Walking in the Dark: Laurie Taylor interviews Jonathan Miller
Laurie Taylor discovers what it's like to be Jonathan Miller
Q [Laurie Taylor] Whenever I think about the range of work in which you've been involved over the years, I'm struck by the way in which you can't let go of your original scientific interest in neurology and cognitive functioning even though you spend much of your time working in the arts. Occasionally you seem to want to reconcile these two elements. You said somewhere that drama was "rather like neurology because all great dramatists are concerned with the way people move around and behave and react with each other." That seemed to be stretching it a bit. Can you really bring your interests together so readily?
A [Jonathan Miller] No, you can't. What I was talking about there can be understood as a purely biographical anxiety about having dropped a subject like neurology that had an unconditional high prestige. As a sociologist you would understand that as well as I do. Social scientists spend a great deal of time trying to get hold of a vocabulary which will allow them to gain greater recognition.
Q That's certainly true. Many sociologists would like nothing more than to be regarded as fully-fledged scientists. But let me stick with this cognitive dissonance of yours – if I may call it that. Surely one of the problems that you have as a scientist working in the arts is that in the arts you can't point to any progression in your work in the way that you might if you were researching in neurology.
A What one has to understand here is that it is possible to be deeply serious as a thinker and not have anything in your life that could be thought of as progress. Things have not moved on in philosophy or indeed in social thinking much beyond that which was first thought about two thousand years ago. But a failure to make progress in those areas is not a failure. It's not a failure to be still wandering around in the dark trying to find a criterion of validity. It's a different form of truthfulness.
Q That may be philosophically true. But biographically you have at times seemed to regret that there is something almost dilettante about your involvement in the arts. You don't have any criterion by which to judge your contribution, your relative success.
A That's what happens when one is an artist. That's the nature of the enterprise. You are peddling stuff that's attractive and interesting. But what makes one have some sort of self-respect at the end of one's life is the thought that you've actually changed people's minds about what it's like to be alive. It's the only thing that an artist ought to do – a thing that no scientist has ever succeeded in doing. No matter what Lewis Wolpert or Sydney Brenner do in showing us the relationship of the structures of DNA and the epigenetic space in which these instructions get elaborated into an organism – and that is a major intellectual achievement – it is not a superior form of knowledge by comparison with the feeling, "Oh, I now see much more clearly what it's like being alive."
Science can never tell you more than an artist can about what it's like to be a person. Here, I'm going back to a person I greatly admire, the philosopher, Thomas Nagel. Back in the seventies, Nagel wrote an essay called 'What is it like to be a bat?' Now, of course, that would produce a snort of contemptuous amusement from people like Lewis Wolpert – "Why are these philosophers concerned about that? I can tell them how a bat develops." Well, even if Wolpert and his like can tell us how a bat develops, there is still the deeply interesting question about bats which makes them differ from bricks. There is something 'it's like' to be one. And if there is something 'it's like' to be a bat, how much more problematic is the fact that there is something 'it's like' to be one of us. Knowing about brains doesn't tell you anything about what it's like to be us.
Q And you believe that those people who know what it is to be like us are to be found primarily in music and literature.
A And in philosophy – yes.
Q So, despite your frequent reservations about the nature of your audience and about some of the artists you employ in your operatic productions, you still feel that high art has a special value, that it says something about the human condition that can't be said elsewhere or in any other way?
A Yes. I'm an exponent of those philosophers and artists who continually confront the problem that there is something untranslatable about being conscious. I am what my friends Colin McGinn and Galen Strawson would call an 'agnostic materialist'. I know perfectly well that we are nothing other than brain but I also know that even in spite of the fact that it's the brain that implements there being something 'it's like' to be me, the fact is, that the experience of being me does not include any sense of my having a brain.
That doesn't mean I'm saying, as some religious people might insist, that there is a sublime mystery here, a gap between brains and minds, between the material objective stuff inside your head and the immaterial, mysterious stuff which is produced by the stuff inside your head. I don't subscribe to things like 'souls'. I don't think souls are like lighter fuel which is inside the material lighter. You see, in some way, we will never know how it is that this unpromising porridge inside the skull can produce the sense of 'redness'. And the work that I found myself doing, rather than medical work, is concerned with all the complicated things about redness, sadness, jealousy, envy, rage, joy, and so forth, which are the products of brains, but in no way ultimately explained by brains.
