Just after that, I started reading Chronicles of Wasted Time, the autobiography of journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.
Right off the bat, in the foreword, the idea of artist as prophet is broached. Ian Hunter writes there:
If Muggeridge was sometimes mocked and seldom heeded — well, that is the fate of prophets, as Jeremiah discovered when, for his insights, he got himself chucked down a well. Prophets unsettle our preconceptions and disturb our complacency. Muggeridge never claimed to be a prophet. When others, like Cardinal Manning of Los Angeles, applied that label to him, he demurred: ‘I am no prophet, no, nor prophet’s son,’ he said, then adapting Amos; ‘I was a journalist and the Lord took me as I was at my typewriter.’ Yet no perceptive reader of the ensuing pages will fail to be struck by Muggeridge’s prophetic genius.
The Foreword also contains a few, what it calls “delicious Muggeridgisms”:
In our time the genius of man has gone into science, where it has achieved the most astounding results — far, far greater in my lifetime than in the whole of the rest of recorded time. In literature and the arts, in mysticism and religion, nothing has been done that will be of any major interest to posterity, and a good deal that will invite derision and even contempt. (1967)
The twentieth century’s version of Descartes’ famous dictum is, ‘I screw, therefore I am.’ (1969)
The State, in fact, is the greatest of all tyrants, the ultimate tyrant. Kings can be executed, oligarchies can be broken up, millionaires can be despoiled of their money, Popes can be defied and heresies persisted in, but the State is, in principle, ourselves, and how can we put down ourselves? We who are the Leviathan cannot slay it. (1954)
Perhaps the hinge-pin of Muggeridge’s argument that artists bear the role of prophet is on page 14 of the tome:
The imagination, at however rudimentary a level, reaches into the future. So its works have a prophetic quality. A Dostoevsky foresees just what a revolution will mean in Russia — in a sense, foresees the Soviet regime and Stalin; whereas a historian like Miliukov and his liberal-intellectual friends envisage the coming to pass of an amiable parliamentary democracy. Similarly, a Blake or a Herman Melville sees clearly through the imagination the dread consequences industrialism and technology must have for mankind, whereas, as envisaged in the mind of a Herbert Spencer or an H.G. Wells, they can bring only expanding wealth and lasting well-being.
I had never thought of artists as prophets, but the thought intrigues me.
This statement, on page 15, expounds on the changing role of artists:
At the beginning of a civilisation, the role of the artist is priestly; at the end, harlequinade. From St Augustine to St Ezra Pound, from Plainsong to the Rolling Stones, from El Greco to Picasso, from Chartres to the Empire State Building, from Benvenuto Cellini to Henry Miller, from Pascal’s Pensees to Robinson’s Honest to God. A Gadarene descent down which we all must slide, finishing up in the same slough.
[Hooray! Now I can read on.]