Sense and Nonsense: On Where the Other Foot Is

One morning I noticed a striking filler piece at the end of a column on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. I did not read the explanatory italics, so I did not realize just why this particular passage was there. What it contained was the following brief citation from Malcolm Muggeridge, from an inter-view in the Times of London from 1981. I had just assumed that the Journal, like everyone else, me included, loved to cite Muggeridge.

Muggeridge had remarked to the Times: “I have always looked forward to death . . .  It would be a terrible prospect, wouldn’t it, to just go on and on and on? Everything is bearable because we die.”

A friend of mine, to whom I read the passage, told me that Muggeridge had just died — so that was the reason for the little filler. My friend went on to reflect that such a remark was one of the “most counter-cultural comments” we could conceive. I went back to look at the italics, which said that Muggeridge had died the previous Wednesday.

A couple of days later, I tried to go through recent stacks of the Washington Post to see if I could find their obituary on Muggeridge. After some digging about in a huge stack of old papers, with much black print stain on my hands, I found the obituary. I tore out the rather long column together, by chance, with three other brief obituaries that surrounded Muggeridge’s. For no particular reason, I happened to read one obituary following Muggeridge’s. The deceased man, utterly unknown to me, was fifty-two and had died of AIDS. The gentleman had run a clothing store, had served in the army in Ethiopia, was a Mason, was divorced. He left no survivors.

 

Curiously, I looked at the second death notice. This man was 31 years old, had attended a Jesuit prep school, and was a network news researcher. He left a male “companion” and a blood brother and had worked for a musical group, for the Child Welfare League of America; he, too, had died of AIDS.

The third man was a lawyer, 71, who died at George Washington University Hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest at a Harvard Club Luncheon at the National Press Club. He was a trustee and usher at the Unitarian Church in Washington. He was also a member of the “Sufi Order in the West, a religious organization.” This man was divorced and also “left no immediate survivors.”

Somehow these three obituaries in the most famous newspaper in the nation’s capital were placed immediately following that of Malcolm Muggeridge, the delightful and incisive British journalist, writer, and apologist. This juxtaposition seemed symbolic to me both of the kind of civilization we live in and of the sterility that Muggeridge saw in so much of the Western world. Muggeridge, who so delighted in being grandfather of seven, was surrounded in his death notice by three unknown men who had no issue at all.

In his The Infernal Grove, Muggeridge recounted the death of Beatrice Webb, the famous socialist lady who was his wife’s aunt. Muggeridge described Beatrice Webb’s last days and the very different character of his mother-in- law, whom Beatrice Webb thought, as Muggeridge described it, “politically speaking, a kind of imbecile.” On the other hand, Muggeridge thought that, watching her sister in her last days, Beatrice Webb had second thoughts about her own political enthusiasms. After all, Mrs. Webb and her husband were world renowned for their praising of the regime of Josef Stalin. She suspected that her sister, Mrs. Dobbs, had “chosen the better part in her willfulness and easy surrender to sensual living, which, after all, had left her with a tribe of children and grandchildren, as against the row of what Mrs. Webb always referred to as her and Sidney’s unreadable books.” Again, Muggeridge’s rejection of sterility is hinted at.

One time, many years ago, I was returning from Rome to the States via Heathrow Airport in London. I had some time before my flight, and so I wandered into a bookstore with my last pound. There I saw Muggeridge’s Jesus Rediscovered, which had just been published in paperback by Collins.

As I look through these pages now, noticing my underlinings, I realize that the clergy in this century have not had a more incisive and biting critic than Malcolm Muggeridge. In these days of Marxist decline, with almost its only enthusiastic defenders left a few pious souls in Roman collars, I cannot help but be amused at the following remarks of Malcolm Muggeridge:

Experience shows that those who ask little tend to be accorded nothing  — a saying which may well be the epitaph of twentieth-century institutional Christianity . . . If the directors of the vegetarian movement were to petition the Worshipful Company of Butchers for affiliation, it would not be nearly so funny as the spectacle of the Church’s involvement in the notion of material progress, political liberation and the realisation through the exercise of power and the creation of wealth of a kingdom of heaven on earth. How I envy the historian who, like Gibbon, will look back across the centuries at the hilarious spectacle of Marxist-Christian dialogues attempting to find common ground between the brutal atheism of the Communist Manifesto and the Sermon on the Mount; of pious clergymen attaching themselves to enraged mobs shouting for Black Power or Student Power or some other crazed shibboleth; of an Anglican bishop in gaiters recommending Lady Chatterley’ s Lover. Such lunacy, I assure you, is the despair of professional comedians.

These remarks were from a sermon Muggeridge gave in Queen’s Cross Church in Aberdeen, May 26, 1968. Muggeridge always thought the foibles, intellectual and otherwise, of the clergy and the professors gave unfair competition to professional humorists like himself. But Muggeridge would have had no trouble agreeing with a friend of mine who expands his principle to suspect that life itself is by far the greatest delight we can be given.

Muggeridge was no doubt irrepressible and engaging. In many ways, he was the wittiest man of our era. Muggeridge himself grew up in a strong socialist family and found its ideology maddening. “I was brought up to be an ardent believer in the religion of our age — utopianism.” After a brief stint in the 1920s as a reporter in Moscow, he escaped such utopianism as quickly and as carefully as he could.