Q Would you be happy therefore to describe yourself as a phenomenologist in that you are constantly exploring states of consciousness? I remember your exhibition, 'On Reflection' which explicitly set out to explore the sensations that we are having when we are seeing.
A In the same way I don't dignify my own non-belief with the term 'atheism', I do not dignify my interest in what it's like to be me with the elaborate German notion of 'phenomenology'. I can never understand what these damn phenomenologists are saying. If only they would use the ordinary language we use to talk to one another about what it's like to enjoy coffee or see the dawn.
Q Let me try another tack. How much is your interest in what it's like to be ourselves influenced by Freud. I remember that years ago you directed a season of plays – The Seagull, Ghosts, and Hamlet which you called 'Family Romances'. That was explicitly Freudian in orientation. And you also edited a book called Freud, Man and his World.
A That's right. But the things I like about Freud are nothing whatever to do with scientific psychology, they're to do with him being a rather imaginative literary critic. He himself identified (though he would liked to have thought of it as a scientific psychological theory), the idea of a boy who has a fantasy about having a princely origin and having been abandoned. Now it is certainly true that there are both men and women who have fantasies of this sort, but I think Freud's genius was identifying it as a consistent theme, not because it's a scientifically satisfactory explanation. So what I've always found interesting about Freud is his nineteenth-century European imagination which has a literary flavour to it, not his psychology.
Q What I'm interested in here is the Freudian insistence upon the irrational, upon what we fail to know about ourselves. Surely that is something which is at the heart of so much of the drama and opera that you spend your time on.
A Yes, but I wouldn't use the word 'irrational' as opposed to 'rational' – unless one wanted to be simply boring about the opposition, and say rational stuff is stuff you can record in symbolic representations and use in calculations and equations, whereas irrational stuff escapes from that. That's a fairly trivial distinction. Most of the stuff we have in our lives is irrational. Not in that rather large sense of the word, but simply because it escapes very, very precise mathematical formulation. It doesn't fall into the area of logic. I don't think of it as being this exotic Whipsnade in which very peculiar mental forms are given free range.
My arguments often with scientists who are dull – and by god one meets them from time to time – is not that they have failed to take account of the irrational but they've failed to take account of simply 90 per cent of where we have our existence which is the social, the intuitive, the stuff that can't be put into mathematical form, the stuff that can't be done in the laboratory. It's where I find myself objecting to someone like Lewis Wolpert who thinks that scientific stuff is all there is. But I don't oppose this scientific stuff to this other area where there are strange monsters of the imagination. It's where 90 per cent of our mental life goes on.
Q That sounds rather a dull old place compared to the Freudian unconscious
A Yes, the Freudian unconscious was filled with girls in waspies and stockings doing wicked things!
Q I sense your opposition to labels – apart perhaps from 'agnostic materialist' – but let me pursue another possible intellectual affinity. You've often spoken about the ways in which your work in the theatre and opera is an attempt to freshen work by some sort of transposition or dislocation. You want to make the apparently commonplace strange again. Does this mean that you have some sympathy with the post-modernist attempts to disrupt normal readings? Are you a deconstructionist?
A They may be doing the same thing but they're doing it with such barbarous and ghastly language where they turn nouns into verbs. I mean 'valorise'.
I can't stand their junk. Behind that protective language lies a lack of straightforward, commonplace, vernacular curiosity, in the way things are. Most of those things that are puzzling don't involve deconstruction, they involve dissection, taking things apart. Why has that got to be called deconstruction instead of old-fashioned analysis or description, the business of finding where the joints are? I don't think it needs to be described in that barbarous language, which has become infected by that awful poltroon, Foucault.
Q And yet there are intellectual affinities. Your exhibition 'On Reflection' in which you linked perception and mirrors and art, reminded me forcibly of Foucault's analysis of the significance of the mirror in Velasquez's 'Las Meninas'.
A Yes, he does do that rather well. He is confronted by a piece of concrete, visual representation and says, "Well, it might be this and it might be that." That's very interesting. And then the rest of that awful book, The Order of Things, is unadulterated nonsense. I don't like large-scale theoretical gas leaks. I like it when someone says: "This is a problem. What is that woman doing in 'Las Meninas'? What is that in the mirror? Are they looking at the person in the mirror or are they looking at something else?"
Q You seem to have a slight exasperation with French intellectual thought. How about Bourdieu? He may be overwritten, but when he talks about cultural capital, he's surely saying exactly the same sort of thing as you're saying about the reasons that people go to the opera. And what about Barthes?
