The Listener: A polymath's century

During his long and varied life, Jonathan Miller has been a doctor of medicine, a scientist, an actor, a television presenter, a theatre director, and much else. In this week's selection from the best of BBC Radio, he reveals how this spectrum of interests has shaped his view of the world
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The Independent Culture


Writer and broadcaster


Cultural polymath

KEVIN JACKSON: The natural sciences have made such astonishing advances in the 20th century that even professional scientists seem to find it hard to keep up with developments.

Yet there have been a few bold and energetic spirits capable of moving with apparent ease between the arts and the sciences. In Britain the most famous of these all-rounders is Jonathan Miller. Trained in medicine and science, he maintains a keen interest in neurology, psychology and anthropology, despite a hectic schedule as a director of theatre and opera.

It strikes me as interesting that you've devoted a large part of your career to working in a medium that is, in a way, rather archaic - one of the forms of theatre's prestige is that it can claim a lineage going back at least to 5th-century Athens. But do you feel that there's been an erosion in the 20th century of an interest in the authority of the past?

JONATHAN MILLER: I think one has to be careful not to fall into sentimental traditionalism. But it's increasingly difficult to mention the past on the media. For example, 20 years ago I was invited to do a series on the history of medicine, and it became a sort of thematic work about certain ideas about the body. I knowl that, 20 years on, the idea of doing a thematic work on the development of ideas, culminating in the ones that are now current, would be almost inconceivable, unless it was a splashy account of a sequence of cries of "Eureka!". Disregarding a slow, systematic change in notions, in favour of the state-of-the-art, indicates a lack of interest in how things came to be. KJ: And yet, at the level of popular book-buying, history is rather a popular medium at the moment.

JM: I don't think that there is a huge popular market for the careful reconstruction of ordinary life. The bestsellers are about big glamorous figures or big atrocious events. The idea of there being a study of process is lost on the popular audience.

KJ: I'm struck by the word glamour, because it seems that one of the things that the theatre in the 20th century has done with remarkable success is to retain a certain notion of glamour, at a time when you would have thought it would have been eroded by these other forms with enormous money and technological sophistication invested in them. JM: There's something glamorous about living people, breathing the same air as you. I think what keeps people going to the theatre is that they are childishly and quite commendably delighted to see people standing up in front of them pretending to be other people. It's something which is deeply characteristic of us as human beings.

KJ: I wondered whether you have learned things about human nature from working in the theatre which you mightn't have been able to derive from scientific or medical research?

JM: Many things. I was always interested in the minutiae of human behaviour, how people held themselves, moved, spoke, gestured and so forth, and that was one of the reasons why I went into medicine. After many years spent years working with actors pretending to be real people, I began to find out what it was that makes real people. I wouldn't dignify this by saying it was experimental psychology, but it is very closely related to an interest in the structure of behaviour. One of the ways of understanding this is seeing what happens when the structure breaks down as a result of illness. It's when things fall apart that you begin to find out how they fit together.

KJ: I'm aware that at times you've referred to the work of Erving Goffman, a sociologist who talks about the roles we perform in various circumstances.

JM: I've been inspired by Goffman for more than 20 years and I've often explicitly encouraged my casts to read him. They are usually entertained by the attention that he directs towards trivia - negligible bits of behaviour. I think his talent was for fixing his eye on the negligible mistakes, and the way in which mistakes are remedied. In a way it's rather related to what Freud did, looking at slips of the tongue. He drew attention to things that were going on underneath the surface of the conscious mind. When we think might have fallen below par in conversation we issue an apology, or an excuse, often in a non-verbal form, to indicate that we know we have done wrong before the other person draws our attention to it. Goffman says that by looking at this panorama of error and remedy we see some of the basis for Western morals.

KJ: I'm glad you drew attention to Freud, because in some of your more recent writings I detect a note of disparagement towards Freud. You've suggested the popularisation of the Freudian notion of the unconscious has really held back more satisfactory explanations of the mind.

JM: It is often said that without hypnosis we would not have arrived at the Freudian notion of the unconscious. Well, that is certainly historically true, but I think there were people at the end of the 19th century who looked at hypnosis in a very different way to Freud. They said that it revealed aspects of behaviour of which we were not normally conscious, distinguishing it from the repressive custodial version of the unconscious that Freud postulated - putting things under lock and key because they were not compatible with civilised society.

A much more interesting and important form of unconscious is the enabling unconscious, without which, for example, one couldn't speak fluently without having to look up a dictionary. Here I am generating sentences, which must mean that I have access to some sort of unconscious process that guarantees some sort of fluency in my speaking. I think that under the influence of the cognitive revolution which took place in the Sixties, this almost-forgotten notion of the enabling unconscious was restored.

