The usual cliché “polymath” does not do justice to the peculiar case history that is the life of Jonathan Miller. In his own telling, he begins as an unremarkable schoolboy at a semimystical progressive school dedicated to something called “leading-out,” where wet paper was insisted upon in art class. “It had to be wet paper,” he reports, “for dry paper gave hard lines and the art mistress explained that there were no hard lines in nature. ‘Moisten your papers,’ she would cry flutily, and the class would set about the ritual douche.” The resulting blurring was intended to express “the confluence of the great subconscious.” Miller sums this period up thus:
After six months of this life I had been seduced into a womby confusion of thought and action which boded ill for my academic future. When my father discovered that my knowledge of mathematics was confined to an inaccurate version of the French multiplication tables he removed me to a conventional cap-and-blazer establishment. Here, apart from an impressive showing on all questions bearing upon Manu, I shaped up as a high-grade moron incapable of understanding even schoolboy conundrums.
As they say, an inauspicious beginning, though not one without drawable lessons.
Despite this early anti-education, he ends up at Cambridge studying medicine, intending to go into neuropsychology (his father was a psychiatrist). At the university he was a member of the Apostles, the secret club reserved only for the most brilliant, and was clearly an outstanding student. A medical career beckoned. But, he says,
I was unexpectedly diverted into show-biz, having yielded to an invitation to collaborate with Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore in writing and performing in a late night review which was entitled Beyond the Fringe.
And here the case history makes a characteristic swerve: not only does Miller perform competently in the youthful comedy troupe, he and the others emerge as the most original and influential comic force in the postwar era. They are a huge hit. The man is funny and also a biting satirist—at least the equal of the others in his glittering band. In On Further Reflection he reproduces his pastiche of Shakespeare’s historical drama, which contains such gems as: “Take this my hand, and you fair Essex this/And with this bond we’ll cry anon/And shout Jack Cock o’London to the foe.” Or: “Is it botched up then, Master Puke?” Or: “Now is steel ’twixt gut and bladder interposed.” The studious and serious neuropsychologist has fallen accidentally into the role of star comedian, as if he just couldn’t help it—as if it just slipped out. He finds himself performing on Broadway instead of in a dingy hospital in the Midlands.
Soon he is writing for The New Yorker, a trenchant piece on television and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and for the newly formed New York Review of Books, contributing a thoughtful essay on Lenny Bruce. He begins appearing regularly on The Dick Cavett Show. Then another swerve intervenes:
Soon after my return to London my somewhat simple-minded intention to go back to clinical research was thwarted by the unexpected invitation to edit and present BBC Television’s arts series Monitor. After doing this for a year I was given the opportunity to direct two films for the BBC— The Drinking Party and The Death of Socrates, both based on Plato’s dialogues. And after this I was allowed to make a film of Alice in Wonderland.
The dingy hospital is postponed again. All his assignments meet with general acclaim—and he is still only in his twenties. Doctor, comedian, critic, director, and all-around intellectual—surely some neurological abnormality underlies Jonathan Miller’s polymorphous proficiency. He is already, and apparently effortlessly, the master of all manner of trades, and the jack of none. And this is just the warm-up.
His next project, this time freely chosen, is to do historical research on animal magnetism, the idea of an invisible force exerted by animals that was behind mesmerism and hypnotism. He produces two long scholarly articles, one of them reproduced in On Further Reflection. The essay is a model of intellectual history, containing such erudite sentences as:
Mesmer, however, did not invent the idea of a universal fluid, but took his inspiration from an idea which had already been formulated by Isaac Newton. In his General Scholium to the third book of the Principia, Newton postulated the existence of an aether which mediated the transmission of light, gravity and magnetism.
There follows a detailed account of the life and work of the British mesmerist John Elliotson, whom Miller both venerates and excoriates for his ambition and his egotism. Here we see the reclusive scholar beneath the star.
In 1976 it is back to television for the series The Body in Question, where Miller mingles his training as a doctor with philosophical and psychological reflections on proprioception (“body image”). He also produces a book based on the series, which I recall as a major television event in the UK. Then he presents a series called States of Mind, in which he interviews researchers in cognitive science and other students of the mind, including Sir Ernst Gombrich, his interview with whom is reprinted here. His considerable knowledge of art history is evident. Once again fluent mastery is the norm, combined with an easygoing charm and a gorgeous, sonorous voice.
