House Call

The Body in Question

by Jonathan Miller
Random House, 352 pp., $15.95

You cannot open this book without contemplating the author, since the publishers have covered the jacket with his face, large. They have good reason, since he is a remarkable and well-known man. He appeared full grown in public in the early Sixties as writer and actor in the revue Beyond the Fringe, that slaughter house of sacred cows. Everyone of its young cast of four went on to become successful, none more so than Miller. Late at night on television now, his face intrudes into the rooms of those who are not watching the wrestling or the cowboy movie. He is urbane, witty, original, and in control of an encyclopedic stretch of subjects. From how Alcibiades perverted the young to what it was Zarathustra spake, he has his views.

Author, doctor of medicine, critic, conversationalist, producer, director, he is all these, and with penetration, confidence, and panache. He edited and presented the arts program “Monitor” for the BBC, reviewed films for The New Yorker, made the film of Alice in Wonderland for television, has directed plays for major British theatrical companies including a controversial Merchant of Venice. Recently, he has turned to opera in Germany and in England, where his latest offering is The Marriage of Figaro.

While most people observe these activities with astonishment and admiration, there are, needless to say, those who are querulous and suspicious. If you hear “Just can’t stand the fellow” emerging from padded armchairs at the Athenaeum, the members are probably rubbing out Jonathan Miller. Of all the abnormal forms of social behavior, none is less acceptable than brilliance on display. I stand to one side in astonishment because I went through an identical education to Miller’s ten years earlier. In my day, we were carefully taught to loathe Shakespeare, to suspect the motifs and motives of grand opera, and to keep our heads low. A gentleman did not intrude on another with original thoughts.

So how can we put young Miller in his place? One way is to call in an expert who has spent a lifetime specializing in some topic on which Miller has ventured an opinion. “Could it be that he does not know that Ziegelganzberger would have been familiar to Mozart as the inventor of the pretzel and not, as he implies, the baker of croissants?” Now Miller has written a book on the human body and I could qualify as one of those experts. I could nitpick my way through this book locating errors and omissions and showing where he has failed to do his homework since leaving medical school twenty years ago. I will not do so because it would miss the point of a highly original book which is written with grace and elegance.

This book must have two origins in Miller’s background and way of thinking. He is soaked in medicine. His father was a distinguished psychiatrist. He married a fellow medical student who is now in that most taxing of specialties, the …

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