Malcolm Muggeridge, the English journalist who has delighted a good many millions (himself not least) with acerbic comments about both the Establishment and counterculture of various continents, found himself being introduced at a congressional breakfast yesterday as "this dear and lovely man, Brother Muggeridge."
"Did you hear him? Muggeridge?" cried a young woman in the hall of the Washington Hilton afterward. "O, wonderful, wow."
O. Wonderful Wow himself has been cast in recent years, especially since his autobiography, "Chronicles of Wasted Time," in which he makes it clear he did not waste his life at all, as a major sinner come at last to the fold.
The fold, this week, has been the convention of National Religious Broadcasters.
He certainly is not all the way in, as far as conventional manners are concerned, and related his question to a bishop, "Are bishops necessary?" (To which the bishop sensibly replied, "Necessary or not, they exist," leaving Muggeridge to mull on that for the nonce.)
And he could not resist pointing out that marriage counselors all tend to be divorced. (A marriage counselor at the convention, where Muggeridge has been an even greater star than Anita Bryant, is divorced from his wife.)
As for "professional communicators," he made it clear they can barely talk their way onto a street-car and are chronically incapable of communicating, and the road to private and public bankruptcy, he said - just in case any profession was being slighted - is paved pretty solidly with economists. So much for experts.
The Romans, he said, used the entrails of fowls to prognosticate, whereas we use polls. "A perfect arrangement would be to use Dr. Gallup's entrails," he thoughfully suggested, "the only disadvantage being that you could only use them once."
The whole world has pretty much gone to hell in a handbasket, one gathered, and part of it is the fault of a sanctimonious and bumbling press, though those were not his words.
". . . The Don Quixotes of the press, when they so valiantly charge the windmills of Watergate . . ." You get the drift.
Afterward someone asked him if "it would have been better for The Washington Post, say, to ignore the Watergatestory like the rest of the press in the beginning?" but he said God forbid, or words to that effect. It is just that do-gooders ("and Don Quixote is the ideal do-gooder") commonly wind up producing the opposite of what was intended, he said.
He himself, after all, used to "go like the devil up and down in the land, questing news" and he certainly believed that "any disinterested effort to find truth is immensely valuable," but "when the media has a malign side, it is in this, that the means suddenly become the end - the pursuit of the kill and the thing is distorted and magnified."
That is because the press (for the most part, at least) is human and shares the common human propensity to botch things up, however good the original intentions may have been. The Fearful Symmetry
He spoke, in an interview at the hotel, of the "fearful symmetry" of the tiger, in Blake's poem in which the poet asks who could frame that beast's fearful symmetry - so beautiful in stripes and muscles and grace, so awful in destruction.
It's not just the press that's frightful sinner, he said courteously, but everyone else, too. We set out, he said, to insure some Utopia here on earth, making the enormous mistake of thinking we can shape an earthly paradise. But laws intended for welfare become the opposite of welfare, and efforts to find peace and security for a nation wind up producing and weapons "that can blow the earth to smithereens. And that is our fearful symmetry."
Now the real trouble, he said, is that our (to us reasonable) hopes and fears are equally beside the point, because "here we have no continuing city," but are sojourners, and we are wrong to put our trust in human solutions to our human problems.
Muggeridge was in full fettle for the 7:45 a.m. breakfast, just as he had been for a late-evening showing of his new film (made by a Dutch evangelical outfit) the night before. Twenty-one congressmen were introduced among the guests.
Muggeridge at 75 is white-haired, what there is of it, and looks like nothing so much as a rural vicar about to set out to examine the hounds.
His eyes are strong mid-blue and his pink scalp and merry smile suggest a life without burdens, and yet (for all his wit and laughter) he has sometimes found himself close to despair, or at it, and been pulled back amazingly to life.
"An old superannuated journalist like myself came belatedly and reluctantly to see in Christ" is the only answer he can see at all.
But television (he has a religious sort of series on British television) keeps trying to make him into and old curmudgeon who suddenly saw the light on some Damascus Road, "and that's all phony - I am the same man I was 40 years ago, and anyone who read me might have noticed I had always been searching."
He learned as a journalist "only one thing - the buffoonery of power and of those who seek it."
Indeed, in his film he mocks the worldly great with their images at a waxworks - mere images, he said. Not that maked, complicated, anguished human that really existed.
"Did you also learn," he was asked, "about the buffoonery and pretensions of the meek and the poor?"
"They cannot manage so much to invent images for themselves, and they have fewer illusions than the great, that they are powerful," he said.
His words, at various sessions during the convention, have been pepered with quotations from or allusions to Shakespeare, Cervantes, Johnson, Donne, Herbert, Blake, Augustine and no telling how many more, so in a way it was ironic he proved such a smash hit with the evangelical broadcasters who rarely quote Grade-A writers.
He said, more than once that the worst possible thing would be for men to bring about a Utopia because it would be just as Aldous Huxley predicted in "Brave New World."
"A place where only beauty queens and Mensa intellects would be produced," he said with a sneering contempt worthy an emperor spotting a dirty shirt.
"Finding only deception (he was disillusioned with Soviet Russia: he has been disillusioned with all human solutions that are not based on "absolute" standards or morality) and nothingness, the soul is contrained to rest in Him - this is the true message of religious broadcasting, nothing else."
Men at last have the choice of being a saint or a clown, and the powerful opt for clownship, he went on.
Not that he hates clowning. One of his major gripes against the great is their common inability (he says) to laugh at themselves or let others (if they can help it) do so.
"When the celestial gates open," he said, leaning back in his chair, eyeing his wife, Kitty, who was seated across the room (where perhaps he could be sure she would not pop out with something quotable herself, since she is quite capable of it) - "when the celestial gates open for me as I expect them to do very soon now, I shall certainly hear, along with the trumpets, the unmistakable sound of laughter."