It is really only a matter of time until he establishes himself as a distinguished director of Shakespeare’s plays (as well as other plays) and—perhaps most remarkably of all—as a world-famous director of operas. Again, these projects seem to choose him, not he them: that dingy hospital becomes ever more remote. One feels by this point that if he had by chance been invited to join Fermilab he would have emerged as a distinguished physicist. While engaged in nonstop international theatrical work, he keeps up his interests in philosophy, psychology, brain science, art history, photography, and almost anything else you care to mention. One runs out of hyperbole trying to sum up the full magnitude of what we might call “Miller’s syndrome”: remarkable brilliance, all the time, about anything, anywhere. He is duly knighted for services to the arts, which seems the least the Queen could do.
I first met Jonathan in 1989 in Oxford. He wrote to me after reading a book of mine, Mental Content, a dense and technical treatise in the philosophy of mind. It was, he said, his holiday reading while vacationing in Greece. After that we met regularly, mostly in New York, where I had moved in 1990. He was usually directing an opera or a play, or was the special guest of some prestigious institute.
We rarely talked about his work; he mainly wanted to talk philosophy. For all his talents, his conversational talent is probably the most striking—and not just as a speaker but also as a listener. The verbal fluency, power of recall, and range of reference are astounding—as are also the sudden flights into sublime and pungent humor. (I well remember his backseat rendition of Pete and Dud’s supremely vulgar “This Bloke Came Up To Me.”) We had a particularly good conversation about religion that became part of his celebrated BBC4 series Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief
. And I never tired of his impersonation of Bertrand Russell (“Moore at that time had a very beautiful face”).
On Further Reflection consists of a compendium of writings over a sixty-year period. Apart from the topics already mentioned, there are pieces of varying length on America, mirrors and reflective surfaces in general, the “afterlife” of artistic works, the nature of human action, camouflage, mental images, seeing and looking, Eadweard Muybridge and the early cinema, the filming of novels, shadows, gestures, and speech acts. The pieces are always concise and insightful, clever and erudite, often very funny.
The longest essay in the book, “The Afterlife of Art,” perceptively discusses the way a work of art, once removed from the time and place of its creation, takes on a new life and meaning, and is no longer the work that it once was. Part of a church altar, say, ripped from its place in the overall artwork, then placed in a museum in a foreign land and gazed upon by people of vastly different sensibility from those who experienced it in its original setting, is a totally transformed object. Originally a religious accessory, intended to evoke devotional sentiment, it has become a displaced and exotic object of aesthetic contemplation, possibly part of an art-loving expensive vacation. Similarly for Michelangelo’s placing of an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on a pedestal in the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome at the time of the Renaissance, cited by Miller.
Miller argues persuasively that a production of a Shakespeare play can never in principle be “authentic,” simply because our eyes and ears are not those of the original playgoers. A play must be interpreted anew whenever it is staged; and given the absence of stage directions from the author, all we have to go on are the words spoken by the characters in the play. He concludes:
For all these reasons it seems right and proper to describe the renewed existence of these works of art as afterlives, and to see them not simply as faint or attenuated versions of their previous existences, but as full-blooded representations of their subsequent existence.
He also interestingly writes: “The actor’s performance as a particular character requires hypothesis
,” comparing this to the way a scientist invents a hypothesis and goes on to test it. “To borrow Karl Popper’s phrase, [the] process is one of conjecture and refutation alternating with one another as the rehearsal develops.”
In this need for continual interpretation Miller sees the longevity of a Shakespearean play: for the play admits of, and calls for, fresh interpretation as times and culture change. He says: “The amplitude of Shakespeare’s imagination admits so many possible interpretations that his work has enjoyed an extraordinary afterlife unforeseeable by the author at the time of writing.” In this rich essay, the experienced theater director and the lifelong philosopher come together to suggest a perspective that is surely unrivaled.