Muggeridge entitled his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time, which, I believe, is a line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The book is full of surprises. At the end of World War II, Muggeridge was in Paris and somehow became involved in the case of P.G. Wodehouse and his German radio broadcasts. Muggeridge thought them innocent enough. Indeed, he arranged to have George Orwell meet Wodehouse.

Orwell was a great admirer of Wodehouse’s writings, and I was happy to arrange for them to meet. The essay he wrote following their meeting provides, I should say, about the best treatment of the subject there is, apart from Waugh’s elegant broadcast tribute on Wodehouse’s eightieth birthday. The two of them got on very well, though afterwards Wodehouse said to me that Orwell seemed a gloomy sort of chap. He did give this impression at first, but, on closer acquaintance it became clear that he was really, in his own odd way, quite a happy man.

Needless to say, I will look up Orwell and Waugh on Wodehouse, if only to meet a happy man, though I must say both Wodehouse and Muggeridge seem to me to also have been essentially happy men.

Muggeridge appeared more often on William Buckley’s “Firing Line” than any other guest, and certainly he was the most entertaining as well as the most insightful. If it is possible to say this without perplexity, he brought out the best in Buckley. I would say, too, that Buckley brought out the best in Muggeridge. But I venture to add that flaky professors (most of the lot, I am afraid, in Muggeridge’s view), solemn politicians, abortionists, and silly clerics proved to be irresistible targets for Muggeridge’s wit. They were well advised to stay as clear of him as possible in this vale of tears.

“Theology is one of those subjects,” Muggeridge wrote in the Introduction to Jesus Rediscovered,

like algebra and thermodynamics, in which I have never been able to interest myself. I am a theological ignoramus, and likely to remain one to the end of my days. Saintly and lion-hearted men, I know, have died heroically for concepts like the Trinity and the Virgin Birth, which stir no more partisanship in me, one way or the other, than, say the enchanting story of the creation in the Book of Genesis. All I can find to say for the Genesis version is that it strikes me as more plausible than Professor Hoyle’s and I certainly find the Virgin Birth as a notion more sympathetic than, say, family planning.

Now that we have reached “the end of Muggeridge’s days,” I think we need not take too seriously his protestation that he knew nothing of theology or algebra for that matter. He was quite right about Professor Hoyle and the graveyard that is family planning.

In 1978, at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Malcolm Muggeridge gave the “Pascal Lecture on Christianity and the University.” The lecture was called “The End of Christendom,” and was later published by Eerdmans. After the lecture, someone asked Muggeridge, “what do you have to say to the established Church in the West, which at this point has at least one foot still in Christendom?” To this question, Muggeridge replied, “I think it depends entirely where you think the other foot is.” The man was irresistible.

Where did Muggeridge himself think the other foot ought to be? Seven years ago, Muggeridge became a Catholic. In his statement on his conversion in the Times, Muggeridge explained:

It might seem rather absurd for someone like myself well into his eightieth year to be seeking admission to a particular church — in my case, the Roman Catholic Church. Like taking out a life insurance policy when one’s life is almost at an end. Yet since membership in a Church is to do with eternity rather than time, years are scarcely a consideration. After all, babies are baptized before they can understand the significance of baptism, so why should not octogenarians be received into a Church shortly before leaving it in a coffin? Becoming a Catholic is something I have brooded over for many years; longing to take the step.

We cannot help but think of that coffin, of the end of Muggeridge’s broodings, of the step he took.

No one but herself, moreover, did more than Muggeridge to make Mother Teresa known throughout the world. Muggeridge also loved Pope John Paul II, I am sure as much because of his enemies as because of his magnetism and philosophical acumen.

The obituary  in the Washington Post was written by Bart Barnes. It would be difficult to write a bad obituary of Muggeridge. As a former editor of Punch, Muggeridge was a gold mine of dazzling print. As a spy in East Africa during the war and a son of socialism, he led a life full of adventure. Barnes recognized a fellow journalist without quite getting what Muggeridge was about: “The advantages of being a journalist, [Muggeridge] once said, included the opportunity ‘for close contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them or take them seriously.'” Barnes added, “in fact, there was little that Mr. Muggeridge did take seriously. ‘There is nothing serious under the sun except love: of fellow mortals and of God,’ he once said.”

Of course, this notion of not taking life “seriously” in order to devote our lives to the love of men and God is first found in Plato. One wonders what Muggeridge would have made of a reporter, who, in Muggeridge’s own obituary, seemed to miss exactly what he was about. Someone once said that the whole law is contained in two sayings: love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.

In the last paragraph of Jesus Rediscovered, we read:

If you imagine your life made by a different God, made perfect, it wouldn’t be life. The process of creation contains in itself its own imperfections; the pursuit of perfection is via imperfection, as the pursuit of spiritual love is via the physical body. This is how it is, and this is the majesty of it, and why it is interesting. This is why there is literature, why there is art, why there is thought, and how we may know there is a God — a loving God — whose children we all are.

No one has said it better. We run competition with the comedians just by living. “This is how it is, and this is the majesty of it.”

Muggeridge knew that joy was serious because he knew that, ultimately, for joy we exist.

The other foot, the last step, has “to do with eternity rather than with time.”

“Everything is bearable because we die.”

“There is nothing serious under the sun except love — of fellow mortals and of God.”

“If you imagine your life made by a different God, made perfect, it wouldn’t be life.” Muggeridge’s was not made different. It was a life. He knew where his two feet were planted.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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