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Web of wit
He had ’em in stitches, all right. Renowned British humorist, physician, and theater director Jonathan Miller led students and faculty in a weeklong game of intellectual cat’s cradle, weaving together ideas from science, art, philosophy, history, and comedy.
This year’s McCormack Visiting Artist-Scholar, Miller shared his gifted gab with nine student groups and headlined three public events. As a
neurologist and author of books and public-TV documentaries on human anatomy and medical history, he talked with fifty premed students about the politics of health care, the concept of “falling ill,” and the limitations of medical practice. Biology professor and premed advisor Bernie Possidente says, “He did a great job challenging students to think about their personal values and reasons for pursuing a career in medicine. Students enjoyed his often humorous discussion, and he gave them a lot of good material to help them write more thoughtful personal essays on their medical-school applications.” As a writer and actor in the seminal 1960s comedy revue Beyond the Fringe and now an acclaimed adaptor of classic operas and plays at major European theaters, Miller talked with drama students about acting, directing, Shakespeare, and more. As a widely read cultural historian, he joined Professor Penny Jolly’s art-history course on dress, where he discussed the psychology of masquerade (for example, why it inspires a sense of license) and described his modern remake of Cosi fan tutte, in which the masquerading young men switch between army camouflage and gangster-punk fashion. Jolly says students were both engaged and impressed.
In a public lecture, Miller explored his theory that the joy of humor—like eating and reproduction—may be a crucial evolutionary adaptation. He proposed that the exercise of wittiness is so beneficial to humans’ cognitive flexibility that Nature has made it pleasurable—like food and sex—so that we’ll willingly engage in it. While telling jokes is a way of spreading culture, like folklore, he said original humor is more about keeping one’s brain in fighting trim for survival.
In a panel on imagination, he argued adamantly that good literature should never be adapted for the cinema. They’re “entirely different orders of experience,” Miller said, because description, as in books, verbally piques the imagination—the mind’s eye—whereas depiction, as in movies, floods the eye with compulsory perceptions. (In fact, he drew several sharp dividing lines amid his otherwise profusely interconnected discourse: for example, “intelligent design” is a misnomer, because the permutations of formats that have shaped living creatures are merely intelligible, not intelligent; and memory includes the power of spontaneous recall but also the more passive response of recognition.)
If it has to do with human biology, psychology, society, or culture, Miller has studied it and loves to talk, talk, talk about it. By tying his comments, quips, and insights into a kind of multidisciplinary macramé, and inviting others to collaborate, he sparked creative thinking all over campus. —SR