Clive James & Jonathan Miller (Both RIP) Talk Together About How the Brain Works

“Were they the last rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a spe­cial kind of pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al?” asks John Mullen in the Guardian. He writes of Clive James and Jonathan Miller, two fig­ures who exem­pli­fied “the poly­math as enter­tain­er.” The Aus­tralian-born James became famous on the back of the tele­vi­sion crit­i­cism that turned him into a tele­vi­sion fix­ture him­self. The com­bined TV crit­ic and TV host also played the same dual role in the realm of poet­ry, and as his life and career went on — and his bib­li­og­ra­phy great­ly expand­ed — it came to seem that there were few forms, tra­di­tions, time peri­ods, or lan­guages his cul­tur­al omniv­o­rous­ness did­n’t reach. Trained as a doc­tor before he rede­fined British com­e­dy as a mem­ber of Beyond the Fringe, Miller retained his sci­en­tif­ic inter­ests, using his fame to write books and present a tele­vi­sion show on anato­my, psy­chol­o­gy, and lan­guage, and much more besides.

Since the deaths of both James and Miller were announced last Fri­day, the out­pour­ing of trib­utes (most of them lament­ing the seem­ing loss, in our time, of high-pro­file roles for enter­tain­ing poly­maths free to move between “high” and “low”) has been accom­pa­nied by a renewed enthu­si­asm for both men’s con­sid­er­able bod­ies of work.

Despite hav­ing known each oth­er, James and Miller seem nev­er to have explic­it­ly col­lab­o­rat­ed on any­thing — except, that is, an episode of Talk­ing in the Library, an ear­ly exam­ple of what we would now call an inter­view web series. Pro­duced from 2006 to 2008, the show has James pio­neer­ing a form that has now become stan­dard among pod­cast­ers: record­ing the con­ver­sa­tions he want­ed to have with his friends any­way.

In James’ case, his friends include the likes of not just Miller but Mar­tin Amis, Ruby Wax, Ian McE­wan, Stephen Fry, and Ter­ry Gilliam. With Miller, James spends the half-hour talk­ing sci­ence, and specif­i­cal­ly neu­ro­science. Miller, who spe­cial­ized in neu­rol­o­gy while study­ing med­i­cine (and who count­ed Oliv­er Sacks as a close friend since age 12), returned to the sub­ject in the ear­ly 1980s for his book and BBC series States of Mind. Not long there­after he returned at the age of 50 to his med­ical stud­ies, div­ing into neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy at McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty and becom­ing a research fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sus­sex.

Though James aban­doned his own uni­ver­si­ty stud­ies in psy­chol­o­gy by 1960, his curios­i­ty about the work­ings of the human brain — and how it could pro­duce all the art, lit­er­a­ture, film, and indeed tele­vi­sion to whose appre­ci­a­tion he ded­i­cat­ed his life — nev­er aban­doned him, as evi­denced by the eager­ness with which he asks ques­tions of his more neu­ro­sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly savvy friend. “The brain is the most com­pli­cat­ed thing in the uni­verse,” says Miller, “so com­pli­cat­ed, in fact, that by con­trast the uni­verse itself it not much more com­pli­cat­ed than a cuck­oo clock.” Fair to say that both Miller and James had the good luck to pos­sess more com­pli­cat­ed, or at least more inter­est­ing, brains than aver­age — and that it’s our good luck to be able to enjoy their work in per­pe­tu­ity.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Athe­ism: A Rough His­to­ry of Dis­be­lief, with Jonathan Miller

John Cleese & Jonathan Miller Turn Profs Talk­ing About Wittgen­stein Into a Clas­sic Com­e­dy Rou­tine (1977)

The Drink­ing Par­ty, 1965 Film Adapts Plato’s Sym­po­sium to Mod­ern Times

Join Clive James on His Clas­sic Tele­vi­sion Trips to Paris, LA, Tokyo, Rio, Cairo & Beyond

Your Brain on Art: The Emerg­ing Sci­ence of Neu­roaes­thet­ics Probes What Art Does to Our Brains

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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