KJ: I wondered what the history of the popular reception of Freud is? There is an increasing sense of him being discredited, an idea that he was very much a historical moment.

Many people might say that the periodic outbursts of barbarism this century might be described in terms of some of the more tragic things that Freud has given us to think about.

JM: I don't think Freud gives us an adequate explanation of the atrocities of this or any century. His account of sadism is derived from a completely distorted idea of infant development. I don't think it occurred in the way that he thought it did. This makes it sound as if I have disregarded Freud altogether. I don't think you can possibly do that.

I don't like the structure of the mind that he postulated. But I do think that he's a great literary and moral figure, and enables us to imagine ourselves with more depth than we would have done if he hadn't come along.

KJ: I wonder if you can explain what you mean by the cognitive revolution. JM: I think one can only understand it in contrast to that long, terrible drought that ensued after John B Watson introduced the nature of behaviourism in 1924. Before that, psychology was something that dealt with observable phenomena. Watson said the inside of the mind is private to each of us - what we can observe is the input, the stimuli and the output.

In the late Fifties and early Sixties, it became apparent that the mind updated in ways that indicated it had got some sort of internal representation over which computations were performed, even if the owner of that representation might not be conscious of it. Modern psychology couldn't do its science without the notion of internal representation.

KJ: You've pointed out that there is a sense in which, at some level, an interest in metaphor unites the arts, the humanities and the sciences. I suppose your public representation is someone who has a licence to run between these restricted areas. It seems to me that one of the interesting things about your career is that you've stopped the humanities from being quite so self-satisfied. I know a lot of people who have a humanistic training, and who feel ashamed about the fact that they don't really know science properly.

JM: It's a very good reason to be ashamed: if you're familiar with the Odes of Horace and don't know the laws of motion, then you're partly uncivilised. It is one's duty to know as much as one can about what goes on. I think that science should be taught from kindergarten onwards. But in the same way one wants to make sure that it's respectable to think in moral or literary or artistic terms. I've met several scientists who have said of philosophy, "My dear Jonathan, what has philosophy actually done in 2,000 years? Whereas look what science has done in the last 50 years." Well, if we couldn't think about what it is like to think, which is what philosophy is about, we would become such an impoverished species.

KJ: I have the impression that people want to ask you about your atheism and how you derived the moral values you hold very strenuously, when there is no supernatural underpinning for them.

JM: We are morally creative creatures, our morality has amplified and complicated over the last, say, 15,000 years. It doesn't require a supernatural sanction for this. But I do think that religious thought has been an enormous aid to moral creativity. Without the idea of a God who cherishes individuals in a loving way, I think we would perhaps not think so intelligently or creatively about the loveability of each other. I don't feel that it is God that brings that love into existence, but that the metaphor of a loving God that cherishes each individual unconditionally has been a heuristic device for allowing us to think that we are individually valuable to one another.

Although I'm an atheist and certainly not a Christian, the idea of a God that incarnated itself into its own creation, in order to suffer the experience of being its own creation is a fantastically productive metaphor. It means that we think more clearly about what it is like to be mortal flesh.

KJ: Gramsci formulated the phrase "pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the world". Looking towards the next century, do you feel that there are grounds for optimism?

JM: It depends whether you asked me that on Tuesday or next Thursday - it depends what horrors I've been told about. But we have been encouraged over the last 2,000 years to think about what it must be like to be other people suffering. I sometimes find it impossible to live with the knowledge that there are people enduring the horrible torments that people inflict on each other. You might say that I think more intensely about this as a Jew, because my people went through it. But I don't really identify more with Jews than with anyone else. Just the thought that a whole group of people were thought to deserve annihilation and humiliation, in which the humiliation was not just simply incidental, but one of the purposes of doing it.

KJ: George Orwell once wrote that, despite all the horrors of the century, although progress was tentative and local and not irreversible, it was real.

JM: Yes, I do think so. I think that it's the century which has generated initiatives such as Amnesty International, protests against vindictive forms of punishment. It's a century that is categorised by a substantial unanimity about the moral indefensibility of torture, whereas, say, in the 17th century people enjoyed the spectacle of other people being broken on a wheel. There may have been a few rare exceptions who turned from it, but not because they felt it was a great moral evil. So it is very hard to hold the balance at this part of the 20th century. In some respects we do have more compunctions about cruelty than ever before, but there are a lot of other people saying, "To hell with your compunctions, I'm going to take great pleasure in gouging your eyes out." I have no idea what principles will make it tolerable to live through the next century. I'm not going to have to do it. I have no idea what sort of defences we have against ourselves. I think the things that we find most hard to endure are the cruelties we inflict upon one another.

"Viewing The Century: Jonathan Miller speaks to Kevin Jackson" will be broadcast today at 5.45pm on BBC Radio 3