LIKE a superhero obsessed with his nemesis, Jonathan Miller had throughout his career a fatalistic fascination with dementia. He was the first president of the Alzheimer’s Society and made several documentaries on mental illness. The project that he was planning before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s was a TV series on memory.
Instead, his producer made informal footage of their meetings, in which Miller’s decline is observed with a perceptiveness and compassion typical of the latter’s own work. It is the material that provided the finale to last week’s Archive on 4 (Radio 4, Saturday), in which Miller’s son William followed the topic of memory through his father’s work.
For somebody who said, in conversation with Anthony Clare, that he had “attachment issues”, Jonathan Miller seems to have had plenty of friends, even if he wouldn’t — as Alan Bennett revealed — have welcomed their holding his hand. That he feared for himself the disease that laid low his mother is clear; but he was intrigued by the relationship between memory and “personhood”.
In an anthology of tributes, one likened Miller’s decline and death to the British Library burning down. But Miller’s own view of the workings of memory was that, instead of accessing memories from a box in our brains, we will them into being by our own act of remembering.
To those closest to him, the person survived the loss of the quick wit and the voluminous knowledge. For William and for his mother, there were moments even at the end when gestures and forms of speech escaped the pull of amnesia, and personhood was experienced in the loving communion of persons.
Thus, we work out our true selves in dialogue with those around us. A social psychologist might grandly call this “contact theory”, although, in People Fixing the World (World Service, Tuesday of last week), I preferred the philosophy articulated by a Kenyan pastor: “Talking, talking, talking is the magic that seals everything.”
He was referring in this instance to the work of Kenya’s PEMA movement, standing for Persons Marginalised and Aggrieved, which seeks to charm traditionalist faith leaders out of their anti-LGBT attitudes. There is both charm and some well-meaning trickery in their strategy: inviting Muslim and Christian clerics on a week-long course ostensibly to discuss the challenge of HIV, and, after a few days, introducing them to those people whom they might formerly have decried as satanic.
As reported here by Richard Kenny, PEMA has enjoyed great success. Mob attacks and lynchings are much rarer, and faith spaces are now opening up to gay worshippers. The law, however, remains stolidly opposed to homosexuality, and the process of “fixing the world”, in this respect at least, looks to be a long one.