SPENDING AN HOUR with Jonathan Miller is rather like being caught in an intellectual wind tunnel. One's tiny brain spins like an anemometer, trying desperately to keep up with the continual flow of ideas, opinions, recollections, predictions. By now, Dr. Miller must be tired of being described as "a Renaissance man," but there it is, take it or leave it, Jonathan Miller, physician, actor, diector, writer, comic, theorist, entertainer, lecturer - you name it and he's done it better than almost anybody else.
He's a tall, thin man with a mobile face, a qucik laugh and a pair of probing eyes the only successful way to control his unruly mop of curly hair is to cut it quite short, as it is now. He seems always to be on his way from somewhere to somewhere else, from one accomplishment to another achievement. Having just returned from doing an opera in Frankfurt, he was on his way to Vienna, to direct A Midsummer Night's Dream, and was taking a few day's "off" to visit the States and promote his new book,The Body in Question [Random House].
Like Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, The Body in Question - about medicine and how the body works - is based and a BBC-TV educational series, to be shown over here in the fall. Those books remained high on best-seller lists, thanks to their series, and it's likely that Miller's will, too.
It took three years to write the series, film it and write the book, but then he was doing other things on the side. The part of the time spent on it that he enjoyed the most was the traveling for research - "Africa. South America, Greece, France, Italy - especially Naples and Padua." And about a year ago, "We took this extraordinary trip from Nairobi; we hired a private aircraft and went across Lake Rudoph and across Uganda and went down to the southern Sudan to look at a tribe that hadn't been studied by anthropologists since 1926. The Azambi.
"I went to see them because of their use of witchcraft as diagnosis for illness. They is caused by the malice or ill-will of living others, relatives, friends, neighbors. Actually, most of the anthropologists agree now that the witchcraft accusations are really ways of dealing with social unrest, not illness, and that actually their medical system is a branch of the law of tort, a litigious system a way of settling grievances. It's also an explanatory system for dealing with what would be otherwise totally inexplicable ideas about the sources of illness.
"Thirty percent of all maneuvers undertaken by doctors or by anybody who claims therapeutic powers are effective. That's about the rate at which any maneuver you do will have some effect on the patient's welfare. The mere taking of some action with decisiveness - most people who work in psychosomatic medicine agree that there is something like a 30 percent improvement rate, more or less, whatever you do, whether there's rationale to it or not. Therefore, people tend to think that things which have got a very elaborate supernatural rationale, like Mesmerism in the 18th century - where they explained it all in terms of this fluid which filled the universe - would have worked whether or not there was fluid filling the universe. It worked because paying attention to the patient is doing something.
"One of the things that is underestimated is the therapeutic fect of the diagnostic examination. The mere fact of doing this [Dr taps at his own chest, cocks his head and listen] is curative. I think some of the modern technology in medicine will perhaps be less effective than the old doctor-patient relationship precisely because of the lack of personal physical encounter. The touching of the patient, the slight caressing and fonding, an infinite listening, the bringing face to face, all seem to have a powerful effect on health. Yet, you can't stop scientific ingenuity.
"I think we're on a path now from which it's impossible to turn back. All sorts of massive technological advances will be made in the understanding of genetics, microbiochemistry and so forth. It will give us a great deal of control over the metabolic diseases."
Jonathan Miller first captured American attention in 1962, when he and three of his companions - Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore - brought their satirical revue Beyond the Fringe to the New York stage, "We opened on the night of the Cuba crisis, on that very night when the cargo vessels were taking the rockets and the turnback was going to occur. The city was in a tense state of absolutely hysterical nerves and every single seat was filled: nobody didn't show up. But no one laughed. Nothing at all, absolutely nothing. We were certain we'd totally bombed and then we had these rave reviews the next morning. Amazing, really."
He proceeds to muse further about America and its differences from the Old World: "America regads death as an accident for which litigation is in order. It's to do with the fact the Europe is a pagan country which is based on the idea that we are actually born to die. Whereas in America, somehow built into the Constitution is the idea that everything is improvable and that anything can be corrected by human beings taking action. Europe has this elegant stoicism that says, look, you're here for just a short time and in the end you are going to die. Europe is built on a 20,000 year pile of dead people. One of the reasons that European drama is so great is that it's based on the elegant, bold, humorous and witty confrontation with the farcical possibility of death." And, infused with life and liveliness, Dr Jonathan Miller takes another bite of his herring and smiles. CAPTION: Picture, Jonathan Miller, Copyright (c) Jill Krementz