Equally impressive is the essay “Doing Things,” in which Miller’s fascination with human action is given free rein. He is particularly taken with the philosopher Brian O’Shaughnessy’s well-known idea of “sub-intentional actions”—those we perform without intending to and often without any awareness, for example, rolling the tongue around the mouth or licking the lips or drumming the fingers or tapping the feet. Breathing is an interesting case: while generally quite sub-intentional, you can intentionally hold your breath or breathe deeply or expel air rapidly. But you can’t do any of these kinds of things with your heartbeat, or intentionally make yourself sneeze (though you can intentionally cough, oddly). Blinking is usually completely reflexive, but it can also take the form of a deliberate wink.
The category of action is thus very broad and various, ranging from the conscious and deliberate to the unconscious and automatic. Crying, for example, can run the full gamut—from unstoppable tears to the staged crying of an expert actor. When some philosophers have defined actions as movements of the body that are done intentionally, they have ignored a large area of human action that fails to fit that definition. And how do they explain the actions of animals that don’t even have full-blown intentions?
Is there any unity to Jonathan Miller’s wide range of interests? Is there a single theme running through his infinite variety? If there is, it is not immediately visible, and he tells us nothing that would help to identify it. But I think I can detect a recurring motif, and it characterizes both his interests and his life. In fact, I have just referred to it: action. Not only is he interested in the minutiae of everyday human actions, their mechanics and purpose; he is also interested in how actions are depicted—by actors, film, and painting. As a director, he teaches his performers to enact the unconscious doings that people engage in all the time—the twitches and vacant gazes, the tapping and scratching. He is fascinated, too, by how painters suggest a sense of movement by depicting a person in mid-action. And he lovingly describes the early photographic efforts by Muybridge and others to capture exactly how a horse runs.
Miller is himself a natural performer and mimic, both onstage and off. He is also very impressed with the notion of speech acts, as developed by J.L. Austin and John Searle—the idea that speaking is a kind of doing. When, for example, you say, “I promise,” you actually do the thing you are describing—you promise (this is called a “performative”). Even when he is discussing visual perception, he notes that looking is a type of action, and that there are several species of looking. We look at things, through things, into things, intently, vacantly. The eyes actively skip and jump (so-called saccadic eye movement) as they construct a perceptual world. Our muscles are incessantly relaxing and contracting, making their tiny adjustments: we are not passive perceivers but endlessly active agents. Miller is, above all, a student of human and animal behavior, at its most elemental. His interest lies less in what makes us tick than in how we kick—the outer, not the inner. He would surely agree with Wittgenstein’s famous dictum, quoting Goethe: “In the beginning was the deed.”
There is a touch of irony in this, for two reasons. The first is that the Jonathan I know does not himself seem a devotee of motor skills: he plays no musical instrument and has no athletic skills to speak of (he doesn’t even swim, unlike his friend from childhood Oliver Sacks). He is not a man who spends any of his time developing his own ability to act—although he is a remarkably expressive and resourceful performer when he rehearses actors and singers. He prefers to read, think, and talk. He is an opera director who neither sings nor reads music. Still, in recent years, as if to prove me wrong, he has done many pieces of sculpture, some with a welding torch, as well as abstract collages and other artworks exhibited at a London gallery.
A second irony is that Jonathan seems to have led, by his own account, a rather accidental, unwilled life. Instead of actively pursuing a certain professional goal, he has allowed himself to be diverted, seduced, and sidetracked—often responding to the invitations of others. It is as if concerted action directed toward satisfying his own deepest passions has eluded him, as he yields to the appeals of producers, museum directors, publishers. His major achievements have been, not sub-intentional exactly, but semi-intentional.
He never meant to go into show business as a performer and director, or curate art exhibitions, or produce operas—he was just nudged into doing these things. (“I would probably never have gone into opera if I had not been invited by Roger Norrington’s wife, Sue, to direct a children’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde in the Round House in Camden Town.”) He performed these roles successfully and brilliantly, mainly at the enticement of others, while not making much of the deeper springs of his more self-directed actions—becoming a working neurologist, a scientist, a philosopher. His brilliance and versatility as a performer may have thus interfered with his success as an independent agent—as the captain of his own destiny. He has excelled at what he never quite intended, and since he has indeed excelled, who could object?
Is there anything Dr. Miller does that he does not do well? This is a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating collection of writings by one of the most accomplished men of our time.