A Bourdieu does, but it's sort of over-elaborate. Those French theorists are just simply salon posturing dandies. But Roland Barthes is quite interesting because he was basically a straightforward journalist who actually was quite good. But unfortunately he got tied up with this non-subject of semiotics and semiology which is only a subject people who can't do maths do. This is the vocabulary with which the non-scientific try to dress themselves up so they can dine above the salt with the Nobel Laureates.
Q You've referred to yourself as operating between the twin idiocies of unquestioning traditionalism and unquestioning modernism. So I wanted to ask you about your use of history, how you think of history, because you have been regarded quite unreasonably as someone who has gone in for modernising opera.
A I've got this reputation, but only in the operatic community, where people think so simple-mindedly about these dichotomies. I'm not a modernist. All the work I've ever done in the opera and the theatre is always as a result of other complicated debates I've had with myself about the relationship of the work that has survived longer than its maker could have expected it would. What is so startling to me is that the so-called traditionalists who think that this is my trademark, fail to see that it's the trademark of most of the opera composers who also dislocated their works and put them back into a past they were unacquainted with. I don't know why it is that I get abused for updating. Verdi is never blamed for back-dating, and yet I don't think that, with the exception of La Traviata, he ever did an opera which was in his own period.
Q You've also suffered some criticism for daring to be a public intellectual. Is the occasional dissatisfaction that you've expressed with Britain connected to its opposition to 'intellectuals'?
A Yes, and it's only in England that people would invoke the title intellectual as a defence or as a point of pride. I don't like the word 'intellectual' any more than I like the word 'atheist': they tend to be insults rather than descriptions of occupations. Nobody, unless he's an arrogant ninny, would ever say "I am an intellectual." It's part and parcel of the phrase that comes out in British journalism: 'Renaissance Man'. The idea that, because I'm interested in a number of different things and am reasonably informed and well educated, this somehow is 'being a Renaissance man'. One is usually called a Renaissance Man by people who have absolutely no idea what the Renaissance was!
I think the standard of discussion in England is very low. But I don't think it's much higher in that salon world in France because there it's infected with the ludicrous, pretentious vocabulary of Derrida and that ridiculous Julia Kristeva! What I think is so interesting is that there is in England, in America, in France, and indeed in the rest of Europe, an underground. There is a quiet resistance of people who don't use that type of vocabulary anyway. There is a French resistance which exists at the moment of people who don't talk like Derrida. There is a whole world of very, very good French neuropsychologists who actually meet one another, are Anglo-phone, don't use that sort of vocabulary and actually think very clearly about how the mind works – and the same in Germany. You suddenly realise there's an underground, of people talking to one another using wirelesses kept under the floor-boards! They'd never talk about 'valorising' things and they don't talk about 'privileging', and they don't use all that ghastly junk which passes for thought among the salons. They just think clearly and talk clearly. There is a world where people don't have dinner party conversations about self and their beliefs and so forth. Where they'll talk about issues in clear language which has been refined by years of clear philosophical thought formulated by people like Quine and Donald Davidson.
Q Let us turn to the present. You are working on a new series for BBC Four television on the history of atheism. What made you choose that subject?
A Two or three reasons. One of them was a negative reason in that no one ever asks me to do anything at all now on television because, the things I once did, the things I'm proud of like The Body In Question which was a serious programme about the way we think about the body, now, you can't get them on. So when I spoke to Roly Keating [Controller of BBC Four] about things I was interested in, I said there's a lot of talk about religion at the moment, it would be quite nice to talk about people who don't believe in anything. I said I wouldn't use the word 'atheism', but people leapt on it because it's got a buzz to it. I agreed to it because it's an issue and also I wanted to point out that it wasn't the province of the scientist, nor the intellectual. Many taxi drivers with whom I've had discussions about God say something like, "I don't see what they're fucking talking about." A lot of us share the same disbelief without having had the same educational advantages.
What I want to do is to show that although religion is very widespread, not believing in religion is also very widespread, and very long-standing. I want to show that atheists are not the cognitive equivalent of secret paedophiles, slavering away in the secrecy of their own houses and then coming out at night and committing crimes that only an atheist could commit. It is possible to be orderly, decent, moral and concerned and atheist. There is a Thought for the Day and a Thought for the Week to be expressed by people like us. We're not this weird, cranky, fanged minority that is secretly drinking blood in the name of its depraved godlessness!
Since 2005 Jonathan Miller has been the president of the Rationalist Association