In fact, he said, "there will be some saints there who, you know, you simply have to let in, yet they may have lacked a bit of humor themselves, and that laughter at the gates is designed, I imagine, to sort of break them in, to what Heaven will be truly like."
Since art, learning, sophistication and so forth are no true security against despair and inner failure (as he more than once implied) then what is the worth of civilization and its high art in the first place?
"For shorthand, take Donne and Handel to stand for human civilization and art," he said.
"I do not mean for a second that all that glory is worthless, or that we should ignore it."
It is just that even that is not enough, he indicated with an expression and a gesture. The Testament
His film, "Twentieth Century Testament" would be laughed to oblivion, he said, if anybody offered it to a major network. The would not want it.
It opens with Muggeridge puttering about in a Sussex churchyard where he expects he will be buried beside his father. He is by no means afraid of that day.
The scene shifts, and there he is waddling down an extremely narrow path - narrower than the road to virtue, obviously - with a pail of grain for his six chickens. ("We eat the eggs, not the chickens," said Kitty Muggeridge, when her husband left the room for a minute. "I would not want anyone to think we killed the chickens.")
While she was about it, she told why they had no dog:
"Once we had a dog, a very nice one actually, but after a few years he took to biting people and it would not do. But fortunately we had a friend who said there was no need to destroy him - she would make him a guard dog for her other dogs," she said.
Just here Mrs. Muggeridge gave one of those long sorrowful looks of experience.
"But a couple of days later she phoned to say she had had to have him destroyed after all. He ate two of the dogs he was supposed to be guarding. Both Pekingese, I believe."
Her husband returned and the segregated life of the room resumed.
"The Sea of Galilee, how unspoiled it is. Some shrines are made vulgar but the sea and its hills are the same as in Christ's own day."
In his film an air of Handel's recurs six times or so, every few minutes, "Thanks Be to God," it goes on, who saved Israel in her fear and led her through the sea.
Of course Muggeridge did on occasion formerly do terrible things, such as review books without reading them first, he said.
"I used to turn the pages," he said a bit in extenuation, "but I always did agree with Dr. Johnson who said of Congreve's novel that he had rather praise them than read them. Of course if you take off against a book then you have to read it."
Since Muggeridge almost never like any books (if one may trust one's memory of his reviews) he may have read more than he lets on.
"Dr. Johnson always said there were only three books he ever wished longer, 'Don Quixote,' 'Pilgrim's Progress' and 'Robinson Crusoe." I agree, except why do you suppose he stuck in 'Robinson Crusoe?'"
In his film he speaks in exalted monosyllables and quiet rhythms, the sort writers always fall into when they mean for the reader to pay attention.
Because there is his testament, magnanimous and brooding, over the sorrow of life and the love of God. But in an afternoon panel session there was no need to be so grand, and he allowed himself a number of non-Handelian measures:
"This debauchery, of which television is only one manifestation, is part of the development which parliaments approve."
As for the Church of England and its moral leadership: "A third of the bishops voted against abortion, a third voted for it and a third abstained - so much for a united church."
And, "If we say to a child, 'You mustn't look,' at some awful thing on television we're giving the child a strong invitation to see it, by hook or by crook."
And returning to his theme of the fearful symmetry and do-good boomerangs:
"The BBC which is not under the necessity of ratings, has led the field in violence and eroticism."
But he warned those present, who might wish to organize groups to protest violent TV programming of a further boomerang:
"I have heard a British producer say, just after a terrible program, that 'with a bit of luck we'll get a blast,' and thus a religious protest may actually promote the program," because "protest, too, can serve the devil's purposes."
The past 10 years have shown such a decline in standards generally - undreamed of in the past - that he compared it to "a hideous experiment involving frogs, who were put in a pan of cold water, gradually heated to the boiling point. The frogs died, but so gradual was the increasing heat lapplied that it never occurred to them to try to get out. And we are those frogs."
He castigated the English TV series, "Civilisation" with Kenneth Clark, which dealt with culture through the centuries "without mentioning Christianity to speak of. Some of these things are even more serious than sex and violence."
Once yesterday he turned again - the glee at this own naughty quips set aside, and in fact one had a slight sense that some of the fireworks were shot off partly as foils for the calm night he wished to speak of, too:
"The line of good and evil passes right through the human heart." And he spoke of the Russian author, Solzhenitsyn, who had sent a message to the breakfasst saying thank God for his Gulag imprisonment since it woke his heart up, and who said it woke his heart up, and who said it is not governments that matter, but individual consciences. St. Mug
St. Mug (as he has been called) said he himself had learned most that he now knows through adversity.
"Well," said his questioner, "if adversity teaches us so much and is so profitable, why is it nobody seems to be running to embrace it?"
Few exhorters to piety, after all, seem to be looking for crucifixions.
"We are so made that we pursue ends we know to be disastrous, avoiding what might heal us."
He lightened a little:
"You know I have always been interested in gargoyles, those amusing downspouts on cathedrals. How do you suppose they ever got them spot the solemn arts commissions of the day? But the gargoyles spouting down, and the stepples rising into the sky, they are both necessary." A less fearful symmetry, you might say.
Once he said, rather bursting out:
"Bless you, Life. For having made me aware. The joy of being in the human family."
Once he said, when he had been speaking of the churchyard and his death, which he supposes is not all that many years off:
"The darkness. This old battered carcass. And on the horison the lights of the City of God."
Once he said, not wishing to seem too grand:
"You know, they once called me the poor man's Augustine," and he gave out his devilish, or gargoyle, chuckle.