystical vision.” Ultimately, it was a confluence of an entire life’s worth of multivariable and entangled threads, threads encompassing the cumulative thought and influence of thousands of persons, places, and events, that figuratively led Muggeridge to acquiesce and utter, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” This cathartic moment brought him a “sense of homecoming, of picking up threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that had long been ringing, of taking a place at a table that had long been vacant” (408). Wolfe successfully summarizes Muggeridge’s life and his struggle with the Christian faith, and more specifically, Roman Catholicism.
Wolfe’s central accomplishment in this work is his scholarship documenting Muggeridge’s spiritual failures and successes. Muggeridge professed essential beliefs of Christianity, but he found that due to his own sins, he could not commit and partake in the Eucharist and in the community of the Church (382). It took the loss of his vitality for Muggeridge to conquer his principle sin: adultery. Muggeridge yearned to be a Catholic for most of his life, but ultimately he found that he could not submit until he had routed his demons one by one.
Wolfe strains to document this development in Muggeridge’s life. The vehicle of this development for Muggeridge, in this case, is faith. Faith is necessarily an all-encompassing active mode in one’s life: it demands time and attention; it shapes the individual’s political and social perspective among an active community of fellow believers. In order for faith to be fully realized, a commitment is required. As Wolfe aptly demonstrates, Muggeridge sought to avoid such a commitment for most of his life.
The frame of the work is twenty chapters of roughly twenty pages apiece, each of which focuses on a period of Muggeridge’s life. Wolfe’s overall style is excellent and includes frequent literary allusions that allow for a sense of relevancy and relatability to Muggeridge. Wolfe occasionally presents his own speculations regarding Muggeridge’s efficacy as a writer. These opinions do not detract from the work, but instead act as another aspect of his vindication of the man.
Wolfe’s considerable admiration for Muggeridge does not prevent him from presenting criticism when it is due. It does mean, though, that in the course of the piece, Wolfe downplays certain of Muggeridge’s questionable decisions. For example, he critiques Muggeridge’s “cavalier treatment” of his first long term relationship‒Dora Pitman‒while implicitly sympathizing with Muggeridge’s desire for space to pursue and “contemplate his hopes and passions” (42-43). Additionally, his borderline prurient treatment of Muggeridge’s homosexuality and extramarital affairs, though intended to portray the “Augustinian battles between flesh and spirit,” tend more towards speculation on the part of Wolfe rather than a portrayal of Muggeridge’s spiritual development.
The underlying structure of the work is derived from British novelist Anthony Powell, a contemporary of Muggeridge. He noted in his memoir, To Keep the Ball Rolling, a division in Muggeridge’s personality that he termed the “Muggeridgean Trinity”, the inherent suggestion being that the man was not only at war with the world and falsehood, but with himself (xvii-xviii). Wolfe effectively appropriates Powell’s extended metaphor to portray Muggeridge’s internal conflict throughout the work. This tension is preserved and is carried through Wolfe’s presentation of Muggeridge’s psychological temperament, sexual mores, and theological, socio-economic, and political beliefs. Wolfe is at times repetitive in his presentation of facts, but given the length of the work, this repetition serves to remind the reader of his essential purpose of documenting Muggeridge’s spiritual development from cynicism to Catholicism. Despite the occasionally inorganic and repetitive nature of the presentation, the overall narrative does not suffer, thus rendering a depiction that is both informative and enjoyable.
Kirby Hartley is a senior studying English.