It’s been over a week since a friend texted to ask ‘Have you seen that Alan Saunders.’ In her unsettled haste she neglected to add “… has died.” That’s Alan Saunders, the longtime ABC broadcaster. Like her message, my feelings of disconsolation are still unresolved. I had no idea you could so simply, so shockingly die of pneumonia, at a mere 58, in this country in this day. And though, to answer my friend’s not quite question, I had never “seen that Alan Saunders,” he still mattered to me, and evidently mattered very much to a lot of people.

A kind of bodhisattva

I’ve been listening to the tribute program they’ve made for him — it popped up on the Philosopher’s Zone podcast. A man of diverse enthusiasms — food and design, film and philosophy (see some of his shorter writing) — the Zone was Alan Saunders’ last project, in his official field of study. Fully informed, Dr Saunders would frame the program with such lucid directness his guest philosophers would often exclaim in admiration.

Beyond academia, philosophy is mostly dumbed into pop simplicities or remain in ivory abstruseness. Intent on comprehension, Saunders still refrained from coarsening the discussion, and never condescended to his listeners — which meant that if one did not pay attention the discussion would lift like a flock of birds, dense, flickering, and over one’s head. I occasionally wished he would do the whole show himself as some of his guests were rather less gifted at explication, and lacked his warm, unhurried voice. He was like an intellectual optometrist, presenting each week a different lens that we might try on to see the world clearer, to read the secret letters.

I can’t recall that he was ever pompous, or self-regarding — how rare! In that way he was a kind of bodhisattva, an already enlightened being who elected to stay on this plane to help others find their way. To make a weekly offering of possible meanings in our shattering, uncentred and materialistic time seems to me an act of faith, a work of unusual generosity of energy. As Joseph Brodsky, the exiled Russian poet, once remarked, ‘Life is not about life. Life is about the meaning of life.’ That is, the moral meaning, the justification, the search for the elusive point of it all.

Alan Saunders. How wicked, how viciously random that you have been taken.