With Malcolm Muggeridge
Malcolm Muggeridge is arguably the most famous—and certainly the most articulate—born-again Christian this side of Jimmy Carter. In the last few years, his prolific pen has thundered against abortion, materialism and the decline of morality and has prophesied the imminent collapse of Western civilization. His jeremiads strike home with a fervor that would silence John the Baptist. He has taken to Christianity the way a starving man approaches a banquet table; hungrily and without apology. But he does it with style, an understanding of human frailty and a richly woven sense of humor. His new incarnation as a proselytizer for the old morality comes at the end of a lifetime of varied careers. He has been, in turn, an academic, a spy, foreign correspondent, novelist, playwright, editor and television personality. In the mid-Fifties, he nearly lost his job with the BBC for his virulent attacks on the British monarchy. The London Times has called his autobiography, Chronicles Of Wasted Time, the finest of the 20th century. Muggeridge doesn’t touch meat, alcohol or tobacco and grows his own vegetables beside his restored Elizabethan farmhouse in Sussex. This fall he will commute from Europe to Canada to teach a journalism course at the University of Western Ontario. "St. Mugg” spoke with Maclean's Contributing Editor Casey Baldwin while on a visit to Toronto.
Maclean’s: You have said the idea of Canada is a fantasy.
Muggeridge: What I meant by that is Canadians want to establish their separateness from the great American way of life. I perfectly understand that. They could do that at one time when England was still an important part of your country, by pitting English influences against American. But the bottom’s fallen out of that, because the bottom’s fallen out of our way of life. [England] is a bum; a little island off the coast of Europe in bad, bad trouble. We don’t know what is going to happen to us. We will probably be dismembered, go bankrupt in a racially mixed population, where whites are declining.
Maclean’s: You mean we are now an A merican satellite whereas before we were a British satellite.
Muggeridge: Well I would have said you had the chance to play it both ways. There are Canadians who play the American way and Canadians who play the British way. But now one no longer appeals to you and the other is no longer open to you. You
have to try and find a Canadian identity and I don’t think one exists.
Maclean’s: Are there no important differences between the United States and Canada?
Muggeridge: I would say that is true, in
The century’s most disastrous inventions are: nuclear fission, the camera, the pill
any essential way to do with the word culture, except of course in Quebec, which makes Quebec interesting and in my opinion is why they have this separatist tendency, because the only way they can protect themselves from getting sucked into this great American way of life is by the fantasies of their French identity, language, literature and patriotism. If I were a Québécois, I think it would appeal to me,
because Í would think this is a way in which I can escape being absorbed. But for the English-speaking Canadian who has to try and dredge up some evidence he has developed a separate culture, I think this is a bum steer. So if I were to ask myself if I were a Canadian what I would do, well I think I would either accept the inevitability of being Americanized, or if I were a Québécois I think I would be behind Mr. Lévesque. Not on any rational or utilitarian grounds but just because it does provide some sort of viable alternative mostly of course due to the language.
Maclean’s: But almost a spiritual alternative.
Muggeridge: Yes. It would have appealed to me more when Quebec was strongly Roman Catholic, but that’s lost now. The Roman Catholic church is losing its influence everywhere and has lost it in Quebec. Maclean’s: The pro-abortionists are concerned about such things as the well-being of the mother, and to many Canadians Henry Morgentaler is a hero.
Muggeridge: If you asked any competent gynecologist whether he was in favor of abortion or against it, he would tell you that the issue no longer arises, unless once in a blue moon, the question of saving the mother or saving the child because medicine can cope with that.
Maclean’s: What about the mother’s mental well-being?
Muggeridge: I would personally say that the evidence I have seen points much more in the direction of her mental equilibrium being disturbed by the emotional consequences of having an abortion than by the emotional aspects of having a baby that she can’t cope with. I have never known a case and I’ve asked many gynecologists, some who are in favor and some who aren’t, whether they could say with their hands on their hearts that having an abortion would not produce deep inward stresses, scars.
Maclean’s: You mentioned the pursuit of Eros as a symptom of Western decline. Muggeridge: Eros is the excitement of carnality. I think myself, when, if ever, someone attempts to analyze the basic consequences of the moral collapse of our way of life, a very important factor in that will be the disassociation of Eros from procreaI tion, the pursuit of Eros as an end rather than a means. It’s rather like the pursuit of eating, gastronomy; people go to great lengths when eating to flavor food with special things that would make one eat a lot of it. I think the three most disastrous inventions of this century would be nu-
clear fission, which presents security in terms of destruction; secondly, the camera, which presents fantasy in terms of reality, or vice versa; and the third would be the birth control pill, which presents sex in terms of sterility. Those three things destroy man.
Maclean’s: Were you a bit of a rake as a young man?
