Jonathan Miller: One Man, Two Cultures
Jonathan Miller: He has had one of the outstanding careers in postwar Britain, yet he is haunted by a sense of failure (credit: Getty)
"There's a terrible, ghastly moment at the end of Jude the Obscure," Jonathan Miller told an interviewer back in the early Nineties, "when Jude is dying in Oxford, never having got into the university, and he hears the applause and the noise of the people receiving their degrees in the Sheldonian. Well, that's the sort of feeling I have at the moment, as I reach the end of my life. I can hear the din of the real action going on in the area of the brain sciences, and I'm outside it."
As he celebrates his 80th birthday this July, Miller is still haunted by a sense of failure. He has never written the scientific book he often dreamed of. Instead, he says, the two halves of his career — the performing arts and sciences — have pulled him in opposite directions. He insists he would have traded all the rave reviews and critical acclaim for a handful of respected scholarly articles.
And yet Sir Jonathan Miller CBE has rightly been honoured for one of the outstanding careers in postwar British culture: a gifted comedian and performer, one of the best theatre and opera directors of the past half-century, a double career in television as one of the great drama directors and a gifted presenter of programmes first about the arts, and later about medicine and psychology. And all the time, he has been reading widely in philosophy, science, and the history of medicine, from John Searle on speech acts to Hughlings Jackson and 19th-century neurology, which has informed everything else he has done. If we look closely we can see how the two parts of Miller's life have often come together rather than pulling apart.
This sense of a divided life goes right back to his childhood. He was born in July 1934; his first home was in the centre of London, just a few streets from Harley Street and Broadcasting House, which had only recently opened. Miller has moved between the worlds of medicine and psychology, and broadcasting and the arts, ever since.
However, Miller has never simply "moved between" these two worlds. The relationship has always been more charged, even agonised, hence the frequent need to announce that he is giving up the frivolities of the stage for the more authentic world of scholarship and medical research.
Twice he turned to serious scholarship but it never led to any real fulfilment. In 1970, he was awarded a three-year research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College London. He planned to write a book about mesmerism, the spiritualist movement and the associated development of neuropsychological theories. At around the same time, he was commissioned to write a book in the Fontana Modern Masters series on the neurophysiologist and Nobel Laureate Sir Charles Sherrington. He never finished either book. Miller's schoolfriend Oliver Sacks summed it up succinctly. "It seems," he said, "that major ambivalences were involved."
Then, in the mid-Eighties, Miller tried again. He briefly studied neuropsychology in Canada and was then awarded a three-year Leverhulme research fellowship in neuropsychology at the University of Sussex. Again, it didn't work out. "I'd lost the plot because I'd been rotted by showbiz," he told his biographer.
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