The Body In Question

Author/Presenter: Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, co-author and a star of the world-famous revue Beyond the Fringe, director of films, plays and, most recently, of operas, qualified as a medical doctor in 1959 and has held a research fellowship in the history of medicine at University College, London. In his remarkable new book, as in the 13-part B.B.C. television series with which it is linked, Dr Miller considers the functioning of the body as a subject of private experience. He explores our attitudes towards the body, our astonishing ignorance about certain parts of it and inability to read its signals.

We are mystified to experience pain in internal organs like the heart or the liver when neither the quality nor the location of the sensation gives a coherent indication of what is going wrong. And to complicate matters we feel the pain in some spot other than the seat of the mischief. But pain, he says, is not the only thing that prompts a person to go through the elaborate social process of ‘falling 111’. It might be finding something-not intrinsically painful, but alarming-like a lump in the breast, or embarrassing, like a drooping eyelid, or inhibiting to efficiency like a tremor which prompts the decision. At some point the discomfort, alarm, embarrassment or inconvenience begins to obstruct the flow of ordinary life and ‘falling ill’ is the choice we make as a result of feeling un-acceptably odd.

Dr Miller considers the varieties of pathological experience and the physical foundations of ‘diseases the types of individuals man has historically attributed with the power of healing and ‘ the assumptions of modern medical diagnosis by which a doctor may translate a patient’s account of his ‘disease’ into the scientific principles of disease. His explanations are so lucid, so wide-ranging and so wholeheartedly entertaining it is often hard to believe one is reading about the facts of one’s own body and what can go wrong with it. His use of metaphor and suggestive models, particularly when tracing the historical development of certain leading ideas in human physiology, is highly stimulating. Above all, there is the keen originality and sheer enthusiasm of Dr Miller’s approach to his subject which makes The Body in Question such an outstanding book.