Muggerldge: I think you could say that without stretching the point. And certainly if I’d lived in this permissive age as a young man I think I’d probably have died ... the whole thing to me is so utterly preposterous. If I’d lived in this time when you can have a divorce without the slightest difficulty or the slightest social odium I think it would probably have busted up my marriage. You know some row we had or jealousy. How I should have regretted it; but I think now of what it means to me to have a companion of 50 years with whom you’ve lived and shared every single up and down, who has been with you jointly responsible for children and grandchildren who are part of the whole marvelous passing on of life. To think I might have thrown that away for some piffling little bit of randiness makes my blood run cold. Of course, with the present arrangement about divorce I think a lot of your generation forget how recent all this is. Maclean’s: So you would defend the institution of marriage as worthwhile glue. Muggeridge: Absolutely. Marriage and the family are two of the essential conditions of civilized existence.
Maclean’s: But it’s falling apart. Muggeridge: It’s chaos—I don’t know what you can do now. You’ve carried the permissive business so far that it is very difficult to see what you could do to reverse gear . . . For example, sex education; you take adolescent children and you tell them about contraception and the male and female organs. What is it you are really doing? You’re saying this is rather fun, have a go at this. I mean it’s ludicrous to think otherwise. The result is you see kids who really look like ravaged old tarts in their early twenties, with the joy and beauty of youth and innocence lost. I can’t for the life of me see what the people who advocate this think they’ll achieve by it, except syphilis, gonorrhea, and illegitimate babies in kids of 14 and 15. If I had been told these things at that age I would have immediately rushed out and had a go. Because I can’t see why I would have been told otherwise.
Maclean’s: You are a well-known interviewer on BBC TV. What about television? Muggerldge: I would say that I have had my aerials removed. If anyone would ask me, “Do you look at television?”, I’d say, “No, I’ve had my aerials removed.” And there’s no need to say much more than that.
Maclean’s: You are one of the senior iconoclasts of this century who believedfor a long time in rationality, yet at some point in your life you turned to faith.
Muggeridge: Well I would say that it is a process, not a sudden enlightenment. For me that process seriously began after my stint in Moscow. I then saw two things. First I saw that the attempt to create a Utopia, a perfect society through power, was only an attempt to make men, to shape men, to fit into that aspiration. The second thing I saw was that the intellectuals, because the intellectuals used to swarm into Moscow in those days, as they later swarmed into Peking, always used to say that this was the most wonderful show and
All you are telling kids with sex education is: This is rather fun, have a go at this’
we who were working and living there knew that they were displaying naïveté. Therefore I realize the fallibility of the mind. You know, Kitty’s [his wife] relatives, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, were the co-founders of the Welfare State and to some extent we went to Russia under their auspices as current favorite sons ... but we realized that people like the Webbs, although they were brave and total people, very experienced social investigators, when it came to the point, simply had no
capacity whatever to understand what was going on in life.
Maclean’s: So they had rather vested preconceptions.
Muggeridge: Right. And they displayed credulity which always baffled belief. Maclean’s: Was this your Christian watershed then, the beginning. ..
Muggeridge: I would say it was, when looking back, but I didn’t know what it represented at the time. Of course people often ask me . . . please tell us when you saw the light... and I have to say to them that I never saw the light. Over the years I plodded along trying to find reality amidst all the fantasy of the world; that has been my quest. And that quest had led me to take what could be called a religious position. In other words an explanation of man and the experience of man cannot be conveyed entirely in temporal terms. Maclean’s: You have said on occasion that Western civilization is doomed. Why? Muggeridge: Putting it in the simplest terms, Western man has tried to live without God, without a reference to any transcendental truth, and he has landed himself in a moral and spiritual vacuum. Maclean’s: We are morally bankrupt. Muggeridge: Yes, spiritually. And the fact that you are materially enormously rich, that you have vast resources is neither here nor there—you won’t change.
Maclean’s: Do you have any thoughts about what kind of society perhaps might supersede Western civilization?
Muggeridge: I don’t think anybody could foresee that, or could have ever done in similar circumstances in the past. I think that if you and I had been two of the great Romans talking together we couldn’t have foreseen this ludicrous cult of Christians ...
Maclean’s: You maintain that English North America, with the possible exception of Quebec, is a tenth-rate materialistic society, barren cultural ground. Muggeridge: Well I would say that that is true of the whole Western world. I don’t myself think that anything of true or firstrate importance, artistically, has been produced by man in this century. I think this is a century where civilization is running down. For example, Thomas Hardy or early Picasso, their work will stand—it really belongs to the 19th century. To try and find in the 20th century any writings, music or buildings that you could really say could stand beside Michelangelo, Beethoven and Tolstoy, would be very difficult. So I think it has been a period of artistic barrenness. And I think it’s probably true that man has only so much creativity and genius and that creative genius in man has gone into science; into what I consider a rather vain pursuit of exploring material circumstances and attempting to enhance his material conditions. I mean more has been achieved in the field of science in the last half century than in the whole of civilization.
Maclean’s: Then science and The Age Of
Reason is a dead end without faith. Muggeridge: I mean it was a very narrow sort of life . . . Voltaire was one of the greater skeptics, but this, in itself, presupposes some sort of mystery to account for the phenomena of the universe. Science has gone a good deal further and is one of the great problems of today. It dominates education and even our business of communication. It produces a much more shallow mind than Voltaire’s, who liked to make a joke. He said if God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent one, which is a very shrewd observation. One thing for certain, God is not real in a scientific sense. And Voltaire would make that kind of crack, saying something that was not really blasphemous or irreverent. He was saying that men need God, that the fact that they need God is itself evidence that God exists. You say that men are hungry, therefore bread exists. Plato said there is a violin, and the fact there is one proves the existence of music. This is not a metaphysical trick, it is a fact that what our nature desperately needs. The fact it needs it is itself evidence of its existence.
