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Books: In Bad Humor

3 minute read
John Skow

THINGS PAST by Malcolm Muggeridge Edited by Ian A. Hunter Morrow; 252pages; $9.95

Very early on, while others dismissed Hitler as an unimportant barbarian, Malcolm Muggeridge described the Nazi rise as a threat to civilization. He also fellow-traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 and found Joseph Stalin a dangerous influence. Sounding alarms to the readership of the Guardian had little effect—except on the Muggeridge style. Soon he was deriding his own trade: “The only fun of journalism is that it puts you in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them or take them seriously. It is the ideal profession for those who find power fascinating and its exercise abhorrent.”

Wryness was his real profession; by the 1950s, when he was editing Punch, it was clear that Muggeridge was one of the saltiest essayists of his time. He went public on English television, as a panelist of dependable perversity. Then he surprised his audience with a book called Jesus Rediscovered (1969), and it became known that—contrariness to the contrary—he was a practicing Christian.

Things Past is Muggeridge in a strange new vein, neither very comic nor very Christian, if Christianity is assumed to include a measure of charity toward one’s fellow man. The collection is arranged to show the development of Muggeridge’s attitudes over time, and if it establishes that his religious beliefs are longstanding ones, it also shows that the author’s store of hope for this imperfect world was exhausted by his disillusionment in Moscow.

After that bitter time in the Soviet, any effort to cure mankind’s ailments was written off by Muggeridge as “liberalism,” and thus beneath contempt. Education, he finds, “is a stupendous fraud perpetrated by the liberal mind on a bemused public, and calculated, not just not to reduce juvenile delinquency, but positively to increase it, being itself a source of this very thing.” As for modern art: “A Picasso, after a lifetime’s practice arrives at the style of the cave drawings in the Pyrenees.” Progress, for Muggeridge, is arrogant optimism, a shaking of man’s tiny fist at God, and its furtherance requires “the final discrediting of the gospel of Christ.”

The religion professed by this lively and resentful man is wholly mystical, limited solely to a perceived oneness with Christ, to be realized in an afterlife. A reader whose mind does not run to mysticism is not likely to be enlightened by the author’s remarks on the subject. But the reader can see what Muggeridge has excluded by turning his face from the world. Things Past is shot through with melancholy, the lashing-out of a wounded man, a Christian who has forgotten how to play God’s fool and a humorist who has misplaced the gift of laughter. — John Skow

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