Saturday, August 18, 2007

Waugh on Muggeridge: An Early (and Profoundly Prescient) View

It is always of interest when a couple of one's favorites interact. Thus, I've enjoyed very much sharing with you here at The Book Den a delightful letter from Max Beerbohm to G.K. Chesterton, the radio announcement from Lowell Thomas on the death of Chesterton, the description of the meeting of Malcolm Muggeridge and Francis Schaeffer, and even the item I recently posted over on Vital Signs Blog linking Chuck Norris and Elvis Presley.

But printed below is a particularly meaningful contact, one that I appreciate on several levels. 1) It involves the contact of two of the most talented and perceptive writers in English letters, Evelyn Waugh (pictured at upper left) and Malcolm Muggeridge (shown at lower right). 2) It reveals the truly remarkable flair Waugh had both for literary interpretation and moral judgment. And 3) It shows some of the seeds of truth and longing that God planted in the young hedonist that Muggeridge was, seeds which would, years later, find fruition in his embrace of Christianity.

Really fascinating stuff.

So here, from the May 27th issue (1938) of the Spectator is Evelyn Waugh's review of Malcolm Muggeridge's latest book at the time, In a Valley of This Restless Mind.

Desert Islander

Fifty years ago, to have said of a book - on a serious subject, by an experienced writer, under the imprint of a reputable firm - that it was grammatical would have been to damn it with faint praise; nowadays it is an extravagant expression of surprise and gratitude. There are, no doubt, many reasons for this general decay of literary decency - the popular heresy that resemblance constitutes identity; pernicious early association with teachers who, instead of knocking the elements of syntax into their pupils' pates, regard 'English' classes as an opportunity to inflame their imaginations; later, the habit of the typewriter and the stenographer; the final annulment of the long-estranged marriage of popular journalism and literature. Whatever the influences, Mr Muggeridge has escaped them, and it is a pleasure to welcome him into that very small company of writers whose work would escape the red ink of the Victorian governess. His new book gives the reader the hope that no two words mean exactly the same to him; the punctuation, though not always orthodox (commas before ands), is usually consistent; with the exception of three painful conjunctival uses of 'like', there are no barbarities of grammar; there is an abundance of literary allusion and concealed quotation to flatter the reader's knowledge. It is, in fact, a highly unusual and welcome piece of workmanship.

The approval of the Victorian governess would, however, be rigidly limited to the book's style. Much of the subject matter would strike her as obscene and blasphemous and may even now offend the fastidious. That warning should be given before the book is commended without reserve. But it is a warning to the reader, not a criticism of the writer, because the indecent passages of the book are not blemishes; they are an organic part of it, necessary to its life.
It is not an easy book to describe. It has affinities, in form, with Candide and, in temper, with Voyage au bout de la nuit. It is a highly symbolized and stylized autobiography whose range includes satirical reportage and something very near prophecy.

'What are you interested in?' asks the literary editor.

I said I was interested in Lust and in Money and in God.

'I've seen a book lying about that might be suitable. Short notice if worth it.'

These three are the topics of Mr Muggeridge's inquiry. Several incidents -one very brilliantly and ruthlessly describes a passage with an intellectual and humane wanton - illustrate his attitude to lust, which is that of the surfeited and rather scared Calvinist. No one with an acute moral sense could ta
ke these passages for pornography; they will, however, be distasteful to those who shirk the theological implications of the word 'Lust'; to those, in particular, who like something 'spicy'. They are very dry and gloomy episodes reminiscent of the When lovely woman stoops to folly' passage in The Waste Land. In brief, what Mr Muggeridge has discovered and wishes to explain is the ancient piece of folk-wisdom that Lust and Love are antithetical and that Lust is boring.

His conclusions about money are that it has become the symbol in terms of which the greater part of mankind measure happiness and well-being; that it is in fact trash. The hero for a few delirious weeks enjoys the favours of Mammon, who is symbolized by a 'Sir John'; he is abandoned as capriciously as he has been adopted. He goes on a quest of money among his friends, finds a little and deliberately throws it away as worthless.

His quest for God, for 'Purity of Heart', does not take him very far. He meets an urbane archdeacon, a theatrical Anglo-Catholic monk, a revivalist, a psychoanalyst, an Indian theosophist, a rose-growing rector and finds that none of them are
of any help to him. His is that particularly English loneliness of a religiously minded man suddenly made alive to the fact that he is outside Christendom.

The conclusions he reaches, indeed, are sound and topical; he has arrived at negative truths by a highly interesting process. Three other major characters move through the types which throng the book - the left-wing political journalist, the perverted novelist and a mysterious and horrible Mrs Angel; all these are drawn with a precision and confidence that suggest portraiture. Mrs Angel, decaying, restless, tenacious of life, actuated by nothing except a futile curiosity, is the most remarkable of three triumphs of writing which, alone, would make the book valuable.

What has been written above may suggest the temper of the book; it gives little idea of the form. It is written in the first person but it makes no attempt at autobiography in the chronological or informative sense. The first words are, 'Looking for God, I sat in Westminster Abbey'; the last: 'I, a man, an atom of love, was soon to die, as every other man and beast and plant and stone, the very universe, must die.' Thus, in a sense, the whole order of the book has been turned topsy-turvy. Between these grave statements are included: a very good, brief letter describing a domestic holiday in Egypt, a dream of a dying wife, an analysis of newspaper reading, great gushes of rather Dickensian compassion quickly stifled; there is a scene of street-corner oratory which deserves extensive quotation:

'We are all in the same plight,' I shouted, 'all strangers in a strange land.'
One or two gathered round... They were menacing. Someone gave me a push. 'You shut your mouth,' one or two of them grumbled.

'Ladies and gentlemen,' I began, to reassure them, 'I am here tonight to ask you to give your votes...'

Now they were easier. They stood back.

'Comrades,' I began, 'you know what...hunger is...You have a Vote; cast it...'

'Hear, hear!' one or two shouted.

'May I suggest,' I went on, warming, 'that you become registered readers of the Daily Express. It's first with the news;... its motto is service; it costs only a penny.'
I took off my hat and they began to feel in their pockets.

This passage, greatly compressed in quotation, is typical of the author's method; the sudden superb swoop into nonsense is, for the man of words, one of the bitterest denials possible; the denial that anything is more worth saying than anything else.

The book combines the sense of futility of the 'twenties' with the serious-mindedness and world-conscientiousness of the 'thirties'. I suggest that in the next ten years we shall see a number of imitators, as its spirit of disillusionment spreads among the ideologues. But it is too much to hope that we shall see many as well written.

(Source: The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. 1983. Little, Brown and Company)