Maclean’s: Could not God be a figment of our highest aspirations?
Muggeridge: Of course it could. The fact is that, through the centuries, it is not that sort of God that has in fact produced in human beings dynamic virtue. This incarnate God that can be loved is not proof of his existence but faith in God has produced this tremendous dynamic.
Maclean’s: Will you have a life after death? Muggeridge: It’s impossible to know and it’s foolish to speculate what it would be like. I could never persuade myself even as a child that God brought this universe into existence in order that this rather ludicrous homo sapiens should cavort with us for three score years and 10 and then expire. I couldn’t see that. I mean there must be some other larger purpose. I don’t know exactly what that is, but I accept it as so. Maclean’s: Since we are on the subject, what kind offuneral would you have, would it be largely ritual, or would you like no fuss? Muggeridge: I am absolutely indifferent for when my soul has left my body what happens to my body is as uninteresting to me as what happens to me when I leave this room tomorrow and take a plane for somewhere else.
Maclean’s: Would you donate your body to science?
Muggeridge: No. I am rather skeptical about doctors. They have come to think of man purely as bodies with an arrangement for spare parts which could keep the thing on the road forever. This is how they see things and occasionally from time to time, through being involved in the euthanasia and the abortion controversy, what appalls me is that the ones who really are of this age can’t even understand what you mean if you say that you can’t disregard human beings as bodies.
Maclean’s: Do you have a big ego? Muggeridge: I fear so, yes. I’m afraid that ego lifts up its cobra head ... it is indestructible obviously, and as long as we are living on this earth there will be egos. It’s fascinating if you think about it, because the thing about it is that it’s insatiable—you can’t satisfy it. For instance, supposing I were to say to you, I so admire you and your ways and I wouldn’t in the least mind you spending an evening with my wife... it wouldn’t please you. If on the other hand I were to say, I would never allow my wife to spend an evening with a nasty son of a bitch like you that wouldn’t please you ei-
Nothing of first-rate importance has been produced, artistically, in the 20th century
ther. In other words, the ego always wants it both ways. It wants to be rich and poor. It wants to be successful and unsuccessful. It wants to belong to the establishment and be against the establishment.
Maclean’s: That is almost built-in
Muggeridge: That’s why schizophrenia has become so common in our society because so many forces in our society pry it apart. In times of relative stability, you have a sort of modus vivendi when the rival planes of your ego can be relatively harmonized, but when you embark upon a really crazy time like now you can’t do that, and that’s why you have these terrible incidents of mental stress and strain. Maclean’s: Women’s liberation was also put forward by you as another symptom of the end of the West. Why so?
Muggeridge: Because the family is vital to the stability of our way of life. Women’s lib obviously destroys the family.
Maclean’s: Can’t a woman still bear and work?
Muggeridge: She can’t have a family; she can’t have this unit that’s been an essential feature of our way of life for centuries and still work. I think the family, the family basis of roles for the father, the mother and the children, is thrown out of sync by women’s lib. I could claim—and every teacher would agree with me—in a class of kids you can spot the ones from broken homes; they have a kind of difference, a lack of security.
Maclean’s: You once termed Prime Minister Trudeau as unprincipled.
Muggeridge: That is my impression. He seems to be a man who’s rather typical of Western governments, and I should say Carter and Callaghan are like that. Maclean’s: What choice would you make between a perhaps dying capitalism and an emerging China?
Muggeridge: I think Communism is dying also. Communism is, as Toynbee said, a Western heresy, and I don’t think China’s Communism has created a viable alternative any more than Stalin did. You know, sooner or later, unless we lose our technology, it will be necessary to set up some arrangement for exchanging goods and so on. But I don’t think that anything Mao or Lenin did offered an alternative. It’s just another version of what we are doing. Maclean’s: Do we have any hope? Muggeridge: Well you haven’t got any hope in earthly terms, no hope at all, the show will break up—the moral collapse has gone too far; but of course all things are possible with God. For example, look what’s happened to such people as Solzhenitsyn. If you had told me when I was a young journalist in Russia that a man like that could emerge from that regime, talking this language of deep spirituality, I would have said you were out of your mind. I think nobody escapes anything. In eternity you’ll find that every human life in terms of suffering etc. amounts to about the same as every other. But in different terms.
Maclean’s: Are you a happy man? Muggeridge: I would say I was inordinately happy, yes. Things that have made me unhappy, like being successful, grabbing hold of a lot of money,etc.,are what’s wrong. What is our situation? We are creatures who can conceive perfection and who, by our nature, are imperfect. This is a formula for trouble, an absolute copperbottomed formula for trouble. If the human race goes on for another 359 million years this would still be the situation.1^?